Ideals of masculinity and femininity may limit South African women's decision making power in relationships and increase their risk of HIV infection. We conducted 30 in-depth interviews with 18-24-year-old women in inner-city Johannesburg with the aim of understanding young women's expectations of intimate relationships with men, their perceptions of gender and power and how this influences HIV risk. We found that the majority of young women reported expectations of power in relationships that conform to a model of femininity marked by financial independence, freedom to make decisions, including over sexuality, and equality (resistant femininity). The majority of young women, however, were in relationships marked by intimate partner violence, infidelity or lack of condom use. In spite of this, more young women who subscribed to a resistant model of femininity were in less risky relationships than young women who subscribed to acquiescent models, in which power was vested in their male partners. Further, young women who subscribed to resistant femininity had more education than women who subscribed to an acquiescent model. The disconnect between expectations of relationships and young women's lived realities emphasises the need for structural changes that afford women greater economic and thus decision making power.