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Translated by Zoe Yarymowich
Several years ago, I came across a phrase that greatly inspired my academic journey and the research questions I would later choose to focus on: “How can I accept a limited definable self when I feel, in me, all the possibilities?” This pearl can be attributed to Anaïs Nin, who put it down on paper in the first volume of her diary (1931-1934). Among other things, this author has been interested in the themes of identity and sexuality, and her words still resonate today as one of the most relevant and current reflections.
Choosing and Defining
Indeed, we are currently living in a period described as postmodern by several authors (Lyotard, 1979; Jameson, 2007). Briefly, this would mean that the possible ways of living one’s life (and by the same token, one’s sexuality) are very numerous (Daoust, 2005). For example, today one can choose to be in a relationship, single, married, polyamorous, in an open relationship, and so on. Sexual experiences can be lived within the framework of one of the models mentioned above, or with one or more strangers during a one-night stand, a relationship of friends with benefits, in a public place, using sex toys or accessories, incorporating BDSM practices, and the list is once again far from being exhaustive (ÉPRIS, 2015). Many of these modalities and practices are not new, you might say, and you would be right. The major difference is the recognition and the relative social acceptability that they enjoy nowadays as demonstrated by, for example, the mainstream popularity of productions like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Today, individuals must not only maneuver through these various possibilities but also must make choices among them.
One can no longer be content simply following a single and clearly designated path, formerly marked out by various institutions (social, religious, legal, etc.; Foucault, 1971). This obligation to define oneself as a unique being, which greatly contrasts the conformism extolled barely half a century ago, is visible, among other things, in numerous advertisements urging the individual to “be themselves” and “dare to be different”, for example, by getting the same pair of jeans as half a million other people. This is one manifestation of a concept that Naomi Klein calls identity marketing (Klein, 1999).
All Unique...and Equal?
If we recap for a moment and focus on the area in question here, the postmodern individual must, therefore, first explore the different possibilities of experiencing their sexuality to then, secondly, make a choice among them and select the model that allows them to express their uniqueness. So far, the process might seem a bit laborious, but relatively straightforward, right?
Here is where things get tough: not all the choices that have been listed above are socially perceived as equally valid, and their social acceptability also varies according to the social categories to which the person who desires them belongs, or even according to the interlocutor to whom it is addressed (Foucault, 1971).
It cannot be said that today, it is as well accepted to announce during a family meal that one is living in a homosexual polyamorous relationship, as to affirm in the same context that one is in a heterosexual couple linked by marriage.
Some people may also benefit from privileges, that is, their situation is easier to justify and more socially accepted. For example, the words of an adult man who mentions having taken part in a sexual relationship with several people will certainly not receive the same reception as those of a teenage girl who reports having had the same experience (Caron, 2014; Larose, 2016). Spontaneously, one can imagine that the man would receive some gratification, and perhaps even admiration on the part of his peers, while the same sexual experience for the young girl is likely to cause concern or unfavourable judgment. While the characteristics that may hinder the recognition of one’s choices (the reverse of the privileges mentioned above) are numerous (being a person of colour, being a sexual minority, etc.), this article will focus more specifically on age and gender.
Indeed, all the elements that have been mentioned so far allow us to sketch a portrait of the current social context in which young people try to experience their sexuality, define their identity, and have their choices recognized in relation to it. It can thus be argued that they find themselves in a particular position, at the intersection of sometimes contradictory discourses:
messages telling them that they need to have a unique and fulfilling sexuality, and messages telling them that they are too young, vulnerable, and naive to make such decisions in a dangerous domain.
Indeed, they continue to see the messages pushed by women’s magazines offering them, for example, a list of the most exciting and unusual sexual experiences to live at least once in their lives. When they apply them, however, they are quickly reminded that these behaviours are inappropriate for them, because of their age. The explanation, in the vast majority of cases, ends there, and it is difficult to justify in-depth why young people, who are required to have autonomy, maturity, and the ability to make choices for their future, would suddenly be unable to demonstrate the same aptitudes when it comes to the domain of sexuality (Caron, 2014; Larose, 2016; Blais et al., 2009).
When discussing sexuality with young people, it is still today mainly to warn them against sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs), unwanted pregnancies, and other dangers, and too rarely to talk to them about pleasure and the benefits of sexuality.
It is not enough to only speak positively about sexuality either, it must be done well, since these messages can also quickly fall under the register of social pressure.
This ability to make decisions for oneself and to demonstrate the power to act has been defined by some authors by the term agency (Land, 2011). Applied to the area of current interest to us, it is simply referred to as sexual agency, or the ability to make informed choices about one’s sexuality and how to experience it.
This is one of the aspects that caught my attention during the research I did for my master’s thesis, and which made me want to explore the following two questions:
Are young adults capable of demonstrating sexual agency?
If so, how do they get there in the context that was just presented?
In addition to researching the literature on this subject, I conducted interviews with a few individuals from this age group (young adults between the ages of 18 and 24) in the hope of providing an answer to this question. This is, of course, too vast to answer here in the depth of detail that it requires, but it is all the same possible to state the main lines of the conclusions that the research process allowed me to sketch.
The interviews I conducted were an opportunity to hear the thoughts of nine young adults with diverse sexual backgrounds and opinions. Despite the differences that separated them from each other, they described a relatively similar portrait of the current social context, including the elements that have been described above. These included both certain messages conveyed, for example, by the advertising of consumer products, urging them to have the most active and varied sexuality possible, while other discourses coming from their parents or stakeholders in public health constantly reminding them of the dangers of sexual activities (unwanted pregnancy, practices that could be considered degrading, attaining moral and integrity, STBBIs, etc.).
Negotiating the Discourses
The variable that changed the most from one participant to the other was, on the other hand, the positioning of each concerning these varied messages.
Thus, some of them insisted on the need not to have too many sexual partners, while others emphasized the importance of multiplying diverse experiences.
Many considered it important to have at least one homosexual experience in their lives, while this discourse was not present in others. So one can assume that while they are exposed to similar messages, they do not all interpret and apply them in the same way.
How can these differences be explained? Through several factors, most certainly, including sexual agency. Thus, by each living their sexuality differently and by interpreting social discourses in an equally varied way, one could consider that they put into practice their decision-making power and express themselves with relative free will. In the way they relate to their sexual experiences, the participants all demonstrated obvious reflexivity, that is to say, that each of them had thought about and made choices about their sexuality, thus creating a type of moral guide outlining their actions, through which they set out arguments and explanations to support them. One cannot, therefore, attribute the differences between the participants’ experience of sexuality only to chance, since the latter say they have reflected, hesitated, measured the advantages and the possible consequences, to ultimately make decisions that they are now able to justify.
The numerous contradictory discourses of which they are the target, they are not content to receive them passively as many seem to imply: they negotiate them. They adopt certain messages and reject others, they combine them to create hybrids, they accept them, and then put them aside depending on the circumstances.
The possibilities of manipulation are almost endless and are all opportunities to use one’s sexual agency (Gagnon & Simon, 1986).
Through the various reasons given to justify their choices in matters of sexuality, a large part of these could be grouped under the category of authenticity. This brings us back, if you remember, to the second characteristic of postmodernity that was described, which is the obligation to be yourself, unique, to express your true nature (Hills, 2015). More than meeting the standards, therefore, the overwhelming majority of participants justified their sexual practices by the need to be authentic, honest with themselves and their individual preferences.
What does this mean?
That it is necessary to review how young people’s relationship with sexuality is perceived.
While they are generally portrayed as vulnerable (this is, even more, the case when these young people are female) they nonetheless demonstrate the proof of their agency. One element that might contribute to making this process invisible is the fact that it is not always done consciously. Indeed, young people often seem to devalue themselves in this area and minimize their ability to make choices, even if their words highlight this latter ability in an obvious way. It can therefore be argued that they partly internalize the discourse denying their power of reflection and action. As it was presented previously, they are, on the other hand, not permeable to all the discourses, and work them like raw material, by analyzing, critiquing, adopting, or rejecting them. They are also creative in the way they breed hybrids, turn to alternative sources of information, or even create their own courses of action when the ones proposed to them do not suit them.
What also emerges from this analysis is the alarmist and infantilizing way society often speaks about the sexuality of young people.
These disproportionate concerns must be seen for what they are, that is to say, a made-up legacy of binding moral standards, disguised under the guise of science or consumerism.
Society’s fears for the sexual practices of young people demonstrate a harmful problematization of sexuality, as a dangerous activity that must be socially controlled and governed, and stubborn prejudices against the youth. While these portray them as too vulnerable to all the social messages being sent to them, society is unfortunately found casting shadows over the many strengths they acquire and use during this rich period of discovering sexuality.
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