Study finds sexual perfectionism may hinder women’s ability to say ‘no’

Women who feel more pressure to be a perfect sexual partner tend to have lower levels of assertiveness when it comes to rejecting unwanted sex, according to new Auburn University research. The findings appear in the journal Sex Roles.

“It seems to be difficult for people to give up holding themselves to unrealistically high expectations, making perfectionism an interesting concept and suggesting that there may be different dimensions to perfectionism and benefits in addition to costs,” said researcher Annette S. Kluck, along with her co-authors Kelly Hughes and Kseniya Zhuzha.

“We certainly find this to be the case with some research on perfectionism in general. For example, one dimension of perfectionism seems to include holding high standards and another seems to be a tendency towards self-criticism when one fails to meet high standards. However, when high standards exist in the absence of that tendency towards self-criticism, we sometimes find stronger performance — this is an example of a benefit.”

“In addition, research shows that perfectionism can come from many sources including an internal sense of the need to be perfect as well as messages from society or from specific other individuals that one ‘must be perfect.’ We were interested in how that plays out for women in sexual relationships as sex is a very important aspect of physical and mental well-being, and influences relationship satisfaction. At the same time, there seem to be a variety of messages related to how sex ‘should be,'” the researchers explained.

The researchers surveyed 202 women between the ages of 19 and 50 via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They found that women who scored higher on a measure of sexual perfectionism tended to have lower assertiveness when it came to refusing unwanted sexual activity.

Women who agreed with statements such as “I set very high standards for myself as a sexual partner” and “Most people expect me to always be an excellent sexual partner” were more likely to agree with statements like “I put my mouth on my partner’s genitals if my partner wants me to, even if I don’t want to” and “I give in and kiss if my partner pressures me, even if I already said no.”

“Expectations of perfection when it comes to sex may hinder women’s ability to say ‘no’ to undesired sexual acts. Our study raises the possibility that thinking that the partner expects perfection may also prevent women from being spontaneous and initiating wanted sexual activity. Overall, it seems that unrealistically high expectations directed toward the self may get in the way of women being authentic with their partners and engaging in sexual activity that brings them satisfaction,” Kluck and her colleagues told PsyPost.

However, women with who expected sexual perfection from their partner tended to be more assertive when it came to initiating wanted sexual activity.

“It is important for readers to understand that our study looked at how much women perceived society and partners to expect them to be perfect sexual partners. But, just because someone believes their partner wants them to be a perfect sexual partner, it does not mean that the partner really holds that expectation,” the researchers explained.

“We need more research to further explore how specific messages from a romantic partner related to being perfect may affect the ability of women to be spontaneous and to say ‘no’ when they do not want to be sexual. And, although there are a lot of messages in the media about what constitutes a good sex partner, there is not much scientific study about what people actually believe makes a person a perfect sexual partner.”

“In addition, we know men report the need to be perfect as sexual partners more than women, so it important to explore whether the same findings could be extended to men. Given that society places more emphasis on men initiating sexual encounters and satisfying their sexual desires, holding expectations that their partner is perfect sexually may not be beneficial to men, and refusing sex may be even harder — but, without research, this is only a hypothesis,” Kluck and her colleagues added.

“Research on perfectionism related to being a perfect sexual partner is still in its infancy. Beyond this study, we are seeing signs that high levels of sexual perfectionism may be associated with a range of problems with sexual functioning, especially when women perceive their partners to expect them to be perfect sexually. Further study that helps us understand how beliefs that one must be a perfect sexual partner affect women may be especially critical for women’s satisfaction with their sex lives and romantic relationships.”

The study was titled: “Sexual Perfectionism and Women’s Sexual Assertiveness: Understanding the Unique Effects of Perfectionistic Expectations about Sex Originating from and Directed toward the Sexual Partner“.