(Female) Bodies and (Male) Sexuality

The gender complementarity experienced by the eldest generation is also found in the way they talk—or do not talk—about bodies and sexuality, including the gender specific emotional ambivalences we just heard of. Bodies, and especially the generative and problematic aspects of bodies, are more or less associated with women, whereas sexuality is construed as an exclusively male urge to be lived out or kept in check.

According to the Norwegian social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad (1996), women in general tend to talk more about the body compared to men—both its pleasures and problems. This is not quite borne out in our study, where the men also often inform us about injuries and diseases, both due to the war and their old age. However, these stories are still associated with male strength and outward activity, since they are usually told in order to underline the importance of enduring and overcoming personal bodily suffering. Thus, the experiences of their own bodies reflect their general mentality of work and their feelings about masculinity. The contempt for weaklings who lack the stamina to overcome such troubles is often brutally clear, and the taboo against complaining is evident. It is not unreasonable to interpret this as a defence against the fear of losing masculinity. Knut also says in the interview that, in his eyes, a man who is occupied with his appearance is not a man.

The fact that a male body, ailing or not, is obliged to take responsibility for himself and others is strikingly formulated by Einar, who was injured in the war. He reports numerous surgeries, bleeding wounds and continuous pains. This has evidently ruled his whole life and has made everyday activities into almost insurmountable challenges. Yet being a man who stakes his honour on providing for his family, he expects to endure this. The self-evident masculinity personified in the strong, working body is central when it comes to providing for a family. It is also important as part of a competitive comparison between men, often in connection with size and strength. Harald describes his own bodily assets with great satisfaction: when he was 15, most people thought he was 18, in contrast to his tiny and frail brother. He thinks that the brother’s later grudge against him is due to this difference in size and strength. At the same time as size/strength are important factors, they should come ‘naturally’ (meaning through work) and the body itself is not yet objectified or dwelled upon unless it fails as an instrument. The interest in bodies per se is felt as feminine, and biological, age-related changes (‘puberty’ is not yet a term common in this generation) are associated with girls, not boys. For Knut the happenings in the world around clearly overshadowed his own experience of the bodily transition from child to man:

How it is with girls, I don’t know. But right now I’ll only talk about myself. I felt like I never had a problem when I was 14, going on 15, 16, 17. Because you could say that I came right into the outbreak of this war. There was a lot of excitement around that. You wondered how it was going. You saw that the Germans were advancing on and on. And then they were suddenly retreating, and others came in. I don’t think you had a lot of time to think about yourself, for there was so much excitement around what was happening in the world...

So that bodily change and that you changed from being a child to becoming an adult—I think girls notice that much more than boys do. (Knut, b. 1925)

In many ways the women confirm the men’s conception of the body as a particularly female sphere of interest. Although some working-class and farmer girls deny having had any time to ‘sit and mope’ over their own bodies, there is no taboo on talking about the sick or suffering body. In fact, it seems that it is only when the generative body can be understood as a sick body (and not as a sexual body) that it can be talked about at all (Thorsen 1993a). It is not hard to get the women to talk about their menstruations. Mundane activities like knitting and washing sanitary towels, then hanging them out to dry in public make the generative body a constant presence in their lives. But only the upper-middle class girl

Dagny had a mother who told her about menstruation before it happened. For most of the other women, menstruation forms a narrative of being scared almost to death as a totally unknowing young girl, then silence about what had happened, excruciating pain and more work (sewing and washing sanitary towels), as well as unbearable public embarrassment when they sometimes experienced bleeding through their clothes in the classroom. Some of the women talk about the relief they felt when they finally reached menopause. The discourse is quite straightforward: this is the ‘women’s curse’, literally revealing the shame associated with one’s own bodily impurity. The body gains more positive connotations when it comes to appearance. A nice figure and thick or curly hair was a good resource on the marriage market, as was being good at household work. If you did not possess any of these bodily advantages, there was not much to do about it. Nobody remembers dieting, but they put some effort into getting their hair done. Only among the middle-class girls do we hear about more specific worries like an ugly nose, short legs or pimples, but there was not much they could do about those either.

Seen from a psychosocial perspective, the self-evident male body in this generation seems to be part of the strong same-sex identification among the men, emotionally invested in the ideal image of the father, but also involving an undercurrent of possible humiliation and competitive loss both in comparison with other men and with regard to the fear of female weakness. For the women, the inherent ambivalence in the same-sex identification with the mother, who is both competent and yet not quite what one wants to emulate, might be reflected in the way they relate to their own generative body as more of a burden than a source of pleasure.

If the body is understood as ‘female’ immanence by both men and women in this generation, sexuality is as clearly and unanimously understood as ‘male’. However, some of the gender similarities in practice are surprising: the norm of abstaining from sex at least until formally engaged was quite strong for both the women and the men. Martin says that he never kissed a girl before he met his wife when he was 29 years old. Later he wondered about the reasons for this and thinks that it might be because he did not want to hurt the girl:

No, and I thought about that later. Why didn’t I do it—I was afraid that I would make her sad if I wasn’t sure about it. That was what lay behind it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it, I don’t even need to tell you that. It wasn’t... But I thought that ... I didn’t have relations with my wife before we were married.

Q: So you waited?

Yes, we did. You could say, we were engaged to be married when I came home, which we weren’t the first time. But I know that mother had made up one bed for us. We were going to sleep in the same bed.

Q: When you were engaged. So your mother did that.

Yes, I thought it was strange. I told my mother, no ...And I asked her quietly to ... (Martin, b. 1905)

Martin shows not only a great amount of self-control; he is also a moral guardian compared to his own religious mother. Some of the men are quite vague about sexual activities, but indicate both feelings of guilt and the necessity of self-discipline. Harald asks rhetorically: ‘ What is the problem with a little masturbation? That doesn’t hurt anyone. At the other extreme, Gunnar talks about his wild youth, involving a lot of female liaisons and detailed prescriptions for seduction. The consequence of all this activity was that he got a venereal disease, which he presents as yet another hilarious story from his youth. But even such sexual excesses are socially regulated: starting a family acts as a sharp boundary between wild, irresponsible youth and grown-up masculinity. Gunnar assures us that after marriage he was never unfaithful again. Today, he claims that a real man is a man who does not carry on the way he did when he was young:

Maybe Im not the right person to, I have admitted to my childhood and wild periods. But if we say that a man gets to the age when he stands at the threshold of starting his own family and does so. And then doesn’t give a shit about it and says ‘as long as I get my desires satisfied’ by purchasing them, and it affects the family. I don’t consider that a man. Those people ought to shoot themselves. (Gunnar, b. 1926)

In the case of these two young men—the sexually restrained one and the sexually ‘wild’ one respectively—we may discern different feelings of gender: Martin, who is afraid of hurting women, is one of the men who felt close to his own brave mother, while Gunnar idealises his socially extrovert father and depicts his mother as quite anonymous. Although the psychological and motivational points of departure are different, the results will in both cases be a strong emotional investment in gender difference, and in the moral order that sustains such differences, including the complementarity that is seen as necessary to bridge the gap.

Although male sexuality has to be kept in check, even harsher rules apply to women: while men can be wild for a certain period and then develop into responsible adults, women do not enjoy the same freedoms. To be sexually wild will destroy their quality as potential mothers and wives. To the men, the possibility of female sexuality seems to go against nature, and the few who have experienced being approached by women find it almost monstrous. They cannot relate female sexuality to their emotional experiences of femininity, and sometimes their unconscious fears about it are activated. The women themselves also stick to the distinction between ‘cheap’ and ‘nice’ girls, although most of them did have sex with their future husbands after being formally engaged. There seems to be less feelings of guilt involved in this for the women than for the men, possibly because the initiative came from their fiances. According to all the women in the eldest generation, the positive aspect of the strict norms was the lack of pressure on a girl to have sex before she was engaged. If a girl was pressured (and many tell us about hot and impatient suitors), she had the unquestionable right to say no. Unlike the men, none of the women say that following those rules was in conflict with their own sexual needs.

The women are even less willing than the men to talk about their own sexual experiences in the interviews. One says straight out that she does not want to talk about this, and in other cases this unwillingness is so strongly implied that the interviewer simply skips the questions related to sexuality. Those who do say something about their own sexuality are very brief. Ellen, a middle-class woman born in 1923 who waited to have sex until after her wedding, says briefly that she experienced it as a natural thing when it happened and that she had just followed her own feelings and instincts. But apart from Ellen those who say anything at all refer to sex as something they did mainly because their male partner wanted it. To be disinterested in sex is here seen as a fact of life, a part of female nature, maybe even inherited from their mother, as Borghild explains:

I was the type who didn’t really care for sex, you know, not everyone does, and I think I inherited that from my mother, because I think she was like that too.

I understood it, saw that she didn’t really want to go to bed, no, many probably felt like that, and many I’ve spoken to said that they didn’t think it was such a big deal...

Q: That the boys were more interested?

Yes, that, that is difficult, when you get married, because you think that... You have to do it whether you want to or not, satisfy your husband, but I had a kind husband, yes. I’ve been sick a lot and various things, I often had bronchitis and that affected my stomach badly, so I guess it was, yes, he was very kind. I told the doctor once that I have such an extraordinary husband. So yes, he understood, and he was scared to ruin me that way ... Well, but we still had four kids, so it was all right [laughs]. (Borghild, b. 1911)

Although sex is depicted as something one engaged in primarily for one’s husband’s sake, there are also stories of youthful attractions to rather ‘wild’ and dangerous young men who were good-looking and good at dancing. Sometimes they could even be foreign soldiers during the Second World War, but the women who admit to this quickly assure us that they never acted on it.[1] Middle-class girls who were more confined by parental control indulged in romantic ideas rather than actions. Some of these women describe themselves as ‘butterflies’ flying from one infatuation to the next. Dagny recalls that she fell for all boys—anything in trousers ... I was constantly in love’. However, for all the women, regardless of class, there were strict limits to observe. The female informants have little empathy with girls who became pregnant out of wedlock, thereby imposing great social shame on their parents.

For many of the women, especially those who grew up in rural areas, deliberations when it came to marriage followed a different logic than their youthful infatuations: the exciting dancers were rejected in favour of men who had the potential of becoming solid providers in marriages based on complementary gender roles, although they were not necessarily much fun or good at dancing. Helga, a farmer girl whose husband became a successful building contractor in the city, says the following when asked about why she married him:

It had to be his calm, sober way of being ... A properly solid guy ... Kind and ... but... He could’ve been a bit more ..fun, in a way, but that’s ... Then it’s the matter of his work being his interest. (Helga, b. 1918)

Helga met her future husband when she was in her mid-twenties and she remembers how anxious she had been before that about never getting married. This would have meant ending up as an old unmarried aunt at the farm.[2] It is not difficult to understand that accepting a decent marriage proposal in this generation could be a result of pragmatic considerations. But by silencing their own youthful attraction to the wild and dangerous men, they also split the relationship with the husband off from the image of the playful, fascinating father. The men, on the other hand, could in many ways safeguard the image of the ‘good’ mother in the shape of their wives, including their feelings of guilt towards this kind angel. They had to overcome their own wild, youthful masculinity in order to become responsible. When it comes to marriage, the women in this generation seem to have a more pragmatic view than the men, who often express a more romantic or even sentimental approach to companionship. They talk more about love in connection with their marriages than the women do, but also indicate that love deepens when the wife does a good job in the family. In this way both parties cooperate to establish the complementary gender order of nice women and responsible men. For the women, however, the emotional investment in this gender difference does not seem attached to their feelings of gender in the same way as for the men. If he could be said to be marrying an image of his good mother, she is clearly not marrying her fun father. The different and gender-specific emotional investment in the complementary gender order will, as we will see later, represent an unsolved tension in this generation’s marriages.

  • [1] And if they did, this is probably not something that can be talked about in this kind of interview.In one case we learned only in the second interview with the woman’s granddaughter (when thegranddaughter was approaching 30) that the grandmother had in fact become pregnant by aGerman soldier and that the granddaughter’s mother had been the result of that pregnancy. Theonly thing we registered during the first round of interviews with the three women was that theytold incompatible stories about their grandmother’s marriages and divorces.
  • [2] As mentioned in Chap. 4, from 1860 to 1930 there was a surplus of women in the population dueboth to higher mortality rates among men and to immigration. This meant that many womenstayed unmarried all their life in this historical period. Thus, Helga’s fear of not getting married andending up at the family farm was based on real-life experience (Hagemann 1999; Melby 1999).
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