In 23 (74%) of the 31 couples we interviewed, both the husband and wife shared stories of sex as conflict ridden. In almost all instances, respondents construct conflict over sex as a problem of frequency of sexual intercourse. Moreover, this conflict is gendered in that husbands are far more likely than wives to report wanting to have more frequent sex (19 husbands compared to 4 wives). Louise (White, age 35, married 13 years) typifies descriptions of such conflict when she says, “We don’t have sex as often as he would like to have it and that is probably the most major issue between us. … Because he will feel sort of sad and lonely and want some affection from me and apparently I’m not there.”
Conflict over sexual frequency is often related to the reasons for one spouse’s erican, age 35, married 9 years) says that their arguments about sex mainly revolve around his wife’s “excuses” for not having sex:
We were talking about it just recently, and I expressed the fact that it always seems as though she doesn’t have time, or she is not in the mood, or whatever. Making up some excuse. And I mean one of the things that really bothers me is the fact that there are some times when she will spend time on the phone with her sister and she has a lot of energy then, but then when she finally gets off the phone and winds down, now she doesn’t have any energy and now she is sleepy.
Only four wives (13%) in this study say they have a stronger interest in sex than their husbands, but they too described conflict over frequency of sexual intercourse. Irene (White, age 51, married 32 years) says that most of the conflict she and Brian (White, age 55) have had over sex have to do with Brian’s lack of interest. About 10 years ago, Brian stopped wanting to have sex altogether. According to Irene, “We went through a little bit of a hard patch then, until I said, ‘You know, you need to go to the doctor and get yourself checked out and find out what’s going on’.”
In sum, our data show that married couples hold discordant beliefs about marital sex and that sex is an area of conflict in long-term marriages. The following section demonstrates that couples take different paths in negotiating contradictions and conflict around sex. We analyze these different tactics using Hochschild’s (1983) concept of emotion work, paying particular attention to their gendered dimensions.
Negotiating Sexual Conflict and Difference
In large part because respondents view sex as crucial to a “good” marriage, but believe that women are less sexual than men, they undertake emotion work around their sexual relationship in an effort to reduce marital conflict, enhance intimacy, and facilitate a spouse’s well-being. We refer to this emotion work as “performing desire.” Two major themes emerged as central in our analysis of how and why married men and women perform desire: (a) efforts to change the sexual self and (b) the centrality of household labor to sexual negotiation.
Changing the sexual self
Twenty-three (37%) out of 62 respondents spontaneously described how they consciously work to alter their own sexual feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. We find that men and women are similarly likely to make a concerted effort to change their sexual feelings or behaviors (13 wives vs. 10 husbands). But we do find a gendered pattern in the strategy of changing one’s sexual self. The wives we interviewed are more likely to say that they make a conscious effort to be more sexual-to want sex more often, or at a minimum, to be willing to have sex more often-whereas more of the husbands say that they make a conscious effort to reduce their sexual desires and focus on the quality of sex (as subjectively perceived by our respondents), rather than sexual frequency. Efforts to change the sexual self thus involve (a) inducing desire and (b) repressing desire and may be experienced as spontaneous or (c) obligatory performances of desire.