Feminists, despite their vaunted aggressive postures, could make for better partners and they tend to have stronger romantic relationships, says Laurie Rudman of Rutgers University in the US.
In an earlier research she had found girls tended to distance themselves from feminism fearing rejection by males.
A majority of college-age respondents agreed with such statements as "Most men would probably not want to date a feminist" and "Romance depends, in part, on men being allowed to be in charge."
This was alarming to Rudman, who is old enough to remember the heyday of the women's rights movement in the 1970s. Continued efforts to achieve gender equality could be seriously hurt, she reasoned, if women (and men) think it comes at the expense of love.
So, with the help of graduate student Julie Phelan, she set about trying to determine if there was any truth to the notion that feminists are more likely than traditional women to have crummy relationships.
The results, appearing in the online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles, show that for both women and men there was a benefit to having a feminist partner. Feminist women were also more likely than others to be in a romantic relationship.
"If you're a woman paired with a male feminist," said Rudman, "you have a healthier relationship across the board"—better in terms of relationship quality, equality, stability and sexual satisfaction.
"And men paired with female feminists have greater sexual satisfaction and greater relationship stability," she said. "So, [there were] higher scores on two of the four dimensions, with no difference on the other two."
There you have it: Feminists are sexy.
"Contrary to popular beliefs, feminism does not disrupt men's pleasure in the bedroom," said Rudman.
That makes perfect sense to counselors like Gina Ogden, who says "the cultural missionary position—man on top" isn't conducive to romance.
"If a relationship is based on authoritarian control, keeping one person on top and the other underneath, it gets old pretty fast—for both partners, really," said Ogden, a Boston sex therapist who surveyed 3,810 people for her book "The Heart and Soul of Sex."
"In an egalitarian relationship, there is more flow of give and take," she said, "and that's the romantic tension. That tension—the sexual desire—is in that space between you where you're able to flow back and forth."
In her experience, said Ogden, "where there's caring, sharing, openness and honesty, sexual satisfaction increases. It not only feels good now, but it is likely to get better and better as you age."
Chicago psychotherapist Sue Scheffler, who treats couples, seconds that emotion.
"What's important is mutual respect," said Scheffler. "If you're married to someone with feminist values—someone with a sense that men and women have the same worth—that would be a key factor in terms of your health and satisfaction in the marriage, whether or not you call yourself a feminist."
She added: "No woman wants to be a slave, and I don't think even a somewhat enlightened guy would want to be a meal ticket. There has to be some role satisfaction, whatever you've elected to do, and you have to feel like your partner respects your choice."
For the study, the Rutgers researchers designed two surveys, one for college sophomores in the laboratory and the other an online questionnaire for older adults.
The subjects—513 students and 471 adults ages 18-65 recruited online—were asked how they felt about career women and whether they considered themselves feminists. They were also asked about their partners' feminist identity and attitudes.
Not surprisingly, feminism scores among the subjects were tepid. The mean for women in the college group was 6.2 on a 10-point scale, and the mean for men was only 4.9. (The men's average score was slightly higher in the older, online group.)
Next, they were asked a series of questions intended to get at four measures of relationship health: quality (for example, "How often do you and your partner laugh together?"), equality ("How often do you and your partner disagree about your role in the relationship?"), stability ("How often do you think about finding another partner?") and sexual satisfaction ("How often have you considered having a sexual relationship with someone other than your partner?").
As for the notion that strong, independent women can't get a date, Rudman and Phelan asked the subjects about their sexual orientation, whether they were currently in a relationship, and how attractive they thought they were ("I seem to be very popular with the opposite sex").
It turned out that self-identified feminists were no more likely to be homosexual or to consider themselves unattractive, Rudman said: "There's zero correlation." And they actually had a better chance of having a romantic partner.
"There goes the spinster idea," said Rudman. "If you're a feminist, men are slightly more likely to want to be in a relationship with you."
Leonore Tiefer, a sex researcher who practices in New York City, hailed the study. "I agree with the premise," she said. "Let's get a little data about these claims that feminists have lousy sex lives or can't get along with men or can't sustain relationships."
But Tiefer noted: "We don't really know what the subjects meant by 'feminism' or 'sexual satisfaction,' so the study is really about labels."
Since word of the study started leaking out, mostly online, Rudman said she has received a lot of attention.
"There are a lot of angry bloggers out there," she said. "We're accused of being man-hating, radical lesbians. One blogger wrote, 'I Googled them—they're both dogs.' That put a dent in my graduate student's naiveté."
So, what about the investigator's personal life?
"I was lucky," said Rudman. "I found a feminist guy and we've been married over 30 years."