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Power Is Both Good and Bad for Our Sexual Relationships

Power in any domain has mixed consequences for sexual relationships.

Jenny Marvin/Unsplash
Source: Jenny Marvin/Unsplash

Power is often defined as having control over resources, which allows those in power to influence and manipulate others (Kunstman and Maner, 2010). Interestingly, power in any domain — financial power, power over colleagues in the workplace, even temporary power over peers — is associated with heightened sexual motivation.

People with more power are “especially likely to pursue goals related to sex and mating,” and many individuals strongly associate power with sex (Kunstman and Maner). In some ways, having more power may help to improve our sex lives, but increased power may also cause some negative consequences.

How Power Improves Our Sexual Relationships

Increased power is associated with enhanced sexual assertiveness. For example, in one study, employees in positions of power at work also rated themselves as higher in sexual assertiveness (Lammers and Stoker, 2019).

Sexually assertive individuals are more comfortable initiating sex and communicating their sexual needs and desires (Lammers and Stoker), so it should come as no surprise that those who are more sexually assertive also experience increased sexual satisfaction (Ménard and Offman, 2009). What is interesting about the correlation between power and sexual assertiveness is that although men are assumed to be more sexually assertive than women, the relationship between power and sexual assertiveness was the same for both genders (Lammers and Stoker).

Increased power is also associated with increased sexual self-esteem. Individuals with high sexual self-esteem are confident in their sexual abilities and their aptitude for positive sexual experiences. They also see themselves as more attractive (Lammers and Stoker, 2019). Higher sexual self-esteem is also related to less sexual anxiety (Brassard et al., 2015).

Once again, both men and women in positions of power in the workplace also rated their own sexual self-esteem as higher than those who lacked power. In fact, power had a larger effect on both sexual assertiveness and sexual self-esteem than gender did (Lammers and Stoker).

Gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors tend to be smaller in nations with more gender equality (Petersen and Hyde, 2010). Lammers and Stoker suggest that as women gain more power, some gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors may disappear altogether.

How Power Worsens Our Sexual Relationships

If you are hoping to maintain a monogamous sexual relationship, power may be detrimental to that goal. Both men and women who indicated a higher status in the power hierarchy at work also reported more instances of actual infidelity, as well as a stronger intention to engage in future infidelities (Lammers et al., 2011). The authors propose that power causes increased confidence in one’s ability to attract new partners, and therefore makes powerful people of both genders more likely to engage in infidelity.

Just as power activates one’s own interest in sex, power can also cause biased perceptions of others’ sexual interest (Kunstman and Maner, 2010). In this experiment, participants were randomly assigned to a position of power or a position of equality with a partner of the opposite sex.

Those assigned to a position of power not only over-perceived their partner’s sexual interest in them but also acted in a more sexualized manner toward their partners (touching, smiling, and gazing at them). The authors note that power, coupled with the misperception of sexual interest, may lead to sexual harassment.

Power is strongly associated with sex and can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on our sexual relationships.

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Brassard, A., Dupuy, E., Bergeron, S., & Shaver, P. R. (2015). Attachment insecurities and women's sexual function and satisfaction: The mediating roles of sexual self-esteem, sexual anxiety, and sexual assertiveness. The Journal of Sex Research, 52(1), 110-119.

Kunstman, J. W., & Maner, J. K. (2011). Sexual overperception: Power, mating motives, and biases in social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 282.

Lammers, J., & Stoker, J. I. (2019). Power affects sexual assertiveness and sexual esteem equally in women and men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(2), 645-652.

Lammers, J., Stoker, J. I., Jordan, J., Pollmann, M., & Stapel, D. A. (2011). Power increases infidelity among men and women. Psychological Science, 22(9), 1191-1197.

Ménard, A. D., & Offman, A. (2009). The interrelationships between sexual self-esteem, sexual assertiveness and sexual satisfaction. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 18(1/2), 35.

Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality, 1993–2007. Psychological bulletin, 136(1), 21.

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