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Negotiation Stigma - Part 2

Terry Leahy, Booksreborn, 2002

Chapter 10 - Conclusion

The Prohibition on Intergenerational Sex and the Social Construction of Transgression

The second part of the thesis provides ample illustration for the view that positive experiences of intergenerational sex must be understood in terms of their location in reference to socially constructed discourses of gender, the family, and age categorization. 

This part of the thesis has shown that the discourse of intergenerational sex is merely one of a number of relevant discourses that stigmatize intergenerational relationships. It is apparent that discourses of gender, the family, and age categorization also imply the prohibition on intergenerational sex. Moreover, it is equally apparent that the interviewees were also able to validate their participation in these stigmatized relationships by drawing upon a wide variety of discourses of gender, the family, and age categorization.

Stigmatizing Discourses

Looking at the first of these issues, I have argued that there are a great variety of relevant stigmatizing discourses.

In each case, a dominant discourse of age, gender, or the family can be seen to imply the prohibition on intergenerational relationships in the context of particular types of intergenerational relationship. I have also demonstrated that these discourses were relevant to the interviewees’ experiences of positively valued intergenerational sexual contacts; that is, to their own understandings of these events.

To summarize these issues in the context of the thesis as a whole, it can be argued that every type of voluntary intergenerational relationship, as well as intergenerational sex per se, is transgressive in terms of some major discourse of age, gender, and the family. 

Intergenerational sex involving children under twelve transgresses against the discourse of childhood asexuality, 

man/girl sex transgresses against the discourse of emphasized femininity as it applies to define appropriate sexuality for adolescent girls, and 

man/boy sex transgresses against the discourse of hegemonic masculinity in terms of the issue of homosexuality. 

Similar arguments can be put in relation to emphasized femininity and woman/girl relationships and to hegemonic masculinity and woman/boy sex. I also argued that intergenerational sex transgresses against the discourse of privacy and sexual control in the context of the discourse of the nuclear family.

Validating Discourses: Discourses of Resistance

In looking at the second of these issues, the discourses that interviewees used to validate their intergenerational relationships, I have identified a great number of relevant discourses of gender, the family, and age categorization.

[1] Some of these discourses are discourses of resistance to hegemonic discourses of gender, the family, and age. 

[2] In other cases, the interviewees took up subject positions from within dominant discourses of gender, the family, and age, and they made use of these to validate their transgressions.

I will review each of these strategies in turn.
[1 - Discourses of resistance]

In many cases, the interviewees were able to defend their transgressions in terms of discursive positions that announced an explicit repudiation of dominant discourses. In particular, the discourses of feminism and homosexual liberation were available discourses for the interviewees. These discourses are what Weedon refers to as marginal in the sense that they oppose hegemonic discourses of gender and sexuality (1988, p. 35).

The following discursive positions were taken up to validate intergenerational relationships through the use of marginal or resistant discourses.


[1a - Feminism]

In reference to the discourse of 'the moral mother', it was argued that some mothers and daughters colluded in a feminist critique of the discourse of the moral mother and its applications to enforce the double standard in reference to adolescent girls and to prohibit intergenerational relationships. 

Similarly, I argued that the rejection of romance and emphasized femininity was an aspect of sub-cultural practice in some girls’ peer groups, and I showed that this resistant subculture provided a moral framework for validating intergenerational relationships. 

In validating intergenerational lesbian relationships, interviewees were able to take up a position within the feminist discourse that links lesbianism to feminist politics.

In all of these instances, it was the discourse of feminism that was available to validate the actions of the interviewees. I have argued that this makes sense in terms of the way that emphasized femininity is an implying discourse that stigmatizes intergenerational relationships in a variety of ways.

[1b - Gay liberation]

The discourse of gay identity was an available discourse from the gay subculture for interviewees who identified as gay, and I argued that this discursive position was employed to defend the intergenerational relationships in which these interviewees had been involved. 

Even the male interviewees who identified as heterosexual made use of a discourse of gay liberation to some extent; they opposed unfair discrimination against homosexual men and the prejudice against homosexual practices. They made use of these positions to defend homosexual practices within their intergenerational relationships, and to validate the role of the older parties in these relationships. 

In both these cases, it was the discourse of gay identity, and associated political positions from within the gay subculture, that were available for interviewees to validate man/boy relationships.

In all references ...

... both to feminism and to gay identity, interviewees validated their transgressions against dominant discourses of gender by invoking alternative and resistant discourses of gender. They used these resistant discourses to validate their intergenerational relationships and to negotiate the stigmatization of these relationships in terms of dominant discourses of gender and the family.

[2] Making Use of Dominant Discourses to Validate Transgression

The material of the second part of this thesis also reveals that these resistant discourses were merely a small part of the stock of discursive positions that interviewees took up to validate their experiences. 

The great majority of subject positions that were taken up drew heavily on dominant discourses. Even when marginal discourses were taken up, they were combined with other dominant discourses, 

either used in their unadorned dominant form 

or reversed to construct a defense of transgressive practices. 

In what follows, I shall review the uses that were made of dominant discourses.

[2a] The use of the discourse of adolescence 

was the primary example of a situation in which dominant discourses were conserved by changing the discourse. Moving away from the issue of transgression in terms of the discourse of intergenerational sex (or dominant discourses of gender and the family), the interviewees validated their conduct within the terms of the discourse of adolescence. This discourse featured in a great variety of contexts.

[i] Within the romantic man/girl relationships, the discourse of adolescence was used to distance the interviewees from a fully romantic subject position. Within the anti-romantic subject positions, the female interviewees validated their intergenerational experiences as equivalent to the casual, pragmatic, sexual experimentation thought appropriate to male adolescents.

[ii] Within the gay interviews, the intergenerational relationships were validated through a combination of the discourse of gay identity and the discourse of adolescence.

Given the fact of gay identity, they argued, these relationships indicated 

a normal adolescent explosion of sexual desire, 

a discovery of sexuality through experiment, 

a casual promiscuity typical of adolescence, and 

an introduction to the adult gay community. 

They could be defended in terms of the sexual rights appropriate to the development of adult masculinity and to adolescence as a stage of initiation into adulthood.

[iii] The male interviewees who identified as heterosexual saw their sexual relationships with men as motivated by a sexual emergence typical of adolescence in general.

Sometimes they saw the older partner as a mentor. This related to a discourse of adolescence as a time in which young people inevitably have to learn to be independent by developing relationships with adults outside their family.

Like the gay interviewees, they claimed a right to sexual expression that they considered to be appropriate to adolescence. It was the discourse of adolescence as cutting the apron strings that was used by both gay and heterosexual male interviewees to validate their engagements in sexual relationships that would have been opposed by their mothers.

[iv] Within the interviews that described lesbian relationships, there was an analogous use made of the discourse of adolescence. 

In one version, adolescence was a period in which it was necessary to come to terms with an underlying lesbian identity. 

In another version, lesbianism was a sexual experiment appropriate to adolescence as a period of sexual self-discovery. 

These interviewees also validated the intergenerational relationships within a discourse of adolescence in other ways: 

either as rebellious defiance of adult authorities, casual relationships and sexual adventures, 

or as an introduction to an adult social network.

[v] Finally, in several interviews, the discourse of adolescence as peer friendships was employed to remove these relationships from the provenance of dominant discourses of romance and sexuality altogether. In this context, the relationship was placed outside of the terms of the stigmatizing discourse of heterosexual romance.

In all these strategies, what is involved is a changing of the discourse. The discourse of intergenerational sex and the various discourses of gender and the family stigmatize these relationships. Instead of taking up the subject position implied by these stigmatizing discourses, the interviewees took up a subject position within the discourse of adolescence. 

Like the discourse of intergenerational sex itself, the discourse of adolescence is a dominant discourse in the sense of being popular and influential. At the same time, one hesitates to describe it as hegemonic, because it is a discourse whose social implications are heavily contested.

In its most conservative version, the discourse of adolescence is a discursive position available only to male adolescents. It is invoked to support a double standard of sexual morality in which adolescent boys are encouraged to engage in a period of sexual experimentation at the expense of their female sexual partners. 

In addition, it is justified in terms of a discourse of male adulthood as independence, autonomy, and citizenship that is not on offer to women. 

Within this conservative reading of adolescence, the great danger of adolescence is that it will spill over in one of two ways. 

On the one hand, there is the danger that adolescence — as lack of responsibility, hedonism, and opposition to the work ethic — will be maintained into adulthood. 

On the other hand, there is the danger that the discourse of adolescence will be extended to girls and to categories of relationships that are considered inappropriate — such as homosexual relationships. 

The interviewees of this study exploited these possibilities in the discourse of adolescence, extending its provenance to include relationships that are definitely seen as transgressive in terms of other dominant discourses.

Another way of framing the issue of adolescence in this thesis is to note that conservative readings of adolescence are often centered on the extension of a parentally supervised childhood into the teenage years. 

As I have suggested, this version of adolescence is much less popular within working-class families. Instead, working-class families adopt a version of adolescence as a period of initiation into adulthood, a de facto admission into adult privileges that is won by teenagers and is pragmatically accepted by parents. 

When respondents in this study laid claim to adult sexual prerogatives, demanded rights to sexual expression, or refused to constitute their actions as intergenerational sex, they frequently spoke from within this working-class version of the discourse of adolescence.

[3] The strategy of reversal 

was also common in these interviews and was used in a variety of contexts to validate intergenerational relationships by making use of elements drawn from dominant discourses of the family and gender. 

[3a] This strategy was employed in reference to the dominant discourse of the nuclear family and intergenerational sex. According to this dominant discourse, it is the responsibility of the parents to supervise the sexual conduct of children, and children are expected to reciprocate their parents’ love by obeying them. 

Interviewees reversed this discourse by charging the parents, or the mother in particular, with a failure to adequately love and care for their children. This context justified the interviewee’s involvement in a relationship that was, or would have been, opposed by the parents.

[3b] The discourse of emphasized femininity as romance was also reversed to validate certain of the intergenerational relationships described in this study. Four of the man-girl relationships were conceived to have been romantic.

[3c] The age and social power of the adult man fitted the romantic picture of the male hero. The caring and benevolence expected of such a person was exemplified in these relationships and its presence was noted as a reply to the discourse of intergenerational sex as exploitation. 

[3d] These romantic relationships were contrasted with the shallow relationships that had been experienced in heterosexual peer contacts. This strategy was a reversal of the discourse of emphasized femininity in that the interviewees used that discourse to validate relationships that are normally condemned as departures from appropriate feminine conduct.

[3e] The lesbian relationships were sometimes conceived in a similar way. Romance as deep emotional intimacy and sexual transcendence was claimed for the experiences of Pippa and Sharon. In addition to this, Pippa’s understanding of her intergenerational lesbian relationship invoked the romantic appeal of an older and more sexually assertive partner and, to a lesser extent, Louise’s descriptions of her romantic crushes on adult women did the same. 

[3f] Finally, femininity as caring and concern for other people was a guiding principle in Sharon’s understanding of her intergenerational relationships with both Marianne and Jeffrey. 

In all these examples, the discourse of emphasized femininity and romance was used to validate relationships that are usually condemned within that discourse as unfeminine.

[3g] Another reversal in connection with the discourse of romance used elements of this discourse in a very different way. 

Instead of taking up a romantic subject position, interviewees appropriated elements of romantic texts in which a space of narrative excess is created by the unfeminine behavior of the “other girl” of such novels. Some interviewees took up this anti-romantic subject position, presenting themselves as the “other girls” within the discourse of romantic texts, and morally validated the position that is stigmatized within these texts.

[3h] A central use of reversal in the case of the man/boy relationships was the reversal of the discourse of sexual essentialism that is normally part of the stigmatization of gay sexual practices. 

Interviewees who identified as gay, and also those who identified as heterosexual, both used this reversal to reply to the discourse of seduction. This discourse was refuted by arguing that the interviewee’s sexuality was an essential part of their being that was not likely to be affected by a brief period of intergenerational relationships in adolescence. 

Most of the gay interviewees, and Pippa — one of the lesbian interviewees — also reversed the discourse of sexual inversion. The discourse of sexual inversion stigmatizes same-sex practices in terms of an assumed association with gender inversion. Within these interviews, this gender inversion was celebrated and accepted as part of the essential personality of the interviewees.

[3i] In addition to the strategy of reversal, dominant discourses of gender were also taken up in the context of a strategy of minimizing transgression. 

This was the case in David’s defense of his relationship with Diane. David minimized his transgression against the dominant discourse of heterosexual romance, the discourse according to which the male is the more dominant party and the female is the more emotionally dependent party in the relationship.

In constructing a moral career in this context, David emphasized ways in which his intergenerational relationship fitted the hegemonic heterosexual model. Within the relationship itself, David acted to construct their connection so as to minimize departure from the dominant model of heterosexual romance.

The Conservation of Dominant Discourse in the Context of the Construction of Gender

Concluding the review of the second part of the thesis, I have argued that the interviewees validated their transgressions against dominant discourses of gender and the family by making use of discourses of resistance as well as dominant discourses of the family, age, and gender. The strategies by which dominant discourses were employed were found to be the same as those discovered in the first part of the thesis: changing the discourse, reversal, and minimizing transgression. 

[ - - - ]

In comparing the findings of the two parts of my study, it is notable that the hypothesis of the conservation of dominant discourse receives most support in the first part of the study.

When the interviewees positioned themselves in relation to the discourse of intergenerational sex, they constructed a subject position 

out of the discourse of intergenerational sex itself, 

or out of some other dominant discourse. 

I noted that the most common position was minimizing or denying transgression against the discourse of intergenerational sex. Even when interviewees acknowledged and defended their transgression directly, the most commonly articulated position was a variant of another dominant discourse: the liberal discourse of individual rights to self-expression.

By contrast, in the second half of the study I examined the manner in which interviewees positioned themselves in reference to stigmatizing discourses of gender, the family, and age. 

In reference to those dominant discourses, existing and popular discourses of resistance are readily available. The discourses of feminism and gay liberation were obvious sources of validation, even if the context of their use was novel. In the context of gender, interviewees were thus able to position themselves in terms of marginal and resistant discourses. They did not just draw on available dominant discourses.

In reviewing these findings, it seems possible that this difference reflects the difference in social standing between the dominant discourse of intergenerational sex and the hegemonic discourses of gender. 

The discourse of prohibition of intergenerational sex is almost universally dominant in Australian society. There are very few milieu in which this discourse is openly contested. There is no resistant subculture formed around opposition to the dominant discourse of intergenerational sex, and neither are there resistant subcultures in which such opposition is taken for granted as an aspect of a broader political platform. The political gay movement constitutes only a partial exception to this picture, and it is the only exception.

In the context of this very widespread opposition to intergenerational sex, taking up a subject position that validates an intergenerational sexual contact or relationship is most likely to involve a modification of the dominant discourses that already exist and that are readily available. I have shown that a reversal of the discourse of intergenerational sex itself is one option. The more likely option is to minimize or deny transgression.

Finally, another tactic is to legitimize these experiences within the framework of an already existing dominant discourse.

The status of hegemonic discourses of gender is quite different. They have been contested very strongly for the last century. There are significant resistant sub-cultural milieu and a number of available discourses of resistance.

Consequently, when the interviewees in this study were dealing with their transgressions against discourses of gender, it was quite possible for them to make use of available discourses of resistance to the hegemonic construction of gender. At the same time, what they were doing in taking up these positions was to make use of these discourses of resistance in a new context. Feminism is not generally used to support intergenerational relationships.

The liberation of homosexual people is not a discourse that is generally used to support intergenerational relationships. In the resistant sub-cultural milieu that are the heartlands of both of these discourses, there is quite strong support for the prohibitive discourse on intergenerational sex.

Consequently, what occurs again is that the interviewees make novel use of a great variety of dominant discursive positions. These create a bridge between the resistant discourse and the validation of an intergenerational relationship. 

It is 

the discourse of homosexual identity, 

the discourse of adolescent self-discovery, and 

the discourse of male sexual emergence and civil rights,

that add up to a defense of intergenerational relationships in the case of the gay interviewees. 

It is 

the discourse of lesbianism as feminist solidarity, 

the discourse of adolescence as self-discovery and autonomy, and 

the discourse of romance, 

that add up to a defense of the woman-girl relationships.

Such combinations are the context in which discourses of resistance are taken up in defending intergenerational relationships.

Another reading of this same material might be based around a feature common to many of the interviews in this study, being the primacy of issues of gender and the minimal sense of transgression against the discourse of intergenerational sex. The strategy of minimizing transgression is the most common approach that interviewees take to the discourse of intergenerational sex.

As I have pointed out, this is both an interpretation of these experiences and also a strategy implicit in the relationships themselves. It could be argued that many of the relationships described in this study did not constitute major transgressions against the discourse of intergenerational sex. The younger parties were almost always adolescent and, in quite a few cases, sexual contacts were fairly minimal — at least within the terms of dominant discourses of sexuality.

Given the somewhat marginal nature of their transgression, it is not surprising that many of the interviewees of this study minimized their transgressions in relation to the discourse of intergenerational sex. As I have argued, many of these interviewees did not find their transgression against the discourse of intergenerational sex to be the primary issue in their interpretation of these events. This was most clearly indicated in the strategy of denial of the relevance of the discourse of intergenerational sex.

However, it was also manifest in the interview accounts in a great variety of other contexts.

By contrast, it may be argued that the interviewees’ transgressions against the hegemonic discourses of gender construction were major, and it was these transgressions that were seen as most salient in the accounts of many interviewees. The intergenerational experiences were very often interpreted in terms of the transgressions against dominant discourses of gender that they implied, and it was these transgressions that the interviewees talked about. In that context, discourses of resistance were readily available and were made use of by the interviewees.

To take the extreme case, Denise and Angela denied that they had construed their relationships as intergenerational sex. On the other hand, they were extremely well aware of the fact that these relationships were aspects of a broader pattern of resistance to emphasized femininity. Consequently, in describing their relationships, it is this issue that became the most salient. 

Similarly, the gay interviewees suggested that it was their development of a homosexual identity that was their most transgressive action. They presented their intergenerational experiences within the framework of that transgression against hegemonic masculinity. 

A similar analysis is apt for the interviewees’ descriptions of lesbian relationships. Again the interviewees’ sense of transgression against the discourse of intergenerational sex is minimized, but interviewees speak at length about their transgression against dominant discourses of femininity.

This analysis does not apply with equal force to all categories of interviewees. 

Those who were under twelve at the time, 

those adolescent girls who were involved romantically with men, and 

those adolescent boys who identified as heterosexual, 

did not see their gender transgressions as primary, although they clearly were significant.

They all identified the transgression against the discourse of intergenerational sex as extremely important. It can also be said that in most of these cases, the intergenerational relationships were not contextualized as aspects of major departures from the hegemonic construction of gender.

These comments touch on the context of this thesis within sociological studies of deviance. The great variety of the responses that I have identified suggests a pluralist interactionist interpretation of deviance. A plurality of situationally located value positions was available to the interviewees. 

The value position that characterizes the interviewees as deviant within the discourse of intergenerational sex is only one of a number of discourses that were relevant to the interviewees. 

On some occasions they took up subject positions in reference to this discourse, and 

on other occasions they found other discursive positions to be more apt. 

Similarly, different interviewees balanced these perspectives in different ways. 

There were those who found their transgression against hegemonic discourses of gender to be the most significant, and 

there were others who found their transgression against the prohibition on intergenerational sex to be the most significant.

This Research in the Context of the Sociological Study of Intergenerational Sex

This research is one of the few studies to explore the experiences of the younger parties in voluntary or positively experienced intergenerational relationships. So far as I am aware, it is the only study to examine such experiences when they involved types of relationships other than man-boy relationships. 

Consequently this research goes towards an understanding of the kinds of experiences that are, at the present time, merely represented as numbers within existing survey data on intergenerational sex. My research indicates that existing interview studies of negatively experienced intergenerational sex are a very poor guide to the nature of voluntary and positive experiences. 

On the other hand, like instances of child sexual abuse, these positive experiences can only be understood in terms of dominant social constructions of gender, age, and the family.

Regarding useful directions for further research, 

my thesis indicates several areas that are not adequately dealt with in the existing literature. 

[1] To begin with, 

as I suggested in the introduction, there is no existing survey data that allows us to get a useful sense of the extent of positive experiences of intergenerational sex.

To remedy the deficiencies of Finkelhor’s and Russell’s research, it would be necessary to design a research methodology that offered people the opportunity to report positive experiences in a context where they believed that such experiences would be validated within the research.

The best method would be to ask for a sexual history of the period up to and including sixteen years of age, merely requiring that people report on any experiences in this period that they thought might have had a sexual aspect, and asking them to include both negative and positive experiences.

In my view, a sympathetic anonymous interview study of the kind Russell carried out would be most appropriate. The sample would have to include a representative portion of working-class respondents, and interviewees should be of the same sex, age, and preferably also the same class background as the respondents. 

Even in this context, it would be likely that all types of stigmatized sexual contacts would be considerably under-represented, and the degree of under-representation and its distribution over positive and negative experiences would be impossible to estimate.

[2] Another area for further research 

is the extension of interview data on the topic of positively experienced intergenerational sex. An investigation of the experiences of adults involved in voluntary intergenerational relationships would be a logical next step.

My research suggests that it is quite mistaken to assume that such adults are merely the few who identify themselves as “pedophiles” in terms of a generalized and exclusive attraction to children or adolescents. 

However, while it might be relatively easy to interview a sample of adults who had taken the step of identifying as pedophiles, it is difficult to see how it would be possible to gather a sample of adults who were not so identified.

Probably the most useful and practical area for further interview investigation would be to continue and extend the research carried out in this study.

The Conservation of Discourse and the Issue of Social Change

The hypothesis of conservation of dominant discourse that I have explored in this study leads on to some more general questions about social change and transgression. 

If, as Kristeva argues, a dominant discourse is a bit like a language, and neologisms can only be accepted in small doses, how does society ever change, how do people make sense of transgression against dominant discourses, and how do new discourses develop? The short answer must be that major changes in dominant modes of thought do not happen overnight. Nevertheless, this thesis does allow some more concrete suggestions.

Firstly, transgressors may affirm the discourse against which they have transgressed and they may deny or minimize their transgression. It is only in cases where this defection becomes widespread and hard to ignore that it begins to call the discourse itself into question. In a slightly more overt assault on a dominant discourse, transgressive practices can be validated and social change can take place by a shift in the provenance of a dominant discourse.

A social practice that is transgressive in terms of one discourse may be validated within the framework of another discourse, without either discourse becoming radically altered. A whole class of social practices may in this way be moved out of the provenance of one discourse and come under some other one.

Another way in which transgressions can be validated is to adapt or reverse a dominant discourse. This is a frontal assault on a dominant discourse where and transgressors begin by refusing the discourse in its original form.

However, they go on to validate their transgression by acknowledging some aspects of the original discursive structure and rejecting others; it is a piecemeal or reformist alteration of the original discourse but its political consequences can be quite profound.

Finally, it may be suggested that the discourse of carnival mounts a subterranean attack on dominant discourses. In selected social contexts, it undermines the application of dominant discourses through humor, tone, and narrative structure. It opens up a space in which other, more articulated strategies of resistance might become acceptable.

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