Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power

Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and Rachel Thomson
London: Tufnell Press
1 872767 95 8
213 pp.

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At a time when women are increasingly being recognised as vulnerable to infection with HIV/AIDS, The Male in the Head comes as a welcome contribution to discussions about the micro-politics of heterosexuality which specifically place women at risk. Using data gathered in the Women, Risk and AIDS Project (WRAP) (1988 - 90) and Men, Risk and AIDS Project (MRAP) (1991 - 92), the book explains the development of the authors' thinking in relation to the social construction of a heterosexuality which privileges men and undermines women's sexual agency and safety. Originally motivated by a desire to acknowledge that the sexuality and sexual practices of women were important and perhaps decisive to the spread or limitation HIV/AIDS, the authors document young people's perceptions of their sexualities and interpret them as reflecting their understanding of HIV and STDs, their identification of risk and danger in sexual activity, their attitudes toward relationships and responsibilities within them and their ability to communicate effectively their concerns about safety within sexual encounters. The book describes how analyses of the WRAP/MRAP data encouraged the authors' to reflect upon their original feminist assumptions about the binary opposition of masculinity and femininity in heterosexuality as crucially contributing to risk-taking in sexual encounters, and the consideration of the existence of a socially constructed femininity which colludes with male power. In accepting the primacy of men's needs and complying with a policing the rules of 'successful femininity', women are seen to be collaborating in the production of what the authors describe as 'the male-in the-head' as a regulator of male-dominated and institutionalised heterosexuality.

Based on the accounts of the 148 young women and 46 young men involved in the sample, the book provides an insightful analysis of the reality of the lives of these young people as expressed at the time of their interviews. Although a number of the discussions contained within the book are recognisable as direct insertions from the original working papers, it also reflects a number of crucial developments in the authors' thinking that have been expressed through their subsequent publications, now conveniently drawn together to provide a thorough and detailed examination of the gendered power dynamics working against strategies for change that may ensure a more consistent negotiation of safe and pleasurable sex for both men and women. These include engaging and perceptive analyses of the ways in which both formal and informal learning processes and the absence of appropriate languages with which to communicate concerns about safety and pleasure undermine female agency and reinforce masculine hegemony within the sexual encounter, rendering the expression of resistance and acquisition of safety unfamiliar, difficult, and often precarious tasks for women to negotiate.

The book resolves a number of difficulties that I had identified within the working papers concerning the use of the data, particularly the 'monolithic' presentation of the male respondents. Within the original analysis, there was a tendency to make particularly strong conclusions about the nature of heterosexuality/masculinity in the sample, without an adequate explanation for the dynamics affecting the expression of these young people's sexual identities. The Male in the Head makes less conclusive assertions and acknowledges that these identities are not static, but rather that issues such as class, age, ethnicity and experience crucially influence the way in which sexuality is both understood and discussed by the young people in the sample. The book also benefits from a comparative analysis of the attitudes of the young men and women, which is particularly interesting in the chapters discussing the gendered meanings of condom use, and the ways in which both formal and informal sex education is remembered by the respondents as gendered learning experiences, contributing to the social construction of heterosexuality as privileging men.

My principal reservations about the book are epistemological. The first relates to the authors' failure to consistently acknowledge that the data produced by the studies was both time and context specific. The use of the present tense wrongly implies that the attitudes and beliefs presented within the book are normative representations of those of young people today, rather than, in some cases, ten years old. The analyses would benefit from a more explicit acknowledgement of this fact, and/or a recognition that while the social forces affecting the construction of heterosexual identities may not have altered significantly, the manner in which young people understand and express these are unlikely to remain the same. My second concern is the authors' failure to adequately indicate their presence in the research process. This could have been resolved by a more explicit discussion in the main text of some of the issues addressed in Appendix III, where they account for their feminist research method. Not only would this have accounted for the processes by which they came to interpret the interview data, but would have lent their epistemological assertions greater weight by directly accounting for the processes involved in its production.

In short, while the authors succeed in making visible the complex processes contributing to and reinforcing the masculinity of heterosexuality, the book would benefit from a more explicit account of how this theory evolved by reflexively exploring their engagement with the research process. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable contribution to contemporary understandings of the social construction of masculine and feminine sexuality.

Angela Meah
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998