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

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

Abstract

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.