Games People Play: Sex, Alcohol and Condom Use among Urban Norwegians

By Traeen, Bente; Hovland, Arild | Contemporary Drug Problems, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Games People Play: Sex, Alcohol and Condom Use among Urban Norwegians


Traeen, Bente, Hovland, Arild, Contemporary Drug Problems


What makes adults have unprotected casual sex under the influence of alcohol? In 1995 a field qualitative study on alcohol and sexuality was undertaken among 33 guests to three clubs designed to attract people from different social layers in Oslo. Men were reluctant to use condoms because of reduced pleasure and sensation. Females' problems dealt with social stigmatization and with what was sought in the sexual encounter. Condoms were not likely to be used if the woman used oral contraception. The informants trusted the partner would tell of diseases. Trusting was connected to the partner's social status. In love contexts, the symbolic value of sex without condoms may be greater than for sex with condoms. In non-love contexts, condom use was connected to acting responsibly. The informants tended to blame the alcohol for not using condoms. However, rather than failing to use condoms, people more likely never intended to use them.

No two places are the same, and no two cultures have exactly the same rules and expressions, even when it comes to human sexuality. This "thing" that moves us so, this very natural, fascinatingly variable form of action, has come to represent, in the West at least, our premium path to self-fulfillment, identity, and safety. How ironic, then, that this our priority way of comfort is such a troublesome one, so replete with danger and degradation. The happy-go-lucky sexual emancipation of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced in the 1980s and 1990s by the fear of viruses and a loss of innocence. In the wake of the AIDS epidemic sex has become dangerous. There seem to be few illusions anymore-and there ought perhaps to be no room for excuses. Or is there?

This article is based on interviews and observations in cafes and clubs in Oslo, Norway. Prior to 1980 the night-life of Oslo may safely be labeled "limited." Only a few saw the streets and the establishments in downtown Oslo as particularly attractive. Come the 1980s, this changed, as expressed by a host of new establishments, turning the center of nighttime Oslo into an anthill of people and alcohol-related pleasures. The events and the people described here are part and parcel of this center-in-flux.

More to the point, this article describes and discusses the uses and abuses of sex and alcohol in that quest for intimacy and safety that seems to move Norwegian urbanites out into nighttime Oslo. Of prime importance is the fact that although most people are aware of the very real dangers of casual sex in the age of AIDS, few really take the precautions necessary to avoid catching this disease. This is particularly so for the adults (ages 25-52) who were the subjects of this study.

The study

The problem of this study is, as will be detailed shortly, derived from quantitative studies. The research design that was produced to illuminate them was, however, qualitative. Basically two approaches were put into action-one a variant of participant observation in several clubs in downtown Oslo; the other, structured interviews with people typically frequenting these clubs in which observations took place. Ideally all the interviewees should have been recruited directly from the clubs during observation. However, this was not possible. The element of participation was felt in many situations to exclude the thematization necessary to gain contact with potential interviewees. Instead of direct recruitment an indirect method was applied in which the networks of the researchers were activated. The researchers were of the same age category as the targets, so their friends and acquaintances were asked to recruit a sufficient number of interviewees through their networks who were formerly unknown to the researchers. This worked out well. A total of 33 people were recruited for interviews lasting between one and two hours. Fourteen of the interviewees were women and 19 were men. As it turned out, men were easier to recruit than women-in the clubs, that is.

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