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  • The Trouble With Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality
  • Kevin White
The Trouble With Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality. By Mary Louise Adams (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. viii plus 224pp. \$50.00 cloth \$19.95/paper).

For Mary Louise Adams, in her fascinating study of post-war sexual ideology among Canada’s youth “the trouble with normal is its taken-for grantedness and is power as a regulatory sexual category.” (p. 3) “Normal” in Adams work is the [End Page 185] discourse of heterosexuality in the 1950s when the “difference between definitions of normal (heterosexual ) and abnormal (homosexual) sexuality operated as a profound space of social marginalization and exclusion.” (p. 2)

Adams hence contributes to a growing number of works that examine heterosexuality from the outside as a “dominant cultural discourse.” (p. 19) Taking her lead from the doyen of these historians, gay pioneer scholar Jonathan Ned Katz, she sees heterosexuality not as “biologically ‘natural’ or socially self-evident” (p. 11) but as socially constructed in binary opposition to the concept of homosexuality. Following Michel Foucault, she sees sexuality as an idea that is “constantly being reproduced, negotiated, and subverted.” Sexual discourses are “conduits through which power gains access to human bodies and where it is expressed by them at the most fundamental level.” (p. 12) To cite Foucault: “Power seeps into the very grain of individuals, reaches right into their bodies, permeates their gestures, their posture, what they say, how they learn to live and work with other people.” (p. 13) Above all, power works through the process of “normalization” that produces “subjects who are ‘normal’, who live ‘normality’, and, most importantly, find it hard to imagine anything different.” (p. 13) This works as a kind of “deviance-prevention mechanism. Individuals are encouraged, through a variety of discursive and institutional practices, to meet normative standards, and they come to desire the rewards that meeting those standards makes possible.” (p. 13) Adams is therefore interested in the normalization process as “moral regulation”, the disciplinary power that Foucault has described, notably in Discipline and Punish. But she, interestingly, explains how this disciplining process unfolds with the help of historical sociologists, Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, who have argued that “moral regulation works by limiting the forms of expression available to us.” “Fears of punishment or of not fitting in, can inhibit (their) ability to express (themselves) in a manner of (their) own choosing,” notes Adams, “It’s in this most insidious way that moral regulation limits the number of acceptable or possible social identities that we can take on.” (p. 15) In other words, “moral regulation” prevents us from being what we’d like to be and from doing what we’d like to do. Oh, dear...

Having set her stall out so fluently, Adams embarks on a forceful empirical validation of her theoretical position. Following Elaine May’s work on the US, Adams sees marriage and the family in the 1950s as the “only legitimate site for sex” (p. 32): wedlock was the ultimate aim for all youth. In an important insight, she notes that in post-war Canada, youth “came to symbolize what was ‘good’ and what was ‘bad’ about the modern world.” (p. 51) This was reflected in the moral panic over juvenile delinquency. Two major sources of social anxiety—youth and sex—came to be entwined in the lengthy discourse about the sexualization of youth that was central to the debate over delinquency (p. 52): “the fear of being labelled delinquent was an effective form of self-regulation, a threat to those who might transgress sexual or moral standards.” (p. 82) Hence a barrage of sexual advice aimed at teens valorized heterosexuality and demonized homosexuality. Gender and sexuality demanded a proper fit: girls and boys should be turning into real men and real women and not sissies and tomboys. Abnormality extracted a “terrible price”: “ostracism, incarceration or psychiatrization.” (p. 106) This discourse was reflected, too, in school sex education and in strongly-enforced obscenity laws that set clear boundaries [End Page 186] of normal and abnormal. A discussion of Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent...

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 185-188
Launched on MUSE
1999-09-01
Open Access
No
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