Contradictory Heterosexuality: The Construction of Extra-relational Sexual Involvement
The behaviour generally referred to as ‘infidelity’ seems to occupy a contradictory site within current Western culture – it is both widespread, yet seen as unacceptable. The un/acceptability of this act, and its social and cultural repercussions, are typically linked to dominant constructions of what constitutes appropriate relational practices and male and female heterosexuality. This behaviour has largely been argued to have adverse outcomes, such as embarrassment, emotional trauma, relationship dissolution, moral outrage, as well as jealousy related violence and homicide. Despite common acknowledgement that ‘infidelity’ can have a life changing impact, the experiences of those who have engaged in this behaviour have rarely been examined in great depth. Most research has approached the issue in reductionist and/or problematic ways that depict the repercussions as inevitable and ‘natural’. The current study is located within the critical sexualities and critical social psychology fields, and aimed to examine such extra-relational sexual involvements (ERSI) in much greater depth.
This project reports on an in-depth, qualitative, exploratory, and discursive analysis of ERSI amongst heterosexuals in New Zealand. In the first study, heterosexual men’s (10 respondents) and women’s (24 respondents) experiences of engaging in ERSI was examined, via qualitative questionnaires online. The second study aimed to explore the wider social constructions of ERSI, as a broader and contextualised analysis of such practices is also greatly lacking. In order to do so, four focus group discussions were employed, consisting of two men’s (eight participants) and two women’s groups (nine participants). All of the data was analysed using a Foucauldian mode of discourse analysis, as outlined by Willig (2013) for the discipline of psychology.
The discourses identified in Study One were categorised into acceptability and problematising discourses. The “acceptability” discourses included: irresistible attraction, sexual experimentation, and hierarchy of ERSI. The problematising discourses involved: moral transgression – the contradictory experience of ERSI, and ERSI as catastrophic. The social discourses outlined in Study Two included: fragility of contemporary relationships, the friend threat, norms of relationships, relationships as investments, and relationships as work.
The analysis demonstrated how participants portrayed ERSI in contradictory, contested, gendered and highly moralising ways. The discourses of ERSI were heavily intertwined with heteronormative understandings of relationality and reinforced a mononormative structure as the ideal and most ‘normal’ way to engage in love/sex relationships. The men’s and women’s talk also drew on traditional gender identity norms while marginalising singlehood, as well as non-monogamies. These results have implications for constructions of masculinity, femininity, monogamy, sexuality and power relations within heterosexuality.