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Negotiating Stigma

Terry Leahy

PhD thesis presented to the University of New South Wales, 1991.
First published in January 2002 by Books Reborn.


Part One

Chapter 6


Part 1 has been concerned with the strategies the interviewees adopted to negotiate the dominant discourse on intergenerational sex—the prohibition of intergenerational sex. This discourse creates the subject position “victim of abuse” as the appropriate subject position for the younger party in an intergenerational sexual contact. 

In negotiating this prohibition, all the interviewees begin from the point at which they refuse this subject position and instead define their own experiences positively. At the same time, however, I have indicated that all the interviewees also took up subject positions in reference to this dominant discourse.

This part of the thesis has revealed a great number of different positions in reference to the discourse of prohibition.

The concept that can most effectively summarize the greatest number of these strategies is the concept of the conservation of dominant discourse within transgression.

[1 - Main strategy: minimizing]

Most interviewees, I have argued, minimized the extent of their transgression against the dominant discourse of intergenerational sex. The dominant discourse was conserved in this strategy by suggesting that transgressions against it were only apparent transgressions or were relatively minor.

In addition to this, there were 

three lesser strategies.
[2] The strategy of ambivalence 

was one in which the interviewees entertained the subject position nominated for them by the dominant discourse, but also rejected this position in most of their interview. This conserved the dominant discourse by creating a subject position that was partially derived from the discourse of prohibition. 

[3] In the strategy of denial, 

the interviewees denied transgression, instead suggesting that the actions in which they were involved did not fall within the scope of the dominant discourse of intergenerational sex. In that way, the dominant discourse was evaded rather than being directly confronted.

[4] In the strategy of reversal, 

the interviewees retained some elements of the dominant discourse, conserving these aspects of that discourse while refusing other aspects.

[5 - the strategy of changing the discourse]

In cases where interviewees validated their transgressions, the strategy of changing the discourse allowed interviewees to constitute their actions within the discursive field of an alternative discourse. 

I have argued that these strategies also embodied a conservation of dominant discourses. The interviewees sidestepped the discourse against which they had transgressed, instead taking up a subject position that conserved another, alternative (but nonetheless dominant) discourse.

This hypothesis of the conservation of dominant discourses is subject to one major exception in the material considered in the first part of the thesis. 

[6 - the use of the discourse of carnival]

This is the use of the discourse of carnival to validate transgression. This is a discursive position in which interviewees celebrated their agency in overturning dominant social values and dominant discourses. 

As I have argued, however, this celebration does not take on the dominant discourse on the same terrain. The discourse of carnival is never articulated in the form of an explicit value position. It is instead manifested in the form and structure of the narrative. It becomes apparent in the way the interviewees tell their stories and in the kinds of humor and language that they use to produce their accounts.

With the discourse of carnival, the only significant exception, interviewees dealt with their transgression against the dominant discourse on intergenerational sex by conserving a dominant discourse, whether the discourse of intergenerational sex itself, or another dominant discourse. 

It may be possible to explain this widespread pattern by reference to the way in which Kristeva has conceived social change and the processes by which dominant social structures can be opposed and altered. Authors such as Foucault and Kristeva construe discourse in analogy to language. Grosz describes Kristeva’s approach to the radicalizing possibilities of the avant-garde in terms that can be usefully applied to this issue:

Radical subversion is essentially reformist: as the order of language, the symbolic can only accommodate so much change at any given time. As Saussure pointed out, because the signifying structure (langue) is collective, it can adapt to change only within broadly recognizable parameters. Neologisms too far removed from the existing structure are not accepted by it. So, too, for Kristeva, the avant-garde questions the limits of language only by pushing them further, not by eliminating them altogether. (Grosz 1989, p. 60)

The meanings of terms within available dominant discourses are tied in with each other. As with a language, neologisms that are radically outside the norms of these discourses are simply misunderstood and ineffective.

Instead, social change occurs by a more partial revision of discourse.

In applying these considerations to the topic at hand, it is quite correct to regard voluntary transgression of the prohibition on intergenerational sex as a radical challenge to social norms. However, it is unrealistic to expect that this challenge will be dramatic and thorough going, or that participants will see it as a challenge to dominant discourse.

They are much more likely to regard their actions in ways which stress their conformity to prohibitions on intergenerational sex—

“I wasn’t a child”, 

“It wasn’t sex”—

or to validate their actions within another dominant discourse—

“I am claiming my right to sexual expression”. 

What occurs, then, is a reformist revision of the dominant discourse of sexuality and age categorization, rather than an attempt to demolish it.

In what follows, I will draw together in more detail the discursive strategies that were discovered in this part of the thesis. 

[1] The most common strategy was the minimization of transgression. 

This took two forms: 

[1a] minimizing age category difference, and

[1b] minimizing the sexual aspect of the intergenerational contacts. 


In minimizing age category difference, the interviewees made three suggestions. 

Firstly, that the older party in the intergenerational relationship recognized them as an adult; 

secondly, that the experiences were part of a transition to adulthood; and 

thirdly, that the interviewee was mature for their age at the time these events occurred, and thus they were essentially adults despite their chronological age.

I have argued that these strategies conserve dominant discourse in two ways. 

Firstly, the interviewees suggested that they did not, in fact, transgress against the dominant discourse, or did so only to a minimal degree. They effectively took up the subject position “adult” from within the field of terms that are present within the dominant discourse. 

Secondly, in constituting themselves as an adult in this context, they referred to and expressed elements of the dominant discourse of prohibition. They represented themselves in terms of the maturity, rationality, and independence that are thought to be lacking in children and thought to be necessary for entry into a sexual relationship with an adult.


The second strategy of minimization, which is also the second major strategy for negotiating the prohibition, is the strategy of minimizing the sexual aspect of the intergenerational contacts. 

I indicated that this could take two forms. 

Either the sexual contacts could be understood as “not really sexual”, as a game, 

or various forms of conduct that are perceived as paradigmatically sexual could be excluded from the relationship itself. 

In either case, minimizing transgression against the prohibition conserves the dominant discourse on intergenerational sex. 

In addition, these two moves were also associated with situations in which another dominant discourse was used to validate the events. 

In the first case it was the discourse of childhood and games, and 

in the second case it was the discourse of romance.

[2] The strategy of ambivalence 

was one of several that were employed by only a few interviewees. In this strategy, the two interviewees in question entertained the possibility that they had been the victims of sexual abuse while also rejecting this position in a number of ways. In so far as these interviewees regarded themselves as victims of intergenerational sex, or at least suggested this as a possible interpretation, they conserved the dominant discourse on intergenerational sex by interpreting their experiences within that framework.

[3 - the strategy of denial

Another minor strategy in the interviews was the strategy of denial. Three interviewees indicated that at the time of their intergenerational sexual contacts, they had not regarded what they were doing as intergenerational sex or as coming within the provenance of the discourse of prohibition. 

They, in keeping with other members of their social milieu, saw these heterosexual man/girl relationships as exemplifying the hegemonic discourse of heterosexuality in which it is common for women to take older male partners. By doing this, they conserved the dominant discourse on intergenerational sex; 

firstly by bringing their activities within the provenance of another dominant discourse, and

secondly by not contesting that discourse; it was merely ignored in this context.

[4] The strategy of reversal 

was employed by two interviewees to negotiate the prohibition on intergenerational sex. These interviewees retained some key aspects of the dominant discourse of intergenerational sex but refused other aspects. The resulting modification of the dominant discourse is aptly seen as a reversal in that the political and moral conclusions of the dominant discourse are reversed. Here the thesis of conservation of dominant discourse is sustained by the way in which the interviewees retained some major elements from this discourse.

[5 - the strategy of changing the discourse]

These interviewees also changed the discourse, dropping an ethical analysis based on strategic power and vulnerability, instead taking up 

an ethical position based on the concept of fair exchange and 

a felicific calculus of outcomes for the younger party. 

Both of these alternative ethical positions can be seen as originating from within dominant systems of thought about ethics in this society. 

The concept of fair exchange clearly relates to the capitalist ideology of business transactions, and is often broadened to take in interpersonal relationships. 

The emphasis on the benefits to the younger party fits a utilitarian ethical framework in which events are evaluated in terms of their outcomes for the individuals concerned.

The final chapter in this part of the thesis examined the way transgression against the discourse of prohibition was conceived when it was acknowledged in the interview. 

The first way in which this occurred positioned the interviewees as individuals who were defending their rights to sexual expression against a societal repression of sexuality or against a state supported paternalism. I have argued that the discourse of individual rights to sexual expression is itself an aspect of a dominant liberal discourse of citizenship, freedom, and equality. The interviewees were claiming rights of sexual expression equivalent to those of other citizens.

[6] The discourse of carnival 

was that which most challenged the thesis of conservation of dominant discourses. It was present to some degree in all of the interviews, not just in the three that have been examined as examples.

This discourse can be considered to be a popular discourse, in the sense that it is commonly taken up in natural conversations and that its popularity is reflected by its appearance in a great many popular media forms (Docker 1982; Stam 1988). 

To the extent that the term “dominant” merely means that a discourse is common and has considerable social influence, it may be argued that the discourse of carnival is one of a number of dominant discourses.

In that sense, it could be considered that the interviewees work totally within the thesis of the conservation of discourse by changing from a discursive position as victim, to a position within another dominant discourse, the discourse of carnival, in which they are adventurous transgressors against social norms. To a certain extent, this is a fair characterization.

However, although the discourse of carnival may be considered dominant (in the sense of being popular and influential), it could never be seen as hegemonic, since it is defined in terms of its opposition to all hegemonic discourses.

It celebrates the overthrow of hegemonic social institutions and hegemonic powers in society. 

What I have argued, in this context, is that the discourse of carnival does not constitute its opposition to hegemonic discourses through an articulated alternative moral position. Its subversion is not patent and apparent, but implicit. In that sense it opposes dominant discourse but also evades it. Because of this, it constitutes only a partial exception to the conservation of dominant discourses within transgression.

This section of the research has presented a range of negotiating strategies, all of which have been focused directly and explicitly on the discourse of intergenerational sex. To sketch out the picture in more detail, this narrow focus needs to be broadened to take in other discourses and positions that are inevitably present in the specific social contexts in which intergenerational relationships take place. I will refer to these various discourses and positions as “approaches to intergenerational sex”. They relate most essentially to issues of family and gender.

Part 2 is devoted to a consideration of the relevance of these broader discourses to an understanding of positively valued intergenerational sexual experiences.

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