The Performance of Desire: Gender and Sexual Negotiation in Long-Term Marriages


We integrate theoretical traditions on the social construction of gender, heterosexuality, and marriage with research and theory on emotion work to guide a qualitative investigation of how married people understand and experience sex in marriage. Results, based on 62 in-depth interviews, indicate that married men and women tend to believe that sex is integral to a good marriage and that men are more sexual than women. Moreover, husbands and wives commonly experience conflict around sex and undertake emotion work to manage their own and their spouse’s feelings about sex. We refer to this emotion work as “performing desire” and show how it is linked to gendered experiences in marriage and to competing cultural discourses around gender, heterosexuality, and marriage.

Sexual activity in the context of long-term heterosexual relationships may be an important site of conflict as well as relationship vitality. Studies find that Americans consider sex an essential element of relational intimacy, key to personal fulfillment, and crucial for relationship longevity (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, & Kolata, 1994; Rubin, 1990). At the same time, research points to the potential for conflict around sex in heterosexual relationships (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Duncombe & Marsden, 1996; Rubin). Despite sex being increasingly framed as desirable, if not mandatory, to ensure marital harmony, cultural discourses about gender and heterosexuality frame men and women as sexually different, with men stereotyped as sexually assertive and women dominicancupid username stereotyped as sexually passive: This framing is typically labeled as the sexual double standard (Crawford & Popp, 2003). These stereotypes shape how individuals understand and experience themselves as gendered and sexual beings (Crawford & Popp; Schwartz & Rutter, 1998).

Most research on the sexual double standard has been conducted with younger women and men – either adolescents or the college aged, usually involved in dating relationships rather than committed relationships (see Crawford & Popp, 2003, for references) – largely ignoring older individuals and those in longer-term relationships. We know little about how cultural discourses around heterosexuality play out in long-term married relationships, even though social scientists are especially concerned with the success and failure of long-term ).

Cultural discourses set the stage for what Hochschild (1983) termed “emotion work.” When faced with a social situation, individuals manage their emotions; they attempt to bring their feelings in line with cultural expectations for how they think they should be feeling (Hochschild). Married people, however, face potentially conflicting discourses around sex. In addition to emotion work to manage one’s own feelings, emotion work may also be done “by the self upon others” (Hochschild, p. 7) in the form of offering encouragement, affirmation, a supportive ear, empathy, and affection. This form of emotion work is essential for maintaining family and ; Hochschild), yet few researchers have examined emotion work within the institution of ily. Those that have have largely overlooked sexual intimacy as a site of emotion work.

We bring together theoretical work on gender, marriage, and emotion work to guide an analysis of how couples in long-term marriages make sense of, negotiate, and experience heterosexual sex. ining sexual negotiations because it is a historically patriarchal, gendered institution, premised on men’s “privilege and entitlement to women’s labor, sexuality, and emotions” that is increasingly contested (Lorber, 2005, p. 159). We contribute to debates surrounding emotion management, gender, and marriage by analyzing in-depth interviews with 31 married couples to ask: (How) Do cultural constructions of gender, heterosexuality, and marriage influence married people’s ideas about, and experiences of, marital sex?

The Social Construction of Gender, Heterosexuality, and Marriage

We draw from the social constructionist perspective to view gender, heterosexuality, and marriage as socially constructed, interdependent entities that are created and recreated, and, sometimes, challenged and transformed, in ongoing interactions and everyday practices (Connell, 1995; West & Zimmerman, 1987). In their classic article on the social construction of gender, West and Zimmerman argued that, rather than constituting a fixed identity, gender is an emergent feature of social situations that is constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Cultural norms and beliefs about gender guide individuals’ understandings and performances of gender (West & Zimmerman).