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Intimate Inequalities: The Search for Sex, Love, and Intimacy at Mid-Life

Project Description: There is a growing interest among sociologists as well as the general public about changing attitudes and behaviors regarding sex, love, dating and marriage in the 21st century. (See, for example, Aziz Ansari’s popular new book Modern Romance, written with sociologist Eric Klinenberg.) However, despite this interest, little research yet exists on the experience of searching for new romantic or sexual partners at mid-life. This project investigates how single men and women between the ages of 35 and 55 experience the search for sex, love, and intimacy. We examine the dilemmas that people face as they try to find desirable partners, and explore how dating preferences change as people acquire information about what they can realistically obtain. We are also interested in how middle-aged adults respond to the growing presence of online dating technologies.

Individuals do not approach the search for love and sex on an equal footing. Some individuals have access to satisfying sexual relationships and are able to have sex safely, on their own terms, with little stigma; others have limited control over their sex lives. Some people secure satisfying long-term intimate relationships; others cannot do so, and find this disappointing. Society is, we argue, characterized by multiple forms of intimate inequality that work to differentially advantage certain individuals in their search for love and sex.

Our project uses in-depth, qualitative interviews to investigate how gender, race, and social class shape the search for intimacy among adults at mid-life (ages 35-55) in the contemporary U.S. In particular, we are interested in how our respondents conceptualize and experience “risk-taking” (physical, sexual, emotional, and interpersonal), and how this understanding shapes romantic trajectories differently for men and women. We ask:

• How do adults in the contemporary U.S. navigate the experience of singlehood?

• What do adults approaching mid-life desire with respect to sex, love, and intimacy? What do they believe to be possible? What do they consider ideal?

• How do adults at mid-life make meaning or make sense of their intimate relationships? How does this sense-making process work to shape future romantic and sexual trajectories?

• How do respondents conceptualize risk and risk-taking within the context of their intimate relationships? How do they determine whether (and how) they are “at risk,” or come to understand certain behaviors as “risky?” How do respondents’ definitions of “risk” shape their decision making about romantic and sexual partners, both past and potential?

Description of Work Assigned to Research Assistants: Prospective applicants should note that data collection for the project has already been completed. Our research team has collected and transcribed over 50 interviews with single men and women approaching mid-life. Respondents have also been asked to complete a brief online survey summarizing their demographic characteristics, their social identities, and their romantic and sexual histories.

Depending on student interest and the current needs of the project, each RA’s responsibilities may include:

• Coding interview transcripts in Dedoose, a software program designed for mixed-methods analysis and qualitative coding (training will be provided!)

• Listening to recorded interviews and producing written summaries / field notes

• Preliminary analysis of primary qualitative data

• Reviewing relevant academic literature and writing brief memos or annotated bibliographies

• Organizing research documents and other records

In addition, students will be expected to attend weekly meetings with our research team. All students will receive first-hand experience coding and analyzing qualitative data, as well as one-on-one mentorship and training from a team of experienced GSRAs.

Average Hours of Work Per Week: Flexible; approx. 5-10 hours per week
Range of Credit Hours Available: 2-3
Number of Positions Available: 2

Supervising Faculty Member:

Elizabeth Armstrong, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
elarmstr@umich.edu

To learn more or to submit an application, please contact (CC all three):

Spencer Garrison, M.A.
Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology
nicomel@umich.edu

Charity Hoffman, M.A., M.S.W.
Ph.D. Candidate in Social Work & Sociology
charityh@umich.edu

Angie Perone, J.D., M.S.W.
Ph.D. Candidate in Social Work and Sociology
peronea@umich.edu