Sociological theories of gendered “emotional labor” have often been examined in relation to domestic work, sex work, and jobs that demand emotional caretaking and physical “pampering” of clients (e.g., hairdressers, nail salon workers, medical workers). The concepts of emotional labor have been used far less often to address inequalities within private interpersonal relationships, particularly heterosexual romantic relationships. This paper utilized thematic analysis of qualitative data from a community sample of 20 women (mean age = 34, SD = 13.35) from a wide range of backgrounds. We identified four areas of emotion work present in these women’s sexual lives, including 1) faking orgasms; 2) tolerating sexual pain; 3) defining sexual satisfaction based on the partner’s pleasure; and 4) narrating sex they call “bad sex” as acceptable because of a partner’s satisfaction. Nearly all women mentioned emotion work as part of their current or past sexual experiences, as women described frequently enduring unsatisfying sex to provide their (male) partners with feelings of power, sexual skillfulness, and dominance, particularly during heterosex. We discuss the implications for gendered elements of sexual satisfaction, feelings about sex that women do not expect to feel pleasurable, expectations about deservingness and entitlement to sexual pleasure, sexual agency, and diverse interpretations of the significance of orgasm.


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pp. 46-69
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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