Sexual Needs, Control, and Refusal: How "Doing" Class and Gender Influences Sexual Risk Taking
Higgins, Jenny A., Browne, Irene, The Journal of Sex Research
Understanding the social dynamics of sexual risk taking--particularly among socially disenfranchised women--remains central to public health research and policy. In the United States, almost one out of every two pregnancies (48%-49%) is unintended (Henshaw, 1998), and this rate has worsened among the most economically disadvantaged women in the last decade (Finer & Henshaw, 2006). Women also face an increasing risk of contacting HIV through heterosexual transmission, with poor women of color disproportionately affected (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2002). While researchers have established that poorer Americans are more "at risk" for negative sexual health outcomes, the sexual processes through which these classed and gendered disparities come about are not fully understood. How do socially disadvantaged women and men do--that is, socially enact--their class, or both gender, and how does this affect their sexual behaviors?
What does it mean to "socially enact"--or "do"--class and gender? Sociologists maintain that individuals actively construct their social reality through ongoing social interaction (Goffman, 1959). Much of this social interaction involves the negotiation of taken-for-granted understandings about the desired or appropriate behavior within a social situation (Fenstermaker & West, 2002). What is considered desirable or appropriate behavior depends on salient aspects of an individual's social environment and identity, including gender and social class.
Social class often has been oversimplified in public health research on sexuality. Most studies rely on education level (Laumann, 1994; Laumann & Michael, 2001) or percentage of the poverty level (Henshaw, 1998) as a proxy for social class. Socioeconomic status, or SES, usually is described in public health research as a static independent variable that consists of one's education level, income, occupation, or all of these (Mosher, Chandra, & Jones, 2004). One of the problems with this approach is that class and race/ethnicity are treated as static and preexisting categorical variables, as opposed to dynamically created variables or social processes unto themselves (Bettie, 2003). Others have taken a neighborhood approach to class, exploring sexual health outcomes by the economic constitution of geographic community and not by individual alone (Krieger, Waterman, Chen, Soobader, & Subramanian, 2003). This research, however, does not articulate the psychosocial processes involved in creating and enacting class and gender in those settings. A few researchers use intersectional approaches to examine social class in conjunction with the effects of gender and race inequality (Krieger, 2005; Schulz & Mullings, 2006), but with notable exceptions (Berger, 2004; Skeggs, 1997), few have applied this framework to a study of sexual behaviors.
In contrast, a large body of public health research suggests that women and men's social enactment of their gender can influence their sexual health. For example, gendered cultural meanings value women's virginity and devalue their promiscuity; fearing to appear sexual, many girls report that (first) intercourse "just happened" and they thus failed to prepare for sex with condoms or hormonal contraception (Carpenter, 2005; Tolman, 2002). In contrast, social encouragement of men's virility and sexual conquest means that men are more likely to have sex earlier and with a larger number of lifetime sexual partners, including sex workers, extramarital partners, or both (Mosher et al., 2004; Santelli, Brener, Lowry, Bhatt, & Zabin, 1998). Here, men's enactment of masculinity may increase their susceptibility to STIs and unintended pregnancy, as well as the way they place their partners at risk.
Gendered power asymmetry also sometimes places women in positions that make pressing for contraception--especially condoms--difficult if not impossible (Amaro, Raj, & Reed, 2001; Exner, Dworkin, Hoffman, & Ehrhardt, 2003; Worth, 1989). …