Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Jenny Hockey, Victoria Robinson and Angela Meah (2002) ''For Better or Worse?': Heterosexuality Reinvented'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 2, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 18/2/2002      Accepted: 29/8/2002      Published: 31/8/2002


Based upon a series of focus group discussions carried out in East Yorkshire, this article contributes to debates on both the nature and theorising of heterosexual relationships that have recently been investigated from diverse perspectives. These group discussions represent the launch of the first major empirical study of heterosexuality and ageing that has been undertaken in the UK. In drawing upon preliminary data from these focus groups, our findings reinforce and add to the challenging of a representation of heterosexuality which is both monolithic and inflexible, by exploring accounts of peoples' actual lived experiences. Through this research we begin to generate a theoretical approach which highlights the complexity of these lived realities. We particularly explore the intersections of gender, age, class and family location. In doing so, we pinpoint differences, contradictions, but also continuities, in the ways in which people discuss and comment on their own and other people's perceptions and experiences of heterosexuality.

Continuity/change; Difference; Gender; Heterosexualities; Life-course

Introduction: From Heterosexuality to Heterosexualities

Feminist theorists and activists have highlighted heterosexuality's role in reproducing women's subordination through focusing on the diversity of forms and sites through which heterosexuality reconstitutes itself. These include domestic violence, child abuse, representations of sexuality, sexual relationships and practices, domestic life and the labour contract in marriage (see for instance MacKinnon, 1982, 1996; Jones, 1985; Walby, 1990; Delphy and Leonard, 1992; VanEvery, 1995, 1996; Richardson, 1996, 1997; Jackson, 1997; Maynard and Winn, 1997). When addressing these matters, policy analysts, by contrast, have warned of the widespread social implications of marital breakdown and the rise of lone parent households (Land, 1999), whilst politicians on the Left as well as the Right have called for a return to traditional family values. Though contradictory, such positions have at their heart a monolithic model of 'the heterosexual relationship.'[1]

The result is that, on the one hand, those practices and institutions through which heterosexuality is lived out are critiqued for disadvantaging women in the interests of a patriarchal society, on the other they are thought of as the now unstable cornerstones of a status quo where social reproduction is taken care of within privatised settings such as the family. However, neither position seems to acknowledge the range of experiences encompassed within heterosexuality, nor to ask how individuals resist, renegotiate or reproduce gendered relationships which unfold within 'the framework of a dominant, institutionalised "compulsory" heterosexuality' (Robinson, 1997:143).[2]

It is, however, important to note that over time feminist discussion has singled out different aspects of heterosexuality for scrutiny. Jackson, for example, refers back to 1970s feminism and heterosexuality debates to argue that 'there was work at this time which provided an implicit critique of heterosexuality and laid foundations for more radical questioning' (Jackson, 1999:4) Hardy's (2000) discussion of radical feminism and theories of sexual violence notes that basic radical feminist ideas on sexual violence and pornography have been formulated in a number of substantially different ways, not all of which uncritically accept crude behaviourist approaches. In Richardson's (2000) view, debates on heterosexuality in the 1990s not only re-examined 'old' questions, but also introduced a new focus on sexual experience and practice (particularly sexual pleasure and desire), both as critique and defence. And Hollway (1993), seven years earlier, shared this perception of a greater emphasis on issues of pleasure and agency. Richardson draws attention to work concerned with '...theorising the ways in which heterosexuality is institutionalised in society, how this is implicated in women's subordination and how heterosexuality as social practice constitutes gender' (2000:22), a marked difference of emphasis.

Despite sustained debates which she recognises have interrogated the category 'heterosexuality' from a diversity of perspectives – including the 'family values' discourses valorized by the New Right and the then current administration - Smart (1996) still argues persuasively that discussions of heterosexuality need to be extracted from the framework constructed by feminists in the 1970s. In order to appreciate differences of meaning and experiences and move beyond old debates and positions she proposes we must begin to speak about heterosexualities. Unless this happens, then feminist theories '...will remain strangely repressed on a most important aspect of the lives of many women' (Smart, 1996:177). The research project reported on here takes off from Smart's emphasis on the importance of 'heterosexualities'.

In response to these theoretical debates, the project drawn on in this present discussion sets out precisely to investigate the different ways in which heterosexual relationships – heterosexualities - have been made and re-made across the last century. Its objective is to access the experiences of members of three or more generations within the same family, extending this work across at least twenty families. Via focus groups and qualitative interviews we are therefore listening to a wide diversity of 'voices'. Together these constitute an account of lived experiences of heterosexuality, and changes as well as continuities in this across three generations - an approximately 80 year period - in the UK. This project is based in one region of the country – East Yorkshire – in order to gather evidence of grounded, localized practices. Following Geertz, our aim is therefore to contribute to the 'grand', theoretical accounts of Heterosexuality, Patriarchy, Pleasure and Subordination evident within feminist theory over the last 30 years, but by locating ourselves within a context 'homely enough to take the capital letters off them' (Geertz, 1975: 21).

The region chosen to base the project in provides considerable social and economic diversity, encompassing a city, Hull, with a once thriving but now obsolete fishing industry, and a multitude of picturesque larger and smaller villages. These are home to families who have lived locally for generations, perhaps farming the land, and those newcomers who commute to Hull and York or, alternatively, have retired to 'the country'. Hull, in particular, encompasses acute divisions in wealth and social status with the River Hull marking a divide between East and West of the city - working and middle class - a tension manifested in the city's two rival rugby teams. The relative affluence in some parts of the city contrasts with the sprawling social housing which occupies numerous areas of the city. In many of these areas, several generations of families live only streets away from each other.

The challenge for the fieldwork was to make the project appeal to people from diverse social backgrounds and to present it in such a way that the theoretical concept, 'heterosexuality', would not be misunderstood, or precipitate suspicion or alienation. Consequently, a decision was made to appeal to empirical understandings of heterosexuality by asking people how relationships between men and women have changed over the last century and looking, for example, at marriage and its alternatives. To aid the recruitment of families to the study, six focus group discussions were organised through a variety of voluntary organisations. These largely, although not exclusively, involved retired people who are involved in various daytime activities other than work[3]. A quiz-type activity was put together through which the participants were presented with comments made by people of varying ages in different periods of time (for example, quotes were used from the Mass-Observation 'Little Kinsey' report (Stanley, 1995) and WRAP studies (Holland et al. 1998). The range of issues covered included changing attitudes to marriage, divorce, sexual learning and sexual double standards. The participants were invited to make guesses as to the age and sex of the people who made the comments, explaining the reasoning behind their guesses. The aim of the exercise was to draw out their own attitudes and values about the issues under discussion, introducing them to 'safe' discussions about marriage before moving on to the more risqué conversations about how people of their generation acquire/d and exercise/d sexual knowledge. The challenges in discussing the latter were particularly marked among the two groups of older 'middle class' people, one from an educational institution, the other a church-based women's group. Here, there was - in general - a sense of awkwardness or outright refusal to reflect upon their own youth, but a readiness to comment on the activities of contemporary young people. This contrasted with a group of working class young men in their mid-20s to early 30s, who were very animated around discussions of sex. Likewise, a group of older men were also happy to recall at least some of their sexual experiences while in the armed forces.

Although the focus groups had originally been planned only to 'whet people's appetites' and aid recruitment, the data they yielded, particularly in relation to social and class differences, have proved invaluable in empirically locating the research and sensitising the project team to the issues which are likely to be raised during the family interviews which are currently taking place. These are very distinct from the focus groups and draw upon many of the values and contradictions raised within the groups, enabling us to explore how the life course is reflected upon differently in both group and individual contexts. Drawing upon the experiences of a minimum of three generations across twenty families, it is anticipated that between sixty and one hundred and twenty people will contribute to the research. No rigid questionnaire is being used to elicit information, but rather a 'loose' schedule/framework which invites informants to discuss, for example, how they learned about 'becoming a man/woman', their first kiss, sexual experiences, courtship, marriage/cohabitation, parenthood, separation, loss, the (re)negotiation of their identities through these changes and a comparison of experience versus expectation and their own experiences in relation to those of older and younger generations.

Accessing Differences

This research strategy outline above has been designed to overcome the 'strange repression' that Smart (1996) refers to, using a cross-generational design to meet the methodological challenge of accessing difference within the flow of women's and men's everyday experiences. When we compare our preliminary findings with some research carried out on women's lives earlier in the twentieth century, the juxtaposition reveals the mutability of the institution of heterosexuality in terms of both its meaning and the practices through which it is reproduced. For example, while over 50% of women in the UK were in paid work of some kind at the end of the 1990s (Bernardes, 1997), the women surveyed by the Women's Health Enquiry Committee in the early 1930s gave up their paid work on marriage. This practice served to 'make it impossible to maintain after marriage the standard (often low enough) of health and well-being which was possible to them as unmarried working girls' (Spring Rice, 1939:26). There were other problems emphasised as well, particularly the constraining effects of embedded beliefs about married women and domestic work at that time. Here, for instance, one woman commented that:

I believe that one of the biggest difficulties our mothers have is our husbands do not realise we ever need any leisure time. My life for many years consisted of being penned in a kitchen 9 feet square, every fourteen months a baby ... So many of our men think we should not go out until the children are grown up. We do not want to be neglecting the home but we do feel we like a little look around the shops, or if we go to the Clinic we can just have a few minutes ...It isn't the men are unkind. It is the old idea we should always be at home (Spring Rice, 1939:94).

However, our focus group data suggest that some women may still accept 'the old idea'. Thus, explaining why young couples split up today, a woman in her late 70s said:

'A lot of it's to do with women going out to work and having money to be independent and they've got the family at home and pay someone else to look after the family, and they go into situations of temptation, and that's why marriages break up, so it's all down to money' (Focus Group 3).

The existence of gendered roles and responsibilities was also discussed by another group, during which a woman in her late 30s returns to this 'old idea' about women being kept in place: 'But I really do think it depends on the family background, she's been brought up to do everything for the family, her husband, she's seen it with her mother' (Focus Group 1). This idea, that practices will be replicated by younger generations, was then taken up by a woman in her late 50s who illustrated her point by saying: 'I do it, I do all the washing and ironing, he's never ironed a shirt in his life. He doesn't know how to cook, he will put the vac on, if he's pushed, and he helps me with the shopping'. However, she did acknowledge that her daughters question her approach, a challenge which she responds to by saying:

I've done it ever since we've been married and I can honestly say that it has never bothered me … 'cos he does a job and I haven't had a job, I mean I do a bit of voluntary now, but I never had a job, so therefore I've never asked him to actually. He does the decorating and he'll do the gardening, but I don't expect him to cook a meal when he comes in' (Focus Group 1).
Her view was also echoed by both older and younger women within the group, who cited female friends who were pleased to leave their paid work when supported financially by a male partner.

Heterosexuality, Gender and Class

These focus group data suggest the existence of some striking family-based historical continuities. Participants in this focus group were from the social housing to which Hull's former fishing community was relocated when their dockside terraces were bulldozed. When compared with women involved in educational and church-related activities, the class-basis of some differences become apparent. For instance, while a 38 year old woman in Focus Group 1 wishes that she could afford to give up work and stay at home with her young son, women participants in Focus Group 3 said that relationships between women and men improve if women are in paid work:

Anne:[4] I wanted to work because I enjoyed my job. So therefore it made my marriage better because frankly I was a misery when I wasn't working.

Emily: I think you're a more interesting person, you're not orientated all the around the children. You've got more to talk about, you can come home and, wider interests all round
(Focus Group 3).

These participants in Focus Group 3 also emphasise the importance of career to women now, an opportunity they had been denied.

The issue of social class was raised quite explicitly in Focus Group 3 by one woman in her late 70s, while discussing what courtship consisted of when she was young. She says:

Joyce: There were a lot more crowds, tennis clubs and all sorts of things. And you mixed with a great variety (of people)[5]
Edna: Again, you're coming back to the type of, I don't like to call it station, Joyce, like many of them here, went to grammar school and you met a type of person who had either the ability to have interests, or the money and the background, and they tended to want to do those things. Now, you can only speak from that area, can't you? You can't say whether that would be the same if you hadn't the money
(Focus Group 3).

Similarly, one of the participants in Focus Group 6, Ada, talks about having belonged to 'cycling or hiking groups on a Saturday' (Focus Group 6). The following exchange about 'equality', with the same woman, illustrates a marked difference in what is significant to people of her social background:

AM: What does equality mean to you?
Ada: I would have thought it might be mental.
AM: Sort of an intellectual thing?
Ada: Yes, yes.
AM: Someone said to me that it also meant someone that would share their morals and values.
Ada: Yes, yes, it might have that as well. But you wouldn't want someone that couldn't put two words together, would you?
All: [Laughter]
(Focus Group 6).

When our focus group data is set alongside Spring Rice's (1939) report on the Women's Health Enquiry Committee material, there is evidence of both continuities and schisms, based in family, generation and class differences. Although of course these data do not provide unmediated access to women's and men's lives across the last eighty years, for interviewees 'voices' are always filtered through researchers' preconceptions and emphases (Finch and Summerfield, 1999), they do provide a starting point for a nuanced understanding of the way the practices associated with heterosexuality constrain, marginalise or more simply structure women's lives and experiences. In listening to them, we became aware of how other social differences mediate gendered experiences of and attitudes to heterosexuality.

From the General to the Particular

Working from a cross-generational perspective, the project also explored whether the material contexts of 'lived heterosexuality' - possessions, places, practices and indeed the body - have changed as sites of both intimacy and distance. Life course transitions such as pregnancy and childbirth, entry to or exit from employment, divorce, and calendrical transitions, such as birthdays and anniversaries, have all provided useful lenses through which to explore heterosexual relationships. Giles (1995), for example, draws on interviews with women born between 1895 and 1922 to show how these transitions were achieved within an anti-heroic and anti-romantic post-First World War climate, arguing that, '[m]asculine heroism and feminine fragility were re-written after the war in terms, that, at least on the surface , attempted to minimise sexual difference' (1995:21). Though 'companionate marriage' was emphasized in 1920s literature as the desirable form of family-based heterosexuality (Finch and Summerfield, 1999), it is largely invisible in the 1930s Women's Health Enquiry Committee survey which Spring Rice reports (1939). As Finch and Summerfield (1999) argue, it was only with postwar concerns to stabilise the family that 'companionship' took hold as an ideal type model, but even then notions of 'partnership' and 'equality' usually meant the 'teamwork' of matched but demarcated roles, rather than the more blurred distinctions of 'sharing'. Morgan (1991) characterises this change as the shift from the institution to the relationship of marriage, and Giles' (1995) concern with the public discourses which shaped women's and men's lives is echoed in his account of the meshing of the individual life course and historical time, which suggests the influence of both 'golden age' and 'bad old days' myths of marriage upon the way present-day generations evaluate their current experience via positive and negative, historically located 'fictions'.

Data from the mixed age Focus Group 1 provide a localised and temporally-specific perspective on this. Various members of this group made unfavourable comparisons between what they saw as the easy-come-easy-go partnerships of today and yesterday's committed marriages, yet at the same time their comments demonstrate the complexity of these consensual 'fictions'. Generalised condemnation of the current generation's approach – 'too permissive'; 'no respect for themselves'; 'their morals are very low'; 'women want it all, they've been told they can have it all' – went hand-in-hand with less critical views expressed when discussion turned to the participants' own female relatives who became pregnant whilst single. For example, though agreeing that permissiveness and immorality were rife, a woman in her late 30s whose sister had become pregnant without being married said:

I think it's hard for women any road today because you can't, you can't do anything right, there's always something, oh, judging you, pressurizing you and it's just like a big boiling pot really that everybody jumps into it, and you've just got to scramble to get back out, really.

Likewise, although many of the older generation were reluctant to acknowledge any immoral 'goings on' in 'our day', one woman in Focus Group 6 recalls the experiences of one of her own friends:

We had one girl in the WAAF, …and she was a very, very nice girl, she was lovely girl. And she got on with this (guy/guard) …and he invited her to his home for the weekend to meet his family and then when his parents were out, he persuaded her to have sex with, and it was the first time she'd ever been with anybody, didn't want to, but then she gave in and she became pregnant. And she had to go into a mother and baby home to have this baby, and then have it adopted …And I've often wondered how she went on. She was a lovely girl, you see, she brought shame on her family (Focus Group 6).

This evidence of both continuities and differences within conceptions and experiences of heterosexuality therefore partly reflect contradictions between generalized and personalized views. A number of the discussions which took place among the groups also indicate that people will often express different views in the group context where there is likely to be more pressure to present opinions which conform with particular stereotypes about, for example, 'young people nowadays' or what life was like in 'our time'. Thus, young people were often characterised as being immoral and having no values, whilst there is a claim that 'nothing like that went on when we were young'. When these attitudes were explored in the discussions, it transpired that many of the people who made negative observations about the youth of today "don't actually know many young people" but, instead, based their observations on assumptions and generalisations rather than on the behaviour of people whom they know. Likewise, it appeared that people of an older generation felt compelled by the presence of the group to express views which were consistent with stereotypes about higher moral standards during their youth. Speaking about sex outside marriage, one woman in her eighties responded (almost inaudibly) to the claim that this was something that was unheard of in their day with: "It's always happened, but it wasn't broadcast" (Focus Group 3). Similarly, the constraining effect of the group was specifically addressed by one woman in Focus Group 6 who approached the facilitator after the discussion and said: "I have to be very careful about what I say in front of the group myself as I'm actually a divorcee".

Gender, Generation and the Life Course

Generation and life course location also impact on the relationship between generalized and personalized views. Thus, in Focus Group 4, these women in their 80s condemned both the excessive behaviour of the Hull University students they had witnessed drinking outside the nearby pub, drawing money out of the bank and – they imagined - using a lot of drugs, and, the rock and roll era which, one woman explained, came 'after our time'. Of the 1950s, they said 'we were married and had children by then'. Their 'time' was, rather, the 1940s: ballroom dancing and slow foxtrots. However, when slightly younger men in their 70s looked back at this same period, it was recalled as ''orrible' because 'there wasn't things to do', 'you used to go in the Tower and have a dance, come home'. The contrast for them was 'the late 50s and 60s' which 'were great', because 'you can get all dressed up and dance the night away all night' (Focus Group 5). Recollections of a 'golden age' are therefore not simply romanticized; rather, they are materially-based memories which the reflect speakers' different generational and life course positions during these different eras.

This comparison of different generations suggested by our focus group data allows discussion of heterosexuality to be viewed through the lens of ideas about ageing and the life course. To date, age has not been taken seriously as a basis for difference (Arber and Ginn, 1995), yet the past is of interest not simply for itself, but also for its capacity to provide us with a history of the present (Weeks, 2000:118). Listening to women and men commenting on their lives from fifty, sixty, seventy years ago not only sensitises us to the heterogeneity of heterosexuality as an institution, but also confronts researchers with crucial questions about how change has taken place. One dimension of this is that, demographically, heterosexual relationships have undergone radical shifts since the 1920s when an unequal sex ratio gave women less chance than men of finding a marriage partner (Elliot, 1991). Some focus group members had relevant experience of this imbalance: 'In my mother's era …all the (young men), the First World War came, and then … they got on with their careers, erm, along comes the Second World War and wipes out another chance. There's a surplus of women and no eligible men' (Focus Group 3). However, in commenting on the later period, non-marriage is cited as a conscious decision made by young people – and young women in particular, rather than an unfortunate by-product of external events. For example, two women in another group observe how: 'There are so many career people these days', 'They don't want marriage now, they want their career' (Focus Group 6).

Heterosexuality Reinvented?

Our data thus suggest the way class, age, generation and personal experience all impact upon heterosexuality. They also suggest both continuities and differences over time. In addition, historical material reveals changes in the institutions through which heterosexuality is lived out. In the following section, we consider this, asking whether heterosexuality endures as a patriarchal institution through its capacity to reinvent itself, or whether our data reveal something more complicated going on, including a desire for more equal relationships between women and men.

Though heterosexual institutions appear to have undergone change, we begin this section by noting the stability of what are often assumed to be heterosexually-rooted, social categories such as 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend', 'engagement', 'living together', 'marriage', 'wife', 'husband', 'partner', 'love' and 'sex'. However, such categories cannot be seen to exercise a determining influence upon the individuals who inhabit or enact them. Thus, our focus group members saw what these mean in practice as open to interpretation; for instance, a woman in her late 30s said: 'Women confuse sex with love … I thought that when I was having sex, that was love, to be honest with you, I really thought that having sex with somebody meant that they loved you and you loved them'. Also, a man in his late 70s arrested the flow of the discussion in Focus Group 5 to demand an explanation of what 'love' is. With respect to contemporary uncertainties such as these, Giddens (1992) highlights the 'riskiness' which comes with the loss of overarching metanarratives and the ontological insecurity of individuals who, in post-traditional Western societies, lack the cultural resources to integrate the external world into a personal narrative of self identity. Certainly, anxieties rooted in what they saw as the unstable or contingent features of heterosexual experience were expressed by male focus group members in their late 20s. In their view, recognising 'love' was far from easy, although linked with lifelong commitment to a woman:

I think in long term relationships, it can get confusing… All these feelings, …there's comfort and closeness, … And trying to think is that love in there as well? And how big is it in there, how big is it, these other feelings? I don't know, I found it complicated. …There wasn't something obvious I could look in my head, …And say "Ding, there's the answer!" ' (Focus Group 2).

The 'confusing' nature of relationships expressed here is also reflected in the speculations of the woman in her late 30s who describes her own conflation of sex and love. However, this contrasts with the experience of an older man who easily identified his 'true love': 'As soon as I saw her, I said: "That's mine". Just like that. We was married in 6 months. And that was 49 years ago' (Focus Group 5).

Many of these terms 'of endearment' - 'attraction', 'love', 'understanding' and 'effort' - can be seen as what Cohen would call 'hurrah' words (Cohen 1985). Rather than evidence of diversity or creative reinvention, in Cohen's view such words elicit an uncritically positive response yet retain a highly ambiguous meaning, so binding many users to an apparently single 'thing' without them becoming aware of significant differences between them. We might argue that it is precisely this which constitutes the 'cultural transmission' of heterosexuality. However, this process is not simply the uni- directional hand-over of some kind of baton of social mores (James, 1999). As our focus group data show, daughters challenge and help change their mothers' domestic priorities. Indeed younger people invited to participate in the project often protect their parents and grandparents, who they perceive will be embarrassed and awkward with regard to sexual matters. However, the older people involved also suggest that younger family members would not share personal information, so contributing to the cross-generational patterning of 'age-appropriate' discretion and silence. Each of them maintain the 'hurrah' words while themselves living in a way considerably more complex, but assuming other generations do not.

Some older focus group members described an 'anything goes' approach among younger generations. Whether this represents 'a radical democratisation of the interpersonal domain' (Weeks et al, 1999:85 and also Giddens, 1992), or the capacity of heterosexuality to reinvent itself, is debatable. Overall, our focus group data reveal polarized evaluations of these changes. Discussing the 1960s in Focus Group 1, one woman in her late 70s said: 'Oh that was all free love and liberation. Everything went downhill then … It was sex, drugs and rock n' roll'. Her remarks elicited the following response from a younger woman: 'It was good though, we had a good time, …we had more freedom'. This woman described earning more money than her boyfriend and said: 'We had a brilliant time', going on to recall dancing, the cinema, car trips and 'money in our purses'. Crucially, it was not just the pill but 'freedom' which facilitated sexual relationships previously hampered by the proximity of other family members and unsatisfactory contraceptive resources. Unfortunately, there is no comparable data from any of the male participants. However, in speaking of the wider social changes following the end of the Second World War, men in Focus Group 5 appeared to embrace the freedoms that this period brought for women in particular. One man in his late 70s stated: 'I think women going out to work is a good thing. …Yeah, yeah definitely. It gives 'em more freedom'. Moreover, these gains are not necessarily thought to have been achieved at the expense of men. Thus, one man in his late 60s said: 'I think it's more to do with, in days gone by, the man was the breadwinner, the man was head of the house. …Whereas today, it's, er, two equals, …I don't think it's anything to do with physique or, necessarily, emotions' (Focus Group 5).

In the decades that have elapsed since the periods recalled by these women and men, the patterning of heterosexual relationships has given way to a pluralist social environment characterised by new family forms (Jagger and Wright, 1999). By the end of the twentieth century, almost 38% of children were born outside marriage, compared with 7.2% in 1964. Similarly, 40% of all marriages now involve remarriages, compared with 20% in 1971 (Family Policy Studies Centre Report, Guardian, 27.3.00). Among the growing numbers of lone parents who made up 22 per cent of all families in 1995, compared with 7 per cent in 1972 (Bernardes, 1997), 90 per cent are women (Millar, 1997). Mann and Roseneil (1999) argue persuasively that this change reflects the agency of women who are often seen to be structurally dispossessed of autonomy or choice by poverty and social exclusion, and in this sense they are undoubtedly reflexively constructing their own "life narratives"' (1999:113).

Older male participants in Focus Group 5 shared this view, albeit from a critical perspective, asserting that young women leave male partners to look after the family so that they can go out with 'the girls'. One man in his early 70s provides an imagined conversation: "…out with the girls tonight, you can stop in and look after the baby. I'm going away this weekend, you can stop in and look after the family". I mean, they just do as they like nowadays. All the young ones, they don't want to settle down, they just want …something to come home to of a night time'.

However, this critical view contrasts with those expressed by the young men in Focus Group 2 who conceptualized heterosexuality as a relationship between men and women within which they could choose to share the responsibility of the home and family. While none of them said that they are fathers, they do indicate a move away from traditionally demarcated gender roles. For example, one young man in his mid-20s says: 'I think' it's (brilliant), I think it's brilliant that women (can go out to work if they want to), and (men) look after the kids. I think it's brilliant'. This liberal perception of heterosexual relationships as a site within which women and men might exercise agency by choosing 'equality' is also reflected in the following exchange:

Phil: Yeah, equal, equality means, yeah, that they're [.][6] willing to negotiate and willing to [( )]
Andy: [(I think it's about finding)] common ground as well.
Ian: Common ground.
Phil: Especially if the common ground moves and they're willing to go with it.
Andy: Yeah,
Phil: They're willing to be open to,
Andy: Yeah,
Phil: Exploring,
Andy: They're willing to go with the flow.
Phil: Yeah,
Andy: That they're willing to, rather than sticking to breadwinner…

In contrast with these perceptions of a more democratic heterosexuality, Hawkes (1996) has argued that heterosexual practice has remained resistant to change, despite shifts in the outward form of heterosexual relationships across the twentieth century. In her view, a more traditional version of heterosexuality persists even within liberalising sexual discourses, under the guise of new lifestyle 'choices' for women. This is linked to belief in the 'naturalness' of all aspects of heterosexuality, thus allowing oppressive beliefs and practices to persist alongside 'new' features, all connected with ideas about 'natural' biological drives (Holland et al. 1996; Hawkes, 1996; VanEvery, 1996). On this, older focus group participants expressed the view that 'nature' is somehow immutable, even though they simultaneously decry the fact that society is changing for the worse. One man said: 'the main biological tension built into you is to procreate and to procreate properly in a civilized society, where you can live in harmony with one another – marriage' (Focus Group 3). This view was, however, challenged by a woman in the group who asserted: 'that's saying that the sole purpose in life is to procreate'. Essentialist invocations of 'nature' were also firmly linked with definitions of masculinity and femininity, with one man asking: 'Would you agree with me that a man by nature is polygamous and a woman is monogamous?' (Focus Group 3). Similar appeals to 'nature' were evident in a subsequent discussion of how sexual knowledge was acquired: 'you just do what comes naturally', although some older men also acknowledged that: 'In our generation, most of us would have been in the forces, and (will have been overseas and been around), I think you were a bit (more) experienced'. Where a naturalist discourse retains its legitimating power, heterosexual relations can indeed provide a site within which traditional forms of masculinity and femininity are almost inevitably re-produced. Holland et al, for example, have proposed that 'heterosexuality is not a balanced (or even unbalanced) institutionalisation of masculinity-and-femininity, it is masculinity' (Holland 1996:145). Scope for mutability was however implicitly acknowledged even by more conventional participants, with one female focus group member commenting that in their 'time' (the 1940s) a man was 'more of a man', and 'men seemed more manly then' (Focus Group 4), although when asked she was unable to articulate why this was so (Focus Group 3).

Adherence to or reinvention of gendered identities is one dimension of heterosexuality, but an investigation of the practices involved means attending to 'intimacy', 'autonomy', 'commitment', 'monogamy', 'faithfulness' and 'privacy' and what these have meant 'on the ground' to people of different age cohorts as they have lived out heterosexual relationships across the last eighty years or so. Our data confirm that people's ideas about romantic love and heterosexual commitment are often related. Among the more middle class female focus group members, 'romance' was seen as a thing of the past, something which had given way to 'sex'. Here, one woman's comments can stand for many: 'There's no romance now. They just stick their tongues down their throats and take each other's clothes off' (Focus Group 3). This view was largely shared by working class women: 'nowadays' people 'talk about sex, they don't talk about lust or passion' (Focus Group 1). For many focus groups participants, discussion of emotionality linked strongly with 'love' and 'romance'. For instance, a man in his late 60s said that when a man and woman are 'in love', 'they want to share everything. You want to know what she had for breakfast or what she had for tea, where she's gonna be tomorrow' He then personalized this statement with: 'I can remember when I was courting, my wife …when she'd finished work, she used to come to our house for tea. And for me, I couldn't wait until she arrived …and when she was there, I wanted to be with her and I didn't want to share her with other people, I wanted us to be alone together' (Focus Group 5). Other focus group members link emotion, agency and close relationships in a similar way. For example, the intensity of the bonding experience is reflected upon by younger men, who struggled to explain to each other how they know when they are in love with someone:

This is contrasted with an older woman's description of her experience when visiting the vicar to arrange her marriage, in Focus Group 1:

…he said to us both, "I want to ask you a question. Can you bear to see that same face at the breakfast table for the next 50 years? If the answer is yes, go ahead, if the answer is no, don't do it". I never thought of that, but mine didn't last 50 years and I feel cheated. …I felt that I'd been promised 50 years and I never got it.

Ingraham (1999:12) suggests that it is possible to chart the 'continual state of crisis and contradiction' of heterosexuality as historical and material conditions shift and change, by examining cultural manifestations such as films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Crying Game, The Bird Cage and The Wedding Banquet. Creating an illusory heterosexuality through the romantic 'heterosexual imaginary' masks the way institutionalized heterosexuality works to organize gender, whilst at the same time preserving racial, class and sexual hierarchies, she argues. Our focus group data indicate that media imagery not only informs personal narratives, but also perceptions of the heterosexual practice of others, often being used by older people as both the source of and evidence for the problematic attitudes of younger generations. For example, one man in Focus Group 3 asserts that:

They see so much on television now, and a lot of people, they believe what they see, …As real life, (as) what goes on. And then they get the impression that everybody's hoppin' in and out of bed with one another. …A lot of people, a lot of people seem to believe what they see on the television, they don't think that they're actors acting and that someone's written it, and written it to spice it up and get the ratings up on the television and all that.

Romance, love and emotionality are aspects of human experience thought to bridge a perceived gap between individuals' 'inner' and 'outer' worlds. Jamieson, however, criticises the notion that intimacy is 'at the centre of meaningful personal life in contemporary societies' (Jamieson 1998:1). As she points out, knowledge of another person's 'inner' world has not everywhere and at all times been seen as a basic or important need. Something similar was expressed by middle class women in Focus Group 3, who saw this approach as 'immature', stating that being part of a couple did not mean people would 'expect to delve into each others minds'.

Jamieson is herself interested in public stories about how people should relate to one another, in a world where private life has become increasingly open to public scrutiny. Rather than a binary opposition between 'private' and 'public', Duncombe and Marsden (1996) view the private sphere as a 'Chinese box' within which more or less 'public' accounts of a relationship are inter-layered, and in which ideologies of companionate marriage devolve into the emotional labour of women seeking to reconcile schisms between the ideal, and the actual experience of heterosexual relationships. Our focus group data similarly suggest that while women might be seen as the emotional 'experts', this role involves women's labour, with many of the female participants commenting that they felt impelled to 'make an effort' or 'remedy' difficulties within heterosexual partnerships. One woman in her mid- 80s states that: 'it was only a woman that tried to remedy it and make a (better) marriage really, wa'nt it, really. The men didn't give a damn as long as everything was going smoothly' (Focus Group 4). A similar view is also expressed by a woman nearly fifty years her junior: 'I hate, sometimes …I hate taking the responsibility of the relationship, because sometimes you can be working too hard on the relationship, …And the other person isn't. …I always have to be in the forgiving (mode), I'm always having to let sleeping dogs lie, keep my mouth shut, don't rock the boat' (Focus Group 1). However, some young working class men in Focus Group 2 were critical of the stereotypical view of men as emotionally irresponsible or inarticulate, pointing out that: 'We're not all the same, we're all different'.

This challenge to presumptions of 'men's emotional inarticulacy' (Rutherford, 1992; Lupton, 1998) hints at possible change. Masculinity is now widely thought of as 'troubled' since men are losing their traditional occupations and 'breadwinner' roles within households (Seidler 1989, 1992, Connell, 1995). Older male participants in Focus Group 5 shared this view, referring to the long hours men used to work in their roles as 'breadwinner' and 'head of the house', positions from within which they 'tried to make decisions'. However, perhaps surprisingly, rather than being 'troubled' by this, these men positively felt that now marriage was between 'two equals', a shift which they explained (as discussed earlier) as not to do with 'physique or, necessarily, emotions' but rather 'opportunity' and 'how society is organised' (Focus Group 5). At the same time, many of the men participating in our mixed sex focus groups were less talkative than women on the nature of heterosexual relationships, remarking that in the sphere of intimate relationships men tend to keep their mouths shut when they realize their views might not count for the women they are expressing them to.


We commented at the start of this discussion on the widespread agreement that feminist theories which link heterosexuality and patriarchy still lack sufficient empirical evidence of how gendered relationships thought of as 'natural' or conventional are re-constructed and practised. It is perhaps testimony to the power of heteronormativity that this surely crucial dimension has been overlooked, particularly in contrast with the emphasis on the constructed 'nature' of homosexual and lesbian identities (Weeks et al, 1999). Indeed, those structural arguments which treat heterosexuality as a compulsory institution, at times mirror the essentialising perspective of naturalised accounts of institutions such as 'marriage' and 'motherhood'. Whether the outcome of patriarchal forces or 'natural drives', these institutions have been represented as monolithic and inflexible and at the level of the individual have been seen as open to change only at considerable personal and indeed social cost (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). Our research therefore 'pay(s) attention to what is known about material, embodied men and women going about the business of living their sexualities' (Jackson, 1999:26). It seeks to generate a theoretical approach which not only acknowledges women's inequality in the family and at work, and therefore addresses the normalizing of penetrative heterosexual sex and the scale of male violence, but also recognises and makes adequate analytical space for women's and men's different kinds of agency within heterosexual relationships.

Drawing inspiration from Smart's emphasis on 'heterosexualities' and Jackson's on 'the business of living their sexualities', this article has utilised preliminary focus group data from our localised and grounded East Yorkshire-based project on the making of heterosexual relationships across three generations. Through this cross- generational and family-based study, we are concerned to pinpoint differences, contradictions and also continuities in the ways in which people discuss and comment on their own and other people's perceptions and experiences of heterosexuality. Our focus group data has raised many issues and themes which will be explored in more detail in the next phase of the research. From the ways in which heterosexuality operates as a spatialised organizing principle, through to its role as a narrative resource in the telling of life histories, subsequent interviews will investigate how members of different generations make sense of their own, their parents' and their children's experience of the social institutions and practices through which heterosexuality is lived. The individual interviews will therefore unravel more precisely the intersections of gender, age, class and family location around the practices and meanings of 'heterosexuality'.


1Some of our references here and elsewhere in this article are taken from V. Robinson and D. Richardson (eds.) (1997) Introducing Women's Studies: Feminist Theory and Practice. Though primarily an undergraduate textbook, many of the articles in that collection are theoretically more advanced than undergraduate level.

2Furthermore, it should be noted that the concepts of marriage, family and heterosexuality are often conflated both theoretically and by those people we have interviewed for this research. We acknowledge this and indeed, are interested in how these categories are seen to be linked theoretically.

3The following is a guide to the nature and composition of the groups:


4All names are pseudonyms.

5( ) Indicate an inaudible or uncertain reading.

6[ ] Indicate an overlap between speakers. Where there are stops within [ ] brackets, these indicate a pause or hesitation.


The data discussed in this paper derive from an ESRC funded project entitled The Making of Heterosexual Relationships: a Cross-Generational Approach (grant number R000239508).
Thanks to Liz Stanley who commented on earlier drafts of this paper.


ARBER, S. & GINN, J. (1995) Connecting Gender and Ageing, Buckingham: Open University Press.

BECK, U. and BECK-GERNSHEIM, E. (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love, Cambridge: Polity.

BERNADES, J. (1997), Family Studies, London: Routledge.

COHEN, A. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of Community, London: Routledge.

CONNELL, R. W. (1995) Masculinities, Cambridge: Polity.

DELPHY, C. & LEONARD, D. (1992) Familiar Exploitation: a New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies, Cambridge: Polity.

DUNCOMBE, J. and MARSDEN, D. (1996) 'Can we Research the Private Sphere? Methodological and Ethical Problems in the Study of the Role of Intimate Emotions in Personal Relationships' in L. Morris and E. Stina Lyon (eds.) Gender Relations in Public and Private, London: Macmillan.

ELLIOT, B. J. (1991) 'Demographic Trends in Domestic Life, 1945-87', in D. Clark (ed.) Marriage, Domestic Life and Social Change, London: Routledge.

FINCH, J. and SUMMERFIELD, P. (1999) 'Social Reconstruction and the Emergence of Companionate Marriage, 1945-59' in G. Allan (ed.) The Sociology of the Family, Oxford: Blackwell.

GEERTZ, C. (1975) The Interpretation of Cultures, London: Hutchinson.

GIDDENS, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy, Cambridge: Polity.

GILES, J. (1995) Women, Identity and Private Life in Britain: 1900- 50, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

HARDY, S. (2000) 'Feminist Iconoclasm and the Problem of Eroticism' Sexualities, Vol.3, No. 1, pp.77-96.

HAWKES, G. (1996) The Sociology of Sex, Buckingham: Open University Press.

HOLLAND, J., RAMAZANOGLU, C. and THOMSON, R. (1996) 'In the same boat? The Gendered (In)Experience of first Heterosex' in D. Richardson (ed.) Theorising Heterosexuality: Telling it Straight, Buckingham: Open University Press.

HOLLAND, J., RAMAZANOGLU, C., SHARPE, S. and THOMSON, R. (1998) The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power. London: Tufnell Press.

HOLLWAY, W. (1993) 'Theorizing Heterosexuality: a Response', Feminism and Psychology Vol. 3, No. 3, pp.412-17.

Ingraham, C., (1999) White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality and Popular Culture, London: Routledge. JACKSON, S. (1997) 'Women, Marriage and Family Relationships' in V. Robinson. and D. Richardson (eds.) Introducing Women's Studies: Feminist Theory and Practice, London: Macmillan.

JACKSON, S. (1999) Heterosexuality in Question, London: Sage.

JAGGER, G. & WRIGHT, C. (1998) Changing Family Values, London: Routledge.

JAMES, A. (1999) 'Parents: a Children's Perspective', in A. Bainham, S. Day Sclater, M. Richards (eds.) What is a Parent? A Socio-Legal Analysis, Oxford: Hart Publishing.

JAMIESON, L. (1998) Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Societies, Cambridge: Polity Press.

JONES, C. (1985) 'Sexual Tyranny in Mixed Sex Schools: an In-depth Study of Male Violence' in G. Weiner (ed.) Just a Bunch of Girls, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

LAND, H. (1999) 'The Changing Worlds of Work and Family', in S. Watson & L. Doyal (eds.) Engendering Social Policy, Buckingham: Open University Press.

LUPTON, D. (1998) The Emotional Self, London: Sage.

MACKINNON, C. A. (1982) 'Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State: an Agenda for Theory', Signs, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 515-44.

MACKINNON, C. A. and DWORKIN, D. (1996) 'Statement on Canadian Customs and Legal Approaches to Pornography', in D. Bell and R. Klein (eds.) Radically Speaking: Feminism Re-Claimed, Melbourne: Spinifex.

MANN, K. and ROSENEIL, S. (1999) 'The Poor Choices of Lone Mothers', in G. Jagger and C. Wright (eds.), Changing Family Values, London: Routledge.

MAYNARD, M. and WINN, J. (1997) ' Women, Violence and Male Power" in V. Robinson and D. Richardson (eds.) Introducing Women's Studies: Feminist Theory and Practice, London: Macmillan.

MILLAR, J. (1997) 'State, Family and Personal Responsibility: The Changing Balance for Lone Mothers in the UK' in C. Ungerson and M. Kember (eds.) Women and Social Policy, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

MORGAN, D. (1991) 'Ideologies of Marriage and Family Life', in D. Clark (ed.) Marriage, Domestic Life and Social Change, London: Routledge.

RICHARDSON, D. (1996) Theorising Heterosexuality, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Richardson, D. (1997) 'Sexuality and Feminism ' in V. Robinson, and D. Richardson (eds.) Introducing Women's Studies: Feminist Theory and Practice, London: Macmillan. RICHARDSON, D. (2000) Rethinking Sexuality, London: Sage.

ROBINSON, V. (1997) ' "My Baby Just Cares for Me": Feminism, Heterosexuality and Non-monogamy', Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 143-157.

RUTHERFORD, J. (1992) Predicaments in Masculinity, London: Routledge.

SEIDLER, V. (1989) Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason, Language and Sexuality, London: Routledge.

SEIDLER, V. (1992) Men, Sex and Relationships: Writings From Achilles Heel, London: Routledge.

SMART, C. (1996) 'Collusion, Collaboration and Confession: on Moving Beyond the Heterosexuality Debate', in D. Richardson (ed.) Theorising Heterosexuality, Buckingham: Open University Press.

SPRING RICE, M. (1939) Working Class Wives: Their Health and Conditions, Harmondsworth: Pelican.

STANLEY, L. (1995) Sex Surveyed 1949-1994: From Mass- Observation's 'Little Kinsey' to the National Survey and the Hite Reports. London: Taylor & Francis.

VANEVERY, J. (1995) Heterosexual Women Changing the Family: Refusing to be a Wife! , London: Taylor and Francis.

VANEVERY, J. (1996) 'Heterosexuality and domestic life', in D. Richardson (ed.) Theorising Heterosexuality, Buckingham: Open University Press.

WALBY, S. (1990) Theorising Patriarchy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

WEEKS, J. (2000) Making Sexual History, Cambridge: Polity.

WEEKS, J., DONOVAN, C. and HEAPHY (1999) 'Everyday Experiments: Narratives of Non-Heterosexual Relationships', in E. Silva and C. Smart (eds.) The New Family? London: Sage.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002