Many women and men have shattered traditional gender roles in modern dating. It's not uncommon for women to pay for themselves, initiate messaging, and even sex. It appears gender equality exists in relationships, but a new study published in The Journal of Sex Research has found looks can be deceiving.

Laina Bay-Cheng, study author, and Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Buffalo noted men and women were equally likely to see themselves as "wearing the pants" in a relationship, but there were implications in these power differences. They were equally likely to self-report imbalances in their relationships, and to also feel subordinate. But, the effects of feeling subordinate were not the same for both genders.

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Previous research has found a woman who pays for herself on a date is someone who is dominant, and can call the shots, but a majority have admitted they're doing it for a troubling reason. Match's 2017 Singles In America survey noted 47 percent of women offered to pay the bill because they wanted to show their independence, while 74 percent said they did it to not feel obligated to do anything with their date. Here, a woman assumes a dominant role, but this is only to avoid being treated as a subordinate. Ironically, this makes the woman more subordinate because she assumes if he pays for dinner, she will need to repay him with a physical token of affection.

This suggests gender symmetry in dating isn’t always what it seems.

In the new study, Bay-Cheng collected data on the sexual experiences of 114 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 in hetereosexual relationships to analyze how they thought and felt about those experiences via Digital Sexual Life History Calendars (also known as d/SLICE). Participants were able to create a timeline of their sexual and relationship experiences on this site where they rate different aspects of the relationships and share details and anecdotes via texts, emojis, images, and even audio clips.

Stability (how harmonious and even-keeled a relationship was); intimacy (how emotionally close they felt); and the balance of power between them and a partner were the three components observed in participants' one-time hookups to long-term relationships. Bay-Cheng wanted to observe whether the balance of power in a relationship was linked to perceived stability and intimacy. A special focus was centered on descriptions and anecdotes as signs of power dynamics between a couple.

The findings revealed both men and women reported either being the dominant or subordinate partner in a relationship. Interestingly, participants who felt their partners possessed more power, saw their relationships as less stable and intimate and vice versa. However, Bay-Cheng noticed alleged gender equality changed when it came to power and relationship quality in women.

"We found that it was only women who thought the quality of their relationship changed depending on how much power they held," wrote Bay-Cheng in The Conversation.

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She added: "When they felt subordinate to a male partner, they perceived the relationship as less stable and less intimate."

Meanwhile in men, only two reported they had controlling girlfriends, but in both cases, there was no sign of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. These men were less affected by the power imbalances, as one man admitted to feeling "self-loathing" but described his relationship as “three miserable years filled with great sex.”

In women, power imbalance signified a lot more than just poor relationship quality. Power imbalances led some subordinate women to experience coercion and abuse.

Bay-Cheng suspects this gender inequality is due to male privilege.

"For men, having less power in a relationships is an exception – and usually a benign one – to the rule."

In a social context, women are still dealing with less power in the workplace, classrooms, and public places, where they feel the need to stay alert for sexism. A relationship that also produces similar feelings of inequality leads to self-loathing and more: It becomes another endless battle in the arenas where women have less power (not by choice.)

The change in dating trends encourage women it's OK to make the first move, to pay for a date, and to even have sex on the first date, but as long as that's what they want, not because they feel obligated.

Source: Bay-Cheng LY. Seeing How Far I’ve Come: The Impact of the Digital Sexual Life History Calendar on Young Adult Research Participants. The Journal of Sex Research. 2016.

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