Bodies and Sexuality in Adolescence

The feelings connected to the reproductive body are a same-sex generational thing for the women in all three generations. The way in which they deal with this reveals something about how they relate to their mothers. Because we did not interview them about their pregnancies and motherhood, it is mainly their reaction to menstruation that we have information about. In the oldest generation it is seen as a female curse, something mothers and daughters are equally subjected to. But since it is not talked about, this does not lead to any closeness between mothers and daugh- ters—it is the silent and unwelcome sign of womanhood. In the middle generation the menstruating female body is also felt as a negative thing, but is taken more as a fact of life and even something that may contribute to some intimacy between girls. This may be surprising when seen in connection with the negative relationships to their mothers; however, it may also tell us about the basic care that these devalued mothers actually provided for their daughters, in addition to the decreasing taboo that came with more information about sexual reproduction. It is actually the youngest generation that reacts the most strongly against menstruation, which is also the case where they have feminist mothers who celebrate their menarche. In this generation, where the relationship between mothers and daughters is more about strengthening individuality rather than gender, the reproductive aspects of bodies seem to represent a hidden and uncontrollable femaleness that comes from nowhere (see also Chodorow 2012: 151). It also connects to the increased significance of the body as identity in this generation, where the main challenge is to stay in control of it. This gives the body an ambiguous meaning with regard to gender in this generation of women. The adornment of the body represents a more positive feminine identification for the young women in all generations, but this is never connected to identification with the mother—quite the opposite. For the oldest generation it is a pure joy to do with a luxury that serves as a contrast to the frugal work ethic of their mothers. For the middle generation the adornment becomes more desperate because it is often based on low self-esteem as woman, and put in the service of heterosexual relations. A good enough body is in this generation a body that is good enough in the eyes of others. For the youngest generation the pleasure of dressing up in feminine ways is back for many of the girls, but often also with a pressure for perfection that may destroy the joy. Ambivalence towards cultural femininity is seen in their relationships with their bodies, which are felt equally as a source of pleasure, an endless demand and, if overdone, a threat to their own sense of subjectivity.

The perception and norms of sexuality represent the biggest change when we compare the three generations of women. In the oldest generation sexuality is hardly mentioned—it is projected onto the men, but the women’s ownership of it is indirectly revealed in their attraction to the wild boys and the good dancers who they also understand are dangerous and not boyfriend material. The fear of pregnancy before commitment to marriage is an effective barrier to the enjoyment of sex for many in this generation. In the middle generation sexuality is still seen mainly as a male drive, but as boys gain importance as liberators from parents, the girls also engage in sexualising their own bodies to attract the boys. The loss of generational identification leaves the daughters as well as the sons in a void with regard to what it means to become a man or a woman when they come of age. Whereas the sons could identify masculinity with sexuality, the daughters take a vicarious path and try to become the special choice of a man. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949), the boy can place exhibitionism and narcissism in his penis and save the rest of his body for other uses, whereas the girl must present her whole body as an object to attain the same narcissistic satisfaction. Sexuality, however, is not only a way to assure femininity, but is also a way to assure autonomy from the parents. In this way sexuality also attains a mark of instrumentality.

In the youngest generation sexual desire has lost much of its gendered meaning, but the fear of being stigmatised for being too active has not disappeared. At 18, the middle-class girls tend to experience heterosexual love as more dangerous than sex, since an emotional commitment can make them vulnerable to dependency and asymmetric gender relations. The problem the young women struggle with is to combine love and sexuality with being an autonomous subject. The fear of being a ‘fallen subject’ by letting oneself be pressured into sex seems to be bigger than the prospect of being a ‘fallen woman’. Class dimensions are activated here, as middle-class girls tend to project their own fear of falling as subjects onto working-class girls, whereas the working-class girls try to defend themselves against this by growing out of irresponsible sexual behaviour at an early age. In addition, the dimension of physical desire is not so clear and this raises the question of whether explicit sexual desire is still seen as a male affair, in spite of increasing degendered and individualised norms and practices.

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