Academic journal article International Family Planning Perspectives

Gender Role Beliefs at Sexual Debut: Qualitative Evidence from Two Brazilian Cities

Academic journal article International Family Planning Perspectives

Gender Role Beliefs at Sexual Debut: Qualitative Evidence from Two Brazilian Cities

Article excerpt

CONTEXT: Culturally based beliefs about gender roles influence women's sexual behavior and their ability to protect themselves from unwanted sexual experiences. Studying the beliefs that influence women's behavior at sexual debut helps contextualize unwanted sexual intercourse.

METHODS: Twenty-four focus groups on women's beliefs about gender roles at sexual debut were conducted in 2002 with low- and middle-income women aged 18-21 and 30-39 who were recruited from public and private venues in Recife, capital of Pernambuco, and Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The data were analyzed for common themes, and quotations were chosen to illustrate those themes.

RESULTS: Focus group participants perceived that men have an urgent need for sex. This perception caused women to fear abandonment, anger or violence if they refused to have sex with their partner. The participants believed that women had to act passive the first time they had sex because taking the initiative (for example, by asking their partner to practice contraception) would lead him to accuse them of having previous sexual experience. Also, they believed they had to say no to sex under all circumstances to protect their reputation.

CONCLUSION: To decrease the occurrence of unwanted intercourse, interventions must address the social expectations that influence men's and women's sexual behavior.

International Family Planning Perspectives, 2006, 32(1):45-51


The great majority of reproductive health research assumes that, except in the case of rape, sexual intercourse is voluntary and wanted. Although the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) questionnaire asks whether the intercourse reported by a woman was involuntary, it does not ask if the intercourse was wanted. Researchers have found that rape accounts for only a small percentage of women's experiences of unwanted sexual intercourse. (1) In fact, many experiences that are not categorized in surveys as involuntary take place according to the man's dictates, without regard for the woman's desires. These unwanted experiences are shaped by beliefs about gender roles and clouded by ambiguous communication.

Sexual negotiation and communication take place within the context of culture-based beliefs about sexual functioning. Therefore, identifying these beliefs is critical to understanding how and perhaps why control is or is not exercised by women. Brazil provides an interesting case study of sexual experiences because its culture is traditionally patriarchal, grounded in Catholicism and machismo, and yet in juxtaposition to these generally repressive doctrines, Brazilian women are seen as very sensual. Nevertheless, Brazilian women's voices regarding their own sexual desires and experiences are largely missing.

The meaning of sexual intercourse changes significantly over the life course. In order to deal with moderately comparable events, this study focuses on women's first vaginal intercourse when it occurs outside of marriage.


While in the pursuit of other research interests, a number of investigators in Brazil have found evidence of negative sexual experiences for women. For example, in their evaluations of HIV-prevention campaigns with adolescents, Monteiro in Rio de Janeiro and Paiva in Sao Paulo demonstrated that condom distribution campaigns were having little effect on the spread of HIV because the campaigns were grounded in a concept of equality between the genders that did not match the adolescents' reality. (2) Other studies have indirectly documented the burden of unwanted sexual intercourse in Brazil while examining women's strategies to avoid sex. Women in focus groups in Sao Paulo reported that men accepted headaches, menstruation, toothaches, general preoccupations and fatigue as reasons for refusing sexual intercourse, and said that they used these "acceptable" excuses with frequency. …

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