Intimate Inequalities: Gender Inequality in Sexuality Over the Lifecourse

I have explored gender inequalities in sexuality among young adults and am in the midst of projects on the sexuality of adults at midlife. I am also interested in how the sex lives and relationship forms of all adults may be changing in the new millennium.

Gender Inequality in Young Adult Sexuality

The first paper in this series, “Sexual Assault on Campus” (Social Problems 2006), co-authored with Laura Hamilton and Brian Sweeney, tackles one of the most dramatic manifestations of gender inequality on campus—continued high rates of sexual assault. We argued that existing explanations, which focused either on the characteristics of perpetrators or on campus rape cultures, neglected the role of campus organization in creating social sexual danger.

Furthering the project, Laura Hamilton published “Trading on Heterosexuality,” a solo-authored paper exploring homophobia among women (Gender & Society 2007). She demonstrated that women’s public same-gender sexual behavior can be derived from their location in erotic hierarchies. This paper suggests that privileged young women’s agency and interests—particularly their investment in maintaining positions at the top of erotic hierarchies—yields insights into the reproduction of gender inequality more generally.

In “Gendered Sexuality in Young Adulthood” (Gender & Society 2009), Hamilton and I explored the sexual and romantic dilemmas women face as a result of conflicting class and gender expectations. This paper debunks notions that hookups are the problem and relationships are the answer. We show that both hookups and relationships are marred by gender inequality, thus posing different problems for women. This paper takes an intersectional approach by showing the ways in which privileged and less privileged women are differently situated in relationship to social structures.

Paula England, Alison Fogarty and I published “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships” (American Sociological Review 2012). This paper, based on quantitative analysis of survey data and qualitative analysis of interviews, showed that orgasm was more common in relationships than hookups. Sexual practices, partner-specific experience, and affection predicted orgasm in both contexts. Qualitative analysis suggested that men’s higher investment in partner orgasm in relationships—and frank lack of concern about it in hookups—may account for part of the hookup/relationship gap in orgasm.

With Laura Backstrom and Jennifer Puentes, I investigated “Women’s Negotiation of Cunnilingus in College Hookups and Relationships” (Journal of Sex Research 2012). Cunnilingus seems to have become taken-for-granted in relationships, but not in hookups. For women who like cunnilingus, this poses a problem in hookups as they must be assertive to get cunnilingus. For women who do not like cunnilingus, men’s expectation that they will receive it in relationships is problematic. In an interesting effect of gender inequality, men’s interest in giving cunnilingus in relationships sometimes overrides women’s lack of interest in receiving it—to women’s ultimate satisfaction.

Laura Hamilton, Elizabeth Marie Armstrong, Lotus Seeley, and I explored “slut-shaming” in a paper entitled “Good Girls: Social Class and Sexual Privilege” (Social Psychology Quarterly 2014). This paper explores the ways in which class and race offer affluent, white women “sexual privilege” by providing resources that enable them to maintain an identity and reputation as a “good girl” even when they engage in non-romantic sex. This paper furthers our argument that women are implicated in the reproduction of gender inequality by illustrating the ways in which some women deploy the “slut” label against other women.

The argument about the investments in gender that some women have—and the role these investments play in gender inequality—is developed in a theoretical paper, “Hegemonic Femininity and Intersectional Domination” (Sociological Theory 2019)—also with Hamilton, Seeley, and Armstrong.  We examine how two sociological traditions account for the role of femininities in social domination. The masculinities tradition theorizes gender as an independent structure of domination; consequently, femininities that complement hegemonic masculinities are treated as passively compliant in the reproduction of gender. In contrast, Patricia Hill Collins views cultural ideals of hegemonic femininity as simultaneously raced, classed, and gendered. This intersectional perspective allows us to recognize women striving to approximate hegemonic cultural ideals of femininity as actively complicit in reproducing a matrix of domination. We argue that hegemonic femininities reference a powerful location in the matrix from which some women draw considerable individual benefits (i.e., a femininity premium), while shoring up collective benefits along other dimensions of advantage.

A number of the above articles have been included in edited collections designed for teaching. We have also drafted articles specifically for use in the undergraduate classroom, including two pieces for Contexts and a chapter for a textbook on the sociology of the family edited by Barbara Risman.  

Gender Inequality in Sexuality at Midlife

U-M graduate students and I have collected two related data sets on the sexual, romantic and relationship experiences of American adults aged 35-55.  The first data set, “Situationships: Searching for Sex and Love at Midlife,” with Spencer Garrison, Charity Hoffman, Angie Perone, and Kelly Giles (UMASS-Amherst) consists of in-depth interviews with 53 single white and Black women. We have a draft of a paper describing the relationship configurations of the women. We focus on a relationship form that we refer to as a “situationship.” Situationships are ongoing sexual relationships, characterized by ambivalence that women maintain to meet needs when more satisfying relationships are unavailable. Women in situationships often maintain an identity as “single” despite long-term–often exclusive–sexual involvement. The second data set, “Men’s and Women’s Experience of Divorce at Midlife,” with Spencer Garrison, Lotus Seeley, and Lisa Larance, involved two waves of interviews with approximately 70 people (men and women, gay and straight) in the process of divorce. Larance, Garrison, and Seeley published a paper on this data entitled, “Strategically Stealthy: Women’s Agency in Navigating Spousal Violence” (Affilia 2017).  We hope to eventually analyze and write on this data. I would love to find prospective students with interest in this data or these issues!

Sex and Romance in the 21st Century

Women of all ages are navigating sex, love, and relationships in a rapidly changing world. Women’s educational attainment has, for years now, exceeded men’s. Women seem to be responding to rapidly changing economic, political, and cultural circumstances–including dramatic increases in inequality–differently than men. There are hints that women’s tolerance for disrespect and abuse is declining in the #MeToo era. The Atlantic recently announced a “sex recession.” The Washington Post reported General Social Survey results suggesting that the fraction of young men having no sex at all is increasing. Fertility rates did not recover from the Great Recession, as expected. The proportion of American adults who are unmarried continues to increase. I’m interested in the relationship between economic and political processes and sexual/romantic intimacy. How are people experiencing and making sense of sex and love in the new millennium?

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