- Sex and Drugs before Rock ‘n’ Roll: Youth Culture and Masculinity during Holland’s Golden Age by Benjamin B. Roberts
This book describes some of ways members of the generation of young men born between 1595 and 1615—who came to age during the Dutch Republic’s economic boom of the 1620s and 1630s—rebelled against their parents’ rules, experimented, and challenged expectations. Roberts sets out to illuminate the history of masculinity during these two decades and to prove that “although young people had no real political and economic power in the traditional sense, they were a generation of movers and shakers who helped shape the Dutch Republic during its gilded era and helped create a national identity” (24). He draws from a wide variety of fascinating sources, including songbooks, popular histories, conduct and advice books, criminal records, and paintings and engravings to demonstrate how these middle and upper class men forged a unique youth culture. The various chapters depict a group of young men who adopted long hairstyles, new styles of dress, drank to excess, engaged in violence, pushed the boundaries of sexual morality, and enjoyed novel recreational activities. The book offers a fascinating analysis of youth culture that is well-organized and written in a highly accessible manner. Also vital are its refreshing suggestions, its thematic structure, its imaginative use of sources, and its high-quality reproduction of artwork.
Roberts notes the complexity of gender by explaining that during the decades under consideration masculinity was “culturally constructed and continuously in motion” (25), that “there were conforming and conflicting ideas about masculinity,” and that it consisted of “subtle and unsubtle, unwritten behaviors acquired after proving oneself through a series of rites of passages… proven to peers, and then to older men” (26). Moreover, he is particularly sensitive to the differences between middle class and elite expressions of masculinity, as well as urban and rural variations. [End Page 258]
However, even while claiming that gender is both culturally constructed and mutable, Roberts also argues that young men’s behavior is influenced by timeless biological and psychological factors—an argument advanced in a nuanced fashion by gender historians, such as Lyndal Roper in the 1990s. Roberts offers modern science as evidence to support stereotypical renderings of men as naturally active, violent, and requiring sex. Consequently, he argues that:
During late adolescence and young adulthood, males have high levels of testosterone and excessive amounts of physical energy. Acts of violence were often a natural outlet for young men who were expected to remain chaste from the onset of their budding sexuality until the age of marriage (often in their late twenties) (28).
Such a claim normalizes male aggression and renders male violence as a “natural” outlet for repressed sexual needs; such biological essentialism has long been been used to excuse men’s violence, and more specifically men’s acts of sexual violence (for seventeenth-century examples of this see my book Rape in the Republic, 1609–1725: Formulating Dutch Identity). Such renderings lead Roberts—unsurprisingly—to attribute blame on a female victim of rape rather than on the male students responsible: when he recounts a story of rape he argues that the pregnant Leiden victim “made the mistake of being out late at night” (121). Quite aside from the ethical and ideological problems with such naturalization of male violence, scholars such as Anne Fausto-Sterling, Judith Butler, and many others, have exposed the subjectivity of science and its tendency to perpetuate cultural prejudices related to sexual difference. This book would be far more compelling had Roberts focused on analyzing the cultural value of young men’s violence, defined more clearly how these relate to rites of passage, and better clarified who was responsible for developing and enforcing masculine ideals.
Roberts would also have done well to nuance his argument that the young men of the 1620s and 1630s were the prime agents in creating a new youth culture. Chapter four on violence and the book’s epilogue detail...