Electronic Theses and Dissertations



Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Committee Chair

Kristoffer Berlin

Committee Member

Idia Thurston

Committee Member

Tracy N Hipp

Committee Member

James G Murphy


Sexual relationship power (SRP) describes interpersonal power dynamics within romantic relationships. Gender roles reinforce patriarchal ideals of male dominance and contribute to SRP imbalances, which has been linked to numerous negative outcomes including intimate partner violence. Women of color and people in the U.S. MidSouth experience pronounced disparate rates of the negative outcomes associated with imbalanced SRP due to systemic inequities rooted in oppression. Objectification theory posits that the dehumanizing process of viewing women’s bodies as objects can lead to self-objectification and negative body image. Though ample research reveals a connection between body image and behavior in sexual contexts, less is known about how body image and other individual and societal factors impact SRP. The present study aimed to qualitatively examine how positive (body appreciation) and negative (objectified body consciousness) body image affect SRP among a sample of emerging adult undergraduate women in heterosexual relationships with men. Interviewees (N = 11, Mage = 20.64) were recruited through purposive and theoretical sampling at a university in the U.S. MidSouth to complete in-depth, semi-structured interviews. Using grounded theory, four themes emerged: Socially Determined Power, Body Image, Women’s Autonomy and Confidence, and Relationship Variables. An inductive theoretical framework was developed to explain how these variables impact SRP among undergraduate emerging adult women. SRP was described as malleable and impacted not only by socially derived power and negative body image but also by male partner egalitarian views and women’s own confidence. Whereas negative body image created imbalanced SRP based on socially determined power (e.g., conforming to gendered norms and beauty standards), positive body image and overall confidence impacted communication in relationships and fostered balanced SRP. Male partner variables also emerged as an important influence on SRP, but women’s own autonomy guided women toward increased SRP despite these factors (e.g., through communication with their current partner or by pursuing other relationships with more equal power). Findings extend the current literature by revealing women’s lived experiences of SRP in relationships with men. Additional research is warranted among larger and more diverse samples to test the inductive theory developed and to ultimately promote more balanced SRP.


Data is provided by the student.

Library Comment

Dissertation or thesis originally submitted to ProQuest


Open Access