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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Hook-ups to Headaches: Theorizing the Emotional Labor of University Women’s Sexual Decisions

  • Author(s): Flynn, Leah A.
  • et al.

Using qualitative methods within post-structural theory, this paper questions how women make sense of their sexuality within the context of university life. I examine what relationship to sexuality women bring to college, how they negotiate their sexual agency within a university setting, and the emotional work they undertake. As the first opportunity where students live and learn independently of authoritative figures, the site provides space to explore women’s negotiation and resistance to different forms of authority. College is a particular discursive environment for regulating ideas of sex as it is a contested space of limitations and new freedoms. This cultural analysis uses data from open-ended, semi-structured interviews and focus groups with white women from multiple class positions at a small, public, doctoral-granting university in the Northeast. The participants ranged from sophomores to seniors; one identified as bi-sexual, and the remainder as heterosexual.

Analyzing the sexual discourse that women employ with each other in these conversations allows us to interrogate how women’s sexual experiences are regulated for them and by others in a patriarchal society. Women perform emotional labor when discerning how they “feel” about the situation compared to how others (e.g. parents, friends, partners) “feel” about their decisions. The paper theorizes the “emotional labor” embedded within their discourse and how it informs women’s sexual decisions. I argue that “emotional labor” takes precedence over women’s desires as they work to position themselves sexually in college. This paper exposes, engages and de-constructs the boundaries that hinder women’s sexual agency.

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