The final sample consisted of 31 married couples. Marital duration ranged from 8 years to 52 years in length (mean = 25 years). Only 5 of the 62 respondents had been previously married. Average household income ($60,000) was higher than the median household income in the United Staes in 2004 ($44,473) (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.). Because income is inversely related to age, this income difference ple (53 years). Most respondents (58) had a least some college education and 8 held graduate or advanced degrees. Four respondents reported a high school degree as their highest level of education. The majority of respondents were White (52). Of the remaining 10 respondents, 6 were African American, 1 was Asian American, 2 were Latina, and 1 identified as multiracial.
Hence, we used a grounded theory approach to analyze the interview transcripts (Charmaz, 1983; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Grounded theory methods offer detailed procedural steps to analyze textual data with the goal of going beyond description to build theoretical explanations (Charmaz; LaRossa, 2005; Strauss & Corbin). Our analysis began with a careful examination of the data. This involved numerous readings of transcripts and fieldnotes written immediately after each interview. Next, we conducted open, line-by-line coding to identify concepts. Categories concerning beliefs about gender and heterosexuality, opinions about the importance of sex in marriage, and respondents’ own perceptions and experiences of sexual desire were identified and their indicators were extracted for analysis. From these broad categories, we identified subcategories that helped us to understand how the concepts were related to one another, what Strauss and Corbin refer to as axial coding. For example, we found that married people described consciously working on their and their spouse’s feelings about their sex lives, but that the ways they do this and their reasons for, and interpretations of, this work often differed based on gendered experiences and beliefs. Through selective coding, a process of honing in on a key, centrally relevant concept that ties all the categories together “to form an explanatory whole” (Strauss & Corbin, p. 146), we found that married people perform emotion work around sex in response to discordant discourses about, and experiences of, gender, marriage, and sex.
We analyzed the interviews with long-term married couples with particular attention to questions about how husbands and wives experience sex and sexual intimacy over the course of ines married people’s beliefs and experiences of marital sex, focusing in particular on how gender discourses and gendered experiences of marriage and heterosexuality shape their sexual negotiations. The first part of the analysis discusses competing cultural discourses around gender and marital sex that respondents articulate and highlights the paradoxical ways these discourses inform how married people make sense of their sex lives. The second part of the analysis develops the concept of performing desire by examining the gendered emotion work that married people undertake to negotiate sex and to manage feelings around their sexual relationship. We now turn to our results on competing cultural discourses around marital sex.
Contested Terrain: Marital Sex
A recurring theme throughout our interviews is that heterosexual sex is a contested terrain. Respondents view sex as vital to marital happiness, yet believe that men and women naturally have different sexual desires and proclivities. Some find comfort in this belief, but, as we report, most describe sex as a conflict-ridden domain of the marriage.
Sex as a gauge of marital success
A general theme around sex that emerged in the analysis of our interviews was that many men and women view sexual activity as a gauge of marital success. In 29 of the 31 couples, at least one spouse, and often both, say that sex is an integral part of marital success and describe sex as a barometer of the health of their own marriage. Lindsey (White, age 43, married 19 years) says she would be very bothered “if I thought we didn’t have a good sex life. I mean it is that intimacy thing. And as long as we are sort of going along, I know everything is okay. You know, sex is a real indication of the health of your relationship.” Similarly, Joel (White, age 31, married 11 years) says, “When our sex life suffers, then everything else is bad. And when we make a concerted effort to improve our sex life, even if we leave everything else alone, things get better.” Like Joel and Lindsey, several of the married individuals we interviewed believe that sex is “crucial in a relationship” (Katherine, White, age 72, married 50 years). However, despite viewing sex as a gauge of marital success, our respondents also contend that the sex drives of men and women differ in ways that may lead to conflict or unhappiness over sex.