[The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth & the Making of Heterosexuality]

By Adams, Mary L.; Simmons, Christina | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall/Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

[The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth & the Making of Heterosexuality]


Adams, Mary L., Simmons, Christina, Resources for Feminist Research


This rich study of sexual meanings and regulation in Canada between 1945 and 1960 provides a fascinating link with an earlier episode of sexual control: Raoul Mercier, the crown attorney who prosecuted Dorothea Palmer in Ottawa in 1936 for distributing birth control, in 1952 prosecuted an Ottawa book distributor for selling "indecent literature," including the novel Women's Barracks, which portrayed a lesbian affair. Women's independence was never part of the sexual "normality" Mary Louise Adams describes.

Adams' study exemplifies the research Jonathan Katz called for in his pioneering work, The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995); that is, to examine not only categories culturally marked as problematically sexual -- all women as well as lesbians and gays -- but also the unmarked ones -- men and heterosexuals, thereby de-centring and exposing the normative status of the latter. Thus, Adams scrutinizes the discourses that constituted (hereto)sexual normality rather than those constructing deviance. By describing the legitimated "systems of sexual meaning available" (p. 16) she seeks to understand "the distance people would have had to travel through mainstream discourses to identify themselves as homosexual in the postwar period" (p. 4). To make this analysis Adams employs Foucauldian discourse analysis as her theoretical and methodological approach and does so clearly and comprehensibly. The book's bringing together of both dominant and marginalized sexual categories and its Canadian focus render it an especially valuable addition to teaching resources for the history of sexuality.

The opening chapters describe the economic and political context -- the postwar "domestic revival," the growing consumer economy, anti-Communism, and the extraordinary symbolic valence of the nuclear family in dominant political and social thought. She notes the intersection and mutual constitution of the concepts of "youth" and "sex." Discourses were usually aimed at adolescents but were also built upon "youth" as a symbol of the nation's future; such importance justified regulating young people's sexuality. Despite its competence, the focus of this section on a very abstract, national level of discourse tends at times to reproduce the air of unreality of that freighted language. These discourses were produced mostly in Toronto but as "national" discourses; even within English Canada, however, their reception and use would have varied widely by local area. It is the interaction of those national discourses with particular historical developments that enlivens the four chapters at the heart of the book. In these Adams skillfully examines a wide range of sources -- court and government documents, records of civic organizations, and books, periodicals, and educational films -- in order to address Toronto's moral panic about juvenile delinquency; print and film advice to teens on love, dating, and sex; struggles over sex education in the Toronto school system; and political and legal attacks on obscenity.

Adams offers an exciting and well-substantiated analysis about sexual meanings and regulation in Canada in this period. She demonstrates how regulation had changed from an earlier period in which it predominantly involved warnings to avoid bad behaviour; 1950s sex advice to teens instead represented "'positive'" efforts to produce the good -- i.e., "'normal' sexual individuals" (p. 87). It thereby created narrow and rigid models of "normality" and ones that intrusively inculcated not just bodily but psychic conformity. …

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