People meet future sexual partners in a variety of different situations, including bars, workplaces, schools, polytechnics, sports clubs, gyms, parties or the homes of friends and family. Some relationships start as casual encounters and become ongoing attachments. Increasingly people of all ages – heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual – are using internet dating sites to find romantic and sexual partners.
European settlers arrived in New Zealand with ideas about differences in men and women’s sexuality. These included the idea that men, once aroused, need sexual satisfaction. In heterosexual relationships this contributed to a focus on men’s sexual pleasure, with little concern for women’s pleasure – both in popular culture and among those providing expert advice.
Sexual-health activist Ettie Rout argued that both women and men have sex for pleasure. In Safe marriage (1922), she stated that sexual desire and pleasure in sexual intercourse was normal and healthy for both women and men. Rout worked to ensure that New Zealand soldiers had access to condoms during the First World War.
Women’s rights to sexual pleasure were asserted more forcefully in the 1960s and 1970s. This coincided with the availability of the contraceptive pill, which made it easier for sexually active women to avoid pregnancy.
Men in New Zealand sometimes use what is called 'the wingman strategy' to pick up a woman when they are at a pub or a party with their friends. According to Terry, who was part of a focus-group discussion in the early 2000s, ‘girls often tend to travel in twos so you need your wingman to take the friend away so you can hit on the girl that you're after ... You know it is like fighter planes, they travel around in pairs, and the wingman always sort of watches out for you ...'1
From the later 20th century, heterosexual couples have increasingly tried to ensure that they both experience pleasure. One male research participant said it was a matter of 'one for her and one for me'.2 Simultaneous orgasm was sometimes seen as the best thing, but was not easily achieved. For many women, penetrative sex was not the major way they experienced orgasm.
Conversations with heterosexual women and men suggest that women’s orgasms are perceived as more difficult to achieve, and are a mark of men’s sexual competence or ‘sexpertise’. Some younger women also see themselves as sexual experts whose partners benefit from their well-honed sexual techniques.
The meaning of ‘sex’
For heterosexuals, sex has traditionally been defined as sexual intercourse. However, research among younger adults suggests that many people view sex more broadly, including practices such as oral sex.
Many people, including gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, engage in a variety of sexual practices. Physical closeness, erotic touching and emotional intimacy – as well as orgasm – are important in many different sexual relationships.
Love after 20 years
Paul and Barry met at Paul’s workplace – a takeaway bar – 20 years ago. They were attracted to one another, exchanged phone numbers and arranged to meet when Paul had a night off. According to Barry they have ‘shared everything from then on because we’ve got a lot in common … shared experiences, shared interests, love still after 20 years’.3
Coupledom and its challenges
Interviews with gay male couples suggest that, as for many heterosexual and lesbian couples, sex is a special way of knowing their partner that they do not share with anyone else. Couples see their relationship as unique and important to their sense of self, and usually value monogamy, even if they sometimes have sex with other people. Talking to partners about sex with others is usually difficult, and can be a threat to coupled relationships.
Long-term gay couples sometimes chose not to use condoms with one another, as opposed to during casual sex. Some heterosexual couples also reported not using condoms in established relationships. The decision not to practise safer sex can be a way of showing commitment to one another.
Bisexuals fall in love with, are attracted to, or have sex with people regardless of their gender. They often see sexuality as a continuum, and may be critical of pressures to fit into conventional gender or sexuality categories. Some bisexuals are equally attracted to both genders, while others are attracted more to people of one gender. Their degree of attraction to different genders can change over time.
Some people are attracted to partners of different genders, but do not define themselves as bisexual. People who are sexually active with only one gender may still consider themselves bisexual.