Sex(uality) and Power:

Women Using their Sexuality for Manipulation


Sexuality is a natural occurence in human behavior. Because of this, it can become part of our daily lives and can affect how we treat each other. Sexuality can be used in a negative way in both the workplace and romantic relationships to gain power through manipulation and coercion. When thinking of sexuality and manipulation, it is common to think of men as the only culprits. However, this page focuses on women and the ways they use their sexuality to gain power, but at the same time still being unable to fully develop in a particular setting due to sexual stereotypes.

Holding power over someone sexually takes away their basic rights as a person. Everyone should be able to express themselves sexually in an appropriate and healthy manner and, in turn, treat others with the same respect. Each individual is entitled to the following sexual rights:

Basic Sexual Rights (Brame, 2001)
  1. The freedom of any sexual thought, fantasy, or desire.
  2. The right to sexual entertainment, freely available in the marketplace, including sexually explicit materials dealing with the full range of sexual behavior.
  3. The right not to be exposed to sexual material or behavior.
  4. The right to sexual self-determination.
  5. The right to seek out and engage in consensual sexual activity.
  6. The right to engage in sexual acts or activities of any kind whatsoever, providing they do not involve nonconsensual acts, violence, constraint, coercion, or fraud.
  7. The right to be free of persecution, condemnation, discrimination, or social intervention in private sexual behavior.
  8. The recognition by society that every person, partnered or un-partnered, has the right to the pursuit of a satisfying consensual sociosexual life free from political, legal, or religious interference and that there need to be mechanisms in society where the opportunities of sociosexual opportunities are available to the following: disabled persons; chronically ill persons; those incarcerated in prisons,hospitals or institutions; those disadvantaged because of age, lack of physical attractiveness, or lack of social skills; the poor and the lonely.
  9. The basic right of all persons who are sexually dysfunctional to have available, non-judgemental sexual healthcare.
  10. The right to control conception.

Terms to know
  • Sexual coercion- the act of using pressure, alcohol or drugs, or force to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will; tactics of post-refusal sexual persistence [used are] defined as persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused (McCoy & Oelschlager, 2003).
  • Verbal sexual coercion- in which one partner uses verbal means to coerce the other to engage in unwanted sexual activity (McCoy & Oelschlager, 2003).
  • Coercive-having great power, force to effect change (McCoy & Oelschlager, 2003).
  • Glass ceiling- an invisible barrier that keeps women from advancing into high level positions in workplace settings (Morrison, 1982).
  • Quid pro quo- a form of sexual harrassment in which a sexual favor or advantage is used in exchange for both tangible and intangible benefits (Fletcher, 2006).
  • Hostile environment: a form of sexual harrassment in which an individual must engage in unwanted sexual advances or other conduct of a sexual nature that hinders the individual's performance in the workplace and/or produces a hostile or offensive workplace atmosphere (Fletcher, 2006).

Sex and Power in the Workplace


"Women have to choose between shoes that are comfortable and shoes that are deemed attractive. When our group had to make an unexpected trek, the women who wore flat laced shoes arrived first. The last to arrive was the women with spike heels, her shoes in her hand and a handful of men around her" (Tannen, 1994, p. 110).*

*Women sometimes flaunt their sexuality to attract male co-workers, and in turn, use it to advance in a workplace setting. In many studies, subordinates (about 3/4th of the time women) received promotions, transfers, and special work assignments from the superior with whom they were having a sexual relationship (Fletcher, 2006).
The Glass Ceiling
The term glass ceiling is “not simply a barrier for an individual, based on the person’s inability to handle a higher-level job. Rather, [it] applies to women as a group who are kept from advancing higher because they are women” (Morrison, 1982, p. 13).

Evidence of a glass ceiling (Heffernan, 2004):
  • Women make up 46% of the American workforce, yet they only hold 8% of executive titles and 9.9% of line positions (positions leading to top jobs).
  • In 2002,‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍ women only held one out of every thirteen top positions, which refers to an executive vice president or above, in America’s Fortune 500 companies. *In the United States, women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees and 58% of master’s degrees. ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍
  • Only 11.9% of corporate officers are women and 5.1% are in the roles of chairperson or vice chairperson.
  • From 1987 through 1997, the amount of females serving as directors on corporate boards actually declines- from 10% to 8%- reminding us that there is no guarantee that the numbers will rise.
  • Many women say they desire senior positions in their workplace but have ruled out pursuing them. 19% of women want top jobs and are willing to go for them, 35% want them but will not pursue them, and 46% dismiss the entire idea of a top job.

Men Maintaining Power through Sex in a Workplace Setting
“In hierarchical office romances- that is, romances that cross the lines of authority in an organization- there is potential for exploitation of the relationship, as it may become unbalanced once the sexual dimension is added. In other words, a subordinate could exploit the relationship by providing sexual favors to the boss in return for a promotion. Or, conversely, a boss may manipulate a subordinate by threatening to withdraw from a relationship unless certain work deadlines are accomplished” (Fagenson, 1993, p. 174).

Success in an organizational setting and sexual fulfillment are both highly sought after goals in life. Though these goals are often separate, they sometimes intertwine. Relationships at work are often utilitarian- meaning the subordinate is interested in advancement and job security, while the superior is interested in adventure, power, and ego-satisfaction (Quinn & Lees, 1984). Women often find power sexy in males, whereas men find power exercised by women threatening and unattractive (Tannen, 1994).

In 74% of workplace relationships, the male is the superior. Conversely, women are terminated twice as often as men are as a result of workplace romance because men are typically higher up in the organization, therefore viewed as more valuable. Courts have found that it is legal to fire the subordinate member of the couple and not the superior- even if that negatively affects more women than men- as long as the rule is enforced equally on all subordinates, regardless of gender (Williams, Giuffre, & Dellinger, 1999) Women often feel the need to comply with sexual advances in the workplace for fear of losing their job, being demoted or suffering other financial losses (Quinn & Lees, 1984). In addition, when females and males are put together in a group, females are more likely to adapt to the presence of males. This has also been shown in small-scale and personal levels (Tannen, 1994). If a woman chooses to comply with sexual advances from a male superior, he is still able to exercise his power by manipulating the romance so as to keep her under his control (Quinn & Lees, 1984). Using tactics such as promotions or lack thereof can be punishable by law as quid pro quo sexual harassment or hostile environment sexual harassment. Women are more likely to be subject to these types of harrassment (42%, as compared to 15% of men). The people doing the harassing are usually male. Ninety-five percent of women and 22% of men report being sexually harassed by a male (Wise, 2002).

"Sleeping to the Top"

Consensual sexual relationships between two people in a workplace are usually not deemed illegal, but they are typically very problematic. A problem arises when sexual favoritism occurs as a result of the sexual relationship. In many studies, subordinates (about 3/4th of the time women) received promotions, transfers, and special work assignments from the superior with whom they were having a sexual relationship. These promotions are often given in spite of more deserving candidates (Fletcher, 2006). Studies by Buss and Meston (2009) showed that women often report having sex for money and as a means of getting a job, a raise, or a promotion. A great example of this tactic is when Mariyln Monroe admitted to having sex with powerful men as a means to break into Hollywood and achieve starring roles (Buss & Meston, 2009).

Typically, those who exchange sex for professional advancement do not enjoy the sex act. However, studies show that some do not mind using sex as a bartering technique. Some people are very willing to exchange sex for tangible (monetary rewards, a nice office) and/or intangible (favoritism, feelings of security) benefits in a workplace or professional setting. The idea of bartering sex for advancement is nothing new in our society (Buss & Meston, 2009). According to Buss and Meston (2009), "Offering sex for a good grade was all too common during the 1960s and '70s ... The offers can come from either party-- and can be consensual or threatening in nature. Perhaps the most flagrant case came to light when it was revealed that over a thousand women allegedly secured better grades from Italian professor Emanuele Giordano in exchange for their sexual favors" (p. 182).

Often, people view the trade of advancements/gifts for sex as a symbol of some greater meaning. For example, according to studies, women frequently interpret the gifts they receive not for their monetary value, but for the symbolic meaning behind them. Many believe the "reward" given in exchange for sex is indicative of a deeper, enduring interest in them, rather than simply a "favor" (Buss & Meston, 2009).

Sex and Power in Relationships

Forcing Sex

Sexual Coercion Statistics
(Harvey, Wenzel, & Sprecher, 2005)
  • ~13% have been raped
  • 18% have experienced attempted rape
  • 24% have experienced unwanted sexual contact
  • 25% have experienced sexual coercion

  • ~3% have been raped
  • 5-6% have experienced attempted rape
  • ~8% have experienced unwanted sexual contact
  • 23% have experienced sexual coercion

Verbal Sexual Coercion Statistics

In a study comparing coercion and power between genders within a heterosexual relationship the following findings were reported
44% of women versus 10% of men reported engaging in unwanted sexual intercourse because they felt overwhelmed by their partner pressuring them (McKinney & Sprecher, 1991).
  • 9.1% of women versus 7.3% of men reported participating in a sexual act with their partners because of their partners threatening to leave them or find a new partner.
  • 11.5% of women versus 13.4% of men reported having unwanted sexual intercourse with their partner because their partner made them have feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Also the partner may have questioned their sexuality in this study.
  • 0.2% of women versus 1.4% of men report their opposite sex partner using threats of self bodily harm to coerce them to engaged in sexual activity.

In a study of college students on the sexual coercion of males found that 63% of men and 46% of women had participated in unwanted sexual activity (Muehlenhard & Cook, 1988). They found that the reason for this higher number of males being coerced was based on gender role stereotypes of sexuality. For example, more men engaged in sexual intercourse for the following reasons:
  • Their partners enticed them and they became unable to refuse sexual advances
  • Felt they needed to become more sexually experienced
  • Wanted to be accepted by a popular social group
  • Peer pressure
  • They were afraid that their partner and other people would start to believe they were homosexual
  • Felt anxious due to the pressure to give in

In one study, 24% of single college males reported being victims of sexual aggression. 75% of these men claim it was initiated by a female partner whom they have been dating. The most common forms of sexual aggression were lies, intoxication, and induced guilt (Harvey, Wenzel, & Sprecher, 2005). This is also common among adolescents who are beginning to act on their desires. Men tend to put up less of a fight about being a sexual victim than women. (Harvey, Wenzel, & Sprecher, 2005). Men are not likely to speak about their experience as a victim because gender stereotypes and expectations lead our society to believe that men are constantly on the prowl for sexual activity, therefore unable to be victimized. If men do speak to clinicians about it, they are often blamed for being victimized because they did not stop the act or show much resistance. In terms of long-term effects of victimization, some men claimed to have felt an impact, while others say it does not affect their lives or emotions at all (Platt & Busby, 2009). This is vastly different from female experiences.

It is important to note that women are not the only ones who are victimized, as shown by the statistics above, but they are often the sex most likely to be victimized. Men experience sexual coercion, but it is often less violent compared to what women face. It is important to study both ends of the spectrum in order to show differences and similarities in sexual aggression and behaviors between men and women (Platt & Busby, 2009).

Withholding Sex

Women holding the power over men is not always bad. Women withholding sex from their partner is commonly used when he is reluctant to use condoms (De Bro Campbell, & Peplau, 1994). This is an important tactic to use especially because of the numbers of STI's women are able to contract. Persuading a partner to use a condom can be tricky, for the individual not only wants their partner to comply to the requests of using a condom, but they also do not want to interfere with the sexual interaction (De Bro, Campbell & Peplau, 1994).
  • "I will only have sex with you if we use a condom." This can be used by both females and males and is a proper way of withholding sex in order to protect each other.
  • "I will only have sex with you if we do not use a condom." Again, this is a tactic of withholding sex that can be used by both males and females. However, it is not a healthy way to approach the situation.
  • "No condom, no sex"
  • "No glove, no love"

Women have withheld sex from their husbands as a form of protest for centuries. In some cultures, women will withhold sex if their husbands' crops do not do well, and, recently, women in Turkey have withheld sex in order to get running water (Packard, 2003). In Ancient Greece, Lysistrata, a classic drama, was written and directed towards Athenian women influencing them to withhold sex from their husbands until the war stopped. At first the men ignored it, but they eventually became so sexually deprived that they signed the treaty and the war was over (Lysistrata, 1990). This work is still very influential for women attempting to be peacemakers.

One study found that withholding sex is more annoying for men than women. At the same time, some support has shown that women tend to be more annoyed with a man's sexual aggression or assertiveness towards her (Laak, Olthof, & Aleva, 2003).

Heterosexual Marriage Dominance

It is common to have power struggles in marriages between men and women. Although men often have the upper hand in a relationship, it has been found that when women do hold the most power, sexually or otherwise, overall marriage satisfaction for both spouses is lower (Brezsnyak & Whisman, 2004). From this, husbands that hold less power are more likely to physically and emotionally abuse their wives, thus continuing the power struggle (Rampage, 2002).

Same Sex Dominance

Sexual coercion also occurs in same-sex relationships. In fact, gays and lesbians report similar rates and levels of sexual coercion as heterosexuals (Harvey, Wenzel, & Sprecher, 2005). Although there is controversy related to which gender is considered less sexual, in general women are thought to be less sexual than men. With this idea it seems that women would be less likely to be sexually coercive. Waterman conducted a survey of 36 females and 34 male students in college who were in a homosexual relationship. In this study the statistics shown were that 31% of lesbians and 12% of gay men reported being coerced by their partners to engage in sex. In another study, it was found that more severe forms of sexual aggression are more common than lesser forms of sexual aggression among gay and lesbian groups (Harvey, Wenzel, & Sprecher, 2005). Women who claim that their female partners control their everyday lives are also more likely to experience interpersonal violence (Eaton et al., 2008).

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Buss, D.M., & Meston, C.M. (2009). Why women have sex: The psychology of sexin women's own voices. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

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Heffernan, M. (2004). The naked truth: A working woman’s manifesto on business and what really matters. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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McKinney, K., & Sprecher, S. (1991). Sexuality in Close Relationships (pp. 157-162). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Morrison, A.M. (1982). Breaking the glass ceiling. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Packard, G. (2003, December 25). Cameroon: Wives end sex strike. New York Amsterdam News.

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