Sexual Practice

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Sexual Practice

Organized by: Gloria Gadsden, New Mexico Highlands University
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – Chicago

This section offers educators a chance to explore sexual practices as they relate to notions of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, age and, more broadly, power. Many assume sexual practice is governed by free will and notions of “love.” But most research demonstrates, like many other social behaviors, sexual practice is ‘controlled’ by norms and values in a particular society. Rules and regulations dictate sexual partners, especially with respect to gender, race, and age, the social context in which one is ‘allowed’ to engage in sexual relations, and even the time of day one ‘should’ have sex. Foucault related that there is a “policing of sex…[through] public discourses” (1978, 25). Specifically, “good” sex is represented by the practices of heterosexual, white, middle or upper class couples. These individuals are able to experience sexual pleasure if they are married (or at least monogamous), if they fall between the appropriate ages, if the sex is ‘private,’ and if their sexual relations produce children who can reproduce the system. This collection of articles, spanning more than a decade, transforms these assumptions, providing instructors with inventive opportunities to discuss sexual practice in the context of power.
Foucault, M. 1978. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 – An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Andrejek, Nicole, Tina Fetner, and Melanie Heath. 2022. “Climax as Work: Heteronormativity, Gender Labor, and the Gender Gap in Orgasms”. Gender & Society, 36(2), 189–213.
Gender scholars have addressed a variety of gender gaps between men and women, including a gender gap in orgasms. In this mixed-methods study of heterosexual Canadians, we examine how men and women engage in gender labor that limits women’s orgasms relative to men. With representative survey data, we test existing hypotheses that sexual behaviors and relationship contexts contribute to the gender gap in orgasms. We confirm previous research that sexual practices focusing on clitoral stimulation are associated with women’s orgasms. With in-depth interview data from a subsample of 40 survey participants, we extend this research to show that both men and women engage in gender labor to explain and justify the gender gap in orgasms. Relying on an essentialist view of gender, a narrow understanding of what counts as sex, and moralistic language that recalls the sexual double standard, our participants craft a narrative of women’s orgasms as work and men’s orgasms as natural. The work to produce this gendered narrative of sexuality mirrors the gender labor that takes place in the bedroom, where both women and men engage in sexual behaviors that emphasize men’s pleasure to a greater extent than women’s.

Frizzell, Laura C., Mike Vuolo, and Brian C. Kelly. 2021. “Integrating Theories of Gender and Sexuality with Deviance: The Case of Prescription Drug Misuse During Sex.” Gender & Society 35(5): 691-718.
Social scientists have expended substantial effort to identify group patterns of deviant behavior. Yet beyond the ill-conceived treatment of sexual minorities as inherently deviant, they have rarely considered how gendered sexual identities (GSIs) shape participation in deviance. We argue for the utility of centering theories of gender and sexuality in intersectional deviance research. We demonstrate how this intentional focus on gender and sexuality provides important empirical insights while avoiding past pitfalls of stigmatizing sexual minorities. Drawing on theories of hegemonic masculinity, emphasized femininity, and minority stress together with criminological general strain theory, we demonstrate how societal expectations and constraints generate strains among GSI groups that may lead to distinctly patterned deviance, using the case of prescription drug misuse during sex. We employ thematic analysis of 120 in-depth interviews with people who misuse prescription drugs, stratified by GSI. We identify six themes highlighting distinct pathways from strain to misuse during sex for different GSI groups: intimacy management, achieving sexual freedom, regulating sexual mood, performance confidence, increased sense of control, and managing sexual identity conflict. In this article, we demonstrate the empirical and theoretical importance of centering gender and sexuality in deviance research and provide a roadmap for theoretical integration.

Johnstonbaugh, Morgan. 2021. “Men Find Trophies Where Women Find Insults: Sharing Nude Images of Others as Collective Rituals of Sexual Pursuit and Rejection.” Gender & Society 35 (5): 665-690.
As sexting has become more common, so has the sharing of nude and semi-nude images of others. While women and men may both engage in this practice, when they do so they often participate in distinct gendered rituals. Drawing on 55 in-depth interviews with college students, I examine how the symbolic meanings attached to men and women’s nude images in the context of intimate heterosexual interactions shape collective rituals of sexual pursuit and sexual rejection. I find that men share images of women with their peers to demonstrate sexual prowess and receive praise, whereas women share images of men with their peers to cope with unwelcome sexual advances and receive support. These gendered rituals are linked to the perceived desirability of men’s and women’s nude images. While rituals of domination appear among men and reproduce unequal gender relations, rituals of commiseration appear among women to resist unequal gender relations.

Clevenger, Casey. 2020. “Constructing Spiritual Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Gender & Society 34 (2): 307-330.
Drawing on an ethnographic study of Roman Catholic sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I show how women in the Global South draw on religious imagery to redefine cultural ideals of womanhood and family responsibility. By taking the religious vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the Congolese sisters I interviewed seemingly betray local expectations regarding women’s responsibility to reproduce and repair the clan. Although sisters’ vows subject them to social ridicule for violating cultural expectations to bear children and support kin, they devise new strategies to negotiate the connection between womanhood and the maternal role of caregiver and nurturer outside of marriage and fertility. In social ministries that affirm their communal, moral, and spiritual ties to others, the sisters realize these cultural ideals through a “spiritual motherhood” that transforms their traditional heteronormative obligations. Framing their decision to live outside accepted kinship structures in religious terms mutes the radicalness of this lifestyle and provides religious legitimation for what would otherwise be considered a selfish choice for a woman acting independent of family well-being. In this context, I demonstrate how doing religion is inseparable from doing gender as Catholic sisters embody alternative ways of being a woman in post-colonial Congolese society through their religious practices.

Mishel, Emma, Paula England, Jessie Ford, and Mónica L. Caudillo. 2020. “Cohort Increases in Sex with Same-Sex Partners: Do Trends Vary by Gender, Race, and Class?” Gender & Society 34 (2): 178-209.
We examine change across U.S. cohorts born between 1920 and 2000 in their probability of having had sex with same-sex partners in the last year and since age 18. Using data from the 1988–2018 General Social Surveys, we explore how trends differ by gender, race, and class background. We find steep increases across birth cohorts in the proportion of women who have had sex with both men and women since age 18, whereas increases for men are less steep. We suggest that the trends reflect an increasingly accepting social climate, and that women’s steeper trend is rooted in a long-term asymmetry in gender change, in which nonconformity to gender norms is more acceptable for women than men. We also find evidence that, among men, the increase in having had sex with both men and women was steeper for black than for white men, and for men of lower socioeconomic status; we speculate that the rise of mass incarceration among less privileged men may have influenced this trend.

Alarie, Milaine. 2019. “’They’re the Ones Chasing the Cougar’: Relationship Formation in the Context of Age-Hypogamous Intimate Relationships.” Gender & Society 33 (3): 463-485.
Commonly referred to as “cougars,” women who date younger men are often imagined as sexually assertive women who actively seek out and seduce younger men, therefore challenging major pillars of the traditional heterosexual dating script. Drawing on 55 semi-structured interviews with women aged 30-60 who date younger men, I explore the relationship formation process women experienced with younger men with the intent of shedding light on women’s behavior in that context. I found that, contrary to common cultural representations of “cougars,” very few women depicted themselves as seductresses who pursued younger men, with younger men passively waiting to be courted. However, the tendency to present oneself as having played a rather passive role during the relationship formation process was more pronounced among participants over 40 than among 30-something women. I argue that in the context of age-hypogamous dating, women’s ability/desire to renegotiate the gendered script for relationship formation is constrained by the common cultural discourse indicating that a woman’s worth declines with age, as well as by the cultural discomfort toward older women’s sexuality.

Cuthbert, Karen. 2019. “’When We Talk about Gender We Talk about Sex’: (A)sexuality and (A)gendered Subjectivities.” Gender & Society 33 (6): 841-864.
Gender diversity is seemingly prevalent among asexual people. Drawing on qualitative research, and focusing on agender identities in particular, this article explores why this might be the case. I argue that previous explanations that center biologistic understandings of sexual development, the liberatory potential of asexuality, or psycho-cognitive conflict, are insufficient. Instead, I offer a sociological perspective in which participants’ agender subjectivities can be understood as arising from an embodied meaning-making process where gender was understood to be fundamentally about sexuality. I emphasize the importance of understanding asexuality and agender in the broader structural context, as particular subjectivities were shaped and sometimes necessitated in navigating hetero-patriarchy. However, these entangled understandings of (a)sexuality and (a)gender were sometimes rendered unintelligible within LGBTQ+ discursive communities, where there is often a rigid ontological distinction between gender and sexuality arising from histories of misrecognition and erasure. I complicate this, arguing that already-invisible subjectivities may be made even more invisible by this distinction. The article illustrates the need to empirically explore the meanings of the categories “gender” and “sexuality,” and the relationship between them, rather than siloing them in our methodological and conceptual frameworks.

Young, Gay, Mona J.E. Danner, Lucía Fort, and Kim M. Blankenship. 2018. “Gender and Sexual Practice in Structural Context: Condom Use among Women Doing Sex Work in Southern India.” Gender & Society 32 (6): 860-888.
In this study, we elaborate connections among gender, structure, and practice to suggest how social structural relations shape social sexual practice and, in the process, reshape gender relations. Using survey data from a study of a community mobilization intervention, we investigate the connection between institutional arrangements and condom use practice in sexual encounters with commercial clients and intimate partners among 410 women engaged in sex trade in a semiurban town in southern India. Multinomial logistic regression analysis uncovers the effects of 16 measures of gendered structural relations in three contexts—livelihood resources, household circumstances, and community mobilization intervention priorities. We compare women who practice either consistent or inconsistent condom use with both clients and partners with a reference group of women who practice consistent condom use with clients but not with partners. Results reveal the importance of household and community relations for consistent safer sex practice over and above the organization of sex trade. Our analysis advances gender theory in two interrelated ways: We contribute to gender theorizing in the implementation of health interventions, and to gender change more generally by thinking through possibilities emerging from recursive influences between reordered institutional configurations and altered expectations in interaction

Silva, Tony. 2017. “Bud-Sex: Constructing Normative Masculinity among Rural Straight Men That Have Sex With Men.” Gender & Society 31 (1): 51–73.
This study draws on semistructured interviews with 19 white, rural, straight-identified men who have sex with men to understand how they perceive their gender and sexuality. It is among the first to use straight men’s own narratives, and helps address the underrepresentation of rural masculinities research. Through complex interpretive processes, participants reworked non-normative sexual practices—those usually antithetical to rural masculinities—to construct normative masculinity. Most chose other masculine, white, and straight or secretly bisexual men as partners for secretive sex without romantic involvement. By choosing these partners and having this type of sex, the participants normalized and authenticated their sexual encounters as straight and normatively masculine. The participants engaged in bud-sex, a specific type of male–male sex that reinforced their rural masculinity and heterosexuality. The married men framed sex with men as less threatening to marriage than extramarital sex with women, helping to preserve a part of their lives that they described as central to their straightness. The results highlight the flexibility of heterosexuality; the centrality of heterosexuality to normative rural masculinity; how similar sexual practices carry different meanings across contexts and populations; and the social construction of masculinities and sexualities by age, race, gender, time period, and place.

Budnick, Jamie. 2016. “’Straight Girls Kissing’? Understanding Same-Gender Sexuality Beyond the Elite College Campus.” Gender & Society 30 (5): 745-768.
Sexuality researchers have demonstrated how the progressive campuses of selective universities shape hookups, sexual fluidity, and same-gender sex among straight-identified women (“straight girls kissing”). However, this research cannot fully explain a puzzling demographic pattern: women with the lowest levels of educational attainment reported the highest lifetime prevalence of same-gender sex. To make sense of this puzzle, I draw on interviews with 35 women systematically recruited from a demographic survey. I find (1) early motherhood forecloses possibilities to develop or claim LGBTQ identities as women prioritize seemingly incompatible discourses of self-sacrifice and good motherhood; (2) sexual friendships and safety strategies provide opportunities to meaningfully explore same-gender sex and desire; and (3) participants reject “queer” and embrace “bisexual” in the opposite pattern observed among their more privileged peers. This study underscores the situated nature of sexuality knowledge by offering an intersectional analysis of how women beyond the college hookup scene and located outside spaces permeated with LGBTQ discourses enact sexual fluidity and make meaning of same-gender sex.

Miller, Sarah A. 2016. “How You Bully a Girl: Sexual Drama and the Negotiation of Gendered Sexuality in High School.” Gender & Society 30 (5): 721–744.
Over the past decade, sexual rumor spreading, slut-shaming, and homophobic labeling have become central examples of bullying among young women. This article examines the role these practices— what adults increasingly call “bullying” and what girls often call “drama”— play in girls’ gendering processes. Through interviews with 54 class and racially diverse late adolescent girls, I explore the content and functions of “sexual drama.” All participants had experiences with this kind of conflict, and nearly a third had been the subject of other girls’ rumors about their own sexual actions and/or orientations. Their accounts indicate that sexual drama offers girls a socially acceptable site for making claims to, and sense of, gendered sexuality in adolescence. While they reproduce inequality through these practices, sexual drama is also a resource for girls—one that is made useful through the institutional constraints of their high schools, which reinforce traditional gender norms and limit sexuality information.

Diefendorf, Sarah. 2015. “After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities Over the Life Course.” Gender & Society 29 (5): 647-669.
This article explores how men use sexual practice before marriage to negotiate and assert notions of masculinity before and after marriage. The author examines how men who pledge abstinence until marriage negotiate a tension between both “sacred” and “beastly” discourses surrounding (hetero)sexuality.   She argues that a decision to pledge sexual abstinence until marriage is an example of a hybrid masculinity and that such practices are not challenging current gendered systems of power and inequality.

Fjær, Eivind Grip, Willy Pedersen, and Sveinung Sandberg. 2015. “’I’m Not One of Those Girls’: Boundary-Work and the Sexual Double Standard in a Liberal Hookup Context.” Gender & Society 29 (6): 960-981.
Sexual morality is not keeping up with the new sexual practices of young people, even in cultures oriented toward gender equality. The Norwegian high school graduation celebration constitutes an exceptionally liberal context for sexual practices. Many of the 18-year-old participants in this three-week-long celebration engage in “hookup” activities, involving kissing, fondling, and sexual intercourse. Through an analysis of qualitative interviews with 25 women and 16 men, we argue that while they avoided overt slut-shaming, the morally abject position of the “slut” was still sustained by implication. The young women drew symbolic boundaries against anonymous other women who failed to value safety, hygiene, and self-control. This boundary-work was combined with declarations of tolerance of hookup practices, reflecting a sexually liberal culture geared toward gender equality. That young women who hooked up also drew boundaries against “other” women indicates a lack of alternative gender beliefs that allow young women to positively associate with hooking up. The young men also drew symbolic boundaries in their talk about sex, but enjoyed more freedom in their moral positioning. Although the liberal context was evident, the gendered difference in sexual boundary-work may contribute to the persistence of a sexual double standard among young people.

Bridges, Tristan. 2014. “A Very ‘Gay’ Straight?: Hybrid Masculinities, Sexual Aesthetics, and the Changing Relationship between Masculinity and Homophobia.” Gender & Society 28 (1): 58-82.
Bears comprise a subculture of gay men who valorize the larger, hirsute body. This research interrogates Bear culture as a gendered strategy for repudiating effeminacy that simultaneously challenges and reproduces norms of hegemonic masculinity. The author concludes that through a process of embodied agency, Bear culture yields a number of sexually innovative practices that disperse pleasure across the body and disrupt genitally centered, phallus and receptacle interpretations of sex. However, the subversive potential of these practices is significantly undermined by an attendant set of practices that reflect heteronormative and hegemonically masculine interpretations of sex.

Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2014. “Competing Technologies of Embodiment Pan-Asian Modernity and Third World Dependency in Vietnam’s Contemporary Sex Industry.” Gender & Society 28 (4): 513-536.
This article illustrates how the circulation of capital and culture in Asia produces divergent embodied gendered ideals of national belonging through the case of Vietnam’s global sex industry. Introducing the concept of competing technologies of embodiment, the author shows how sex workers’ surgical and cosmetic bodily projects represent different perceptions of an emerging nation’s divergent trajectories in the global economy. In a high-end niche market that caters to local elite Vietnamese businessmen, sex workers project a new pan-Asian modernity highlighting emergent Asian ideals of beauty in a project of progress that signals the rise of Asia. Women who cater to Western men, in contrast, embody Third World dependency, portraying Vietnam as a poverty-stricken country in need of Western charity. By comparing multiple markets, the author illustrates how individual agents in the developing world actively re-imagine their nation’s place in the global economy through their embodied practices. 

Rupp, Leila J., Verta Taylor, Shiri Regev-Messalem, Alison C.K. Fogarty, and Paula England. 2014. “Queer Women in the Hookup Scene: Beyond the Closet?” Gender & Society 28 (2): 212-235.
In this article the authors argue that the hookup scene serves as an opportunity structure to explore same-sex attractions and, at least for some women, to later verify bisexual, lesbian, or queer sexual identities. The college hookup scene is a profoundly gendered and heteronormative sexual field. Yet the party and bar scene that gives rise to hookups also fosters the practice of women kissing other women in public, generally to the enjoyment of male onlookers, and sometimes facilitates threesomes involving same-sex sexual behavior between women. These authors offer a new interpretation of women’s same-sex practices in the hookup culture. Their analysis contributes to gender theory by demonstrating the utility of identity theory for understanding how non-normative gender and sexual identities are negotiated within heteronormatively structured fields.

Currier, Danielle M. 2013. “Strategic Ambiguity: Protecting Emphasized Femininity and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture.” Gender & Society 27 (5): 704-727.
Hooking up is a term commonly used in contemporary American society to refer to sexual activity between two people who are not in a committed romantic relationship. This article addresses the normative character and the myriad definitions of hookups; addresses the underlying heterosexist bias in the definitions of hookups; and analyzes how the ambiguity of the term “hookup” serves women and men in different ways, both reinforcing and challenging the current gender order, allowing men to conform to and preserve components of hegemonic masculinity and women to conform to and preserve components of emphasized femininity.

Mann, Emily S. 2013. “Regulating Latina Youth Sexualities through Community Health Centers: Discourses and Practices of Sexual Citizenship.” Gender & Society 27 (5): 681-703.
This article examines the regulation of Latina youth sexualities in the context of sexual and reproductive health care provision. In-depth interviews with health care providers working in two Latino-serving community health centers are analyzed for how they interpret and respond to the sexual and reproductive practices of their low-income Latina teen patients. The author finds that providers emphasize teenage pregnancy as a social problem among this population to the exclusion of other dimensions of youth sexualities and encourage Latina girls’ adherence to a life course trajectory that conforms to middle-class, heteronormative ideals as a solution to this problem.

Wilkins, Amy C., and Cristen Dalessandro. 2013. “Monogamy Lite: Cheating, College, and Women.” Gender & Society 27 (5): 728-751.
Studies of collegiate sexuality have not examined infidelity. This article investigates the meanings and practices of “monogamy” and “cheating” for college women. College women use ideas about age, class, and gender to construct collegiate sexuality as a kind of “monogamy lite” exempt from the “rules” of adult sexuality. Many have cheated themselves. Simultaneously, they define “real” relationships as exclusive and condemn “cheaters” as bad people. We employ an intersectional analysis to analyze these discrepancies, arguing that the multiple meanings women use reconcile contradictions between expectations for women’s sexuality and expectations about collegiate behavior, allowing women to sustain a commitment to relationships while also participating in collegiate sexual culture. Moreover, by providing a socially legible, gender-appropriate way to end unwanted relationships, these meanings allow women to use cheating to solve dilemmas in their intimate lives. In this case, college women use middle-class ideas about the transition to adulthood to resist gendered imperatives.

Reid, Julie A., Sinikka Elliott, and Gretchen R. Webber. 2011. “Casual Hookups to Formal Dates: Refining the Boundaries of the Sexual Double Standard.” Gender & Society 25 (5): 545-568.
According to this article, and in contrast to the sexual script which holds that women want relationships more than sex and men care about sex more than relationships, students generally accorded women sexual agency and desire in the “hookup” and validated men’s post-hookup relationship interest. However, students typically reasoned that women were being chaste and withholding sex to redeem their reputations whereas they often characterized men’s abstinence in terms of a pity date. The findings underscore the tenacity of gendered sexual scripts around heterosexual dates and hookups, but also reveal fissures and contradictions that suggest some changes to the sexual double standard.

Ronen, Shelly. 2010. “Grinding On the Dance Floor: Gendered Scripts and Sexualized Dancing at College Parties.” Gender & Society 24 (3): 355-377.
In this article, the author explores the gendered dynamics of “grinding,” sexualized dancing common at college parties. Drawing on the observations of student participant observers, the author describes the common script for initiating this behavior. At these parties, men initiated more often and more directly than women, whose behaviors were shaped by a sexual double standard and (hetero-) relational imperative. The heterosexual grinding script enacts a gendered dynamic that reproduces systematic gender inequality by limiting women’s access to sexual agency and pleasure, privileging men’s pleasure and confirming their higher status.

Schalet, Amy. 2010. “Sexual Subjectivity Revisited: The Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls’ Experiences of Sexuality.” Gender & Society 24 (3): 304-329.
This research suggests important differences in institutionalized forms of heterosexuality. It also suggests the significance of girls’ relationships, and the cultural perceptions and processes that shape those relationships, for their sexual subjectivity. In-depth interviews with white middle-class Dutch and American girls demonstrate two important differences in the cultural beliefs and processes that shape their negotiation of heterosexuality. First, Dutch girls are able to integrate their sexual selves into their relationships with their parents, while reconciling sexuality with daughterhood is difficult for the American girls. Second, American girls face adult and peer cultures skeptical about whether teenagers can sustain the feelings and relationships that legitimate sexual activity, while Dutch girls are assumed to be able to fall in love and form steady sexual relationships.

Wolkomir, Michelle. 2009. “Making Heteronormative Reconciliations: The Story of Romantic Love, Sexuality, and Gender in Mixed-Orientation Marriages.” Gender & Society 23 (4): 494-519.
According to this article, marriage presents an idealized package for socio-sexual relations that reproduces and intertwines gender power dynamics and heterosexual desire. This package is sustained, in part, by the ideology of romantic love—a set of beliefs that constructs only a particular configuration of sexual and gender practices as natural, normal, and right. Drawing on interviews with 45 people, this study examines how people negotiate marital relationships that do not fit into this normative configuration— mixed-orientation (e.g., straight and gay) marriages. Participants’ resolutions to these situations, whether they divorced or created asexual or sexual non-monogamous marriages, were heavily shaped by their belief in the ideology of romantic love, illustrating how heteronormative relations can be held in place by normalizing ideologies.

Trautner, Mary Nell. 2005. “Doing Gender, Doing Class: The Performance of Sexuality in Exotic Dance Clubs.” Gender & Society 19 (6): 771-788.
This article pursues the idea of organizations as gendered and classed by means of a comparative ethnographic analysis of the performance of sexuality in four exotic dance clubs in the Southwestern United States. Strip clubs construct sexuality to be consistent with client class norms and assumptions and with how the clubs and dancers think working-class or middle-class sexuality should be expressed. Class differences are represented as sexual differences in very concrete ways: the appearance of dancers and other staff, dancing and performance styles, and interactions that take place between dancers and customers.