"I play football instead": compulsory heterosexuality?

ER: So what about you three, any girlfriends David? (shakes his head) Ryan? (shakes his

head) Jake? (shakes his head) So no girlfriends/

Ryan: I got up to novice two in carting.


Darren: I still like a girl I used to go out in the comp with called Amanda.

ER: I remember . . . what about you Timothy?

Timothy: I haven’t got a girlfriend.

ER: Would you like one?

Timothy: No, not really/

Pete: No he’s more into football.

ER: You’re more into football are you?

Timothy: (Nods)

Not all boys engaged in heterosexual boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. Some expressed a desire for a ‘proper’ relationship proceeding primary school, which involved intimate sexual activities. A couple of boys stressed that they were “too young” or “not ready” to have a girlfriend. Their position as (non-sexual) ‘children’ within primary school discourses seemed to make acceptable the absence of heterosexual performances. However, unless they successfully performed as ‘tough-guys’, ‘footballers’ or were ‘sporting competent’, their ‘heterosexuality’ would be called into question and they would often be ‘homosexualised’ and denigrated as ‘gay’ (explored further in the following section). In fact, the foregoing extracts emphasise the two routes through which boys defined their hegemonic masculinity; girlfriends and sport (Connolly, 1994). Pete, for example, offers the latter (“he’s more into football”) as if the two subject positions of boyfriend and footballer are interchangeable. In a similar way, Ryan’s positioning, as successful ‘sportsman’, immediately follows his negative response to having a girlfriend. Being competent at sport was not always a sufficient signifier for heterosexual masculinity.

Misogyny homophobia and heterosexual assertions

In the pursuit of hegemonic masculinity, undermined by the refusal of girls to occupy passive and sexual subject positions, heterosexual identifications were defined through misogynistic and homophobic discourses, and heterosexual fantasies. The following four extracts illustrate the overt ways in which boys formed their heterosexual identities. These included the following:

(1) Symbolic sexual performances

Juliet starts singing a song when pupils have been told to be quiet. Darren spins round on his chair and leans forward in front of Juliet. He then mouths the word ‘fuck’ at her, I am not sure why. He looks annoyed at something.

(2) Public sexual innuendoes

Mrs Fryer tries to quieten the class down. She asks them to put their lips together. Adrian shouts out ‘oo err, I’m not kissing everyone in this class’. Many of the boys and girls start laughing. Mrs Fryer looks at me, smiles, rolls her eyes and gives Adrian a long look (of disapproval?).

(3) Sexual storytelling

Jake is telling Ryan a story concerning Nick Park’s characters, ‘Wallace and Grommit’. I overhear the sentence, ‘yeah, and Wallace is fucking a sheep covered in Mustard and he’s going “uh uh uh uh” ’ (Jake mimes fucking a sheep). They both burst into laughter.

Jake is laughing and joking with his friends. He tells them with a serious, but cocky face, ‘I had Pamela Anderson in my bedroom last night’. He then explains how he has a picture of Pamela Anderson directly above his bed. They all fall about laughing again.

(4) Sexual objectification of girls (and women—see earlier)

ER: So what about you Darren?

Pete: Well, he’s been out with Mandy, I mean, not Mandy, I mean, er er Victoria about

three times in the past three months init? Or something like that and once he went out with her for about a month didn’t ya?

Darren: Mmm.

ER: What happened, why aren’t you seeing her any more?

Pete: Because she, because he called her a fucking bitch and/

Darren: 1 ... 1 just always get in a stress over some things, like I was in a stress that time/ and I don’t know why.

These extracts parallel Mac an Ghaill’s findings in so far as the boys’ ‘sex talk’ and sexual performances seemed ‘publicly to validate their masculinity to their friends’ (and, as extracts 1 and 2 illustrate, to other girls in their class) and went some way to reinforcing dominant heterosexual masculinities, while subordinating femininities. Such performances, particularly their misogyny and sexual objectification of women, also went some way to reinstating boys’ heterosexual dominance, often undermined and denied through conventional and ‘real’ boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. Further heterosexual assertions included overt homophobia and essentialist naturalised discourses surrounding homosexual practices:

As Colin walks into the classroom, he clips Aaron around the head. Aaron responds with‘get off ba-by’ to which Colin, horrified, shouts,‘urgh, you gay’. Aaron laughs this off and tells me about the latest fight between two girls in the playground.

ER: When you say gay Jake, what do you mean by that?

Jake: You know, like/really sad.

Sean: A bender (Sean, Ryan and Jake laugh)/

Ryan: And you can sound gay can’t you/

David: Simon (peer) /lie sounds gay.

Ryan: Our next door neighbour/


Jake: You know that ‘supermarket sweep’ (game show)?

ER: Yeah.

Jake: Well, there was this man on there/

David: And he (host of show) goes,‘you’re really pretty aren’t you’.

Jake: Yeah, and he won it right, about .£2000 and he goes up to him and he can’t stop

kissing him (laughing), he kisses him about 2000 times/

Ryan: Yeah that’s like Michael Barrymore/

Jake: Yeah and/he smacked Michael Barrymore in the other day/

Sean and

Ryan: Yeah (they all cheer and clap)/

David: Who did?

ER: Why is that good?

Sean: Coz he’s gay.

Discourses of homophobia were expressed vehemently by boys who did not engage in overt heterosexual boyfriend/girlfriend relationships and more frequently than by boys who did ‘have girlfriends’ and who were ‘going out’. At times, these discourses were particularly disturbing, such as the explanation, “coz he’s gay”, offered to my questioning of their delight at Michael Barrymore being “smacked in”. This appeared as little less than an advocacy of‘queer bashing’. Aside from homophobic narratives communicated in the group interviews, homophobic performances infiltrated classroom and playground interactions. These were directed at boys who got too close to other boys and those boys who failed or chose not to access hegemonic masculine discourses/practices. Differentiating oneself, and subordinating homosexualities, by shouting out or positioning other boys as ‘gay’ were all ways in which these boys asserted and attempted to make coherent their heterosexual identities. The extracts also reveal how homophobic performances are more about gender than sexual practices and are a means of regulating and policing the boundaries of hegemonic heterosexual masculinities, as Kehily & Nayak, quoting Butler, explain:

We see homophobic performance as a style which gives masculinity the appearance of substance, produced through the ‘regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence’.

(Butler, 1990, p. 137, cited in Kehily & Nayak, 1996, p. 225)

The pressure and struggle that some boys experienced in forming heterosexual relationships and their perceived powerlessness (being dumped, being used) produced contradictory heterosexual identities (Holland et al., 1998). Thus, homophobic performances and misogyny seemed to offer a way of producing‘heterosexual coherence’, which in turn signified a coherent ‘masculine’ identity.

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