Saturday, September 20, 2008

changing sexual norms and Twilight

Fifty and even forty years ago fear of disease and pregnancy were fairly effective in getting most teenagers, at least teenage girls, to view sex before marriage as dangerous and risky.

I remember quite well the film that we were shown sophomore year of high school that was intended to discourage sex. A teenage boy and girl were shown getting into the back seat of a car, the car did some rocking, and the teenagers got out with rumpled clothes; fast forward a few weeks and you see the teenage girl with her doctor getting the news that she has some unnamed, loathsome disease that could render her sterile. While we were amused by the car rocking and rumpled clothes we believed in the disease risk.

But the real fear of sex in the 1950's and 1960's came from the risk of pregnancy. The pill was quite new and hard for teenagers to obtain; with the much higher dosages of the time the pill had more negative side effects; few if any alternatives to the pill were available to teen girls, and the attitudes of the time -- that condoms were only used with prostitutes -- meant that a "good" girl would be offended in the extremely unlikely case that her boyfriend suggested them. Abortion was of course illegal in the 60's, and while some girls found a way, there were often deadly consequences of illegal abortions. If you got pregnant in 1968, your world came to an end, or so it seemed to us at the time. Pregnant girls were thrown out of regular school; the girls who got pregnant and dropped out were the subjects of scandalized whispering campaigns.

Books written for teenage girls in the fifties and sixties, could and did realistically depict ordinary teenage girls, deeply in love with their ordinary boyfriends steadfastly resisting sex, and saving themselves for marriage. The tension and drama of those novels was generated by an accepted tension between fear (of pregnancy and disease) and desire. Few of us who consumed those novels thought this was ridiculous or silly or old fashioned, we found that tension reasonable and realistic, and romantic.

While today there are religious people, including religious teens, that consider sex before marriage sinful, or at the very least undesirable, the type of mortal fear of sex that existed in the 1950's and 1960's has disappeared from popular thought. Diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis are, rightly or wrongly, viewed as easily cured and inconsequential. Even AIDS, an incurable life shortening disease, doesn't work well as a scare tactic because, true or not, popular belief view AIDS as a disease that only affects homosexuals, needle using drug addicts, and poor black people.

It is extremely unlikely that teens would view pregnancy as the life ending event we did in the sixties, when they observe classmates who are pregnant, and know girls with babies going to college. In a time when a conservative, evangelical, Republican candidate for Vice President is open and accepting of her teenage daughter's pregnancy, the idea that pregnancy will ruin one's life and destroy one's reputation are viewed as nonsensical by today's teens.

In this world in which the old dangers of sex no longer hold water with young people, enters Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight series. On her website she writes:
I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon, as we are commonly called—for more info on what that means, see ) and that has a huge influence on who I am and my perspective on the world, and therefore what I write (though I have been asked more than once, "What's a nice Mormon girl like you doing writing about vampires?").
I would argue that Stephenie Meyer writes about vampires because she is a Mormon.

Her religious tradition like most conservative, Christian traditions views sex outside of marriage as sinful, and preaches that young people (male and female) should preserve their virginity until marriage. There are many Christian novels written, published and in bookstores these days that tell stories of romance between young people who remain celibate and do not consummate their relationship until after the marriage vows are complete. None of those novels ever makes it on to the best seller lists -- but the Twilight series has had phenomenal commercial success.

The genius of the Twilight books, is that Stephenie Meyers (as the result of a vivid dream) has found a way to recapture the old fashioned romantic tension between danger and desire, without being viewed as out-dated or absurd. Instead of fear of sexual transmitted diseases or pregnancy, we have fear of the vampire lover who might lose control during sex and devour his partner. By evoking an iconic and well established fantasy creature -- the vampire -- Meyer can deliver her message of abstinence within a framework that seems exciting, dangerous and modern, rather than old fashioned.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

cultural change and language change

In our last two sessions, my SOC 101 class (the one in the classroom)and I have been focusing on the elements of culture, beginning with language, and talking about changes in culture. Last Thursday we were coming up with examples of words that have come to have different meanings -- both denotations (the direct, explicit, dictionary meaning) and connotations (implied or suggested meaning).

In light of this conversation with my students I find it interesting, that apparently the meaning (both denotation and connotation) of the noun "barracuda" has evidently undergone some changes. According to my Merriam-Webster Dictionary (copyright 2004) the second meaning of "barracuda" is a person who "uses aggressive, selfish, and sometimes unethical methods to obtain a goal, especially in business."

Now my 1941 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, doesn't even have that meaning, it just defines barracuda as "voracious pike-like marine fish." So the application of the name to humans is one example of the changing nature of language.

Now, it would appear, that the Republicans either like the idea of Sarah Palin being labeled "aggressive, selfish, and sometimes unethical" or they think the word means something entirely different. Certainly the Heart song "Barracuda" that the Republicans have chosen (with out the group's permission) as Palin's theme song, does not use the term in a wholly complementary way --the person being called "barracuda" appears to be a preditory and lying person.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

cultural values and social practices

Cultural values often are disconnected from social practices. The values reflect ideals that are often disconnected with the realities of daily life.

I am suddenly reminded of a joke from my childhood, when the primary method of birth control used by Catholics was the rhythm method.

Old Joke:
"What do you call a couple who uses the rythm method?"

New joke:
"What do you call parents who teach abstinence-only to their teens?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

norms, the nomos and the antinomian

Sociologists define norms as rules for behavior that are shared by a group of people. Those rules can vary in seriousness from things like "don't kill" or "don't steal" to "keep your elbows off the table" and "cover your mouth when you cough."

Our everyday life activity is governed by thousands of rules, most of which do not rise to the level of consciousness for us, unless some one violates them. While some norms are viewed as sufficiently serious to require coding into laws with formal sanctions (punishments) attached to them, most norms are enforced in ways that are less formal and less visible to us.

As humans we desire the company and approval of others and generally seek to avoid the criticism and lack of approval of people who are important to us (family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, bosses). It is not necessary for some one to actually criticize us for, say not keeping our lawn mown, as long as we are aware that the people we care about say negative things about others who do not mow their lawns. The less serious a norm is, the easier it is to violate it without significant disapproval by those who matter to us, or to pass over the occasional criticism as unimportant.

I've previously discussed how language is used to establish the acceptable order (nomos) and what is outside the acceptable order (antinomian). Norms are another important part of defining the nomos, and the violation of norms can be an indicator of what is antinomian. But people do not judge all violations of norms (regardless of level of seriousness) the same. Much depends upon who is violating the norms, when and where.

In graduate school one of my professors, Dwight Billings (still on the graduate faculty at the University of Kentucky) spoke of the concept of "deviance credits." The idea of deviance credits is that some types of people are given leeway for violating norms that others are not. For example, children and very old people are not held to quite the same standards of politeness and propriety that adults are; artists are often expected to be outrageous and dramatic in their behavior; doctors, police, fire fighters, and others intent on saving lives are excused some of the niceties of politeness.

However, the reverse is also true, some people are held to higher standards than others. This has long been the curse of ministers and their families. College presidents are often held to standards that are not applied to CEO's of corporations. Witness the recent resignation of Robert A. Paxton, president of Iowa Central Community College when a photo of him partying on a boat with his son's friends, was made public; none of the young people in the photo or one the boat were below drinking age, and none except his son were students at his college, however, the standard of behavior for college presidents is higher regarding some types of behavior than for other individuals.

The nomos or social order is often maintained by making an example of those who hold positions that are in the limelight, holding them to a higher level of adherence to norms than one might for one's family, friends or neighbors -- or even oneself. Politicians for high national office are among those individuals generally held to higher standards of norm following.

One of my students posted the following comment in our discussion on norms:
Over the weekend, my family and I attended the rodeo at I---. Toward the end of the show, 4 riders came out on horses, each holding a flag belonging to one of the four branches of the military. Those flags were followed by the American flag being held by a female rider. Though many people stood up out of respect for our flags, others did not. There were people in the crowd who didn't remove their hats either, even during the National Anthem. I thought it to be the norm, to always remove your hat, place your hand on your heart, and stand for our Anthem. I found the behavior of those who didn't to be very disappointing and disrespectful.
Obviously this student was disturbed by the breaking of this norm, but the larger point her story reveals is that many people in the audience did not follow this norm. Either because they do not hold the same understanding of the rules governing flag respect or because they view them as minor norms with no serious repercussions (sanctions) for violation of this norm. Recent public reactions to Obama merely standing in respect but not putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem, support the contention that higher standards of norm following on this matter is applied to presidential candidates.