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50 Shades of Trust

Trust and sexual intimacy.

By Ken J. Rotenberg1 and Pamela Qualter2

The novel Fifty Shades of Grey is quite a phenomenon. As most adults know by now, it is an erotic romance novel by E. L. James and is the first book in a trilogy. The novel traces the increasingly sexually intimate relationship between a college graduate (Anastasia Steele) and a young business magnate (Christian Grey). The book depicts highly erotic behavior primarily bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM). Fifty Shades of Grey has topped best-seller lists around the world and has sold over 90 million copies in 52 languages. Indeed, there are plans for a film adaptation of it by a major movie studio.

The sex in Fifty Shades of Grey is extremely graphic. But what may not be as vivid is the fact that trust between partners is crucial to BDSM. The submissive or bottom (i.e., the person who receives pain in BDSM) must trust the dominant or top (i.e., the person who provides the pain in the BDSM) to exercise restraint over his or her aggressive behavior. Tops must exercise restraint in response to bottoms’ subtle nonverbal cues often during the height of passion.

In practice, any sustained sexual relations between romantic partners (heterosexual or homosexual) depend on trust between sexual partners. Sex is the most intimate form of behavior and as such depends on trust—in sustained consensual relationships at least. The purpose of this blog is to explore the relationship between trust and sexual intimacy.

Sex, Oxytocin, and the BDT Interpersonal Trust Framework

Oxytocin is a hormone that has been found to promote humans’ and other species' “trust” (see Rotenberg, 2010). Indeed, oxytocin can be safely administered by nasal sprays and research using nasal administrations of the hormone has shown its effect on trust. Sexual intimacy triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) and hormones, including oxytocin, that have been found to promote sexual attraction and monogamy in romantic relationships (Scheele et al., 2013).

According to the BDT interpersonal trust framework, however, oxytocin is not trust per se because trust involves the various bases and domains. Specifically, the oxytocin hormone predisposes people to trust others but does so by promoting trust along these bases and domains. In effect, trust is not simply a hormone.

Sexual intimacy and romantic relationships involve the bases and domains of trust as outlined by the BDT trust framework towards a very specific and familiar person (see Randal et al., 2010). For example, trust involves a person’s confidence that sexual acts are benign/genuine rather than malevolent/manipulative (i.e., honesty beliefs), responding to disclosures of sexual preferences without criticism and confidentiality (i.e., emotional trustworthiness), and fulfilling promises to refrain from given sexual acts (i.e., reliability trustworthiness).

Trust and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The BDT interpersonal trust framework has implications for the disclosure of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including AIDS (see Rotenberg, 1995). A person’s reactions to an individual’s disclosure of not having STDs will depend on the persons’ beliefs that the disclosure is an honest one. These beliefs will affect the person’s behavioral trust in the discloser—specifically, engaging in sex.

The act of disclosing an STD, on the other hand, involves the persons’ belief that it will be responded to uncritically and will be kept confidential. The perils of disclosing AIDS have been documented by Gomez et al. (2013) in a qualitative and quantitative investigation of AIDS in four African countries: Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda (AIDS in Africa is among the highest in the world). The research shows that adults, notably women, experience disbelief and stigmatization in response to disclosing their AIDS to their romantic partners. It should be highlighted that a person’s trust—in science and in the medical treatment of AIDS—is essential for successful treatment of the disease (see Earl et al., 2013).

Trust and Safe Sex

The BDT trust framework has implications for safe sex. Safe sex relies on each sexual partner’s promise to engage in safe sex practices with the other sexual partner (and with other partners outside of the relationship, if that is relevant). It is interesting to note, though, that many of the youth of today believe that the use of condoms for safe sex shows a lack of distrust in sexual partners (Marston & King, 2006). According to the BDT interpersonal trust framework though, it is the promise fulfilment (i.e., reliability) of safe sex activity that defines it as trust.

Trust and the Sexual Act

The sexual act itself depends on trust. Persons revealing their bodies to others involve emotional trust entailing the expectation that others will not criticize a person’s body and, of course, will be aroused by it. The sexual act involves the risk of insensitivity and violation and thus depends on trust.

Aside from rape, consensual sexual relationships depend on the partners believing that sexual intimacy is genuine rather than manipulative, and benign rather than malevolent. The violations of such trust provide the substance for movies, such as "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988, Warner Brothers) that starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Some academic evidence for these ideas is provided by the qualitative study by Weaver, MacKeigan, and MacDonald (2011) on young adult Canadians who had friends with benefits relationships—relationships providing sustained sexual intimacy. The young adults reported that their friends with benefits relationships provided them with the trust in a sexual partner needed for sexual intimacy.

Trust and the “Affair”

It was originally believed that trust beliefs and trusting behaviors were personality characteristics that were very general and constant (see Rotenberg, 2010). Although trust has some of these qualities, the BDT interpersonal trust framework permits the consideration of various specific forms of trust in specific relationships.

This is exemplified by the “affair” between a married person and a single (or another married) person. These involve passionate sexual relationships in which the sexual partners demonstrate the bases of trust and trusting behavior in their private interactions. Each partner believes that the other keeps information confidential (i.e., the sexual liaisons), keeps promises (e. g., to meet at various times), and is honest (e.g., does not tell the estranged spouse)—as well as depending on him or her to do those.

Their mutual trust is different from their trust in others outside the relationship including a lack of trust in the estranged spouse. The two sexual partners may believe that the estranged spouse is engaging in malevolently motivated and manipulative behavior resulting from his or her suspicion/knowledge of infidelity or simply romantic neglect. Persons involved in affairs may experience being cut-off from others outside the relationship and resulting sense of loneliness (see Rotenberg et al., 2010).

In support of the preceding ideas, we (Rotenberg, & Korol, 1995) found that particularly men who have a Ludus love style—a style involving having multiple sexual partners—tend to experience heightened loneliness. It is quite possible that male Ludus lovers experience heightened loneliness because of their lack of trust beliefs in their various sexual partners: one fuelled by uncertainties over whether the sexual partners will find about each other. These persons experience secret lives that engender distrust and thus loneliness—despite their frequent sexual encounters.

Trust, Sexual Relationships, and Offspring

The link between trust and sexual intimacy depends, in part, on its reproductive consequences. In heterosexual relationships, the link between trust and sexual intimacy concerns care of the offspring, despite the societal shift towards single parenting. The effective use of contraception depends on sexual partners fulfilling their promises. The act of conceiving depends, to a large extent, on the sexual partners fulfilling promises to provide the resources and parenting activities needed to raise a child and thus trust between parents.

In summary, trust is fundamental to the act of sex, sustained consensual sexual intimacy, the suvival of our offspring, and thus the very survival of our species.


Affiliations and Acknowledgment

1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail:

2 Dr. Pamela Qualter, Reader in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, PR1 2HE, email:

The authors thank Professor James Hartley (Keele University) for his assistance in writing this blog.


Earl, T. R., Saha, S., Lombe, M., Korthuis, P. T., Sharp, V., Cohn, J., Moore, R., & Beach, M. C. (2013). Race, relationships, and trust in providers among black patients with HIV/AIDS. Social Work Research. 37, 219-226.

Gomez et al. (2013). Do support groups members disclose less to their partners? The dynamics of HIV disclosure in four African countries. BMC Public Health, 13, 1-10.

James, E. L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey. Vintage Books, UK.

Marston, C., & King, E. (2006). Factors that shape young people's sexual behaviour: a systematic review. Lancet, 9547, 1581-1586.

Randall, B. A., Rotenberg, K. J., Totenhagen, C., Rock, M. & Harmon C. (2010). A new scale for the assessment of adolescents’ trust beliefs. In Ken J. Rotenberg (Ed). Interpersonal trust during childhood and Adolescence (pp. 247-269). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rotenberg, K. J. (Ed.) (2010). Interpersonal trust during childhood and adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press (Hard Cover, Soft Cover, and E-Book).

Rotenberg, K. J. (Ed.) (1995). Disclosure processes in children and adolescents. Cambridge Studies. Martin Hoffman (Series Ed). Social and Emotional Development Series New York: Cambridge University Press (Hard Cover and Soft Cover)

Rotenberg, K. J., Addis, N., Betts, L. R., Fox, C., Hobson, Z., Rennison, S., Trueman, M. & Boulton, M. J. (2010). The relation between trust beliefs and loneliness during early childhood, middle childhood and adulthood. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1086-1100.

Rotenberg, K. J., & Korol, S. (1995). The role of loneliness and gender in individuals' love styles. Journal of Social Behaviour and Personality, 10, 537-546.

Scheele, D. et al. (2013). Oxytocin enhances brain reward system responses in men viewing the face of their female partner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110.

Weaver, A., MacKeigan, K. L., & MacDonald, H. A. (2011). Experiences and perceptions of young adults in friends with benefits relationships: A qualitative study. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 20, 41-53.

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