What Is A Female-Led Relationship? The 3 Different Forms & How To Explore
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
If you're a woman who likes being in control or a man who likes playing a more subordinate role, you might be interested—or already finding yourself involved in—female-led relationships.
What is a female-led relationship, or FLR?
A female-led relationship, or FLR, is traditionally a type of BDSM relationship between a dominant woman and a submissive man. Although the term originated within the kink community, some people now use the term "female-led relationship" more generally to describe any relationship between a man and a woman wherein the woman holds more power than the man, whether in terms of breadwinner status, decision-making authority, or the couple's sexual dynamic.
"The definition has many variants, as this is a wide umbrella term," according to sex educator and professional dominatrix Lola Jean. "FLR can be any relationship that is not 'male-led.' In its most lenient format, [an FLR may be] more of an equal-power or varied-power exchange between partners. In its more extreme and perhaps traditional [form], FLR is a relationship where the female, or femme, is the decision-maker for the other partner. This could be anything from their finances to their attire to more menial tasks like chores."
Any of the below dynamics might be involved in an FLR, though not all need to be present for a relationship to be considered FLR:
- The woman is the sole or primary income earner in the relationship.
- The man handles most or all of the domestic responsibilities and child care.
- The woman is the chief decision-maker in the relationship.
- The woman's thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are given priority over the man's in the relationship.
- The woman has full financial control in the relationship, including controlling what the man is or isn't allowed to spend money on.
- The woman is sexually dominant, and most sexual encounters revolve around her pleasure.
- The woman is typically the one that decides when and how to have sex.
- The man's role is largely submissive and obedient, whether in the relationship, in bed, or both.
- The man and woman are largely equal in their day-to-day lives, but the woman is dominant in the bedroom.
The kink vs. feminist relationships.
In the kink community, FLR specifically refers to an eroticized power dynamic wherein women have power over men in a relationship, whether sexually, financially, or in terms of day-to-day decision-making. But some people have begun to embrace the term as a sort of synonym for a feminist relationship or a relationship where the woman is the head of the household.
"We've seen many BDSM terms and concepts seep into mainstream culture," sex therapist and researcher Gloria Brame, Ph.D., tells mbg. "FLR is another term that once specifically referred to a female-dominant/submissive-male dynamic but which can be understood by any feministic people."
As a kink, FLR gets much of its excitement and thrill from turning traditional gender roles on their head, Jean explains. Where our society still tends to view men as dominant and women as submissive, FLR consciously flips the scripts and indulges in a power dynamic that places women on top.
That said, today's culture is thankfully starting to shed its old gender norms in general. It's becoming increasingly common for women to be the primary earners in their households and for relationships to seek more egalitarian grounds by consciously empowering the women in them. Nearly 30% of women in dual-income marriages make more money than their husbands, according to 2018 census data. It's also becoming common for women to take the reins in the bedroom, even outside the world of BDSM. While a dominant woman may have previously been seen as a rarity or a kinky fantasy, today it's much more mainstream.
As such, many couples might find themselves accurately represented within the broadest definition of "FLR," even if the term isn't one they would necessarily use to describe themselves.
Types of FLR:
A low-control "female-led relationship" is essentially a typical progressive relationship, which is the broadest type of FLR. The man and woman both contribute equally to the household and share many of the core responsibilities, from earning money to raising the kids to chores. Both partners provide income, with the woman earning the same or more money than the man. Both partners also participate in housework and child care, with the man equally sharing or doing the majority of the domestic duties. Alternatively, the woman may be the sole breadwinner of the household, with the man handling all domestic duties.
This type of dynamic isn't necessarily an FLR in the BDSM sense, though some people would still consider it an FLR insofar as it subverts traditional gender roles.
"Everything is power. There are always power dynamics and exchanges present in any relationship, no matter if they identify it as BDSM or not," Jean notes. "Anything can be D/s [aka a dominant-submissive relationship] if that is how you define it, though nothing is innately so—it all depends on how we categorize."
The more common form of FLR involves the woman having anywhere from a moderate to high level of control over the man in the relationship, and this dynamic is usually more explicitly explored as a form of kink or BDSM.
Depending on the dynamic the partners desire and agree to, the woman may have control over various parts of the relationship and the man's life. This might include making all the big decisions in the relationship, having the final say in what they do or don't spend money on, assigning most or all domestic responsibilities to the man, and/or being the chief orchestrator of their sex life. The partners may also explore power play or domination themes in their sex life, with the woman playing the dominant role and the man in the submissive role.
In this type of FLR, typically the control has some limits or is only relevant in some parts of their lives but not all of it, or the partners shift in and out of the power dynamic as desired or needed. "When a BDSM dynamic is present, there is more likely to be negotiation, aftercare, check-ins on needs, and predetermined rituals or routines," Jean adds.
Some FLRs involve complete control and fall under the umbrella of 24/7 D/s, aka a relationship where the power dynamic is lived day in and day out throughout the partners' entire lives. The woman has full and total control over the man's life, and the unequal roles between the woman and man are less of a role-play happening in certain situations and more of a full, dedicated lifestyle.
"This is more akin to TPE (total power exchange) that requires heavy negotiation and sometimes even a contract," Jean explains, adding, "When done sanely and consensually, there should always be moments for check-in and renegotiation. Even if the submissive is adamant on TPE or 'no safe words'-type of mentality, an ethical Dominant will understand the balance."
Benefits of FLR for the man.
An FLR can allow men to experience a relationship where they aren't responsible for everything and where they can enjoy having someone else be in charge without shame. "It removes the pressure to conform to an unrealistic model of masculinity carved for him by society," Brame explains. "By feeling free to choose his own path, he opens himself up to who he really is and [this] helps him to live a fuller life."
Some men also specifically enjoy the feeling of being subordinated or even humiliated, in part because these feelings and experiences are considered so taboo in mainstream culture. It's a similar reason some men enjoy cuckolding or ruined orgasms—it's the power dynamic.
Benefits of FLR for the woman.
For women, an FLR can be a way to fully step into their power in a way that simply isn't possible yet in most of mainstream society. "Power means freedom. You get the final say on things, which can be especially exhilarating for women who grew up in conservative male-led homes," Brame says. "It also brings responsibility—suddenly you are the one responsible for the big choices. For women who love the challenges of taking responsibility and honoring commitments, it's transformative to have so much control."
Some women also simply get a sexual thrill from dominating and subjugating others, again because it's so taboo to explore these dynamics in other parts of life.
How to set up a female-led relationship:
Understand what you want.
Before diving into any form of kink, BDSM, or power play, it's important to understand what you want and what your boundaries are, as well as those of your partner.
"Go about understanding your own desires first," Jean says. "How do you want it to make you feel? What aspects of your/their life do you want to be up for control? What areas do you not want to be up for control?"
It may be helpful to research FLR dynamics or general D/s relationship dynamics to understand what the possibilities are, what you want, and what you don't want.
Communicate what you want early on.
If the FLR dynamic is something that's integral to your sexual or romantic relationships, Jean says it's important to communicate what you want early on in a potential relationship. "You don't have to lead with it necessarily, though you could."
There are sites and apps that are specifically geared toward finding partners who are interested in kink, BDSM, and specifically FLR, which may be good places to start your search if you're just starting your exploration and know you're only looking for partners who are game for this dynamic.
Tell your partner what kind of dynamic you have in mind and what excites you about it, and allow them to indicate their interest level to you before proceeding into the details. An FLR is only possible with a fully willing partner, so back off if they say they're not into it.
FLR, particularly when it involves higher levels of control, can be an intense dynamic. "Start small if this is something you haven't played with before. The fantasy of something can often be much different from the reality," Jean says.
Once you find a partner who's game, you can discuss what you each are comfortable with and begin to incorporate elements of FLR into your relationship. Make sure to continue communicating and checking in regularly to ensure the dynamic is feeling good for both parties.
Talk to other people who enjoy FLRs.
"Don't rely solely on your potential partners for exploring or understanding this kink," Jean recommends. "Befriend individuals who fall on the same side of the power exchange to discuss their experience. This will benefit you, as partners may come and go. It also puts less onus on your partner to bear the weight of your kink and desires."
The bottom line.
A female-led relationship can be a form of kink or simply a way to make sure women are empowered in their relationships. There are many ways to experience an FLR, so communicate with your partners about what you're looking for and why so you can see if there's common ground to mutually explore.
"An FLR opens the door to greater equality among genders as old ideas about 'real men' are finally put to rest," Brame says. "All people (cis and trans) feel empowered to choose the kind of relationship dynamic that works best for them and their partners, without pressure to conform to ideologies instead of what makes them happy."
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach based in Brooklyn, as well as the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and educator certifications from The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Gonsalves provides heartful, evidence-based information about sexual well-being and healthy relationships through counseling, coaching, workshops, and journalism. Her research and reporting have debunked myths about the “elusive” female orgasm (nope, women’s orgasms are not a mystery and not naturally more difficult to achieve than men’s orgasms), explored the complicated history of American period care, uncovered the surprising psychology of ex sex, and much, much more.