How do “normal” kids cope with mixed messages about sex? That’s not the research question of this book, but it may as well be.
Academic research on teen sexuality and parenthood, according to Stefanie Mollborn, is either statistical analysis of large-survey data or qualitative research with a particular high-risk community. Her project, in Mixed Messages, employs the qualitative approach but focuses on a low-risk community, exploring how they learn to “do normal” and how they respond to this normativity.
Examining the construction and enforcement of “normal” is indicative of who we are as a culture, community or nation. Of course, such examination of the average or the mainstream runs the risk of navel-gazing. But Mollborn manages to articulate her arguments expertly while avoiding this pitfall.
Her search for normal, or more precisely sexual normativity, lands in the American heartlands – a university campus of a city in the Western US. Through individual interviews, about 100 students recall how social norms were communicated to them during their high-school years. One might think such a sample would be reasonably diverse. That would be a mistake: 94 per cent of the participants were white and from middle-class, socially conservative Christian communities, while the non-white 6 per cent were mainstream Protestant.
In an attempt to offer an alternative voice, Mollborn supplements this with interviews of teen parents. Unsurprisingly, these are not found on campus, since they have little chance of embarking on further education, but mostly in an urban hospital clinic or at a high school for pregnant girls. Most are working class and only three identify as white. Throughout the book, the stories from teen parents provide a counterweight to those of normalcy, offering occasional testimonies to the precariousness of norms and the repercussions of transgression. Mollborn admits that her exploration of normalcy does not include voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens and that their negotiation of normative sexuality needs further research.
With increasing inequality and raging political polarisation, America’s sex education segregates into “red sex” and “blue sex”, where conservative states deny basic access to reproductive health and contraception while maintaining an “abstinence only” approach to teen sex.
Mollborn frames the analysis through the lens of “norm enforcer strategies” and “norm target strategies”. The enforcers restrict opportunities for teen privacy, emphasise negative consequences of teen sex, create power through dependence and control friendship groups by limiting contact with “others”/transgressors. For Mollborn, this perpetuates a cycle of “conformity, norm violation and sanctioning”. In my experience, this describes parenting a teen in the average American home.
How do teens respond? They create what Mollborn labels “it’s wrong but…” communities. Under this morally conservative regime, teens construct an “abstinence only” facade with peers, parents and the wider community. Yet, by their late teens, they are having sex at the same rate as teens in other developed countries. The worrying outcome of the educational and parental silence is secret sex – which means unsafe sex and an increased vulnerability to sexual violence.
In the words of Albert Camus, “nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal”. Mollborn deftly captures the impact of normativity not only on those marginalised by it but also on those trapped in a narrative of parentally or communally defined “normal”.
Angelia R. Wilson is professor of politics at the University of Manchester.
Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy
By Stefanie Mollborn
Oxford University Press, 296pp, £64.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780190633271 and 3288
Published 6 April 2017