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Exploring Gender in Portuguese Bedrooms: Men's and Women's Narratives of Their Sexuality Through a Mixed Methods Approach

by Violeta Alarcão, Ana Virgolino, Luis Roxo, Fernando L. Machado and Alain Giami
Lisbon Faculty of Medicine; Lisbon Faculty of Medicine; Lisbon Faculty of Medicine; University Institute of Lisbon (CIES-IUL); Inserm, CESP U 1018, Le Kremlin Bicêtre (National Institute of Health and Medical Research)

Sociological Research Online, 20 (2), 8
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3619

Received: 15 Sep 2014 | Accepted: 16 Feb 2015 | Published: 31 May 2015


The nature of intimacy and self-identity changed profoundly over the past century. The disruption between sex and procreation enabled the emergence of new forms of relationships and contributed towards the legitimacy of a sexuality focused on pleasure, as a mean of self-realization and an expression of intimacy. Despite the evidence that most individuals now approach close relations with expectations of mutual emotional support and romantic love, intimate relationships remain highly gendered, particularly in societies where traditional roles of men and women persist in the growing diversity of sexual relationships.

To address this topic, an empirical research was conducted in the Greater Lisbon area using a mixed methods approach. First, a quantitative study, with 323 primary healthcare users, intended to explain how gender influences self-constructions of sexuality and intimacy. Then, a qualitative study, with a subsample of 10 heterosexual men and 15 heterosexual women, employed in-depth interviews to explore how individuals construct their etiquette of sexual behavior. Building upon Gagnon and Simon's scripting theory and Giddens' transformations of intimacy, along with feminist criticisms concerning male dominance in hetero-relationships, we have reached an explanatory typology that focuses on Portuguese specificity in terms of the subjective experience of sexuality and intimate relationships.

Sexuality and intimacy are complex and multifaceted phenomena that are affected by sexual and non-sexual factors, both in and out of the bedroom. Key findings reveal a coexistence of highly gendered sexual scripts with increasingly more egalitarian sexual roles, namely among the youngest and the most educated generations in Portuguese society.

Keywords: Intimacy, (Double Standard Of) Sexual Behavior, Scripting Theory, Sexual Experiences, Gender, Portugal


1.1 Aligned with the perspectives of Jackson (2008), Jackson and Scott (2010), and Beasley (2011), it is important to understand sexuality in the context of a wider reality and within other spheres of social life. In fact, heterosexuality is socially constructed, and sexual norms, perceptions, behaviors, and everyday practice of (hetero)-sexuality are culturally-bounded.

1.2 Having rejected the notion of an essential, biologically determined sexuality, the pioneering scripting theory, developed by Gagnon and Simon in the 1970s, suggests that the majority of sexual behaviors in heterosexual relationships tend to follow a prescribed social scenario that reflects the cultural norm (Gagnon & Simon 1973). However, sexual scripts are not socially determined as fixed lines of conduct. Instead, they are fluid improvisations involving ongoing processes of interpretation and negotiation (Jackson & Scott 2010). Sexual scripts are important determinants of individuals' sexual beliefs and behaviors that operate on cultural, intrapsychic, and interpersonal levels, in the sense that each level dynamically influences the others (Gagnon 1990; Simon & Gagnon 1986). The existence of three different but interrelated dimensions of scripting enables the understanding of individual agency and variation, with sexual script theory being a useful framework in understanding sexual roles in the context of social change (Simon & Gagnon 2003).

1.3 As Masters et al. (2013) recently demonstrated, gender structures shape individuals' beliefs, desires, and behaviors through culture-level sexual scripts which, in turn, can be reinforced or changed through inter or intrapersonal scripts. Their study, which sought to characterize the way sexual gender scripts may be contested, suggests that, although for most young people interviewed culture-level gender scripts for behaviors in sexual relationships fit the traditional descriptions of masculine and feminine sexuality, there is heterogeneity in the way and extent that these scripts were incorporated into individual relationships (Masters et al. 2013).

1.4 This fluid nature of sexuality, relationships, and intimacy in contemporary Western societies was captured in Giddens' (1992) concept of 'plastic sexuality', which refers to the malleability of erotic expression, in terms of both individual choice and frameworks of social norms. In fact, in the late twentieth century, new connections between sexuality and intimacy were formed, and sexuality became doubly constituted as a way of self-realization, as well as an expression of intimacy. Giddens set out for women a key role in this changing process leading to the ascendancy of 'confluent love' and 'the pure relationship'. These two notions rely on the fact that the distribution of resources and tasks is negotiated in a spirit of justice and mutual respect, both in the public and private spheres (Giddens 1992). However, little explanation was given on the way pure relationship takes place. Giddens' optimistic theory of the global transformation of intimacy ignores the evidence of continuing inequality in heterosexual intimate relationships at economic and emotional levels (Duncombe & Marsden 1993), which has generated considerable discussion (Jackson & Scott 2010).

1.5 Jamieson (1999), for example, has articulated a critical look regarding Giddens' concept of pure relationship from an empirical perspective. In her words: 'Empirically, intimacy and inequality continue to coexist in many personal lives. Personal relationships remain highly gendered. Men and women routinely both invoke gender stereotypes or turn a convenient blind eye to gendering processes when making sense of themselves as lovers, partners, mothers, fathers and friends.' (Jamieson 1999: 491) Attention to practices of intimacy can assist the need to explain continuity and change, as practices of intimacy can sustain or subvert inequalities such as those of age, class and gender (Jamieson 2011).

1.6 However, Gabb (2011) has a different approach on the study of personal relationships and families and on the central idea of reciprocity for understanding the everyday practices of intimacy (Jamieson 1999). She explained that: '(…) rather than seeing differences as contra-evidence and/or a qualification to the democratic relational paradigm we should pay more attention to the ways that practices create embedded multidimensional emotional-social worlds in ways that embrace otherness in relationships' (Gabb 2011: 1). Therefore, according to the author, the focus should be on how differences between self and the other are played on everyday life.

1.7 The comprehension of this dynamic is relevant within the context of the sexuality of Portuguese people, where in the past decades, major changes have taken place. In line with the transformations occurring in sexual life in western societies, recent studies have demonstrated a similar emergence of a plurality of affections in contemporary heterosexual conjugalities in Portugal and a democratization of the ideals of conjugal relationships based on affection and orientations towards love and intimacy (Aboim 2009). In the 50's and 60's, the society was conservative and strict in matters of sexual morality, and sexuality was a domain whose knowledge and rules were supposed to follow the restrictive moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Men's sexual freedom contrasted with the purity and containment requirements placed on women. Indeed, as Aboim (2013) discussed, in the Catholic countries of southern Europe, the cult of the figure of the Virgin Mary has been seen as a castrating force for women's sexuality and one of the main pillars of machismo, which reinforces male domination over women. And despite the increasing individualization of sexual biographies, sexual patterns of men and women continue to differ.

1.8 Results of the Sexuality Portuguese Survey (Ferreira et al. 2010), which were also found in other European surveys (Bajos et al. 2010; Mercer et al. 2013; Teva et. al 2013), indicated that the number of sexual partners men and women claim to have had and the age at first intercourse were still contrasting, although less markedly in younger generations, and with major changes among women. Despite the increase in women's expectations for a fulfilling sexual life during the past 40 years in Portugal, this 'transformation' should not be overstated, and evidence proving that women's romantic ambitions have declined is still lacking (Costa et al. 2009).

1.9 In this article, we will first try to map the variety of responses to dominant sexual scripts in Portugal by identifying different frequencies or intensities for heterosexual relations, different forms of relationship between genders, and different representations of sexual satisfaction. Then, in a comprehensive look, we will explore this diversity. If pure relationships were emerging, equalization in sexual behaviors of men and women and in their meanings and significance should be expected in Portuguese results. Will relations remain strict and bound to traditional gender stereotypes? Will we find in the Portuguese couples of today the confluent love as typified in Giddens' concept, and if so, with which new configurations, specificities, and differences? And what other forms of intimate relationships and sexuality exist? Will other models of love with multiple possibilities of combination between sexuality, marriage, and procreation be uncovered? As Jackson and Scott stated (2010: 98): 'If Giddens was correct, the transformations he identifies could be seen as signaling the demise of compulsory heterosexuality – the heterosexual contract becomes voluntary and fragile.'

1.10 We will, therefore, stand in the middle ground between the two main challenges posed by Jackson (2008): the need to chart variation and change within normative, everyday sexuality, on one side, and the necessity of thinking beyond the parochial 'western' highlighted by most of the existing work in the field, on the other. This position will be adopted to explore the consequences of having differing cultural and historical traditions, attending to both continuity and change and investigating ordinary as well as extraordinary sex and intimacy.

1.11 Through this work, we will focus on identifying practices among Portuguese men and women that might challenge heteronormativity (Beasley 2011), with an aim of contributing to the theoretical and empirical knowledge of heterosexual experience as something beyond a standard (Jackson 2008).


2.1 Sexuality and gender relations are complex phenomena. For that reason, methodological approaches combining multiple methods are indicated as ideal in a research (Crawford & Popp 2003). Therefore, multi-methods data were used in this study, as they were expected to produce a richer set of evidence on the understanding of sexuality and intimacy in everyday life, through the dialectic between inductive and deductive theoretical developments (Pearce 2012). Like Moore (2007), we considered both qualitative and quantitative data as 'situated knowledge' that can only be understood as and through 'partial perspectives'. Reflexivity reveals all research as situated, and attention was paid to the conditions of production of the research. The data collection strategy consisted of a quantitative component preceding a qualitative one, in order to optimize the sample for diversity. Moreover, this strategy helped to overcome the topic's sensitivity challenge of face-to-face interviews in the area of sexuality and intimacy.

2.2 This article draws on data from the Sexual Observational Study in Portugal conducted between January and September 2011 in primary healthcare centers in Lisbon (Alarcão et al. 2012). Male and female users of the collaborating centers were systematically invited to answer face-to-face surveys, giving at the outset their informed consent to be interviewed and their permission to be identified and sampled for a second qualitative component. To preserve anonymity, participants were attributed a code number in the survey, and only pseudonyms were used in the writing of the research. These measures are aimed at honoring confidentiality agreements between the participant and the researchers (Gabb 2010).

2.3 Several studies have found that the reliability of self-reported sexual behavior varies with a range of factors, such as sex-related bias in the direction of over-reporting of the mean number of partners over a defined period by men and/or underreporting by women (Fenton et al. 2001). In the present study, data collection of both quantitative and qualitative components took place in a private room of the participating units and was conducted by male and female interviewers for male and female users, respectively. The setting made it socially acceptable to discuss these issues, and, in general, participants felt comfortable discussing their sexual lives. The interviewers were psychologists with specific training on the topics under study, following good practices and guidelines for sexuality surveys (Kinsey et al. 1948; Brewer 1985).

2.4 Data collection and analysis procedures will be detailed at first for the quantitative component and secondly for the qualitative one. In the quantitative study, each participant was interviewed using a standardized survey interview combining questions posed by the interviewer concerning socio-demographic characteristics of both the participants and their partners (e.g., sex, age, educational attainment, and occupational characteristics) and questionnaires for assessment of sexual activity to be completed by the interviewees (e.g., number of sexual partners in the past 12 months, and frequencies and intensities of sexual intercourse, sexual function, and marital and sexual satisfaction). Sexual function was assessed using the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF) and the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI), the most widely used worldwide and validated self-completion questionnaires (Lewis et al. 2010), including in Portugal (Peixoto & Nobre 2013; Quinta Gomes & Nobre 2014). The quality of the relationship was assessed using the Golombok-Rust Inventory of Marital State (GRIMS) (Rust et al. 1990), which covers topics on satisfaction, communication, shared interest, trust, and respect among heterosexual-partnered participants. Finally, the quality of sexual functioning was assessed by the Golombok-Rust Inventory of Sexual Satisfaction (GRISS), which covers the most frequent sexual complaints of heterosexual people with a steady partner (Rust & Golombok 1986).

2.5 This mixed mode of administration was implemented in the survey due to its intimate and sensitive nature, and the procedure was pre-tested. Combinations of the benefits of a face-to-face interview and the privacy of self-completion for more sensitive questions have been used in many of the large surveys, with self-completion modules producing higher rates of sensitive behaviors than face-to-face interviews (Fenton et al. 2001).

2.6 Quantitative data were coded onto IBM SPSS Statistics 20.0 database and checked for accuracy. To study how gender influences self-constructions of sexuality and intimacy, associations between socio-demographic variables and sexual activity were tested using Chi-square or Fisher's exact tests. Nonparametric Mann-Whitney or Kruskal-Wallis tests were used to compare age, GRIMS and GRISS scores and other continuous variables between two independent groups (gender) or three or more independent groups (partnership status), respectively, as data normality assumption was not satisfied. Pearson's or Spearman's correlation coefficients were used to compare GRIMS, GRISS, and FSFI/IIEF scores. Linear regression was performed to identify factors associated to sexual satisfaction in univariate-multiple-ajusted models. For all tests the level of statistical significance was set at 0.05.

2.7 In the qualitative phase, those initial participants who gave their consent to remain in the study and provided a telephone number (n=245, 76%), were randomly selected and invited for in-depth interviews (n=25), lasting about an hour, to explore how individuals construct their etiquette of sexual behavior. Open-ended questions probed participants' perceptions of their sexual experiences and their views of a satisfactory sex life, as well as the function of sex in their lives (Box 1). Background information of previous questionnaires facilitated connections between experiences and representations of sexuality and various facets of identity.

2.8 Interviews were audio-taped, transcribed systematically, and completed by indicating appropriate labeling and content-related information. Transcripts were checked against the original recordings in a continual process of revision (Davidson 2009).

2.9 For the process of typology construction, Kluge's (2000) model of empirically grounded type construction was used in its different analysis stages of the qualitative data: 1) development of relevant analyzing dimensions; 2) grouping the cases and analysis of empirical regularities; 3) analysis of meaningful relationships and type construction; and 4) characterization of the constructed types. Our purpose was not to establish an absolute typology nor obscure its intratypes' singularities. The ideal types should be considered as theoretical and methodological constructions aiming to capture the diversity of the responses to dominant sexual scripts and highlighting certain characteristic traits.

2.10 It must be pointed out, however, that the assignment of informants to the constructed typology was not a linear procedure, as the process of making sense of and shifting sexual practices and desires is shaped by cultural and personal experiences. Nonetheless, and despite the individuals sharing characteristics of more than one ideal type, the allocation on a single type remained heuristically useful. Variables, such as number of sexual partners or changes in marital relations and early life events, influence sexual and intimate experiences, where a greater fluidity originates between the established types and imposing, in some cases, a kind of contamination or, in others, sites of disjuncture. One good example is the case of older widows or divorced women's narratives concerning the process of recovering their self-achievement, self-esteem, and femininity, which enabled them to live independent lives.


Sexual activity and satisfaction based on questionnaire data

3.1 Although our sample of primary care users is not representative of the Portuguese adult population, a good level of diversity in terms of socio-demographic characteristics was reached with the quantitative study (Table 1). Of the 323 participants, 180 (55.7%) were women, and mean age was 47.7 years. Few had a college degree (14.0% men, 16.6% women). The majority of participants were catholic (81.0% men, 71.1% women). All women and most men (95.3%) were exclusively heterosexual; 63.4% of participants described their marital status as ''married/partnered''. Most (84.7% men, 93.1% women) referred that they had been sexually active in the past 4 weeks.

3.2 When asked about the number of sexual partners in the past 12 months, the majority of the respondents (76% of women and 71% of men) reported having just one partner for over a year (Table 2). Yet, there were statistically significant gender differences: more women (16% vs. 10% of men) indicated not to have had any partner in the past 12 months, and more men (7% vs. 1% of women) indicated having three or more. In terms of the situation that best describes the relationship with the partner, the majority responded on cohabitation (66% of women and 76% of men), but there were more women indicating being in a relationship for more than three months without cohabitation (17% vs. 13% of men), and more men indicating casual relationships (8% vs. 4% of women). In general, most of the respondents considered sexual life as important or very important, while men attach more importance than women.

3.3 Women reported to be less satisfied with their intimate relationships than men, and other gender differences related to relationship satisfaction were found in the results of GRIMS questionnaire. Relationship functioning was related to age among men, and religion commitment among women; it was found to be related to sexual satisfaction in both men and women. The two major determinants of sexual satisfaction assessed through GRISS questionnaires in both genders were sexual performance evaluation and relationship satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction was found to be related to sexual performance evaluation, independent of relationship satisfaction, adjusted for age, educational level, marital status, and religion, for both genders (Figures 1 and 2). Educational level seemed to play an important role in men's sexual satisfaction.

A typology of sexual experiences and representations based on in-depth interviews

3.4 The sample of the qualitative study achieved a good representation in key socioeconomic variables and on sexual experiences. The actors of the collected sexual narratives were predominantly resident in the Greater Lisbon area, had a range of ages between 21 and 71 years old, and followed, for the most part, a Christian religion. The majority were involved in a couple relationship, with some maintaining a single status, within or without a relationship, and different levels of marital and sexual satisfaction (Table 3).

3.5 An explanatory typology was developed to capture the diversity of sexual experiences and representations and to understand the meanings of sexual and relationship satisfaction from a layperson's perspective. The typology, which aimed to focus the Portuguese specificity in terms of the subjective experience of sexuality and intimate relationships, was constructed semi-inductively from the in-depth interviews. It was anchored in the theory of sexual scripts (Simon & Gagnon 1986, 2003) in articulation with Giddens' theory of intimacy (Giddens 1992), along with the feminist critics concerning male dominance in hetero-relations (Beasley 2011, Jackson & Scott 2010, Jamieson 1999).

3.6 Four ideal types were identified, referring to the date on which sexual narratives were collected but incorporating the sexual trajectories of the participants. The first ideal type, the strict conservative, represents the combination of a model of unequal close relations with a sexuality essentially characterized by the classic double standard. Men and women in this type prominently tend to deal with traditional, mainstream, highly gendered cultural sexual norms in a conforming way, reflecting a match between inter/intrapersonal and cultural scripts. Social scenarios are not diversified, and sexual practices are centered in the 'coitus imperative' (Jackson 1984: 44). The second ideal type, the traditional attenuated, represents the combination of a model of intimate relationships typified by a masked inequality and an attenuated sexual double standard, in which different kinds of male and female sexual experiences still co-exist. The idea that some of the conventional strict norms are not a suitable framework to be followed at the intimate level is sustained. Hence, there is a window for alternative sexual scripts, even though they must be upheld by the general picture of heteronormativity, which is not questioned but is just put into perspective. The third ideal type, the progressive adaptive, combines a model of intimate relationships based on a democratic root and a sexuality characterized by a single sexual standard. It is characterized by an ability to overcome gender inequality. Interviewees of this type indicated intra- and interpersonal gender scripts that differ from traditional cultural scripts for sex and relationships, but without a reflexive remaking of gender rules. The last type, the confluent transformative, is a result of a combination of a democratic style of intimate relationships with a "plastic sexuality" (Giddens 1992). "Confluent lovers" emerge along with the process of self-individualization and attempt to remake traditional cultural-level scripts, thus increasing opportunities for sexual satisfaction for both men and women.

3.7 Sociodemographic characteristics and relationship factors differ from people who engage in the confluent transformative type of script (younger and more educated), as compared to those who engage in the more conservative scripts (older, less educated, and more religious). Sexual and relationship satisfactions (GRISS and GRIMS) also seem to be related to distribution of types (Table 2).

Strict conservative

3.8 In this first essentialist type, 'sex' is equated with heterosexuality, and coitus is assumed to be a biological imperative; male violence against women is legitimated; and sexual practices, associated with dominance and submission, are 'normalized' on the basis of biological determinism (Jackson 1984). There is a submission to stereotypical social norms, permeated with taboos. Therefore, couple relationships are depicted by long lasting marriages where there is a clear wedge between man and woman, by means of an attachment to the traditional asymmetrical roles of husband and wife. Within the duo dynamics, men tend to assume a controlling position, and their main concern is their personal and sexual satisfaction at any cost, while women, repressed by a moral obligation, just function to obey and please the partner, as subservient devoted spouses. Maria do Carmo, a 67-year-old retired woman, verbalizes this way of being in a longstanding relation, obscured by the ghost of cheating, a treason only tolerable for men: 'More often than not I don't have desire, but… Why did we get married?! (…) Or else what makes a man unhappy? He will seek other women! (…) Because he has done it once, and he can do it again.'

3.9 Nevertheless, women assigned to this category might express some dissatisfaction with those established differences, which shattered the romantic ideal nourished for years, and the rude and uncaring way their partners treat them, showing a somehow conflicted conformity, albeit not paralleled by a genuine willingness to change the situation. Maria José, a 54-year-old Christian woman, married for 37 years, conveys this ambiguity: "For me, it's part of the marriage (…). I lay down to rest, not to have affection (…). I have to endure. I don't think about anything stronger; I don't miss it." The same submissive, and yet unhappy, position is revealed in Maria Rosa's words, after 38 years of marriage: "I felt like a woman-object. (…) The mentality that we had was: 'You get married and you have to have [sexual intercourse], whether you want it or not'. I still feel this way."

3.10 Sexuality, necessarily heterosexual and an obligation in marriage, is largely seen as a means to procreation and as "a way of woman to provide a service to her husband and vice versa, and the whole body to function", as mentioned by Maria José. Sexual scripts are limited regarding partners' and practices' diversity. Following the exposed biological stance, Maria do Carmo, Maria Rosa, and Maria José, all women assigned to this type, stated they never had an orgasm. And because of never having experienced that pleasure, the topic is conceptualized in an abstract way: "They said that it was a chill right up through your spine, that it was good… The doctor said to me that if I have three kids, I had to have felt that."

3.11 Men separate the biological need of sexual satisfaction and the experiment of different forms of sexual practices from the holiness attached to their marriage, as expressed in Joaquim's narrative, a 57-year-old man married for 40 years:

"My wife is sacred, [is] at home, is the mother of my child, takes care of the house, [and] takes care of me. And if I want fantasies, I look for them outside. (…) As long as we don't bring that infidelity to our home (…) and the family unit remains the same, there is absolutely no problem."

3.12 The fulfillment of a biological need can be conceived as a way to legitimatize infidelity, as indicated by Joaquim: "(…) sometimes the partner may not contribute to certain stimuli as she should. We may require that from a stranger; not from a partner who lives with us everyday…"

3.13 Family of origin's education plays a crucial role in the plot of intimate relations, especially for women. Their background is usually strict and oppressive, and in line with the conventional values. As a result, couple interactions tend to be remarkably repressed and strongly fixed. The compliment to the inherited conservative values has repercussions on the sexual practices as well, by and large restricted to penetration, with religion representing a noteworthy influence at this level, comparable to the one imposed by education, which is not always accompanied by the same outlook on men's part as it is sustained by women. In fact, women are devoted to a catholic morale laudatory of feminine chastity and virtue. Both influences are reflected in Maria José's narrative, a strongly devoted Christian. Firstly, on education: 'I play my role (…), serving my people at home (…) I didn't have another kind of instruction'. And secondly, on religion: "When he returned [from Israel, in the 80's], he came back with different ideas… And I said stop (…) given my evangelic conduct; I said to him: '(…) you have your wife [only admitting to have sexual intercourse in the traditional way], not in a different way'."

Traditional attenuated

3.14 In this second ideal type, marriage is a precious achievement for both men and women, which needs to be preserved. Women, in particular, strive to make their husbands satisfied, even when the relation is not going in the ideal direction, demonstrating an acceptance of cultural scripts subordinated to male dominance. Like Dolores, who has been married for almost 40 years, she said: "I think marriage is something that we have to take seriously. It has to be a lot of love, plenty of respect, so things can work out." Rosário, in the same vein, reveals, about her husband for 11 years: "He's a little bit old-fashioned (…) He doesn't keep up [on] life's evolution. (…) I'm his mother, his wife, but I'm his friend, too. (…) Everything I do, I do it for him. (…) I don't feel bad [in this position]; I am 71 years old, [so] what else do I need?"

3.15 In general, it is the men's preferences and demands that prevail in case of disagreement, although in a less dictatorial way, unlike the ones that characterize couple relationships in the first described type. That means that, even though they comprise a traditional way of thinking and behavior, there is, on men's part, a concern about their partner's needs and wishes, which represents, at the interpersonal level, an endeavor of dissociation from cultural norms. Pedro, whose wife's sexual desire was affected after breast cancer, shows some concern about what she is comfortable with: "She never denied herself", but "as far as possible, I try to assure that she has pleasure."

3.16 Sexuality is seen as an essential part of marriage, despite the substantial consideration given to love, caring, and mutual support in the dyadic relationship. Cristina, a 49-year-old woman, currently engaged in a non-marital partnership, stated: '[If there is no sexuality between the couple, the relationship] will deteriorate. (…) It's part of the marriage, (…) part of a life together. [Otherwise] it will be a friendship.' Likewise, we have the case of Rosário, who held the same line of thought: 'If she likes her husband and he wants her, I think they must have…it… that! (…) Sex is very important in a couple's life. (…) If they [the husbands] don't have it [sex] at home, they need to look for it outside. (…) And then, what problems can appear?' Lastly, Dolores, 60 years old, stated: 'There has to be a lot of love, love above all… Only love can tear down barriers. It's [sexuality] part of our marriage, it's part of being human (…), we like each other very much (…). At some point, if I'm not into it, he respects me.' Men, in a similar vein, show deference in respect to sex, a complement of marriage and love. Sexuality is part of a couple's relationship and 'is part of life' in Pedro's words. For this 61-year-old man who is devoted to his family, marriage without this element is not acceptable. Sexuality is, however, seen as a biological component of all human beings, as confirmed by Serafim, married for 25 years: 'I think sexuality is part of the human being. We were made with this purpose (…) It is part of life, having sexual intercourse with our wife or with anyone else.'

3.17 Sexual practices tend to be conservative, but are shaped by each partner's wishes and desires. Education has an important role at this point, both for men and women. For instance, on the women's side, Dolores, who has preserved her marriage for almost a lifetime, declared: 'More of this, more of that, but usually within the same standards (…) I think it has to do with education… (…) more or less, we have the same guides and we follow them. (…) In bed there is no program'. Rosário, similarly, as a consequence of being raised in a military school, sustains a strong reluctance towards the experience of alternative forms of sexuality, besides 'that part of sexuality [penetration]'. Serafim revealed how his conventional education constrained the way he sees and lives sexuality, confined to the most traditional practices and with no openness to any variation whatsoever: 'I'm a 60-year-old person… It's traditional. (…) Perhaps the education that we had; I've never talked… My mother never… Those were things that we acquired along the way.'

Progressive adaptive

3.18 Individuals that fit this type dissociate themselves from the traditional models, but without truly creating alternative ones. There is a site of disjuncture between inter/intrapersonal and cultural scripts, which is not accompanied by a true critical position or a desire to modify imposed gender roles. However, an effort to change the way of being in a sexual and intimate relationship is visible. Divorce or couple trial separation is an option for a non-satisfying relationship, as exemplified in Carla's case:

'I told him to give me a break so I could think about my life and what I wanted to do, and he would do the same… Because this was not working, every time we talked, we raised our voices and attacked each other. (…) Right now, after I left and we talked (…) we're better.'

3.19 Some women hold a romantic vision of marriage that contrasts with the strict perspective upheld by their husbands, usually associated solely with a procreation end. Others express the struggle over the years towards the attainment of a union rooted in support, mutual understanding, and companionship. In either case, in the thin balance between love and sex, the first one is glorified and escorted by an attempt to use it as a flag in the couple's relationship development. This revolution in process is a reflection of women's endeavors towards their independence, or at least the reaching of an equal relation, to be personally fulfilled. Women's submission, representative of the previous ideal types, is attenuated and replaced by an attitude of profound respect for their husbands. Clotilde, an already-retired 63-year-old woman, revealed this example: 'My husband gives me a lot of love, comprehension, [and] stability'. Isabel, a middle-aged woman, referred to an identical interaction: 'We dated 3 years, got married by 26 (…) He's a wonderful person. (…) To be fulfilled, it's not necessary to have sex. It only takes tenderness, love, a kiss, (…) a good talk, communicate well (…).'

3.20 Getting out of the ordinary circumstances can contribute to a change from one type to another type, similar to what happened to Florbela. Now 65 years old, her life can be divided into two distinct periods: before and after her widowhood. As a young woman, she passed from an extremely oppressive family context, typically rural and subordinated to the Church's rules, to an equally repressive one when she got married, shortly after 18, with a person who was 9 years older than her. 'It was complicated because his mind was that of a 'macho Lusitano' [Latino male]. I was younger and that made him very jealous'. At that time, although strong-minded, Florbela did not manage to cut off that relation and moved on. Only later, when her husband died, that she achieved her independence. Now, still struggling for a true transformation, she has a big family that is always there for her and learned to occupy her daily life with numerous activities, in a satisfactory way: 'I didn't feel that I needed to fill my life with more love. (…) Sex wasn't a necessity either. (…) The only thing for what I needed a man in my life was for sex, but for that I didn't have that urge. (…)'

3.21 In this type, individuals detach themselves from the traditional values and practices, especially regarding intimate and sexual relationships, and show an individualization process in sexual life. Apart from that, some containment regarding sex life is still noticeable, particularly in older women sustaining a more traditionalist view on those matters. Clotilde personifies the conservative part of this type, given that her husband was the first and only man she got involved with sexually, and questions considering sexuality were, for many years, feared and not openly discussed. Jorge's statement, a married man for 48 years, revealed the same conservatism about sexual practices: 'Sexual activity is normal. (…) It's to have normal sex, not oral, anal, or anything like that'. Isabel, slightly younger, on the other hand, represents the least traditional subgroup on that matter. For her, 'it's acceptable [other forms of sexual practices], as long as the couple has a good relationship, (…), everything is acceptable, there's no problem. (…) If you want to do it this way, we'll do it. If you don't, I don't push it'. Mariana, too, a single young woman with a degree, who experienced a troubled relationship that ended up because of the lack of caring on her boyfriend's part that led to a deadlock, considers herself to be now a 'more mature woman' who is reconstructing herself. She thinks that her previous relationships were oppressive, and for that reason she 'lowered herself, in terms of sexuality and intimate relation.'

3.22 Education seems to have a particular role in the process of transformation in progress that is taking place. Clotilde received a typically provincial, conservative education that prevented her from taking the leap and detaching herself completely from the reverence towards traditional gender roles, despite the support of her husband and children. Isabel, conversely, had a different experience. While her mother was 'reserved, even old-fashioned', her father had 'an open mind', which influenced the light way she embraces sexuality.

Confluent transformative

3.23 Informants included in this type of sexual experiences step over traditional gender roles, by adopting new forms of intimate relationship or opting for celibacy. Alternative discursive spaces that challenge normative heterosexual practice were found (Potts 2000; McPhillips et al. 2001). In Artur's case, a 49-year-old divorced man that does not maintain a regular sexual activity, this progressive devaluation of sexual intercourse started when he was married: 'I'm much more demanding now; I don't accept everybody. (…) For me, sex [is] not everything. (…) For me and my [ex-] wife, sex was not essential.'

3.24 Gender equality is now clearly established, at times after a past of trial and error in previous relationships, as experienced by Sandra, a 34-year-old modern woman, single and with a university degree: 'I think that, considering all my [previous] relationships, this is the one that fulfills me most (…) We talk about love and the care we have for each other (…), not exactly the sexual part, but everything that [is] around it.'

3.25 A transformed form of intimacy, which characterizes this type, can also be revealed in a reversed age difference between the couple, like what is happening to Susana, a 40-year-old woman, married to a man 15 years younger than her for 6 years. She explained that this hiatus accounts for their dissimilar way of being: 'I'm in a different phase. But he is a very mature person, considering his age. We're different. He wants a lot of attention, and I need more my space, my things.'

3.26 Men and women can build up new life styles, often possible due to strong professional and/or educational investments. Sexuality is related primarily to personal pleasure and not to the relational one. Graça, 59 years old, divorced, went through a transformation process that exemplifies the above-described change. She found a new fulfilling partner and ended a dead marriage from which she didn't draw any satisfaction and where sex was perceived as a marital requirement and a natural consequence of sleeping in the same bed as her husband:

'Before it was a chore. (…) I didn't have desire. (…) It's different with this person, or because he had more experience (…) he was the one who made me a woman, because I didn't know what that was. (…) After that I realized that there was something else that was good for both parties.'

3.27 Sexuality is, within the broad framework of a couple's relationship, an important element but not the ultimate requirement for a shared happiness. Nonetheless, it is related primarily to personal pleasure and not to a relational gratification, with orgasm becoming something tangible and emphasized. We found in Álvaro's statement, a 54-year-old widow, a clear illustration of this:

'At least 50% of a relationship [is] the sexual part. (…) Sexuality is not just sex; it's everything around it, harmony, well-being, common interests, that's it. It's more than the sexual act. Intimacy [is] part of that. The wriggles and not wriggles, everything, it includes a mise-en-scéne… That's what makes sexuality.'

3.28 Confluent transformative interviewees have the belief that today's relationships have a different tone as compared to those of former generations, which reflects a detachment from the highly gendered culture-level scripts, subjugated to male hegemony, as mentioned by Sandra: 'Today, sexuality is experienced in a different way, with a greater openness and with changed experiences. Nowadays, teenagers have more partners than they used to. Now, if there is more or less quality, I can't tell.'

3.29 In the same vein, Marlene, a college student, the youngest interviewee, only 21 years old, expressed that nowadays there are no differences between men and women:

'A woman can do anything a man does. I do not see big differences. We have more freedom and rights than before… And that presents advantages. I think that women and men no longer have, in the relationship, the same roles that they had previously.'

3.30 Men in this type also believe that society is becoming more open and more gender-equal in sexuality matters; nevertheless, they feel that the idea of men with an active role and always ready to have sexual intercourse still persists.

3.31 Besides education, communication assumes a privileged status. For instance, Marlene's interview was predominantly focused on this topic; the pillar of any relationship, from her viewpoint: 'I don't know if it always helps [to solve conflicts], but I think it's a good start. (…) It's useful to understand the partner and to make ourselves understood.'


4.1 This research focused on understanding the gendered diversity of responses to dominant (hetero)sexual scripts through empirical research conducted in the Greater Lisbon area using a mixed methods approach. Our findings seem to reinforce the fact that the Portuguese society of the 21st century distances itself from the strict and conservative reality that reigned in the 1950's and 1960's (Aboim 2013), although heterosexual experience seems to remain mostly unchallenged as a standard in everyday life.

4.2 The findings obtained through both quantitative and qualitative approaches support the claim that gender and other socio-demographic differences related to sexual activity, and to sexual and intimate relationship satisfaction, still persist in Portugal (Ferreira et al. 2010), as verified in other countries (Bajos et al. 2010; Mercer et al. 2013). Results of the quantitative study indicated that sexual performance evaluation and intimate relationship satisfaction are the two major predictors of sexual satisfaction in both genders. Yet, men attach more importance to sexual life than women, and are also more satisfied with their relationship. Socioeconomic factors have an impact in sexual satisfaction as previously demonstrated, with disadvantaged socioeconomic status being markedly associated with lower levels of satisfaction among women, whose sexual satisfaction is also influenced by tasks related to social reproduction and the gender-based division of work (Castellanos-Torres et al. 2013). While socioeconomically disadvantaged people tend to report less sexual satisfaction, more socioeconomically advantaged people have a greater awareness of their own needs and a greater ability to develop their sexuality (Ruiz-Muñoz et al. 2013).

4.3 In Portugal, as in many other latitudes, the position of women in society is evolving. Examination of the sexual lifestyles of men and women, at different stages of the life course and with diverse forms of partnerships, needs to be understood in light of changing social norms, demographic trends, and changing legislations and policies. The demographic and social changes provide new opportunities for women and their sexual lifestyles as shown by the variety of representations regarding sexual and gender roles and a diverse range of sexual experiences that emerged from the participants' discourses. Results of the qualitative study indicate that conceptions of desire, arousal, and satisfaction are complex constructions affected by different sources of social control (Castellanos-Torres et al. 2013; DeLamater 1981; Ruiz-Muñoz et al. 2013). Some people are still too much or a little conservative (Types 1 and 2) while others try to modify the traditional frame and the gender rules for relationships and sex (Type 3) and some seem to represent the ideals of 'confluent lovers' and 'pure relationship' (Type 4). There are different ways of perceiving sexuality, depending on gender, age, education, religion, and relationship and sexual satisfaction, as posed by Jackson (2008) who argued that ordinary sexuality is neither monolithic nor the same for everyone. Overall, men and women give importance to sexual intercourse, as a condition to have pleasure and to the sexual and emotional involvement of both partners. However, sexual function depends heavily on daily routines, personal cognitive variables, and emotional states. In most cases, women's sexuality was less genitally focused than men's. Nonetheless, more and more men and some women pursue relationships and mutually satisfying sex, and increasingly chase sexual agency and self-love, such as individuals of Type 3 and especially Type 4, striving to enact inter/intrapersonal scripts detached from the cultural traditionally sustained ones. These results extend evidence on gendered sexual scripts through participants' sexual stories of both continuity with traditional sexual scripts and change in these scripts, corroborating Masters et al.'s (2013) findings. Both distinctive beliefs and experiences among men and women and across gender were found, indicating potentially emerging transgressive heterosexual practices (Beasley 2011). In these terms, heterosexuality, far from being a static and unchanging standard, reflects broader changes in articulation with other spheres of social life (Jackson 2008; Jackson and Scott 2010; Beasley 2011).

4.4 In general, participants mentioned consensual sex as an ultimate requirement for sexual health and liberation. Still, women, regardless of the type they were assigned to, were more likely to comply with a sexually interested partner's desire for sex, as has been demonstrated by a systematic review on sexual compliance in heterosexual relationships (Impett & Peplau 2003).

4.5 This study is likely to be burdened with social desirability bias, as in all surveys based on self-reporting, namely those concerning sexual behavior (Wellings et al. 2006). Reporting bias undoubtedly accounted for some of the differences between genders, with women, and specially 'strict conservative' women (Type 1), probably underreporting same-sex partners, number of sexual partners, sexual satisfaction, and importance of sexual life in the survey. However, we believe that reliable reporting was facilitated with the participants' trust in the legitimacy and confidentiality of the survey (Mitchell et al. 2007). Data were drawn from Portuguese urban men and women living in the Lisbon Greater area. It is difficult to infer whether men and women outside the capital city would have the same type of sexual experiences and understanding, so findings must be considered tentative and exploratory. Nonetheless, the sample included men and women other than the typical middle-class, college educated individuals that comprise many studies of sexuality, which is an important merit of this study. Results can be of particular interest for other predominantly Catholic countries where religion and educational factors play an important role in sexual scripts. More research is needed to explore the tension between sexual restraint and sexual expression that is still present in the Western culture today (Cowden & Bradshaw 2007).

4.6 Our typology that emerged from a broad range of perspectives along the qualitative study should be validated through a more diverse, gender-balanced, and larger sample, which could include, for instance, different social and ethnic backgrounds, and enable the analysis of group-specific scripts and a more systematic investigation of the diversity of social condition (Crawford & Popp 2003; Fasula et al. 2012).

4.7 This research combined qualitative and quantitative methods to develop a comprehensive understanding of men's and women's experiences of sexuality and intimacy (Crawford & Popp 2003). The use of a mixed methods design demonstrated two benefits: it increased comprehensiveness of the results and enhanced the understanding of sexual satisfaction in the intimate relationship and related to the individualization process. As shown in this Portuguese case, and as previously demonstrated in other studies (Petersen & Hyde 2011), conforming to strict gender roles may limit one's sexual expression, and culturally imposed gender roles could increase sexual problems in both men and women.

4.8 The use of sexual script theory to the interpretation of data showed that our findings are consistent with those of previous studies, which indicated that women's submissive sexual behavior predicts lower sexual autonomy and satisfaction (Kiefer & Sanchez 2007). Moreover, relationships that reject the traditional sexual script tend to have greater sexual satisfaction and relationship outcomes (Sanchez et al. 2012). Finally, even if this study combines both genders' sexual narratives, as an attempt to identify differences and resemblances, they were not related, and so it did not include points of view of sexual partners who play a role in the sexual stories.

Final considerations

5.1 Our results reinforce evidence of increasingly egalitarian sexual scripts among men and women and highlight age and educational differences (Crawford & Popp 2003). That might have to do with the fact that in sexual life, as elsewhere, the more privileged have more choices and more opportunities to explore different sexual lifestyles, with age and life-course variations also becoming part of the sexual landscape (Jackson 2008). Although women's level of sexual satisfaction was similar to men's, they did not reach men's level in relationship satisfaction (Pedersen & Blekesaune 2003; Sanchez et al. 2012).

5.2 Sexuality, intimacy, and sexual and relationship satisfaction are complex and multifaceted. This study adds to the information available to help towards a better understanding of the impact of sexual and non-sexual variables on these constructs, both in and out the bedroom. Shifting sexual roles could potentially contribute to decreased gender inequality in the sexual and social arena, for both men and women.

5.3 This recognition of gender similarities in sexuality where they exist is essential for challenging the double standard and gaining equality for sexual expression. If societies become more sexually liberal and gender differences continue to narrow, equal opportunities for sexual expression become more realistic. Trends in various cultures toward or away from societal gender equality, in turn, are likely to have implications for gender differences in sexuality (Petersen & Hyde 2011).

5.4 From this perspective, it is through everyday practices of intimacy that social transformations take place to ensure the full exercise of rights and freedoms. At the same time, the embrace of otherness in relationships can only occur if the exercise of economic, social, and cultural rights is made possible. In this context, intimacy is the room for human life to be democratized and, in the absence of democracy, the stage where inequalities would be brought into light.

Ethical standards

6.1 This study has been approved by the appropriate ethics committees (Lisbon Faculty of Medicine and Lisbon Regional Health Administration) and has therefore been performed in accordance with the ethical standards laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. Also, permission from the Portuguese Protection Data Authority was obtained. All persons gave their informed consent prior to their inclusion in the study.

Box 1

Table 1:Sociodemographic characterization of the participants of the quantitative study
Table 1
Table 1

Table 2:Sex and number of sexual partners in the last 12 months, relationship status, and importance of sexual life among men and women
Table 2
Table 2

Figure 1. Multivariate analysis of factors associated to sexual satisfaction (GRISS) in women
Figure 1

IIEF: International Index of Erectile Function (higher scores indicate higher sexual function); GRIMS: Golombok-Rust Inventories of Marital State (higher scores indicate more severe marital problem); GRISS: Golombok-Rust Inventories of Sexual Satisfaction (higher scores indicate more severe sexual satisfaction problem).
Values are Beta; *p<0.05; Number of participants included in the final model (adjusted for socio-demographic variables): 72; R2=0.589.

Figure 2. Multivariate analysis of factors associated to sexual satisfaction in men
Figure 2

Table 3. Characterization of the interviewees of the qualitative study by the ideal types of the sexual experiences' typology
Table 3

GRIMS: Golombok-Rust Inventories of Marital State (higher scores indicate more severe marital problem);
GRISS: Golombok-Rust Inventories of Sexual Satisfaction (higher scores indicate more severe sexual satisfaction problem).


We thank all the men and women who kindly participated in the study. We are grateful to the research team, especially Ana Beato, Ana Marques, Filipe Leão Miranda, Rui Simões, and Professor Galvão-Teles.

Conflict-of-Interest Statement

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest. This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


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