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The social construction of sexual interaction in heterosexual relationships : a qualitative analysis

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  • The present study examined the process by which couples, in the context of a heterosexual romantic relationship, participate in sexual activity. As they did so, their interactions helped to construct their relationship. Social construction theory and the gender perspective provided the theoretical foundation for this qualitative research. Nine heterosexual couples were recruited primarily through an introductory course in human sexuality. Each member of these nine couples was interviewed separately using a qualitative, semistructured interview format. Each interview lasted about an hour and questions focused on behavioral and sexual expectations for women and men in romantic relationships. Other areas examined included prior dating relationships and sexual experiences, sexual activity in the present relationship, comfort and satisfaction with the specific sexual experiences in the current relationship, satisfaction with their sexual relationship, and general relationship satisfaction. Qualitative data analysis techniques were used to arrive at five major themes. Results illustrated how women and men constructed notions of gender-appropriate sexual interaction as they participated in sexual activity in their relationship. First, participants' views of sexuality, the meanings they attached to sexual acts, their expectations of specific sexual encounters and of sexual relationships in general, and the choices they made in the navigation process were often based upon social and cultural expectations of what sex is. Second, these meanings and expectations combined to produce behavior that was gendered. Third, choices participants made with regard to their current sexual behaviors were very much affected by their previous sexual experiences with their current partner as well as with past partners. Fourth, participants' original social and cultural expectations were modified within the context of their current relationship. Fifth, context specific experiences affected the navigation of sexual activity. Results suggest that sexual relationships themselves were constructed and reconstructed as relationship partners interacted with each other and that sexual interaction in general was heavily affected by the sexual double standard. Participants did not always recognize however, that the double standard was active in and affecting their relationship. Additionally, couples socially constructed sex as being penile vaginal intercourse, a construction that invariably led to a higher frequency of male orgasms.
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