A social exchange framework, in its various forms, has been applied to a number of topics within sexuality. In particular, because the focus of exchange theories is on interpersonal transactions (Huston & Burgess, 1979), this framework is useful for understanding sexuality within a relational context, including why two people choose each other as sexual partners, which partner has more influence on what sexual activities they do together, sexual satisfaction, and the likelihood that one or both partners seek sexual activity outside the relationship. The exchange approach is applicable to all types of sexual dyads, ranging from the prostitute-client relationship (where exchange is very explicit and salient) to a couple married for many years (where the exchange is more implicit).
A social exchange framework, very broadly, refers to any conceptual model or theoretical approach that focuses on the exchange of resources (material or symbolic) between or among people and/or refers to one of the major exchange concepts, which are rewards, costs, and reciprocity. Some exchange theorists also consider the fairness or equity of the exchange, which refers to the relative rewards and costs for both partners.
Background to General Social Exchange Theories
A social exchange approach has its origins in several disciplines, including anthropology (e.g., Levi-Strauss, 1969; Mauss, 1954), economics (Ekeh, 1974), sociology (e.g., Cook & Emerson, 1978; Emerson, 1981), and social psychology (e.g., Blau, 1964; Homans, 1961, 1974; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Of the different theoretical approaches, social psychological models of exchange have special relevance to sexuality because of their focus on exchange between the two members of a dyad. Social exchange theories and concepts (e.g., Huston & Burgess, 1979; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978; LaGaipa, 1977; McClintock, Kramer, & Keil, 1984) have been important in research on mate selection, relationship formation, and the prediction of relationship dissolution (for summaries, see Hatfield, Traupmann, Sprecher, Utne, & Hay, 1985; and Sprecher & Schwartz, 1994).
Most social exchange models share the following basic assumptions (e.g., LaGaipa, 1977; Nye, 1979): (a) Social behavior is a series of exchanges; (b) individuals attempt to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs; and (c) when individuals receive rewards from others, they feel obligated to reciprocate. Although these assumptions refer to all interpersonal transactions, they can be applied to specific types of transactions, such as the exchange of sexual favors.
A few concepts are common to most social exchange theories. Rewards and costs are two key concepts included in the social exchange framework. Rewards are defined as exchanged resources that are pleasurable and gratifying. Resources are sometimes used synonymously with rewards. Costs are defined as exchanged resources that result in a loss or punishment (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Costs also include foregone opportunities because of being in the particular relationship or interpersonal transaction. Rewards minus costs equal the outcome, although the difference, when it is positive, has also been referred to as benefits and profits. Reciprocity is another key concept (see the third assumption) of social exchange and refers to the notion that we give something back (and do not hurt) to those who have given to us (Gouldner, 1960). Specific exchange models, described in the next section, employ additional exchange concepts. Although rewards, costs, and reciprocity, as defined in general social exchange theory, refer to any types of exchanges, these concepts can also be redefined more specifically to refer to sexual exchanges. As will be discussed later, in many intimate relationships, sexual rewards and costs are sometimes exchanged for other resources in the relationship, such as intimacy, love, …