Gendering Bodies and Degendering Sexuality

Both women and men in the youngest generation talk a lot and in great detail about their bodies, and this interest in the body is no longer an exclusively female affair. Just like their grandfathers and fathers before them, the men in the youngest generation report that their bodily changes were gradual and that the puberty of girls is probably a much more dramatic affair, but they do actually have narratives of wet dreams, growing hair in the groin and armpits, and change of voice pitch. ‘Puberty’ is now a commonly used concept and regarded as a relevant topic also among the men and ‘flaws’ is a term that this generation of young men makes use of without any hesitation. Being small, too fat or having a small penis are frequent complaints—in addition to red hair and freckles, acne, a big nose and a tendency to blush. Anders, who at first denies having any bodily problems, ends up talking for a long time about his acne problems. The list of flaws indicates the relative preoccupation with appearances in the youngest generation of men compared to the previous ones or, perhaps more importantly, it is a preoccupation that they do not perceive as unmasculine. One bodily theme that is recognisable across the generations of men, however, is the matter of size. This obviously includes the size of the penis, where comparisons in the school shower are still mentioned as shameful experiences. But the issue of size is more general: to be ‘tall for one’s age’ or ‘one of the tallest in class’ is referred to as an important asset, almost negating other flaws. Just like their fathers, the young men regard bodybuilding as a form of contemptuous and effeminate self-indulgence. Men who feel up their own muscles’ are ‘icky, Joar, who is lower middle class, says. Vegard, who actually lifts weights and has developed his muscles, hastens to give a ‘manly’ reason for this activity; it is not in order to look good, but in order to be able to help out in a situation of need: ‘I’ve always been afraid that if there’s an emergency or something, this is a little sick ... I wouldn’t be able to do anything ... I guess I exercised in order to be strong and to get some use out of it.’ The size and strength of the body is evidently an advantage in the competition between boys, but it is also seen as an asset when it comes to girls. Vegard had at times felt that he was almost objectified by girls: ‘when I was 16, I was sort of the bodybuilding type. There were a lot of girls who I kind of dated, who were with me because of how I looked.

This fear of being objectified is significant, since it reveals the ambivalence associated with the new trend of bodily preoccupations.[1] Some of the men define—just like the male generations before them—any such interest as feminine, and remain indifferent when it comes to clothes and leave the shopping to their mothers. Others are interested in fashion, studying films and magazines for inspiration. Among the young men who are preoccupied with style, we also find those who are explicitly ‘anti-fashion’, which in some cases seems to become almost a mania to set oneself apart. Rune has a long coat bought at a flea market, demonstrating his boundaries both against his mother, who wants him to dress nicely, and against the socialists at school by actually putting on a suit, and finally against the conservatives (with whom he is politically aligned) by refusing to wear the expensive and exclusive brands that are their uniform. This is a case where the more general mentality of individualisation seems to be turned into a drive for uniqueness—a drive that is much more prominent among the men than the women in this generation (see also Bordo 1999). The young men in our study seem to be involved in a precarious testing out of the borders of modern masculinity, where a weak and vulnerable body remains problematic. It is therefore remarkable that they actually admit to such vulnerability to a greater extent than the generations before them and even invest in body projects in new ways within some (masculine) limits. Nevertheless, they also seem to experience their bodies as rather self-evident facts. Seen in connection with their parental identifications, it appears that a close and positive relationship with a mother who cares for her son’s body (also when it comes to his appearance, giving advice on clothes) and a father who is actively involved, for instance, in his son’s sports activities promote a strong embodied sense of masculinity as self-evident.

Among the men of the middle generation, we saw an increased focus on the female body. This is a much more ambivalent issue in the youngest generation: at age 18, Stian stresses that ‘boobs and thighs were more important to him when he was younger, whereas Henrik at the same age is clearly apologetic about the fact that a nice body on a girl means a lot since ‘it shouldn’t. However, at 30 the men admit that bodily gender differences are important—and that they were important at 18 too: ‘you couldn’t look like the back end of a bus and have a lovely personality, says Anders at 30, looking back at how he and his friends saw girls in high school. This emphasis on bodily difference is not seen among women to the same degree, so it may indicate that it has a specific significance in securing a sense of masculinity. At 30, Henrik does not feel that there are any differences in the skills and capacities of women and men, but at the same time he wants more intensity between women and men, and thinks that women should emphasise their femininity to a greater extent. He finds it difficult to explain what he means by femininity, but feels it has something to do with body, clothes and charisma. According to him, neither men nor women should dress in grey and try to become invisible, but he finds it especially problematic when women think that they have to behave and look like men in order to succeed in a career. Since he is clearly in favour of gender equality both at 18 and 30, this indicates that the issue of bodily and aesthetic difference in this generation of men is experienced as a separate aspect of gender, partly following its own logic, and not necessarily in tension with degendering in other areas, as it was for the men in the middle generation.

Among the young women, the generative body is no straightforward matter. The problem is not lack of knowledge as in the previous generations: they all know what menstruation is and most of them depict the transition as rather undramatic. The young working-class women are even glad to feel grown-up and ‘normal’. For the middle-class girls, however, the bodily transition is more disturbing: Vilde remembers that she was proud not to get her period since that meant that she worked out a lot, something her father appreciated. These middle-class girls are even more negative with regard to their menstruation than the women in the eldest generation. The period is characterised as ‘a real bother, ‘hellish crap, ‘a little strange’, ‘embarrassing or directly ‘icky. Eva, who could shout across the classroom that she needed to borrow a tampon, tells us that she is completely disgusted by the blood. Across all three generations of women, bodily appearances and looks represent an area that is much less surrounded by taboos than generative development and maturing processes. The differences between the two eldest generations were a greater differentiation of flaws and assets, as well as a drastically increased energy (and resources) invested in bodily improvements. In the youngest generation the detailed catalogue of flaws is replaced with a general preoccupation, bordering on obsession, with the body’s size, shape and weight (see also Bordo 1993; Brumberg 1997). It is an issue that is strongly present in the interviews regardless of whether the women feel overweight or not. The vast majority have been dieting, and quite a few have, as one of them puts it, had ‘a touch of anorexia . To almost stop eating makes one feel good, in control. Oda, whose mother as a young girl used to compare her weight with that of Miss Norway, first assures us that she does not have a problem with her body and then admits reluctantly that she often gets annoyed with herself if she eats without having worked out. On days like that she throws up:

I was completely exhausted when I was doing ballet, and I just ate and ate and ate when I was done. I was so exhausted. And that’s when I became dissatisfied and threw up. Oh! Yuck [silently]. (Oda, 18)

Others make it a point that they have never been on a diet. The awareness of fat seems to pervade the body images of all the women in this generation, but the experience of the body is still quite varied.[2] There is a stronger polarisation in the youngest generation where some women experience greater success when it comes to disciplining themselves, since there is hardly any indifference involved. The polarisation is also quite striking when it comes to social background. None of the women from working-class families report a negative relationship with their bodies, and most of the ones with a positive body image are mother-identified and have a positive relationship with an attentive father. Stine describes how she showed off her new dresses in front of her father, since he was ‘the only man in the house’. Reproductive and bodily femininity appears to be more threatening to middle-class girls. They also seem to receive more ambiguous messages from their parents, ranging from feminist celebrations of their first period to hints about watching their weight. Their relationship with their fathers is based on intellectual qualities than a positive evaluation of femininity. Perhaps it does not involve a direct devaluation of femininity, but rather neutralises its embodied aspects? The experience of gendered embodiment may therefore be a greater subjective obstacle for a father-identified girl than it is for a mother-identified boy. Feminine appearance is a demanding act of balance for a middle-class girl: not too little, not too much, and appropriate in time and place (see also Ambjornsson 2004). The more or less suspect femininity that a young middle-class girl has to avoid in order to become a modern, autonomous girl might also no longer be represented by her own mother in the way it was in the middle generation, but rather might be experienced as a more obscure, inner threat to her perceived identity. The body that is so central to modern self-construction has become a potential enemy, which they either manage to control or that lets them down by being beyond their control (Rudberg 1995). Thus, in spite of the young men taking a much more active interest in their appearance, there are only sparse signs that men and women in the youngest generation have become more similar to each other in the way they talk about and relate to their bodies.

Among our informants, the ‘risk group’ with regard to anorexic tendencies seems to be father- identified athletic girls from the middle class, who hate becoming what one of them describes as ‘a proper female’. At the same time, there is a female family heritage involved, sometimes going as far back as the grandmother’s generation. Oda remembers how her mother used to stand in front of the mirror and complain about how fat she was, while her daughter who stood beside her clearly saw that she was chubbier than her mother.

When it comes to sexuality, there seems to be more degendering going on—both in practice and in norms: at 18, more of the women than the men have had heterosexual intercourse, which coincides with figures in national statistics for their generation (Pedersen et al. 2003). Many of the young women have had one-night stands; others had their sexual debut in a very short relationship that only lasted a few weeks. To have several partners is no longer regarded as a moral problem—although both genders are aware of the fact that girls who ‘sleep around get a worse reputation than ‘players, which is an exclusively masculine term. The possibility of being the object of negative labelling does not seem to direct the young women’s behaviour to any great extent. They initiate sexual relations more often than their mothers did, or at least they feel that they should be able to. In practice it is still rare and is clearly felt as a risky business. The risks are evidently connected with fear of abuse, but even more with the fear of being seen as an ‘exposed girl’ (Nielsen and Rudberg 2007). To the young women in our sample, an ‘exposed girl’ is not a girl who has several partners, but rather a girl who has sex to please others, not because she really wants to. They insist that when and how to have sex is seen as an individual choice. The ones who ‘wait’ until they are in a steady relationship do not argue in terms of morality (like their grandmothers) or risk of pregnancy (like their mothers), but in terms of what they felt as right for themselves. The young women still connect love and sex, but not as strongly as the middle generation. We can actually see some signs that love is becoming more problematic than sex for the youngest women. Eva loudly proclaims that ‘sex is fun! and positions herself as a sexual subject, even asking one of her male friends to ‘deflower her because she thought she was being left behind at 16. Still, the cheerful facade seems to cover up many painful complications: to have sex with someone you love is definitely risky. Eva gets ‘uptight, ‘deadly nervous’ and prays ‘God, let him want somebody else’. The fear that she shares with other middle-class girls is to lose herself in a heterosexual relationship (see also Kleven 1992, 1993). To fall in love implies being open and vulnerable, with the danger of being evaluated and rejected on account of something experienced as genuinely one’s own and yet totally out of hand. ‘In a way I want to have the upper hand, I don’t want to care about them as much as they care about me, if you know what I mean , Anja says. This may indicate that the newly gained autonomy in young women has to be safeguarded and that especially heterosexual relations are still connected with the danger of dependency and asymmetry.

These changes seem to appear somewhat paradoxically at the historical moment when at least some of the men are heading in the opposite direction, striving for an integration of sex and intimacy. The tendency to reject the idea of one-night stands is in our data actually more pronounced among the young men. Emphasised in their arguments is the importance of ‘feelings in order to have ‘good sex . The crucial thing is to know your partner well, Kim says, which makes it possible to open up and tell each other about one’s needs and desires. One-night stands are therefore condemned as ‘a cut between the head and the heart, as Henrik puts it. Joar and Vegard also describe their own sexual debuts on one- night stands as horrible—Joar got a stomach ache but felt that he had to oblige, while Vegard felt directly attacked:

Suddenly she’s pulling my arm, you know, and she drags me into the room, and you know, I totally panic, right, and then ... we were going to try and stuff, but it didn’t work because ... she was a bit tight. (Vegard, 18)

However, this also reveals that these men are still ambivalent towards female initiatives (see also Dworkin and O’Sullivan 2007). Some of the working-class boys mention girls who are sexually frivolous or unbearable when they get drunk. The middle-class boys think that sexual morals ought to be gender-neutral. Some of them actually prefer active girls, not least because that also reduces the risk of getting rejected. That a girl should be sexually active and initiate a relationship is not only accepted but also even demanded by most of the young men, since sex should be a reciprocal affair: [3]

Thus, it seems that sexuality for these young men should be within a relationship in order to be enjoyable. This clearly goes against the trend in the previous generation of men who defined sexuality as an uncontrollable and almost brutal urge when they were the same age. However, the integration of love and sex among the men does not mean that sex gets reduced to intimacy. Vegard, who is among those who most emphatically underline the importance of feelings in order for sex to be good, is also quite certain that it involves two different dimensions:

Well, I don’t feel more attached during the sex act or anything like that. It’s more that I feel safer and things like that, if you can hold each other and cuddle and stuff... I feel like when you sleep with someone, it becomes more ... cold, like, because you don’t get the same connection, because then you’re busy with something else than thinking about each other ... but of course it is, I don’t know [laughs] maybe there’s something that you have to get out of your system, kind of [laughs] ... then you can fall asleep in each other’s arms afterwards. (Vegard, 18)

There is much less desire involved in the descriptions of sexual encounters among the women, and their characterisations are actually not so different from the ones given by the women in the middle generation. Many of them depict their first time as a painful affair, involving blood and horror, while others laconically state that it was no great experience. In addition to Eva, who proclaimed that ‘sex is fun, only Stine, who also had a painful first time, actually describes sexual excitement where ‘the bodies live together. When feelings enter the picture, women still tend to talk about sexual experiences in relational terms, as the ultimate intimacy, sometimes as a testimony to their erotic power over the boyfriend, in addition to being a way to feel grown-up. The sexual experience itself is not highlighted, and we recognise some of the instrumentality from the women of the previous generation, although not as explicitly. The question is whether explicit sexual desire is still defined as a masculine affair even though both norms and practices are more degendered and individualised. Does this imply a gendered inertia when it comes to questions of the body and sexuality that seem to go slower or even resist other degendering processes?

However, neither such inertia nor the emphasis on sexual difference among the men influences the attitudes to non-normative sexualities in this generation. As with Magne in the previous generation, sexual difference and heterosexual choice are seen as a question of one’s own individual taste rather than as general norms. It may actually be the other way round— that increased diversity also reduces the heterosexual choice to being one among other possible choices and thus legitimates the talk about experiences of sexual difference. When asked about homosexuality at 30 and whether this was an issue that occupied them in high school, the answers illustrate that the 1990s was the decade when gay and lesbian rights were on the agenda and the first steps were taken towards cultural and political inclusion.[4] At first many of them said that they had neither thought nor talked much about it around 1990. At the ten-year reunion for their high school class, it had turned out that two girls from one of the classes were in a same-sex civil union, which had come as a complete surprise to everyone. Some had, however, known gay people from sports, political organisations or colleagues of their parents’, and had whispered with others about it. It was also clear from what some of them said that homosexuality was indeed present in school and among their peers in the late 1980s, sometimes as a bit of a worrying issue. A gym teacher in high school had been openly lesbian and at that time the students thought it was odd, one woman even remembering it as ‘icky. A few had experienced that a close friend had come out as gay or lesbian and remember the awkwardness they at first felt about it. They had needed time to reinterpret their friendship, but it never led to a break. Those who were late in getting a boyfriend/girl- friend remember wondering silently if they might be gay or lesbian. At 30, this timidity towards the issue had disappeared. Most of them now had gay/lesbian friends and colleagues, or had experienced that a parent or a spouse came out as homosexual or bisexual. They do not condemn non-normative sexualities, but struggle with defining new rules of relationships. One man in our sample had a wife who had come out as bisexual and who had argued that this also made him free to have sexual relations with other men. As he did not desire other men, he could not see the great justice in that. They later divorced and he says that: ‘I think I’d choke if my next girlfriend reveals that she’s bi, that’s like ... if she thought I’d think it was really cool, I don’t think she’d get the desired reaction. One of the women in our sample had had a short affair with another woman in London in her late twenties, but realised that she was not really sexually attracted to women. She finds women more beautiful than men, but she does not desire them. One of the men told us at 30 that he had felt insecure of his sexual identity when he was in high school (something he did not tell anybody at the time) and that he had gone a few times to gay bars in his early twenties to find out if he was sexually attracted to men. He chose to engage in heterosexual relations after that. He says that he now feels secure in his heterosexual identity, but that he knows that it is possible for him to fall in love with a man. Henrik, who emphasises his attraction to sexual difference, also says that he loves to flirt with both women and men, but that Norwegian men are not good at it. Thus, also in their attitudes towards non-normative sexualities, we recognise this generation’s combination of attachments to gender difference, gender variability and individual choice.

  • [1] The idea that men today are metrosexual narcissists is not confirmed by our youngest generation.The concept metrosexual was first used by Mark Simpson (1994), but became a media hype in2002 when it appropriated by the advertising industry (Pedersen 2005).
  • [2] There are specific class, family and generational histories that make some of young women morevulnerable to body norms than others. Studies have shown that they often come from the middleclass, where there is the double pressure of being both pretty and clever at school (see Buhl 1990).
  • [3] remember once when ... when she just lay down and waited for me to doeverything. I just put my trousers back on and went to sleep on the sofa, ‘I cantbe bothered with this, the doormat belongs outside’... I don’t want it just to beme, only thinking about myself. (Vegard, 18)
  • [4] The law on registered partnerships of same-sex couples was adopted in 1993; same-sex marriagewas legalised in 2009.
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