Bodies and Sexuality in Adolescence

For most of the men we interviewed, body and sexuality emerge as very important components in their feeling of masculinity. Their engagement with bodily size and strength in comparison to other men is striking in all three generations (see also Corbett 2009). There is, however, also a change in the cultural and psychological meanings of this preoccupation. For the oldest generation, the strong male body is the working body and is thus a clear positive identification with their admired fathers, and maybe an attempt to fend off the Achilles complex as a grown and strong man. Other kinds of bodily preoccupations are felt as weak and feminine and not acceptable for a man. It is reasonable to think that there are some homophobic elements at play here, something we also heard from two of the older men (Knut and Arne), who unsolicited and with disgust connected men’s bodily adornment with homosexuality.

For the middle generation, a strong body is related to physical fitness in sport rather than to work, but more importantly, their own bodies become more clearly connected to male sexuality: masculinity is not secured by work, but by having a penis that is the right size compared to those of other men. This emphasis on the sexual meaning of masculinity may be seen in connection with their more insecure masculine selves in the self-other relations: you do not prove your masculinity by becoming a strong and admirable man like your father, but by possessing a male body. The middle generation have to create masculinity all on their own during adolescence, and the loss of the possibility of becoming a man through the generational line amplifies gender polarity.

In the youngest generation penis size is also important, but other parts of the body may also add to the feeling of being a successful man: bodybuilding, skin, hair and clothing. To be preoccupied with looks is no longer seen as an exclusively feminine business. Still, there is a palpable risk of losing one’s subject position and becoming the object through this preoccupation with one’s own body. Bodybuilding is OK, but only within certain limits—and is best if it can be connected to the culturally safe male position of getting strong enough to protect or dominate others.

Sexuality in the oldest generation is felt as exclusively male, just as the preoccupation with the body is felt as female. The men in this generation tend to split sexuality and tenderness. Only men are seen as having sexual drives, and for some of them this leads to pretty rough seductive manners towards ‘cheap girls’. For others, especially those with a sentimentalised relationship with their mothers, sexuality becomes associated with guilt because it may hurt and harm the kind and innocent woman. Women who initiate sexual contacts are dismissed as prostitutes or even monsters by both categories of men. Ideal femininity is a moral thing, connected to the inner qualities of a woman rather than to sexual appearances and activity.

In the middle generation the feelings of guilt and the protection of innocent and vulnerable women have disappeared. This does not necessarily mean that all the men of this generation behave as sexually unrestricted and irresponsible people, but some do, and now not only towards ‘cheap girls’. Seen from the perspective of the men, all girls may be more or less sexually accessible and it is up to the men to test out the limits. Since masculinity is now almost only based on sexuality, this also forms their image of the attractive woman: she should look good and be sexy. She is not the prostitute of their fathers’ generation, but neither is she a relative of their own kind and caring mothers. Yet, their identification with their mothers as ‘like subjects’ may still have made them more perceptive to the increased subject status of women in their own generation. In combination with the more liberal sexual norms in the 1960s and 1970s, this may also have conveyed an understanding of women as more active and responsible for their own acts, and thus have contributed to allaying the feelings of guilt for male sexuality that we saw in the older generation. But since masculinity is so strongly connected to sexuality, it is important to be in charge. Sexually forward or aggressive women are still felt as wrong, but now maybe more threatening to their fragile masculinities than morally condemned.

The gendering of sexual initiative is much less prominent in the youngest generation. The men in the youngest generation tend to like women who are active and who initiate encounters, but not to the extent that it makes them feel treated like objects. They prefer sexuality as part of an intimate relationship, but also experience it as two different dimensions of the sexual act. They do not see homosexual relationships as either con- demnable or, in some cases, as necessarily unthinkable for themselves, Yet, all the young men in our sample say and they personally prefer heterosexual relationships and connect this preference to an appreciation of bodily difference: when it comes to love and sex, they want women to be attractive as women. However, this sexual role is only a part of their feelings about femininity: they want women who are strong, clever and independent—and sexually attractive.

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