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Laura M. Carpenter

Associate Professor of Sociology

How does gender influence how sexuality and health unfold over the life course?

My research examines how sexual and social experiences—such as sexual initiation, divorce, or the onset of chronic illness—affect a person’s sexual beliefs and behaviors later in life. I ask how individuals’ sexual biographies are shaped by broader cultural and historical changes, such as the sexual “revolution” of the late 1960s-early 1970s, and the invention of "revolutionary" pharmaceuticals. I focus on the ways in which intersections among gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation influence these life course processes, and the intertwined dynamics of gender, sexuality, and health from birth until death.  

My first book, Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, reveals the different metaphorical meanings young adults in the contemporary United States assign to virginity—comparing it to a gift, stigma, step in a process, or act of worship—shape their sexual lives, including such aspects as partner choice, timing of sexual activity, and safer sex practices. Although women and men tend to favor different metaphors for virginity, if they share an interpretation of virginity, they typically experience virginity loss in similar ways. Seeing how virginity loss was (and was not) influenced by earlier and later sexual experiences prompted me to develop a general, transferable model of the ways gendered sexuality unfolds throughout the life course. This conceptual framework became the kernel of my recent coedited interdisciplinary volume, Sex for Life: From Virginity to Viagra, How Sexuality Changes Throughout Our Lives