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Like many things in our culture, the production of a Ph.D. is a process that 
involves the collaboration of many, yet only one gets the credit. The "acknowledgments" 
page, which is the culturally appropriate avenue for identifying other contributors, makes 
the roles of the people I am about to mention seem far too incidental, and it has become a 
vapid stock phrase to say that I could not have done it without them. Language and 
convention fail me, but perhaps it will help to avoid "I could not do it with them," and 
say quite frankly we did it. The work that I did (e.g., analysis, writing) in isolation was 
made possible by the work I did (e.g., learning, planning, agonizing) with a host of 
amazing people that deserve far more credit than my mere acknowledgment conveys. 

Above all others, my parents, Barry and Ellie Cohan, supported me emotionally 
and financially far longer and more completely than I could have ever hoped or expected. 
I love them. They are the foundation of whatever measure of success I achieve, and. 
more than anything, I want to share it with them. 

Randi Lincoln, my beloved fiancee, deserves more thanks than I can give her for 
the patience, attention, love, and concern she has given me over the last three years. I 
thank her for making a life with me. I never lose sight of how lucky I am to be with a 
woman of such intelligence and compassion. 

My research was supported financially by two generous grants, one from Mr. 
Gary Gerson, through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dissertation Fellowship 
Program, and the other from the Department of Sociology. I am grateful for their 


willingness to support graduate research and for the confidence and interest they showed 
in my work by giving me these awards. 

I am thankful to all of the young men who agreed to talk with me. Their candor 
and poise were critical to success of this project. I am also grateful to the parents who 
granted me permission to talk with their sons who were minors in the eyes of the law. 

I am indebted to Bill Marsiglio for the opportunities, financial support, advice, 
and guidance he has given me throughout my graduate career. It is my privilege to be 
able to call Bill my coauthor, mentor, and future colleague. I am also indebted to Jay 
Gubrium for convincing me that I belonged in academia, fostering my academic 
development, and for giving me insight into the professional world. I have the thrill of 
working on a cutting edge of sociology, and I owe that to Jay's instruction. I am also 
thankful to Rodman Webb, Felix Berardo, and Hernan Vera, who served on my doctoral 
committee and contributed their own expertise, interests, and concerns in the interest of 
making my work better. 

Throughout my time as a graduate student in the Department of Sociology, the 
department staff has been helpful and supportive every step of the way. I am especially 
indebted to Sheran Flowers, Mary Robinson, Nadine Gillis, and Kanitra Perry for guiding 
me through the perils of the university bureaucracy. I would not have made it without 
their friendship and commitment. 

Mike Podalski, Gary St. John, and Dr. Ellen West provided critical assistance to 
my recruitment efforts. Their assistance truly was at the art of making this research 
happen, and I am thankful for their support. 


I am grateful for and humbled by the constant love and support of my Aunt Faith, 
sister Dawn, brother Rick, brother-in-law Chris, and future sister-in-law, Stephanie. 
Knowing all of them were out there pulling for me (even if some of them occasionally 
had sarcastic ways of showing it) was always a comfort. I promise, particularly to my 
siblings, that becoming "Dr. Mark" will not mean that, along with my many attributes, I 
develop a big head. 

Max Wilson and Audra Latham, Lisa Gay, Martin Watson, Karen Conner, Larry 
and Laurie Rounds, Eve Sands, Jim Doherty, and Sandra Lorean are very dear friends 
who have been invaluable to me even before I started graduate school, and I will cherish 
them long after this current work fades from memory. 

My very survival during the lean graduate school years was ensured by the 
economic support of a host of kind souls, including Bo Beaulieu, Suzanna Smith. Monika 
Ardelt, Dan Perkins, Beverlyn Allen, Mike Radelet, and John Scanzoni. I appreciate the 
confidence each of them showed in my abilities and the opportunities they gave me to 
learn from them while subsisting. 

Lara Foley; Dean Dabney; Goldie MacDonald; Goldie King; Deena, Ben, and 
Sidney Benveneste; Laurel Tripp; Chris Faircloth; Toni McWhorter; Julian Chambliss; 
Dan Barash; Joe Straub; Sheran Flowers; Marion Borg; Terry Mills; Joe Feagin; and 
Wendy Young are among the other graduate students, friends, and professors who have 
taken time to show me the ropes, disentangle me from the ropes, or keep me from using 
the ropes for self-injurious purposes. I owe them many thanks, and I owe thanks and an 
apology to the many others whom I have neglected to mention here. 


Lastly, I have to acknowledge the pets who comforted me with unconditional 
love, even when they had to battle with my work for my attention. The regal Natasha and 
unpretentious Chloe have been my everyday companions through the writing of this 
dissertation, but in days past, Hester, Bella, and Chance shared their essential "catness," 
and Frisky was the best friend and mascot any family could have. 

The phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" is in vogue these days. Apparently, 
it takes a zoo for me to get a Ph.D. Thanks go to all for being a part of the wonderful, 
unpredictable, absorbing delirium. 








Method and Data 3 

Active Interviewing 4 

Data Analysis 5 

Theory 7 

Discourse as Power/Knowledge 8 

Discourse and Descriptive Practice 10 

Perspective on Masculinity 16 

Chapter Organization 20 


"When?": Age at First Intercourse 25 

"Why?" (and "Why Not?"): Antecedents and Correlates to First Sex 32 

Testosterone 33 

Socioeconomic Status 36 

Family Structure 37 

Education 39 

Substance Use 40 

Dating/Peers 41 

Attitudes/Knowledge About Sex 42 

Religiosity 44 

Self-Esteem 45 

Other Factors 45 

Reasons for Delaying First Sex 46 

How?" and "How Was It?": Context and Consequence of First Intercourse 

Experience 49 

Sexual Scripts 50 

Dynamics of Physical Intimacy 50 

Emotional Response to First Intercourse 51 


"What?": Virgin Sexual Practices 54 

Conclusion 56 


Naturalistic Studies of Adolescent Sexuality 63 

Interviews 63 

Ethnographies 68 

Masculinity as an Interpretive Lens 72 

Narrative Analysis 76 

The Narrative Quality of Experience 76 

Narrative and Identity 77 

Defining Narrative 78 

Examining Narrative: Analytical Strategies 80 

Narrative Studies of Adolescent Sexuality 87 

"Where the Boys Are" 87 

"School Talk" 89 

Conclusion 91 


Giving Form to the Formless: The Pitfalls of Describing Discourses 95 

The Discourse of Piety 98 

Articulating Others 98 

Articulating Self 101 

Articulating Virginity and Sex 102 

Articulating Girls/Women 104 

The Discourse of Conquest 106 

Articulating Sex 106 

Articulating Virginity 1 1 1 

Articulating Virgins 1 14 

Articulating Women/Girls 1 16 

Articulating Others 121 

The Male Fraternity 122 

The Discourse of Relationship 124 

Articulating the Link Between Relationships and Sex 124 

Articulating Relationships 127 

Articulating Others 130 

Articulating Virginity 131 

A Fourth Way: Worry as an Horizon of Meaning 133 

Conclusion 138 



Identifying Narrative Strategies 141 

Telling 144 

Stories 145 

Hypothetical Narratives 151 

Habitual Narratives 153 

Collaborative Narratives 154 

Presenting Selves 158 

Identity Claims 159 

Distancing 160 

Biographical Work 163 

Contrasting 167 

Categorizing 169 

Parroting 172 

Quotations as Adjectives 172 

Speaking for Collectives 173 

Quotations as "Straw Men" 175 

Conclusion 176 


Narrative Challenges 178 

The Three Mediators 180 

Masculinity, Mediation, and Hegemony 183 

The Relationship of the Discourse of Conquest to Hegemonic 

Masculinity 185 

Constructing the Importance of Belonging Within the Discourse of 

Conquest 186 

Male Fraternity 187 

Virginity Status Tests 190 

Navigating Narrative Challenges Related to Masculinity 194 

Avoiding a Spoiled Identity 195 

Managing Partial Commitments to the Discourse 205 

Navigating Threats Implicit in the Discourse 208 

Reconciling the Discourse of Conquest with Other Discourses 214 

Reconciliation with the Discourses of Conquest and Piety 215 

Reconciliation with the Discourses of Conquest and Relationship 223 

Conclusion 227 


Navigating Challenges to Belonging 233 

Discourse of Piety 234 

Discourse of Relationship 237 


Navigating Challenges to Masculinity 239 

Commitment to "Weak" Relationships 240 

Commitment to Virginity 245 

Independence and the Discourse of Piety 250 

Conclusion 253 


Reorientation 256 

Discourse and Narrative 260 

Masculinities 262 

The Interplay of Multiple Masculinities 262 

The Construction of Adolescent Masculinities 264 

Masculinities and Method 268 

Adolescent Males' Sexual Decision Making 270 

Interviewing 275 

Limits to Storytelling 276 

Power Dynamics 280 

Final Thoughts 283 




Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School 

of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the 

Requirements for the Degree of 

Doctor of Philosophy 





Mark Cohan 

August 2002 

Chairperson: Jaber F. Gubrium 
Major Department: Sociology 

This study combined elements of discourse and narrative analysis to examine how 

adolescent boys construct and present accounts of (a) their decision-making with respect 

to heterosexual sex; and (b) their own identities in relation to those decisions. Seventeen 

boys completed one-on-one, face-to-face interviews. Questions addressed participant's 

own sexual experiences (or lack thereof); the meaning and importance of sex; others who 

influenced the participant's view of sex; and the participant's perspectives on virginity, 

virgins, girls, sex talk, and manhood. Analysis targeted (a) the interplay between 

available discourses of sexual decision-making and the narrative strategies the boys 

employed and (b) the narrative challenges that arose as this interplay was mediated by 

three identity concerns specific to adolescent boys — masculinity, independence, and 


The primary available discourses reflected three divergent orientations to sexual 
decision-making. The "conquest" discourse emphasized the importance of gaining 
sexual experience; the "relationship" discourse treated sex as appropriate only as an 
extension of a relationship; and the "piety" discourse oriented to sexual decisions on the 
basis of religious principles. Narrative strategies for managing discourses and presenting 
identities included telling stories and pseudo-stories, presenting selves, creating rhetorical 
contrasts, categorizing in purposeful ways, and speaking for others for rhetorical effect. 

The conquest discourse had a preeminent position among the boys, and 
masculinity was the most pressing of the mediating identity concerns. In confronting the 
narrative challenges associated with masculinity, the boys variously constructed, 
reinforced, and challenged a hierarchy of masculinities that was topped by a conquest- 
based, hegemonic standard. Committed virgins faced the greatest difficulty constructing 
their masculinity against the conquest-based ideal, but even boys who accepted the ideal 
often found it riddled with contradictions. Whatever specific rhetorical demands they 
faced, the boys managed meanings by harnessing the power of language to make 
distinctions, introduce shades of gray, and control which elements take the foreground 
and which recede into the background. 

This analysis reveals the power of narrativity to affect the presentation of identity, 
demonstrates that discourses are relational, and raises questions about mechanistic 
interpretations of life-course transitions that do not account for the importance of 
language and meaning-making to these processes. 



I am a cop show junkie. Actually, it is not cop shows, exactly, that I love, but 
those gritty police dramas like Law and Order and NYPD Blue that feature homicide 
detectives snooping around for evidence, making subtle connections between clues, and 
grilling suspects. I would be lying if I said that I watch them for academic purposes, but 
there is no doubt that they involve an abundance of what I might call "social 
psychological intrigue." In one Law and Order episode, for instance, a doctor struggles 
to explain to the detectives why he falsified information on a patient's medical chart. He 
provides the details of what happened the night the patient died, but also emphasizes that 
as a native from Pakistan working in an American hospital, he cannot afford to appear 
fallible. He has to be twice as good as his peers just to be considered competent. He 
urges the detectives to understand his actions in light of who he is: a foreign-born 
professional who faces prejudice in his work place. 

With its interrogations and legal maneuverings on behalf of the accused, these 
detective shows are rife with stories like this one that, to the sociologically minded, 
highlight the interconnection between story and identity. They provide anecdotal 
evidence again and again that we create ourselves in talk and that when we speak of 
events in our lives, our selves are always at stake. Whether we realize it or not, when we 
talk about our experiences an inevitable by-product of our talk is a picture of who we are, 
what type of person we are or would like others to think we are. 

The other thing that "grabs" me about these shows is more disturbing. It's the 
portrayal of men. With a few minor exceptions, the men in these shows, whether "good 
guys" or "bad guys," are stereotypical "manly" men. They are tough, unemotional, 
competitive, noncommunicative, homophobic, and always ready to fight. It is as if most 
of them are cut from the same cloth, and those who are not are treated as different at best; 
deviant or less-than human at worst. 

Although the men in these shows and the words they speak are fictional, they 
intrigue me precisely because the dynamics of narrative, identity, and masculinity they 
portray are quite real. But where detective dramas address these issues indirectly, often 
unintentionally, in an effort to entertain, I have worked throughout my graduate school 
career to find ways to give them deliberate, systematic sociological attention. As part of 
my master's degree work, I conducted interviews with males who had been involved in 
political activism on so-called women's issues (e.g., abortion rights, the prevention of 
violence against women, the Equal Rights Amendment) (Cohan 1997). These interviews 
revealed how the activists used narrative to variously construct the political landscape in 
which they were involved and explored the consequences their constructions had for their 
place as males in the political struggles they had joined. 

In developing my current work, I wanted to delve deeper into the intersections of 
narrative, identity, and masculinity, but I needed a new focal point. The activist 
community that I had studied had gone into a lull, with many of the most active males 
moving away, and, anyway, I wanted to address a topic that would target men's sense of 
masculinity in a more urgent way. I remembered how tortured I sometimes felt as a 
young man, watching important rites of passage go by — high school graduation, college 

graduation, my 25 th birthday — and knowing that I was — gasp !— still a virgin. Although I 
was clearly an adult, I felt that I was not quite a man, and I believed that, despite my 
secrecy, everyone could somehow see my "immaturity." Surely, I could not be alone in 
my experience. Sexuality and sexual behavior have always been important means by 
which males have marked their masculinity, and I resolved to study this marking of one's 
self as masculine, as a man, where I presumed it might start or start to become 
problematic, with the notions (and experiences) of virginity and virginity loss. 

Method and Data 

Concern with virginity, in turn, directed my attention to adolescence, a time when 
issues of masculinity are a critical aspect of males' development. I conducted semi- 
structured interviews with a racially and ethnically diverse sample of 1 7 adolescent males 
between the ages of 14 and 19, all of whom purported to be heterosexual. The 
convenience sample was recruited via an ad in a local monthly newspaper, contacts with 
youth ministers from local churches and high school principals, and word of mouth. In 
all, nine of the recruits came from a local dropout retrieval high school, three were 
introduced to me by church youth ministers, three answered my ad, and two heard about 
the research through word of mouth. Six of the young men identified as virgin (i.e., had 
never had vaginal intercourse), nine said they were nonvirgin, and one, who described 
himself as a "born-again virgin," said that he had had intercourse once but had since 
vowed to stay abstinent until marriage. 

Informed consent was obtained for interviews with all of the males older than 17. 
The minor adolescents gave their assent after informed consent was obtained from a 
parent or guardian. Participants were paid $10 for a single interview that was not to last 

more than two hours. Interviews took place in various offices on the University campus 
and were audio taped for later transcription. I transcribed the audio tapes of all but two of 
the interviews, and I reviewed and corrected the transcripts that were done by an outside 
source. Interviews typically lasted between 30 and 120 minutes. In one case where 
additional time was needed, a second interview session was scheduled and the participant 
received another payment. 

Over the course of each interview, I directed the respondent to describe his 
experiences with respect to dating and sex and explain the rationale for the decisions he 
had made. Regardless of his virginity status, I questioned with an aim toward 
discovering the meanings he attached to virginity, virgins, virginity loss, sex, dating, and 
relationships, and I explored how these meanings interrelated and intersected with his 
understandings of females, masculinity, religion, and the significant others in his life 
(peers, parents, clergy, or others). In presenting excerpts from the boys' narratives in this 
report, I have protected their anonymity by creating pseudonyms for them and any places 
to which they refer. 
Active Interviewing 

Because I was interested in the construction of identities, I took as my model the 
active interview described by Holstein and Gubrium (1995). This model springs from a 
particular conception of the interview as a research mode that has implications for how 
interviews are conducted and analyzed. Traditionally, interviews are thought of as 
occasions when interviewers ask respondents questions in an effort to get appropriate 
information "out of them." The assumption is that the answers to the interviewer's 
questions reside somewhere within the respondent even before the interview occurs. The 

interviewer's job is simply to extract those answers without contaminating them with 
methodological problems such as leading questions, and interviewer bias. 

When interviews are treated as active, in contrast, they are understood as sites of 
meaning construction, not response extraction. Respondents do not come preloaded with 
answers to questions. Rather, they collaborate with interviewers in the construction of 
responses that satisfy the specific rhetorical demands posed in the interview. In terms of 
how the interview is conducted, an active approach thus precludes the use of a strict 
interview schedule. Interviewers enter interviews with a series of topics they wish to 
address, but both interviewer and interviewee are involved in determining which issues 
are most relevant and how responses to interview queries take form. 
Data Analysis 

In terms of data analysis, an active interview approach directs researchers away 
from code-based thematic analyses that extract interview excerpts from the context in 
which they are embedded and toward narrative analyses that focus on what respondents 
are saying and also on how they are saying it. In fact, Holstein and Gubrium encourage 
researchers to think of data from active interviews in terms of whats and hows. The 
whats are the substantive aspects of the meanings being constructed; the people, places, 
and events that respondents speak of in the course of the interview. The hows are the 
ways in which these substantive elements are put together to convey meaning. Putting 
words in other people's mouths (Cohan 2001), signaling that certain comments are to be 
heard in certain ways (Gubrium 1993), assembling stories in particular ways (Riessman 
1993) — everything that respondents (and interviewers) do with words can be examined as 
a how of meaning construction. Taken together, examination of the hows and whats of 

interview data produces narrative practice, a particular analytical scheme that remains 
true to the notion of the interview as an active site of meaning construction by attending 
to both the product and process of interviews. Analyzing my interviews in terms of 
narrative practice allowed me to highlight how the boys explained their sexual behavior 
(or avoidance thereof) and also how they constructed their identities in relation to those 

What I discovered as I began to examine the interview data, however, was that 
their experiences were not my experience. While some were 17 and 18 years old and had 
not yet had sexual intercourse, none of them felt their virginity to be as burdensome as I 
had at age 25. I came to believe that my experience was different precisely because I had 
remained virgin long after adolescence, and a recent anonymous internet study of long- 
time virgins provides evidence to this effect (Donnelly et al. 2001). 

Without the comfortable lens of my own experience to see through, I took a fresh 
look at these young men's narratives and became intrigued with them in their own right. 
First, it became clear that I could not study virginity or virginity loss in isolation. While 
notions of sexual initiation could be a starting point and organizing principle, the 
narratives that my respondents and I collaborated in constructing were as much about 
females, sexual decision making, and the emergence of the young men's sexuality as they 
were about virginity, abstinence, and avoiding stigma. Second, I noticed that when these 
young men talked, they constructed narratives that were not entirely their own. As all of 
us do when we narrate experience, these boys conveyed themes, concerns, even stories 
that others offered them as resources for making meaning and making choices about 
sexual behavior. They were drawing on multiple discourses of sexuality and sexual 

decision making as resources for their accounts. But the boys were not "cultural dopes" 
(Garfinkel 1967/1984), mindlessly parroting the ideas of elders, peers, or popular culture. 
Since they were constructing narratives about their own experiences, thoughts, feelings, 
and expectations, who they were was continually implicated in the talk. Like the suspects 
confronted by the wily homicide detectives, their selves were always at stake, and the 
interview was as much an occasion for identity work through narrative as it was for the 
replication of particular discourses of sexual decision making. 


Fair enough, except that established notions of discourse do not leave room for 
the kind of agency necessary for identity work. From this viewpoint, discourse "trumps'* 
narrative, so if I argue that the boys I interviewed are articulating existing discourses of 
sexual decision making, I cannot simultaneously suggest that they work at the narrative 
presentation of self in the process. The discourse establishes the subjectivity of its user, 
so it is nonsensical to suggest that speakers can construct unique identities in relation to 
the discourse that, presumably, already articulates who they are. Despite occasional 
challenges, this understanding of discourse has been in vogue for at least a quarter 
century. It is time, I think, to look more closely at alternative formulations of the 
relationship between discourse and narrative, particularly those that offer some place for 
individual agency in relation to discourse. Such an examination begins with a better 
understanding of exactly what constitutes a discourse. 

Discourse is one of those elements of the language of contemporary social science 
that everyone uses but almost no one bothers to define. Reading some works that draw 
on the concept, it is easy to get the idea that a discourse is some sort of amorphous entity 


lurking behind texts, speech, and social action, silently manipulating them. My sense is 
that it is not nearly as mysterious (or as powerful) as all that. I think of a discourse as a 
more or less unified way of thinking about, talking about, and understanding a 
phenomenon that, at least at some point in history, has had a group of proponents and 
users. For instance, "child welfare" is a prominent contemporary discourse that has 
implications for everything from the discovery of child abuse (Pfohl 1977), to the 
responsibilities of governments with respect to children, and the relationship between 
families and the state. The discourse offers a language that includes terminology such as 
"child abuse," "cycles of violence," "the best interests of the child," and "children are the 
future," which encourages a particular "take" on reality and facilitates certain types of 
actions. Put simply, a discourse is a discursive framework and has consequences for the 
actions of those who use it. 
Discourse as Power/Knowledge 

Michel Foucault brought the notion of discourses and their power to shape 
people's perceptions (and experience) of reality to the forefront of social and political 
thought in the 1970s. In Discipline and Punish (1979), for instance, he argues that 
between the mid- 18 th and mid- 19 th centuries, penal systems in the United States and 
Western Europe underwent a radical transformation. During that time, the philosophy of 
criminal punishment shifted from punishing the body as a means of exacting revenge for 
transgressions against the "body politic" to a strategy of imprisoning and regulating the 
body as a means of converting or reforming the troubled soul of the individual criminal. 
The change signaled more than a growing distaste for the spectacle of torture. Foucault 
asserts that it represented the emergence of a new discourse of punishment that 

fragmented the power to judge criminals. No longer the sole province of judges, 
involvement in determining the status of criminals was now open to anyone who could 
claim expertise in matters of the internal motivations of their fellow human 
beings — psychologists, therapists, and clergy, for example (Rose 1990). The soul. 
Foucault argues, became the basis for a new, subtle means of social control that asserted 
power through knowledge. People were "disciplined" because they learned new ways of 
thinking about themselves, their nature, and their drives, ways of thinking that urged 
them to police themselves. Here, then, is the notion that discourses construct 
subjectivities for those who articulate them. People as diverse as criminals, students, and 
religious believers learned to think of their behavior in terms of internal, sometimes 
unconscious, motivations-that is, they took up the discourse of the soul — and became the 
kind of people who would accept interventions and judgments based on interpretations of 
these motivations. They even became adept at producing interpretations and imposing 
relevant interventions on themselves. In other words, through what they learned, they 
were transformed into able subjects of the discourse. 

Foucault' s novel depiction of discourses as knowledge/power conduits remains an 
influential one. And his attendant suggestions that (1) knowledge is inseparable from 
politics; and (2) the "kindler, gentler" face of humane punishment may mask strategies of 
social control that are as aggressive as their "barbaric" predecessors, cannot be ignored. 
Still, with respect to the possibility of social actors being active agents in the production 
of their lives, their selves, or their reality, Foucault's treatment of discourses raises again 
the specter of cultural dopes. In his formulation, discourses operate so pervasively that 
they leave no room for social actors to categorically recognize, resist, or reformulate the 


perspectives made available to them. We are left with the impression that people dumbly 

or passively, yet deftly, acquiesce to the discourses they learn and that permeate their 


Discourse and Descriptive Practice 

Other scholars, while appreciating Foucault's demonstration of the importance of 
discourse to the organization of social worlds, have rejected his totalizing vision of it. 
Two important figures who have developed this view are Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. 
Holstein. They have been working in tandem for years, producing numerous monographs 
that explore the relationships among language, discourse, and people's everyday lived 
experience. One of their earliest works that wrestles specifically with the impact and 
implications of discourse is What is Family? (1990). In it, they argue that a confluence of 
contemporary discourses of family has exposed the fallacy of a number of commonplace 
assumptions about the ontological status of "the family." Paramount among these are 
that family is physically anchored in the home and that family members have privileged 
access to the meaning of what happens in their domain. In words that echo Foucault, 
Gubrium and Holstein insist that "the everyday reality of the familial is produced through 
discourse" (pp. ix-x). And since discourse can be produced anywhere, so to can the 
reality of the family. 

Yet Gubrium and Holstein are too concerned with keeping their analyses 
anchored in lived experience to employ a notion of discourse as all-pervasive as 
Foucault's. From the start, they distinguish between a kind of abstract Foucauldian 
discourse and discourse in practice. The former, as described by Gubrium and Holstein, 
surely carries all of the "reality-structuring" qualities Foucault attributed to it: 


[Family] discourse, then, is both substantive and active. In terms of 
substance, we can think of its terminology, ideas, models, and theories as 
resources for both naming and making sense of interpersonal relations. . . . 
[Family] discourse is also active. Used in reference to concrete social 
relations, it communicates how one intends to look at, how one should 
understand, or what one intends to do about what is observed, (pp. 15-16) 

These qualities exist only as latent potential, however, until discourse is put into practice 

by people in concrete situations. This "activation" of discursive potential in the language 

use and meaning-making activities of social actors in specific contexts, which Gubrium 

and Holstein refer to as descriptive (or, sometimes, discursive) practice, is the true source 

of their interest in discourse: "Descriptive practice is the situationally sensitive, 

communicative process by which reality is represented. . . . Descriptive practice is our 

field of data — [family] discourse in use" (pp. 26-27). So although Gubrium and Holstein 

recognize the potential of discourse that Foucault emphasized, they reject the implication 

that discourse somehow operates independently of the sense-making practices of 

everyday life. By doing so, they offer a conception of discourse that is less oppressive 

than Foucault' s, one in which individuals actively construct and elaborate how the 

language, ideas, models, and such of a discourse "play out" in particular situations of its 


This insistence that individuals interpret and articulate discourse, rather than 

simply being positioned by it means that, among other things, people do have a say in 

how they present themselves, even when they articulate elements of an existing 

discourse. While a given discourse may offer particular resources for the construction of 

identities, how individuals will manipulate those resources for the purposes of describing 

their selves is by no means given. Locally available discourses provide "useful moral 

options for defining, judging, and cataloguing conduct and identity" (Holstein and 


Gubrium 2000b, p 226; emphasis in original), but social actors recognize options. They 
can, for instance, draw on other discourses to construct competing identities to the ones 
offered by the dominant discourse, or they can self-consciously play the part offered 
them, without committing to that part. Such strategies do not completely reconstruct the 
local context so that, for example, the prisoner becomes the guard, but they do mitigate 
against the totalizing tendencies of discourse and the likelihood that identities are 
imposed, rather than constructed, negotiated, and, in some cases, contested. 

That said, we must also recognize that various forms of stratification affect the 
social distribution, availability, and malleability of discursive resources. It is a well- 
established fact in sociology that race, ethnicity, social class, and religious background 
affect one's life chances (Giddens 1996), and this influence extends to boys' exposure to 
the images, lore, understandings, and role models associated with various discourses of 
sexuality. A few diverse examples will serve to make the point. Boys who grow up with 
conservative, Christian backgrounds are more likely than those who are raised in more 
secular or liberal environments to be taught religious interpretations of sex that 
emphasize abstinence until marriage. As part of being taught how to survive in a racist 
culture, African-American boys are likely to be raised with a greater awareness of how 
race and sexuality intersect (e.g., the stereotype of the hypersexual Black man) than are 
Whites. And finally, economically disadvantaged boys are less likely than their more 
affluent counterparts to have ready, private access to the varied material about sex, STDs, 
and contraception that is available on the Internet. 

The stratification of knowledge, resources, and capacity for understanding and 
shaping one's sexuality is not limited to macrosociological domains, however. 


Differential conditions exist even within groups and across different contexts. For 
instance, a boy who is small, unathletic, and shy is likely to be less successful than others 
in his own friendship group in enacting a discourse that focuses on physical prowess and 
popularity. Likewise, a boy who is successful in presenting himself to his peers in terms 
of a particular discourse may not meet with the same success within the context of 
interactions with his older brother's peer group. Being cognizant of this possibility, he 
may intentionally alter the discourse he articulates or the way he articulates the same 
discourse to accommodate his lesser standing in this other group. 

The fact that boys' choices and articulations of discourses can be context- 
sensitive also raises an important question for this study: How can I be sure that the boys 
I talk to will not adjust their descriptions of their sexual decisions and their gender 
performances to reflect how they interpret my presence? The answer is that I cannot; 
indeed, I anticipate that they will make such adjustments. However, I do not see this 
eventuality as a threat to the study. To begin with, I understand all self-presentations as 
occasioned events. The notion that the self a guy presents in an interview with me is 
somehow an "adjustment" from some "true self that I have failed to access is antithetical 
to the underlying assumptions of the active interview. No one self-presentation is more 
or less "true" than any other; each simply serves different contexts. Those scenarios that 
we associate with self-presentations that are more or less authentic (e.g., a session of 
psychoanalysis versus dinner with one's boss) call for different types of selves. In the 
conduct of the interview, I can actually take advantage of this occasioned quality by 
asking participants to orient to different contexts. 


In addition, the situated nature of the interview is always kept to the fore. While 
this does not mean that I am able to treat participants' responses to me or the interview 
context with the same transparency as interview transcripts, it does mean that the 
interview dynamic is open to examination and discussion. It also means that I analyze 
the narratives not as documents of self, but as articulations of self that serve a specified 
purpose. Put coarsely, that purpose might be described as answering personal, sex- 
related questions posed by an older, intellectually oriented White male in such a way as 
to ensure the receipt of the ten dollar incentive. 

Some might argue that this purpose, with its financial inducement, is an invitation 
for complete fabrications. However, I believe that all of these guys participated in the 
interview in good faith. Certainly, this particular interview context may have prompted 
some boys to censor certain stories or use different language than they would in the 
presence of their peers. But the goal of the interviews was never to guarantee that guys 
mimic their locker-room talk. And the relevant analytical issue is how they constructed 
themselves in relation to the purpose at hand, not how this purpose may have "perverted" 
their participation in the study. 

The story that you will read in these pages, then, is a story about the use of 
narrative to articulate (sexual) identity in relation to discourse. What all of that means 
outside of the fancy sociological dressing is this: I believe that when we talk to youth 
about virginity and their sexual decision making, they make use of preexisting viewpoints 
or frameworks (discourses) to tell the story or stories of their sexual life as it has 
developed to that point. These perspectives on virginity and sex may come from their 
parents, their church, their friends, the media, or some combination of these, and the boys 


may use these perspectives with varying degrees of understanding of and commitment to 
their tenants. 

But even though they are drawing on other people's ideas, the story each young 
man tells is his own, for three reasons. First, a discourse is not a template. Each person 
who draws on the same discourse does not tell an identical story. They each draw on 
similar story-telling resources and the story is likely to have a similar moral, but each 
teller includes his own unique experiences and links them to the resources made available 
by the discourse in a unique way. In sociological jargon, each respondent articulates the 
discourse differently. Second, a single person may draw on multiple discourses in the 
course of an interview. For instance, a young man might explain his view of females in 
terms of a discourse of sexual conquest, yet describe the scenario in which he lost his 
virginity in terms of a love discourse. And finally, the young man's sense of self is 
always implicated in the act of narrating his experiences, and this is no less true when a 
great portion of his narrative draws from established discourses. Indeed, as we shall see, 
each of the discourses that these boys articulated in their narratives had the potential to 
create their own challenges to the selves of the boys who used them. In these cases, it 
may be reasonable to speak of the "strategic articulation" of a discourse, whereby a 
respondent assembles elements of a discourse in his narrative to convey particular 
meanings, while simultaneously engaging in identity work that neutralizes or 
"inoculates" him from implications of that discourse that he believes may be damaging to 
his self-presentation. 


Perspective on Masculinity 

Sometimes the sense of self implicated by a discourse used by the boys is a 
gendered one, bringing concerns about masculinity to the fore. Thus, the current research 
affords me an opportunity to explore the relationship between narrative and discourse, 
and also the relationship between adolescent sexuality and modes of masculinity. To this 
end, I have incorporated a theoretical perspective on masculinity into my interpretivist 
narrative framework. 

The perspective rests on five propositions that have been advanced in previous 
work by men's studies scholars. They are as follows: 

1. There is no one way to be a man (Connell 1995). Since what it means to be a 
man varies over time and across social groupings (defined, for example, by age, 
race, social class, and geographic region) it is more appropriate to speak of plural 
masculinities than a single masculinity that provides the only acceptable standard 
for all men. 

2. The relationship between multiple masculinities is hierarchical and 
competitive (Connell 2000). In most societies, including those in the 
contemporary Western world, there is one hegemonic or dominant form of 
masculinity. This form need not be (and rarely is) the most common or most 
comfortable, yet it is considered the most honorable and desirable. It provides the 
benchmark against which all other masculinities are typically measured. Other 
masculinities are subordinate to it, and the hegemonic form protects its status 
through active and sometimes violent marginalization of other forms. 

3. Masculinity is an ongoing interactive accomplishment (Coltrane 1994). 
Masculinity is not a static state that one achieves and never relinquishes, it is an 
aspect of identity. As such it must be continually claimed through ongoing 
identity work that involves both broad aspects of lifestyle and a multitude of 
everyday minutia, from speech and bodily habits to interests, opinions, and 
decisions. Further, claims to the identity are subject to the social confirmation of 

4. Traditional, dominant modes of heterosexual masculinity define themselves 
against the feminine (Herek 1 987). To be a man, in this mode, is to avoid and 
denigrate activities (e.g., sewing, baking, cleaning) and ways of being (e.g., 
emotional, sensitive, nurturing, cooperative) typically associated with women, 
while simultaneously embracing and accentuating their presumed opposites (e.g.. 


rationality, competition). In patriarchal societies, such as our own, these men's 
devaluation of the feminine is consistent with the sexism of the culture, so it pays 
a patriarchal divided in terms of social power and privilege. 

5. The greatest threat to a man's masculinity comes not from women, but from 
other men (Kimmel 1994). It is other men who most closely scrutinize a man's 
gender "performance" and are most likely to question another man's manliness. 
Since other men are the ultimate arbiters of what is acceptable masculine 
behavior, interactions among men carry the constant threat of emasculation if 
one's behavior is deemed unmanly. By characterizing a man as uncool, weak, 
or — at worst — gay, traditionally masculine heterosexual men prey on other's 
insecurities about their own masculinity to construct and reinforce behavioral and 
ideological boundaries. Thus homophobia is a phenomenon that does more than 
connote fear and rejection of homosexuals; it represents the central means by 
which heterosexual men police one another's adherence to the strictures of 
particular masculinities: "Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, 
emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are 
not real men" (Kimmel, p. 131). 

The integration of these five propositions into an active interview approach that 
emphasizes the constructive qualities of narrative depends on a commitment to avoid 
imposing the relevance of gender categories artificially. In most contexts in our gender- 
conscious society, gender is readily available as a meaning-making tool, but it is not 
always drawn upon. As Holstein (1987) asserts, we must recognize that gender is like 
any other narrative resource: speakers make use of it when it is relevant to the particular 
meanings they wish to construct. My analytical framework allows me — even compels 
me — to be cognizant of gender's "occasioned character" (Holstein, p. 141), and thus 
gender becomes relevant to my work only when it becomes part of the rhetorical activity 
of the interview. 

Of course, given the nature of my research interests, it was common for me to use 
gender distinctions in directing the interview, and thereby encourage respondents to use 
gender as an interpretive framework when constructing their narratives. In this way, I 
exploited two qualities of the active interview context. The first quality is that 


respondents are capable of articulating positions on interview topics from multiple 
subjective positions. The second is that questions that are posed and interactions that 
occur during interviews can condition how respondents orient to interview topics 
(Holstein & Gubrium 1995, p. 41). By introducing gender. I deliberately incited 
respondents to be active and to orient to the topic at hand from a gendered perspective. 
For instance, while a respondent might begin talking about his experience of virginity 
loss in a way that highlighted his status as a high school student, I might eventually ask 
what the experience meant for him as a young man. In so doing, I intentionally elicited a 
response from a standpoint that gave relevance to gender categories. 

Participants, too, can make gender categories relevant, although often 
unintentionally, by the way they "do gender" (Schwalbe & Wolkomir 2002). Cultural 
prescriptions that men present themselves in indentifiably masculine ways, which 
frequently means in ways consistent with hegemonic masculinity, make these strategies 
of self-presentation — these enactments of masculinity — important data for researchers 
interviewing men. Schwalbe and Wolkomir note, in particular, that the desire to be seen 
by others as possessing traditionally masculine qualities, such as rationality, control, a 
propensity toward risky behavior, and heterosexuality, may make men more likely than 
women to struggle to control interviews, resist emotional disclosure, and exaggerate the 
level of rationality or control with which they approached situations they discuss in 

Given that the participants in the current study are only on the cusp on manhood, 
some of these ways in which masculinity can impose itself upon an interview may not be 
especially relevant. For instance, I would not expect many adolescent boys to exhibit 


exaggerated rationality or try to control the interview when I, as the interviewer, am twice 
their age and a representative of a university. On the other hand, the male "need" to 
demonstrate heterosexuality, which Schwalbe and Wolkomir note often insinuates itself 
into interviews, is at the core of this research. Also, my concern with the presentation of 
masculine selves through talk puts into practice their notion that how participants do 
gender is data as rich as answers provided to interview questions. In this project, my 
interest in the boys' narratives of sexual decision-making is mated to a concern with how 
the boys signify themselves in those narratives. 

I believe that approaching the study of young men's understandings of virginity, 
sex and sexual decision making from a narrative perspective that highlights (gender) 
identity work offers a number of possibilities not available via traditional interview 
studies or large-scale surveys of adolescent sexuality. First and foremost, the approach 
offers a clear indication of the ways in which the meaning of sexual activity for these 
youth is linked to their sense of themselves and the resources that they draw on to define 
themselves. Second, it provides evidence that the development of a sexual self (i.e., the 
sense of oneself as a sexual being) among adolescent males does not occur in a 
conceptual vacuum but is instead linked to the boys' views of females, religion, and 
masculinity. Third, it highlights the struggles that young men face in making sexual 
decisions and presenting their sexual selves when they feel drawn toward the conflicting 
messages of multiple discourses. And lastly, it provides insight into the moral reasoning 
by which they account for their sexual behaviors and evaluate the behaviors of others. 


Chapter Organization 

The chapters of the dissertation are organized into three parts. The remaining 
chapters of Part I provide the necessary background for my examination of the 
intersection of identity, sexuality, and discourse in the narratives of heterosexual 
adolescent males. Chapter 2 examines the quantitative literature on adolescent sexual 
decision making by asking when, how, what, and why questions that relate primarily to 
the issue of adolescents' initiation of first intercourse. Some survey researchers have 
tried to address issues related to sexual decision making directly, and those studies are 
reviewed here. For the most part, however, quantitative analyses have focused on the act 
of intercourse rather than the cognitive and identity processes related to it. I have chosen, 
therefore, to focus on the initiation of intercourse because it has received widespread 
attention and because it can be seen as a kind of proxy indicator of at least a de facto 
decision to have sex. Chapter 3 examines qualitative research on adolescent sexuality, 
with particular emphasis on ethnographic and narrative studies. This body of work is 
reviewed not just to explore what has been written previously about adolescent sexuality, 
but also to demonstrate the sociological value of studies, such as this one, that examine a 
small number of cases. The case study has a long tradition in sociology, but it perhaps 
requires some explanation since it satisfies different research aims and should be 
evaluated by different criteria than quantitative research and even some qualitative 
studies. Finally, I include in this chapter work that demonstrates the impact of 
constructions of masculinity on the lived experience of adolescent males, as analyses of 
this type provide the groundwork for arguments I will make regarding the influence of 
discourses of masculinity on my respondents' narratives. 


In Part II, I delve into the construction of the young men's narratives. I begin, in 
Chapter 4, by considering the culturally available resources for the boys' meaning- 
making with respect to sexual decision making. The discussion is organized around three 
discourses that were each articulated by several men: a discourse of love, one of piety, 
and one of conquest. I make the case for the existence of these different discourses and 
support my argument with evidence from the interviews. I point out patterned 
differences in the boys' constructions of various aspects of sexual decision making and 
link these to various discourses. 

In Chapter 5, 1 turn from narrative resources to narrative strategies. Again, my 
evidence comes from the boys' narratives, but this time the focus is the common, 
strategic ways the boys manipulate discursive resources to suit their individual rhetorical 
interests. I identify five major narrative strategies: telling, presenting selves, contrasting, 
categorizing, and parroting. In presenting the strategies, I not only demonstrate how they 
represent unique ways of manipulating language and managing meaning-construction, 
but I also show how the boys enlist them in the production of their sexual selves. 

The final two chapters of the section highlight the interplay of narrative resources 
and narrative strategies. Both chapters are grounded in the premise that the boys* use of 
the three discourses is mediated by three identity concerns of male 
adolescence — masculinity, independence, and belonging. In other words, as the boys 
describe their orientation to sexual decision making in our interviews, they are 
simultaneously managing their self presentation in light of their understanding of 
expectations for males of their age — namely, that they be masculine, independent, and 
accepted by others. Chapter 6 examines how these three identity agendas mediate boys' 


articulations of the discourse of conquest, while Chapter 7 addresses the mediation of the 
discourses of piety and relationship. 

The final section, Part III, consists of a single chapter. Chapter 8. "Reflections on 
Narrative Identity," concludes the dissertation by suggesting some possible implications 
of these adolescents' articulations of sexual selves for public policy related to sexual 
education, the relationship between narrative and discourse as it is represented in this 
study, and adolescents' ability to articulate identity through narrative. Modes of 
masculinity and their relationship to adolescent males' sexual decision making are 
implicated in two out of three of these elements, and I offer some final thoughts about 
masculinities as lenses for understanding young men's constructions of sex and self. 


Most of what is known about male adolescent sexuality has been learned from 
quantitative research. Though I argue in later chapters that qualitative research offers a 
powerful, underutilized way of seeing the phenomena that we might collect under this 
rubric, understanding the story that survey researchers have told about male adolescent 
sexuality is an important starting point for our investigation. 

Because virtually all of the survey research on adolescent sexuality over the past 
quarter century has been motivated by a desire to prevent teen pregnancy, the literature 
tends to treat sex among youth as problematic and be oriented toward the questions: Why 
do teens have intercourse? And what can be done to delay or stop them from doing so? 
Also central in many studies, though not as pertinent to the review at hand, are the 
questions: Are teens using contraception when they do have sex? And how can we 
ensure that, if they do have sex, they use contraceptives during their first sexual 
encounter and reliably in future encounters? The actual research questions and policy 
implications are frequently more involved than that; nevertheless, a certain amount of 
simplification can be useful in comprehending this vast and multifaceted area of research. 

To this end, I find it helpful to organize the literature on this topic according to 
four basic questions: what, how, when, and why. The "why" question is as follows: Why 
do adolescents have sex? Studies that address this question investigate the potential 
impact of a host of antecedents or correlates suspected of affecting the probability that 



youth will experience sexual intercourse for the first time. The "when" question concerns 
the timing, particularly in terms of the adolescent's life course, of first intercourse 
experience. A smaller number of studies address the "'how" and "what" questions. Those 
that ask "how" are concerned with the interpersonal and logistic circumstances under 
which youth experience first intercourse. And finally, the "what" question is asked by 
the few investigators who attend to the fact that being sexually active is not synonymous 
with having sexual intercourse. Research in this vein explores what sexual behaviors 
youth are engaging in in lieu of or prior to losing their virginity (i.e., having sexual 

As we begin to look at this literature, it bears noting that not all of the authors 
have been entirely clear or consistent about terminology. For instance, some researchers 
studied adolescent virgins and used the term "virgin" interchangeably with the notion of 
being nonsexual, failing to attend to the fact that people can be involved in sexual acts 
(e.g., oral sex, mutual masturbation) without having lost their virginity (i.e., had sexual 
intercourse). In this context, even the term sex can become confusing, since it may not 
be evident whether it refers to any sort of sexual activity or to vaginal intercourse 
specifically. To avoid such confusion, I use the terms "sexual intercourse" or, simply, 
"intercourse" to refer to heterosexual vaginal intercourse and the terms "sexual activity" 
and "sexually active" to refer to the broader array of behaviors that may include, but are 
not limited to, sexual intercourse. In the rare case that I use the word sex, it refers 
specifically to vaginal intercourse. 


"When?": Age at First Intercourse 

There is a widespread belief that many youth become sexually active at ages that 
are presumed to leave them ill-prepared to appreciate or respond to the consequences of 
being sexual (Marsiglio 1995). Though virtually anyone can cite anecdotes about "kids 
having kids" or 14- and 15-year-old boys bragging about sexual exploits, social scientists 
have tried to amass reliable, factual evidence that demonstrates how many youth are 
having intercourse and at what ages. These efforts typically involve nationally 
representative samples of adolescents self-reporting about their sexual behavior. Given 
the sensitive and private nature of sexual behavior, few alternative strategies of data 
collection exist. But questions have been raised about the reliability of these data 
(Lauritsen & Swicegood 1997), so our discussion of the available research must begin 
with the caveats sounded by others. 

To date, the most systematic effort to examine the value of adolescents' self- 
reporting of age at first intercourse has been undertaken using the six waves of the 
National Survey of Youth, which were collected annually from 1977 to 1981. with an 
additional wave in 1984. At the time of the first wave of data collection, the adolescents 
in the sample were between the ages of 1 1 and 17. During the final wave of the survey, 
the 1 ,405 respondents were asked how old they were when they first had sexual 
intercourse. This response was compared to their responses in each of the first five years, 
when they were asked if they had had intercourse during that year (Lauritsen & 
Swicegood 1997). Overall, the age at first intercourse that respondents reported as adults 
was nearly 1-1/2 years younger than what their responses as adolescents would indicate 
(16.27 versus 17.61), and 32% of the sample were calculated to have given inconsistent 


reports. White females were least likely to give inconsistent reports (24.5%), followed by 
White males (28%), Black males (36.4%), and Black females (43.4%). Adolescents who 
were older at the time of the first interview were more likely to report a younger age at 
first intercourse as an adult than their reports as adolescents suggested. Compared with 
White females, Black males were fives times and White males were two times as likely to 
report an older age at first intercourse as adults than they had as youth. 

Despite the apparent pervasiveness of inconsistencies, the authors suggest that, 
statistically speaking, they are benign. When researchers controlled for them in their 
analyses, estimates of age at first intercourse were unchanged, except in the case of 
comparisons between Black females and White females, where the high levels of 
inconsistent reports among Black females raised uncertainty about differences in age at 
first intercourse between the two groups. Still, the fact that inconsistencies were found 
and the fact that they were correlated with factors such as age, led the authors to raise a 
red flag regarding comparisons of age at first intercourse over time: "Given the predictors 
of inconsistency and their levels found here, we believe that any statements about 
historical changes or subgroup differences should be made with caution" (Lauritsen & 
Swicegood 1997, p. 220). Recent research has indicated that computer-assisted 
interviewing may hold some promise in increasing adolescent response rates (and, 
presumably, the reliability of responses) in surveys of highly sensitive behavior (Turner 
et al. 1998), but this technology has yet to provide data on the specific question at hand. 
It is with appropriate prudence, then, that we now begin to look at studies of age at first 
intercourse among males, including analyses that make historical comparisons. 


National trend data on age at first intercourse has come chiefly from a 
combination of the 1979 National Survey of Young Men (NSYM), and the National 
Survey of Adolescent Males (NSAM) and the National Survey of Family Growth 
(NSFG), both fielded in 1988 and 1995. Between 1979 and 1988, the proportion of 
males between the ages of 17 and 19 who had had intercourse increased from 65.7% to 
75.5% (Sonenstein, Pleck, & Ku 1989). More recently, however, adolescent males* rate 
of transition from virgin to nonvirgin appears to have declined. The proportion of never- 
married adolescent males aged 15 to 19 who were nonvirgin was 60.4% in 1988. but it 
fell to 55.2% in 1995 (Sonenstein et al. 1998). The primary reason for this decline was a 
decrease in sexual activity among White males, as the rates for Blacks and non- White 
Hispanics remained fairly constant. 

In 1995, the largest increase in the proportion of sexually experienced males 
occurred between 15 and 16-year-olds and between 18- and 19-year-olds (Alan 
Guttmacher Institute 1999). Whereas only 27% of 15-year-olds had ever had sex, 45% of 
16-year-olds were sexually experienced. Sixty-eight percent of 1 8-year-olds had had sex, 
but by age 19 the proportion was 85%. These findings are, for the most part, consistent 
with those from a longitudinal study of data from the National Survey of Children that 
reported the age range of greatest risk of first intercourse among males who date was 
between 15 and 18 (Miller et al. 1997). 

Surveys drawing on regional or specialized samples have reported widely 
divergent findings. A cross-sectional survey analysis of 1,228 parochial students found 
that although the proportion of students who were sexually active was substantially lower 
than the national rate, many of those who were nonvirgin lost their virginity at an earlier 


age (de Gaston, Jensen, & Weed 1995). Twenty percent of the 131 sexually active boys 
in the sample said they had lost their virginity by age 1 2 and over 66% had lost it by age 
14. In contrast, a recent longitudinal study of males, aged 12 to 17, from Los Angeles 
County (Upchurch et al. 1998), reported ages of first sex that were largely consistent with 
national surveys. The median age at first intercourse for males was 16.6 years. Black 
males had the earliest age of sexual onset (median age of 1 5), followed by Hispanics and 
non-Hispanic Whites (16.5 and 16.6, respectively). Asian- Americans, a group neglected 
even in the more recent national surveys, showed the greatest trend toward delaying 
transition out of virginity, with a median age at first intercourse of 18.1. 

Racial differences in the timing of initiation of first sex have shown up 
consistently in the sociological literature. The percentage of Blacks who experience first 
sex at an early age is consistently higher than that of other races, and studies conducted 
during the 1980s showed that the differences remain, even when possible mediating 
factors, such as socioeconomic status, are controlled. Some researchers have suggested 
that the difference may be attributable to a de-emphasis of the importance of marriage 
among Blacks relative to Whites and greater tolerance of sex outside of marriage and out- 
of-wedlock births among Blacks (Moore & Peterson 1989; Moore, Simms, & Betsey 
1 986). For the most part, however, the question that continues to occupy researchers is 
the extent of racial differences. The issue has been addressed by all studies that report 
data on timing of first intercourse, whether they be cross-sectional or longitudinal, 
regional or national. Racial differences in timing of first intercourse have even been 
examined in a meta-analysis of longitudinal surveys of adolescent sexual behavior. In the 
remainder of this section I review this extensive literature. 


A cross-sectional analysis of data from Wave I of the National Longitudinal 
Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) found the relationship between race and first 
sex to be highly significant (Conley 1999). The author reported that African-American 
adolescents were three times more likely than other races to have had sex before the age 
of 1 6. Another cross-sectional study — this one using a regional sample (n=3 1 5 ) — found 
that Blacks ages 15 to 18 were significantly more likely to have had sex than Whites or 
Mexican- Americans of the same age (Sugland & Driscoll 1999). 

In a longitudinal analysis of 10 years of data (1976-1986) from the National 
Survey of Children (NSC), Dorius et al.(1993) found that Blacks were 1.2 times more 
likely than Whites to have sex, but this relationship was not statistically significant until 
the measures of life events during adolescence (e.g., parental divorce or remarriage; drug, 
alcohol, tobacco use; becoming employed; dating) were controlled. Another study using 
the same NSC data set, but investigating different variables, reported that Black males in 
the sample had a younger age at first sex than their White counterparts, but this 
relationship between race and first coitus did not reach the level of statistical significance 
(Miller et al. 1997). This second NSC study included many variables that were not part 
of the life events study, including religious attendance and more involved measures of 
education, family processes, peers, and dating. 

Perhaps the best means of evaluating the extent of racial differences in transition 
to first intercourse among youth aged 15 to 17, however, comes from a recent meta- 
analysis of nationally representative surveys (Santelli et al. 2000). The authors compared 
and contrasted the estimates of adolescent sexual activity in three longitudinal 
surveys— the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG, 1988 & 1995), the National 


Survey of Adolescent Males (NSAM, 1988 & 1995), and the Youth Risk Behavior 
Survey (YRBS, 2-year intervals between 1991 and 1997) — and the first wave of the 
Adolescent Health (Add Health) survey. Because of differences in the intent and 
methodologies of each survey, specific subsamples had to be isolated so that the data 
considered across surveys would be comparable. Consequently, the meta-analysis was 
limited to "respondents aged 15 to 17 who were enrolled in high school at the time of the 
interview" (p. 157). 

Both longitudinal surveys that included males (the NSFG includes females only) 
reported significant declines in the percentage of males who reported ever having 
intercourse between the period of the late 1980-early 1990s and the mid- to late- 1990s. 
In the YRBS, the decline was nine percentage points, from 56% in 1991 to 47% in 1997; 
in the NSAM it was eight percentage points, from 49% in 1988 to 41% in 1995. 
Interestingly, these declines among all males were accompanied by parallel statistically 
significant declines among all the racial and ethnic categories examined (White, Black, 
and Hispanic) in the YRBS, but in the NSAM significant declines were found only 
among Whites. Rates of intercourse experience declined six percentage points among 
Hispanics between 1988 and 1995, but the trend was not statistically significant. 

Comparing the 1995 point estimates from the YRBS, NSAM, and Add Health, the 
researchers found that the estimates of males who had ever had intercourse were 
significantly higher in the YRBS (53%) than in the NSAM (41%) and the Add Health 
(45%). This pattern of differences between the estimates remained when only White 
males were considered, but no significant differences were found between the estimates 
for Blacks, even though there was an eight percentage point difference between the Add 


Health (73%) and the YRBS (81%) estimates. Among Hispanic males, the YRBS 
estimate (63%) was significantly higher than the NSAM estimate (47%). 

Taken individually, each survey confirmed the general pattern of racial 
differences found in cross-sectional and single longitudinal studies: Black males have the 
highest rates, followed by Hispanics and then Whites. Specifically, in the period between 
1988 and 1991, the surveys put the rate of intercourse experience among Whites at 
between 44% and 50%, among Hispanics in the range of 54% and 66%, and at between 
78% and 87% among Blacks. In the late 1990s, the rate for White males is reported to be 
between 39% and 48%, between 47% and 63% for Hispanics, and the range is 73% and 
81% for Blacks. 

Trends in the relationship between race and extent of intercourse experience 
among males in late adolescence (ages 17-19) have been reviewed by Ku and colleagues 
(1998) using data from the three waves of the NSAM. Conducted in 1979 (then called 
the National Survey of Young Men and focused exclusively on urban males), 1988, and 
1995, the surveys involved the completion of in-person interviews and self-administered 
questionnaires about heterosexual and contraceptive behaviors by a multistage national 
probability sample of adolescent males. Because of limitations in the demographic 
information collected in the NSYM (1979), comparable data across the surveys only 
exists for late adolescents from urban areas and can only be compared in racial terms as 
Black or non-Black. Within this somewhat restricted sample, however, notable racial 
differences in intercourse experience are still evident. The percentage of all urban males 
aged 17 to 19 who had ever had sex increased significantly from 1979 to 1988 (65.7% 
versus 75.5%), decreased back to near- 1979 levels by 1995 (68.2%). Among Blacks, 


however, the percent who were sexually active remained significantly higher than the 
overall rate across all years (from a low of 71.1% in 1979 to a high of 87.8% in 1988) 
and did not decrease significantly in 1995 after the sharp increase between 1979 and 
1988. Given that the primary goal that motivated this analysis was to examine the 
relationship between AIDS education, sexual attitudes, and sexual behaviors, the authors 
did not attempt to control other factors to isolate the degree of correlation between race 
and the initiation of intercourse. However, they did find evidence that more conservative 
sexual attitudes and AIDS education were significantly associated with the overall 
decrease in sexual activity between 1988 and 1995 among non-Blacks. Although Blacks 
during this period also reported more conservative sexual attitudes and received AIDS 
education, they did not experience a concomitant decrease in intercourse experience. 

Age at first intercourse thus appears to exhibit moderate variance over time and 
substantial variation between races. For all males, the proportion aged 15 to 19 who have 
had intercourse varied between 55% and 60% between 1988 and 1995. While nationally 
representative surveys indicate that more than half of all males are likely to have lost 
their virginity by age 17 (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1999) , the age at which half of all 
Black males would report being nonvirgin is likely significantly younger. Collection and 
analysis of additional nationally representative survey data are needed to track more 
recent trends and to improve our knowledge of intercourse rates among other racial and 
ethnic groups, particularly people of various Asian nationalities. 

"Why?" (and "Why Not?"): Antecedents and Correlates to First Sex 

In this section, I review those studies that have tried to determine what factors 
either precede (i.e., are antecedents to) or are frequently associated with adolescents 


making the transition from virgin to nonvirgin by having sexual intercourse for the first 
time. This literature spans over 30 years and includes perspectives on adolescent 
sexuality that range from the biosocial, focusing on the influence of hormones, to the 
sociological and social psychological, emphasizing the role of psychosocial and 
demographic factors, such as self-esteem and socioeconomic status. Although a number 
of the studies reviewed here address these domains of influence simultaneously. I have 
tried to tease out the purported influence of individual factors. In this way, I am able to 
present a picture of the role each individual factor has been reported to play as the 
literature has evolved. From a biosocial perspective, the sole factor that I address here is 
testosterone, a singular focus that is consistent with the literature. The psychosocial and 
sociological variables that must be reviewed, however, are legion. They are 
socioeconomic status, family structure, education, substance abuse, dating/peers, 
attitudes/knowledge about sex, religiosity, and self-esteem. I also give passing mention 
to other variables and concepts that have been addressed in isolated studies, and I 
conclude by examining studies that have addressed why some students consciously 
choose to delay first intercourse. Race/ethnicity are not treated here, as they receive the 
most attention with respect to the timing of first intercourse. Because of the particular 
focus of my work, I restrict my attention primarily to research and results that bear on the 
heterosexual behaviors of adolescent males (ages 13 to 19 years). 

The examination of possible hormonal predictors of transition to first intercourse 
has been virtually the exclusive province of J. Richard Udry, Carolyn Tucker Halpern. 
and their colleagues. In 1985, they reported on a cross-sectional study that showed a 

strong, positive association between testosterone levels in adolescent males and sexual 
activity. The authors asserted that these findings provided definitive evidence that male 
hormones exert a strong influence on the sexual motivation and behavior of males (Udry 
etal. 1985). 

In a subsequent regional, longitudinal study (Udry & Billy 1987), they tested the 
combined effects of biological and social factors on initiation of first sexual intercourse. 
The conceptual model for that study grouped independent variables into three broad 
dimensions — motivation, social controls, and attractiveness — with motivation having 
both biological (hormonal) and social components. Among the 264 white males who 
completed both rounds of the survey, seven different variables, most of them relating to 
motivation, were found to be significant zero-order predictors of transition to intercourse 
between rounds 1 and 2. In a multivariate model testing all interaction effects, however, 
only a boy's popularity with the opposite sex (as reported by friends) and his intentions to 
have sex in the future remained statistically significant predictors. These findings 
differed greatly from those for white females, where a multitude of variables were shown 
to predict transition to intercourse. (Comparable tests involving Black males could not be 
conducted because their numbers in the sample were too small to allow the necessary 
statistical manipulations.) Considering these results in light of the earlier study that 
showed the importance of androgens to male adolescent sexual behavior, the authors 
concluded that motivational hormonal effects and social attractiveness are the factors 
most at work in White males' initiation of intercourse in early adolescence. 

In the 1990s, the efforts of the biosocial scientists concerned with adolescent 
sexuality shifted to trying to demonstrate the effects of testosterone on sexual activity 


over time. In the early part of the decade, a 3 -year longitudinal study involving one 
hundred 12- and 13-year-old White boys did not find significant correlations between 
boys' reports of sexual experience and semiannual measures of testosterone from blood 
samples (Halpern, Udry, Campbell, & Suchindran 1993). Several years later, however, 
Halpern, Udry, and Suchindran (1998) revisited the issue by looking at more the frequent 
measurements they had gathered: weekly behavior checklists and monthly salivary 
measures of testosterone. They found that increases in testosterone did predict 
meaningful increases in what the authors called "partnered activity" (i.e., intercourse and 
other noncoital sexual acts that involve another person), a statistical relationship that 
remained when pubertal development was controlled. The authors took these findings as 
confirmation that testosterone does, in fact, have a direct effect on sexual activity, not just 
an indirect one through the visible pubertal changes it produces. 

An ancillary finding with regard to this sample involved the relationship between 
testosterone, religiosity, and sexual behavior (Halpern, Udry, Campbell, Suchindran. & 
Mason 1994). Using the semiannual blood measurements of testosterone and the surveys 
completed semiannually, the authors divided the sample according to dichotomous 
measures of church attendance (where low attendees were those who reported going to 
religious services less than once a week) and testosterone (high and low based on a 
median split). Some intriguing findings from that analysis were that (1) in a risk ratio 
analysis, higher rates of testosterone doubled the risk of first coitus; (2) higher rates of 
church attendance reduced the risk by two-thirds; and (3) church attendance, not personal 
commitment to religious beliefs, appeared to be the critical predictor of sexual behavior. 
Involvement with religious institutions demonstrated a protective effect against sexual 


behavior and sexually permissive attitudes regardless of how the attendees rated the 
importance of religion in their lives. An important statistical footnote is that there were 
no significant interactions found between testosterone measures and religious attendance 
measures, indicating that the two predictors operated independently of one another. 

As in the other study that used this protocol, the results from this investigation 
leave the impression that testosterone levels are operating through pubertal development, 
not having a direct hormonal effect on behavior. However, given the findings from the 
most recent study of testosterone effects that used more frequent, salivary assays, it is 
possible that direct effects of testosterone might be documented here if the same methods 
were used. 
Socioeconomic Status 

In most studies investigating the correlates to first intercourse, family income and 
mother's education were used as proxy measures of socioeconomic status (SES). One of 
the longitudinal NSC studies (Dorius et al. 1993) found a statistically significant inverse 
relationship between mother's education and sexual intercourse. Every year added to 
mother's education decreased the odds of the adolescent having sex by .086. As with 
race, however, the authors who conducted the other NSC study (Miller et al. 1997) 
reported different results. First, they found no effect of family income on age at first sex. 
Second, they, too, found an inverse relationship between mother's education and sexual 
intercourse; however it was statistically significant for females but not for males. Aside 
from the fact that one study controlled for gender and the other did not, one reason for the 
difference may be that Miller and associates reported the effects of independent variables 
in terms of changes in age at first sex, rather than odds of having first sex. Yet the 


general notion that propensity for early transition to sexual intercourse increases as SES 
decreases has been supported by studies from the 1980s (Hogan & Kitagawa 1985; 
Moore, Simms, & Betsey 1986). 

Other contemporary studies that have measured SES differently only complicate 
the issue. Conley (1999) reported that adolescents whose mothers have received welfare 
were significantly more likely than others to have first intercourse before age 16. But a 
recent study that used household income, parental education, and parental employment to 
create a dichotomous SES variable (low/working class versus middle/upper class) found 
that the summary variable was not a significant predictor of virginity status among the 
15- to 18-year-olds in the sample (Sugland & Driscoll 1999). 
Family Structure 

A number of studies indicate that family structure has a substantial impact on 
adolescent sexual behavior. Hogan and Kitagawa ( 1 985) reported that adolescents who 
grow up in a single-parent household and those who have an older, sexually active sibling 
are likely to initiate intercourse at an earlier age than their peers. Another early study 
found that having an older brother was positively associated with an adolescent's risk of 
early transition to intercourse (Rodgers 1983). 

Echoing some of the findings of Hogan and Kitagawa, an investigation focusing 
on the older teens (ages 17 to 19) involved in the 1979 NYSM found that both Black and 
White males from single-parent families were significantly more likely to have sex than 
those from two-parent families (Young et al. 1991). A regional, cross-sectional survey of 
more contemporary adolescents in a similar age range (15 to 18) replicated these findings 
(Sugland & Driscoll 1999). The latter investigation also found that adolescents whose 


mothers worked full time were significantly more likely to be nonvirgin than their 
counterparts whose mothers did not work or worked only parttime. 

A study using a 10-year span of the NSC to explore the effect of life events on the 
likelihood of adolescents' first intercourse experience found that if a teen's parents 
divorced in a given year, the odds were 1 .5 times greater that the teen would have first 
intercourse that year (Dorius et al. 1993). Risk of first sex also varied by the family 
structure that the adolescent had just prior to adolescence (i.e., at age 12). Adolescents 
who had a parent who was widowed ran the highest risk of having sex. while those whose 
parents were married were the lowest risk group. This investigation also reported that the 
effects of family structure did not vary by race. 

A final, intriguing finding of this study was that if an adolescent's parents were 
divorced before the child reached age 12, the divorce had little effect on the youth's risk 
of sexual initiation. This last finding, however, is contradicted by a later study using the 
same data set (Miller et al. 1997). The authors of this later analysis insist that their 
analysis shows a significant negative effect of marital disruption at exactly the ages that 
the authors of the earlier study present as benign. For males, they report that each change 
in parents' marital status when the child is between the ages of 6 and 1 1 results in an 
increase in the risk of intercourse of about one-third. As in the case of other 
contradictions between the findings of these two studies, some, if not all, of the 
difference may be attributable to the operationalization of concepts. In this particular 
case, while the more recent analysis by Moore and colleagues would document multiple 
disruptions if a parent divorced and remarried several times during a child's first 12 
years, the older study by Dorius and associates would show the same parent simply as 


"remarried." Without additional analyses, however, the exact period in an adolescent 
male's life in which marital disruption is most likely to put him at risk for early sex 
remains an open question. 

Though different studies provide different forms of evidence, the literature is 
virtually unanimous in asserting that an adolescent's level of investment in education has 
a strong, negative correlation with his or her likelihood of initiating sexual intercourse at 
an early age (Miller & Sneesby 1988). Behaviors that have been reported to be 
significantly associated with risk of early onset of sexual intercourse include failure in 
one or more core subjects, trouble with teachers, and having been expelled (Conley 
1999). In one recent study, fighting in school was significantly associated with early age 
at first intercourse for males (Miller et al. 1 999), and Black males were significantly more 
likely to have sex before age 16 if they had trouble with teachers (Conley 1999). In the 
extreme case, males who drop out of school are at greatest risk of having sex in the years 
following the year they drop out (Dorius et al. 1993). 

Commitment to academics, on the other hand, is associated with a reduced 
likelihood of early sexual intercourse experience. For instance, Sugland and Driscoll 
(1999) report that the older adolescents that they studied were significantly less likely to 
have had sex if they expected to go to college. Similarly, a study of Canadian youth of 
high school age found that virgins spent significantly more time than nonvirgins on 
homework (Feldman et al. 1997). 


Substance Use 

Most studies have found that, statistically speaking, the use of legal and quasi- 
legal substances (all of which are now illegal for minors in most U.S. states) is positively 
associated with a greater risk of youth having their first sexual experience. Cross- 
sectional studies have linked cigarette use, marijuana use, drinking and driving, and 
heavy drinking to being nonvirgin (Conley 1999; Feldman et al. 1997). A 10-year 
longitudinal study dating back to 1969 suggested that early onset of sexual intercourse is 
among a host of behaviors, including cigarette smoking and alcohol use, that tend to 
occur among the same teenagers and therefore may constitute a "syndrome" of problem 
behavior (Donovan and Jessor 1985; Jessor, Costa, Jessor, & Donovan 1983). 

A more recent longitudinal study, while not picking up on the notion of a deviant 
syndrome, supported the finding of a positive association between early sexual 
intercourse and substance use (Dorius, Heaton, & Steffen 1993). The authors reported 
that males who smoke, for instance, were most likely to have sex if they started smoking 
between the ages of 12 and 14. Marijuana use showed a stronger relationship to sexual 
activity than alcohol use or cigarette smoking. Users were 2.2 times more likely than 
nonusers to have intercourse, though females were more likely than males to have sex if 
they were marijuana users. As with cigarette smoking, the highest risk group was 
adolescents ages 12 to 14. The next highest risk group was 15 to 17. This study found 
no significant effects of alcohol use on risk of first intercourse. Among a sample of 1228 
parochial students between the ages of 12 and 18, 15.6% of the sexually active males 
reported that drugs or alcohol use was part of their first sexual experience (de Gaston, 
Jensen, & Weed 1995). 



Whether or not an adolescent dates and how frequently he or she dates are clearly 
factors that influence the likelihood of transitioning to the status of nonvirgin. In one 
study, adolescents who dated were seven times more likely than those who did not date to 
have sex some time during the ten year span covered by the research (Dorius et al. 1993). 
While females' level of risk was more effected than males, there were age effects for the 
entire sample. A greater than average likelihood of having intercourse was associated 
with beginning dating early (between the ages of 12 and 14) or late (after age 1 7). The 
increased risk associated with an early start to dating was also found in an analysis of 
Add Health data (Conley 1999). 

In terms of frequency of dating, going on dates one to two times per week was 
reported to be positively associated with onset of first sex, while dating less than once per 
month appeared to statistically lower one's risk of having intercourse (Miller et al. 1997). 
A cross-sectional study in Canada found a significant inverse correlation between being 
involved in a serious relationship and being nonvirgin (Feldman et al. 1997). 

Dating alone does not account for the influence of peers on adolescents' sexual 
behavior, however; friendships are also important. An important finding from research in 
the 1 980s related to race and sex differences in the impact of same-sex friendships on 
initiation of first sex. Evidence from a longitudinal study indicated that White girls were 
the most influenced by their friends' sexual behaviors (Billy & Udry 1985). White 
female virgins were more likely to lose their virginity between waves of the study if they 
had sexually experienced friends. White males were not influenced by friends' sexual 
behavior, but they appeared to pick their friends based on who was sexually active and 


who was not. Black youth of either sex did not appear to be influenced, as were white 
females, nor did they use sexual experience as a basis for developing friends, as white 
males did. Echoing these results, to a degree, a 1986 Harris poll of adolescents age 12 to 
17 found that 73% of females and 50% of males believed that social pressure was a 
reason why adolescents did not wait until they were older to have intercourse (Harris and 
Associates 1986). 

Finally, a youth's assessment of him or herself relative to peers may also be 
relevant. Adolescents aged 16 or younger who rated themselves as better looking than 
their peers and had friends that they believed were sexually active were found by one 
study to be significantly more likely than others to initiate first intercourse (Miller et al. 
Attitudes/Knowledge About Sex 

There is surprisingly little research that attempts to link adolescents' attitudes 
about sexual matters to their likelihood of becoming sexually active. A recent study 
reported that adolescents who said their friends place a high value on avoiding risky 
behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex, were themselves less likely to be 
involved in sexual relationships (Sugland & Driscoll 1999). Along the same lines, youth 
who perceived that drugs, alcohol, and sex were rampant at their school were less likely 
to have sex. An adolescent's risk of sex appeared to increase as his or her knowledge of 
sex increased. However, given that this finding comes from a cross-sectional study, it is 
difficult to determine the direction of the relationship. Does being knowledgeable about 
sex lead to sexual experimentation, or are those who are sexually active simply more 
likely to be knowledgeable? 


Evidence regarding the effect of parental attitudes on adolescents' sexual behavior 
is mixed. One study using a national data set found that adolescents were more likely to 
have had sex before age 16 if they reported that their fathers were accepting of youth 
having sex in the context of a steady relationship (Conley 1999). On the other hand. 
Sugland and Driscoll (1999) reported that parental opinion had no significant effects on 
the likelihood that youth in their sample had had intercourse. 

Multiple studies have also looked at whether parents can reduce their teen's 
likelihood of having intercourse at a young age by communicating with them about sex. 
The results, again, are mixed and suggest that communication in and of itself is not a 
panacea. Rather, it matters who does the talking and what they say. A couple of studies 
found communication to be associated with a lower probability of sex or greater use of 
contraception (Fox & Inazu 1980; Furstenberg, Moore, & Peterson 1985). However, 
another study reported that while communication with the mother was associated with a 
prohibitive effect on sex, boys who discussed a larger number of sexual topics with 
fathers were more likely than other boys to have had premarital sex (Kahn, Smith, & 
Roberts 1984). 

One of the earliest examinations of adolescents' transition from virgin to 
nonvirgin sought to distinguish youth who had made the transition from those who had 
not in part on the basis of their general attitudes, rather than their attitudes specifically 
related to sex (Jessor, Costa, Jessor, & Donovan 1983). The researchers responsible for 
this 10-year longitudinal survey, which dated back to 1969, reported that early onset 
groups (those that had intercourse earlier) demonstrated "greater proneness to engage in 
transition-making behavior" (p. 613) on 1970 measures. Compared with those who made 


a later transition to sexual intercourse, early transitioners placed a higher value on 
independence and a lower value on academic achievement. They also had higher 
expectations of independence and lower expectation for their own academic achievement. 
They held more socially critical beliefs about society, were more tolerant of deviance, 
and were less religious. 

A number of studies in the 1980s (Forste & Heaton 1988; Miller & Olson 1988; 
Thornton & Camburn 1987) advanced the notion that religiosity had a protective 
influence against early onset of sexual intercourse among adolescents. Three key 
findings relating to religion and its prohibitive effect on teen sexual activity were that (1) 
An adolescent's devotion to religious teachings and customs were more important than 
any particular religious affiliation; (2) Adolescents in churches that teach abstinence 
before marriage were less likely to have had intercourse than youth in churches with 
other teachings; and (3) the highest rates of premarital intercourse were found among 
adolescents with no religious affiliation. Furthermore, one study reported that the effects 
operated in both directions: Religious adolescents were less likely to have sex, and 
adolescents who had had sexual intercourse were less likely to be religious (Thornton & 
Camburn 1989). 

A study from the late 1990s reported the surprisingly result that, among Black 
males, those who said that religion was very important in their lives were significantly 
more likely than others to have first sex before age 16 (Conley 1999). At about the same 
time, however, a longitudinal study based on the National Survey of Children offered a 
more conventional result, showing that religious involvement had a negative but not 


significant correlation with early initiation of coitus among males (Miller et al. 1997). 
Interestingly, the authors reported that it was not so much the males' commitment to 
religious ideals, but rather their mere presence at services, that was linked to their 
delaying first intercourse. 

A few studies have tried to untangle the relationship between self-esteem and 
sexual behavior. The results have been mixed. One study in the mid-1980s found that 
self-esteem levels did not differentiate female adolescents who became pregnant from 
those who did not (Vernon, Greene & Frothingham 1983). However, another study from 
the same time period reported a more complex dynamic. Self-esteem was positively 
related to sexual intercourse experience among adolescents who believed that premarital 
sex was usually or always right, but negatively related to intercourse among those who 
believed it was wrong (Miller, Christensen, & Olson 1987). More recently, Conley 
(1999) found that both male and female adolescents were more likely to start sexual 
intercourse early if they felt unwanted or unloved. 
Other Factors 

A coupe of additional concepts that conventional wisdom might suggest are 
correlated with adolescents' initiation of first sex have been included in a limited number 
of investigations but have not, as yet, received the degree of attention given to the 
elements discussed earlier. For instance, much has been written about the impact of 
family structure, but researchers have not seemed inclined to question how the quality of 
parent-child relationships might influence adolescents' sexual behavior. The lone 
exception is the inclusion of measures relating to the mother-child relationship in the 


National Study of Children. Researchers examining the relationship of these measures to 
reports of adolescents sexual behavior report that the mother-child relationship showed 
no significant association with age at first sex for boys. For girls, receiving intrinsic 
support from and feeling closeness to mothers showed bivariate correlations with a higher 
age at first sex, while mothers withdrawing love from daughters was associated with 
early transition to intercourse (Miller et al. 1997). 

Employment is another underexamined variable that may be associated with 
adolescents' initiation of intercourse. The lone study I found that addressed this variable 
indicated that taking a job actually increased the likelihood that a teen would have sex 
(Dorius, Heaton, & Steffen 1993). The relationship between employment and first sex 
that they found was weak, however, and its causal direction was uncertain. 
Reasons for Delaying First Sex 

In contrast to the many studies that have investigated possible correlates and 
antecedents to adolescents' initiation of first sex, a small number of researchers have 
taken a different tact and asked why some youth do not lose their virginity. The 
groundbreaking work of this type was a survey conducted in the early 1980s that focused 
on a sample of 16- to 22-year-old high school and college females (Herold & Goodwin 
1981). This study began a radical transformation of how researchers thought about 
virgins. Whereas most scholars of adolescent sexuality had considered virgins a single 
homogenous group, Herold and Goodman instead painted a picture of two "camps." In 
one camp were potential nonvirgins, females who tended to be younger and date less 
frequently than nonvirgins. They were accepting of premarital sex, and most of them 
said they had not had intercourse because they had not found the right person yet. In the 


other camp were adamant virgins, females whose reason for abstaining was most likely to 
be religious or moral in nature. There was some common ground: One-quarter of each 
group said they had not had sex because they were not yet ready to do so. Also, neither 
group appeared to be terribly concerned about pregnancy. Only 15% of the potential 
nonvirgins and 7% of the adamant virgins gave fear of pregnancy as a reason for being 
virgin. The overall picture, however, was that some females had made a deliberate 
decision to remain virgin, while others were open to having sex eventually, given what 
they considered the right circumstances. 

In the first half of the 1990s, Sprecher and Regan (1996) revisited the question of 
long-term virginity with a survey involving 289 college-age (mean age: 1 9.2 years), self- 
identified virgins. These researchers improved on the earlier design by (1) including 
men; (2) treating the likelihood of becoming nonvirgin as a continuous, rather than 
dichotomous variable; and (3) attending to respondents feelings about, as well as their 
reasons for, being virgin. The authors also transformed the scheme for categorizing 
reasons for being virgin. The category "moral beliefs," which in the earlier study had 
encompassed three reasons~"against religion," "parental disapproval," and "premarital 
intercourse is wrong" — grew to include not feeling ready for sex and was renamed 
"personal beliefs." A fourth category of fear-based reasons, involving pregnancy and 
sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), was added. 

As might be expected, young men's responses differed substantially from 
women's, illuminating meaningful gender differences in young people's experience of 
virginity. Paramount among these differences was that long-term male virgins were 
likely to be troubled by their sexual status, while females who were long-term virgins 


tended to regard their status positively. Males were less likely than females to explain 
their virginity using reasons associated with love or the status of their relationships, and 
more likely to attribute it to perceived insecurities, inadequacies, or the unwillingness of 
a partner. Sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy were prominent concerns for all 
of the youth, but women generally indicated more worry, particularly with regard to 
pregnancy. Men were not as likely to cite personal reasons than were women; however, 
for the men who did, virginity was perceived in a positive light, just as it was by women 
with similar convictions. Men who reported relationship length or not having found the 
right partner as reasons also tended to view their virginity positively. In some cases, 
men's reasons for or feelings about being a virgin were correlated with their future 
expectations. Specifically, men whose reasons for virginity related to inadequacy or 
insecurity or who felt either guilty or anxious about being virgin were likely to indicate 
that they expected to become nonvirgin in the near future. 

More recent studies have shed some light on abstinence among younger youth. 
The results of one survey of a predominantly White sample (mean age: 14 years) that 
included 282 self-identified male virgins indicated that fear of STDs and pregnancy were 
the most common reasons given for abstinence (Blinn-Pike 1999). Males reported lower 
degrees of fear than did females; unfortunately, the author provided no additional gender 
comparisons of the results. 

Another investigation provided a cross-sectional look at the sexual and romantic 
relationships of a racially diverse (i.e., White, African- American, and Mexican- 
American) sample (mean age: 16.7 years) (Sugland & Driscoll 1999). The authors 
identified a subsample of 205 youth who said they had not had intercourse with their first 


romantic partner. Among males, the most common reasons were that they were not ready 

or they feared STDs or pregnancy. Males were significantly less likely than females to 

indicate that they abstained because their feelings for their partner were not strong 

enough or they believed premarital sex was wrong. 

Among these younger samples, then, fear appears to take a more prominent role 

than among the older group; however, comparisons are difficult to make because the 

newer studies do not raise the issue of inadequacy or insecurity as directly as did 

Sprecher and Regan (1996), if indeed they raise it at all. Across all age groups, however, 

it seems clear that males are less likely than females to refrain from first intercourse 

because of concerns about the strength of their relationship with their partner or the 

presence, absence, or amount of love they feel. 

"How?" and "How Was It?": 
Context and Consequence of First Intercourse Experience 

In addition to examining the predictors and timing of adolescents' transition to 

nonvirginity, researchers have also wondered how, exactly, the incident of first 

intercourse comes to pass. What is the nature of the relationship between the partners? 

How intimate, interpersonally and physically, do partners typically become before 

actually having intercourse? Do adolescents usually plan their first intercourse 

experience in advance? Do they use alcohol, drugs, or other external factors to facilitate 

the incident? These and related questions are relevant to a broad conception of the 

context of adolescents' first sex, and it is to this issue of context that we now turn. We 

begin by examining what some have called "sexual scripts": the interpersonal and logistic 

circumstances under which first intercourse occurs. Next, we focus on the dynamics of 


physical intimacy that may precede intercourse, and we conclude with a brief look at 
adolescents' emotional response to their first experience of intercourse. 
Sexual Scripts 

Based on retrospective accounts from 1,659 Midwestern college students, one 
team of researchers assembled what they call a "typical" sexual script for adolescents" 
first intercourse experience (Sprecher, Barbee, & Schwartz 1995). Their data indicated 
that a common scenario would be for adolescents to be between 16- and 17-years-old 
when they lost their virginity. It would be unlikely for drugs or alcohol to be involved in 
the event, but, more than likely, contraception would be used. For the most part, this 
picture is consistent with other studies; however, this group may be more conscientious 
about birth control than others (DeLamater 1987; de Gaston, Jensen, & Weed 1995). 
Also, it should be noted that the sample for the Midwestern study was nearly 90% White. 
Multiple sources also suggest that first intercourse typically is an unplanned event that 
occurs in the home of one of the partners (de Gaston, Jensen, & Weed 1995; Harris and 
Associates 1986; Sprecher, Barbee, & Schwartz 1995) 
Dynamics of Physical Intimacy 

For both males and females, first intercourse most often occurs in the context of a 
dating relationship, but females typically describe their relationship with their partners as 
more intimate than do males (Sprecher, Barbee, & Schwartz 1995; Sugland & Driscoll 
1999). Among a sample of predominantly White parochial school students, 43.6% of 
males, compared with 63.8% of females, described their relationship with their first sex 
partner as "going steady" (de Gaston, Jensen, & Weed 1995). More than 20% of males, 
but only 14.5% of females, said their partner was a stranger or someone they had just 


met. Another indication of males' tendency to experience lower degrees of relationship 
or emotional intimacy with their sex partners than females is the finding from a recent 
study that males were significantly more likely than females to have had a nonromantic 
sexual relationship (Sugland & Driscoll 1999). This same study also reported that Blacks 
were more likely than Whites and almost twice as likely as Mexican- Americans to have 
had a nonromantic sexual relationship. 

When first intercourse happens in the context of an on-going dating relationship, 
studies indicate that it is often the endpoint of a predictable pattern of escalating physical 
intimacy. One team of researchers has described a broad "normative developmental 
pattern" of adolescent heterosexual behaviors that begins with hugging and kissing, 
progresses to fondling and petting, and culminates with sexual acts that may include 
intercourse (McCabe & Collins 1984). Another study delineated a more detailed pattern 
(Smith & Udry 1985). In a typical scenario, necking is followed by feeling breasts 
through clothing, then feeling breasts directly. The next steps are feeling sex organs 
directly (the female's vagina?), the female feeling the male's penis directly, then 
intercourse. This sequence was found to be common among sexually experienced White 
adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15, but it was not as consistent with the 
experiences reported by Black youth. Apparently, Black adolescents are much more 
likely to diverge from this sequence and engage in intercourse prior to or without 
engaging in some of the intermediate physical acts. 
Emotional Response to First Intercourse 

In recent years, attention to the path that youth take to reach their first sexual 
experience has taken a back seat to concern about how adolescents feel about their 


experience of virginity loss. One attempt to address this question asked a sample of 
1 ,659 nonvirgins the degree to which they felt pleasure, anxiety, and guilt when they first 
had intercourse (Sprecher, Barbee, & Schwartz 1995). While it is no doubt a 
simplification to distill the range of emotions aroused by first sexual intercourse down to 
two relatively unpleasant and one pleasant one, the authors, nonetheless, reported some 
notable patterns in adolescents' emotional reactions. For both sexes, the greater the 
anxiety they felt, the greater the pleasure they reported. Conversely, the greater the guilt, 
the less pleasure they felt. Also, those who were 1 7 or older reported more pleasure than 
those who were younger. Both males and females also reported greater levels of pleasure 
if their partner was the same age or older. Males reported more pleasure and more 
anxiety than females, but less guilt. They were also much more likely than females to 
have an orgasm, which may provide a partial explanation for their greater pleasure 
ratings. The strongest emotion that males reported was anxiety, followed closely by 
pleasure. Females, on the other hand, typically felt anxiety most strongly, followed by 
guilt, and then pleasure. The guilt that young women felt was mitigated somewhat if they 
were still in a relationship with their first sexual partner. 

Other researchers see such an examination of adolescents' feelings about first 
intercourse as a gross oversimplification, however, because it treats those feelings as 
though they are immune to gender power dynamics. Drawing on feminist perspectives, 
they argue that females' feelings about their first sexual experiences are inseparable from 
the degree of control they feel they have over intimate encounters and, specifically, the 
decision to have intercourse. A pioneering effort to examine how females' factor control 
issues into their evaluations of intercourse experiences was conducted by Abma, Driscoll, 


and Moore (1998). They examined how 2,042 females aged 15 to 24 who participated in 
Cycle 5 (1995) of the National Survey of Family Growth rated their first intercourse 
experiences on two scales — whether it was voluntary or involuntary, and degree to which 
it was wanted (scale from 1 to 10, 10 being most wanted). Their most distressing finding 
was that fully 9% of the females described their first sex as nonvoluntary, including 25 
women who described their experience as rape. Nearly as remarkable, however, was the 
fact that just over 25% of the women rated the wantedness of their first sex on the lowest 
end of the scale (between 1 and 4). Black women were more likely to rate the 
wantedness as "one" (13%), than were non-Hispanic Whites (6%) and Hispanics (4%), 
while Hispanic women were more likely than their counterparts to give the highest rating 
for wantedness (21%, compared with 14% for non-Hispanic Whites and 12% for Blacks). 
Younger women are often believed to have less control of sexual encounters, and 
this research provides support for that contention. To begin with, 24% of the women 
who described their first intercourse as nonvoluntary or rape were 1 3 years old or 
younger. This percentage represents the largest proportion of women of a single age who 
experienced nonvoluntary first intercourse. Even if first intercourse was described as 
voluntary, younger women were most likely to rate its wantedness as low. Thirteen 
percent of women whose first intercourse occurred at age 13 or younger rated the 
wantedness of that intercourse as "one," compared to only 5% of those who had first sex 
between the ages of 19 and 24. Even if we assume that many of these women are being 
victimized by males who are substantially older than they are, the conclusion is 
inescapable that coercing or forcing intercourse is a hidden but salient aspect of the 
experience of a minority of adolescent males. 


"What?": Virgin Sexual Practices 

Often lost in discussions of the incidence, timing, and correlates of adolescents' 
first experience of intercourse is that youth may be sexually active long before they first 
have intercourse. Being virgin, in other words, is not synonymous with an absence of 
sexual activity. The distinction is important for a number of reasons, including the fact 
that noncoital sexual activities, such as fellatio, cunnilingus and anal sex, carry a risk of 
STD transmission, and messages about the safety associated with abstinence may be 
miscommunicated if adolescents associate it solely with refraining from intercourse. 
Researchers have been slow to recognize the importance of the distinction between 
sexual activity and virginity loss, but a few have begun to attend to it and provide some 
sense of the type and pervasiveness of noncoital sexual practices among virgins. 

Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s few surveys addressed the noncoital 
sexual behaviors of adolescents, and some of those that did limited their analyses to 
specific sex acts (i.e., oral sex) (Newcomer & Udry 1987) or populations (i.e.. low- 
income, urban Blacks) (Stanton et al. 1994). One exception was a study, discussed 
earlier, that documented the differences between the sequence of sexual behaviors that 
Black and White adolescents typically engage in prior to having intercourse (Smith & 
Udry 1985). Even this analysis, however, did not attend to anal or oral sex, the two types 
of noncoital practices that carry the greatest risk of STD transmission. 

More recently, one U.S. study has taken virgin sex practices as its primary focus 
(Schuster, Bell, & Kanouse 1996), and two others, one based in Canada, have made 
contributions. The U.S. study involved over 2,000 9 th through 12 th graders from Los 
Angeles County schools. Of the 952 self-identified virgins in the sample, more than one- 


third (35%) reported involvement with at least one of a range of noncoital sexual 
activities that encompassed masturbation of or by a partner, heterosexual cunnilingus. 
fellatio with ejaculation, and heterosexual anal sex. Thirty percent of the males said they 
had experienced masturbation of or by a partner; 1 1% had experienced fellatio with 
ejaculation; and 9% had performed cunnilingus. There were no significant differences 
between males' and females' levels of involvement in these noncoital acts; however, the 
level of involvement reported among males in this sample was twice as high than that 
reported among males in a Canadian sample (Feldman et al. 1 997). 

Consistent with the notion of the "syndrome" of problem behavior (Donovan and 
Jessor 1985) that characterizes adolescents at risk of initiating intercourse, the virgins in 
this study who reported having engaged in higher risk non-coital sexual activities (i.e., 
fellatio, cunnilingus) were more likely than virgins whose sexual activity was low risk 
(i.e., complete abstinence or mastrubation with a partner) to have used alcohol, drugs, or 
marijuana in the past year (Schuster, Bell, & Kanouse 1996). They were also more likely 
than their counterparts to have a problem with unexcused school absences, staying out 
late without parental permission, stealing, or running away from home. 

Another U.S. study using a regional sample provided data on some of the 
noncoital sexual behaviors that adolescents engaged in with the person they described as 
their first nonsexual romantic partner (i.e., a person with whom they were in a 
relationship but did not have intercourse) (Sugland & Driscoll 1999). The percentage of 
males in this sample who reporte 

d giving or receiving oral sex was comparable to that from the L.A. County study; 
however, the more recent investigation found that males who had talked with their 


partner about sex reported higher levels of physical intimacy with them. For instance. 
27% of males who had talked to their partner about sex had engaged in oral or anal sex, 
compared with only 4% who had not talked with their partners about sex. Indeed, having 
talked with one's nonsexual romantic partner about sex was associated with higher levels 
of noncoital activity for all social class, gender, and racial subgroups, except Whites. 
Unfortunately, there is no way to determine how many of the adolescents who reported 
these noncoital behaviors are actually virgins since being a virgin was not presumed in 
the notion of one's first nonsexual romantic partner. Any or all of them may previously 
or simultaneously have had another partner with whom they had intercourse. 


The literature on adolescents' sexual behaviors, particularly initiation of sexual 
intercourse, is extensive and covers a vast array of issues. In my review, I have tried to 
bring some coherence to this enormity by focusing on four fundamental questions: Why 
do adolescents have intercourse? When (i.e., at what age) do they do it? How does the 
scenario in which first intercourse happens develop, progress, and conclude? What sort 
of sexual activity, if any, do youth engage in prior to having intercourse for the first time? 

From an exceedingly complex collection of sometimes contradictory and 
sometimes incomparable research findings, the broad outlines of a story can be seen, the 
story of what is common, if not predictable, in the development of 
adolescents — particular boys and young men — as sexual beings. One part of the story is 
that age, gender, race, testosterone levels, attendance at religious services, family 
structure, commitment to academic achievement, and dating behaviors all influence the 
timing of first intercourse. Many White youth experience first intercourse as the climax 


of a progressive escalation of physical intimacy within their relationship. Black youth 
appear to be less bound to this pattern, initiating intercourse after only limited physical 
contact of other kinds. 

When it does happen, virginity loss typically occurs in the context of a dating 
relationship, but, based on their own reports, males experience these relationships as less 
intimate than the ones in which females lose their virginity. But then, one must ask how 
important intimacy is to males when they lose their virginity, as a noticeable proportion 
of them have their first intercourse experience in a nonromantic relationship. Even so, 
males tend to get more pleasure from their first experience of intercourse than females, 
partly because they are more likely to have an orgasm and partly because they experience 
less guilt. Having intercourse for the first time tends to provoke more anxiety among 
males than females, but this anxiety level seems to add to, not detract from, the pleasure 
of the experience. 

On the whole, young men do not like being virgins, unless they are among a 
select group who have chosen abstinence as a result of personal beliefs. Those who have 
not tend to blame lack of opportunity or some form of insecurity or perceived inadequacy 
for their having not had sex. Like their female counterparts, however, males who are 
virgins — more than one-third, according to estimates — may nonetheless be sexually 
active. According to estimates, more than one-third of all virgins have engaged in 
noncoital sexual acts. While most of these are masturbating with partners, a substantial 
number are participating in acts, such as oral or anal sex, which carry a risk of STD 


Surveys of adolescents' sexual behavior thus gives us a start, a story that 
introduces us to some of the themes that are common to broad multitudes of adolescents. 
But it is an impersonal story, one that extracts those elements of the youths' unique 
experiences that fit particular data collection schemes and discards the rest. As I will 
begin to show in the next chapter, my narrative analysis offers a new perspective on these 
familiar themes and some unfamiliar ones, a perspective that highlights their saturation in 
and emergence from the moral web in which the self is embedded. 


The story of what qualitative research contributes to our understanding of 
adolescent sexuality, particularly as it relates to heterosexual males, is necessarily a 
fragmented one. It must be told by describing relevant aspects of several different 
literatures and assembling these pieces in a way that suggests a whole that has male 
adolescent sexuality at its center. 

This somewhat tortured approach is required for a number of reasons. First, 
"qualitative research" is an umbrella term that subsumes a diverse array of 
methodological approaches and theoretical commitments. Researchers that may be 
similar in that their work is considered qualitative may nevertheless be quite different in 
how they view the world, social science, and the relationship between the two. These 
differences lead them to conduct research with widely divergent background 
assumptions, methods, aims, and "real-world" implications. The heterogeneity of what is 
commonly referred to as "qualitative research" virtually demands, therefore, that I 
address multiple aspects of the literature separately. 

The second reason for approaching the larger story by means of smaller loosely 
associated ones is that, frankly, there is not much of a unified larger story. There are, to 
date, very few qualitative studies that focus specifically on the sexuality of adolescent 
males. Adolescence has received its share of attention from qualitative researchers, but 
the focus tends to be on institutional contexts, particularly the school (Simmons & Blyth 



1987; Thorne 1993; Willis 1977), not experiential milestones, such as virginity loss. 
Qualitative researchers have certainly not ignored sexuality either, but their concern has 
not been with the commonplace experiences or development of adolescent male 
heterosexuals. Problematic or controversial realms of sexuality, such as sexual 
harassment, violence, and transsexualism, have received attention. Adolescent males 
whose sexuality falls outside of the heterosexist norm of "compulsory heterosexuality" 
(Rich 1980) are the subject of one recent qualitative study (Savin- Williams 1998). And 
in recent decades a number of feminist researchers have turned their attention to 
adolescent female sexuality (Lees 1993; Lees 1986; Thompson 1995; Tolman 1994), an 
interest driven by both the problematic consequences of females being so closely 
identified with their sexuality in a patriarchal culture and the tendency for women's 
sexuality to be silenced, undervalued or pathologized, particularly in the early years. 
In sum, both sexuality and adolescence have been explored using qualitative 
methods, but, consistent with the pragmatic tradition that underpins much qualitative 
work, attention has been reserved for those intersections of adolescence and sexuality that 
have proven to be problematic in the everyday lives of groups of individuals. Adolescent 
male heterosexuality, as the early or developmental phase of a sexuality (male, 
heterosexual) that represents the standard against which other sexualities have been 
judged, has remained beyond the pale of immediate concern of researchers, provided that 
it has not been expressed in forms considered deviant (e.g., gang rape) (Lefkowitz 1997). 
With this "invisibility by default" seemingly blinding qualitative researchers to the need 
to write stories with male adolescent heterosexuality at the center, what story there is to 


be told must be culled out of portions of other work where it resides as a tangential 

Yet one might well ask why I would not extrapolate about male adolescent 
sexuality from qualitative research that includes both genders, as I did, where 
appropriate, when examining the quantitative literature. Why all of this insistence on 
studies that specifically target male sexuality? The answer is simply that, where 
qualitative methods are used, extrapolation from a kind of collective or "nongendered" 
position is frequently not appropriate. This point rests on a fundamental difference in the 
aims of qualitative and quantitative methods. Where quantitative studies typically strive 
to homogenize data by reducing instances of behavior or attitudes to decontextualized 
numerical units that can be compared easily, qualitative research thrives on difference 
because its ultimate concern is the meaning behind experiences and behaviors. So, for 
example, if survey researchers report data on the timing of virginity loss for adolescents 
without discriminating between results from males and females, a broad sense of the 
timing of the event among adolescents still makes sense and has limited utility. On the 
other hand, it would be problematic for a qualitative researcher to present findings 
regarding the meaning of virginity loss without differentiating results by gender because, 
at least in the context of contemporary America, the meaning of the event is likely to vary 
substantially by gender. This particular strength of qualitative strategies (i.e., their 
recognition that diverse meanings can and do underlie outwardly identical events) thus 
makes the issue moot. Qualitative research simply does not lend itself to the kind of 
undifferentiated generalizing— in terms of gender or any other category relevant to the 
issue at hand — commonly associated with quantitative work. 


It is thus against a backdrop that includes theoretical and methodological 
diversity, gaps in the literature, and issues unique to qualitative research that this review 
of the literature must be organized. Although there are probably a multitude of ways to 
accomplish this, I have chosen an approach that gives equal attention to the substantive 
contributions of qualitative research to the study of adolescent sexuality and the (mostly 
untapped) relevance of narrative analysis to the topic. 

I begin with nonnarrative, naturalistic qualitative work on virginity and adolescent 
sexuality because these studies provide the strongest thematic link to the quantitative 
research discussed in the previous chapter. In the same context, I then focus on work that 
addresses adolescent sexuality specifically through the lens of masculinity. For the 
remainder of the chapter, I turn my attention to narrative. Here, I first briefly explain 
how narrative analysis differs from other qualitative approaches, then I locate my notion 
of narrative and my analytical strategy within the broad spectrum of existing theoretical 
and analytical approaches to narrative. These two tasks together will demonstrate the 
importance of, and unique contribution offered by, narrative studies. With that 
foundation set, I turn to a brief survey of narrative studies involving sexuality, and an 
examination of the rare existing study that addresses male adolescent sexuality using a 
narrative approach. Organized in this manner, the chapter begins with substantive 
concerns, delves at length into matters of narrative that tend to be more theoretical in 
nature, then returns again to the substantive as seen from a narrative viewpoint. My hope 
is that this strategy puts emphasis in the proper places as I try to tell the related — but as 
yet not integrated— stories of qualitative research, narrative, and male adolescent 


Naturalistic Studies of Adolescent Sexuality 

The studies subsumed under this broad category are similar in that they do not 
problematize the relationship between language (narrative) and reality. They assume that 
language is a reflection of reality, not an element in its social construction. They differ, 
however, in that some are interview-based studies and others are ethnographies. 

For the most part, the interview-based studies focus on virginity. (The sole 
exception — Marsiglio, Hutchinson, & Cohan 2001 — addresses males' reproductive 
ability as an aspect of the construction and transformation of masculine identities and is 
thus considered in a subsequent section.) Among a sample of 29 British youth (ages 16- 
29; male and female; heterosexual, gay, and lesbian), Mitchell and Wellings (1998) found 
that virginity loss (i.e., first intercourse experiences) tended to occur in silence, 
particularly if intercourse occurred at an early age. (Unfortunately, the authors did not 
specify what constituted "intercourse" for the participants of various sexual orientations, 
nor did they quantify ages that would be considered "early.") In lieu of verbal 
communication, sexual encounters were primarily advanced through nonverbal 
communication, which, in some cases, superceded any verbal communication that took 
place. The authors believe that many young people resist preplanning intercourse with 
their partners because they do not wish to spoil the spontaneity and because they realize 
that at their age there is a taboo against assuming or expecting sex. 

Regardless of why it happens, this dynamic may be particularly problematic for 
young women. A number of the female respondents reported that they had been 
ambivalent about having intercourse, but found themselves unable to communicate their 


unwillingness directly. In other cases, women appeared ill equipped to interpret 
contextual and nonverbal clues that signaled that their partners believed intercourse was 

It appears, furthermore, that some young men take advantage of silence and. 
particularly with female partners, an imbalance in power, when seeking first intercourse. 
While a young man's intent may not be malicious or deceptive, by not talking about sex 
beforehand, males may not provide their partners the opportunity to object, and females" 
socialization to be accommodating and avoid conflict may compel them to "go along" 
with the scenario as their partner advances it. Alternatively, the sexual initiator, who is 
typically male, may respond to their partners' mild protests or excuses with verbal silence 
and nonverbal behavior that ignores the protests. Essentially, the young man challenges 
his partner to resist more directly, and gets what he wants when the partner does not. 

Clearly not all adolescent males exploit silence or ignore females' resistance to 
get sex. But this study alerts us to the fact that these scenarios can occur and that 
communicative and power imbalances are ever-present features of the context within 
which adolescent males become sexual decision makers. 

Another recent study (Carpenter 2001) addressed the meanings that young people 
attributed to their experience of virginity loss when they reflected back on it. Carpenter 
found that the 61 men and women (ages 18-35; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual) 
made use of three distinct "interpretive frames" (p. 127) to assign meaning. The "gift" 
frame cast virginity as something special and valuable that one offers to one's partner as 
a token of love. Seen through the "stigma" frame, on the other hand, virginity was 
something to be hidden and escaped when possible. Occupying a sort of middle ground. 


the "process" frame interpreted virginity loss as simply one step in a broader 
developmental journey or rite of passage. 

These interpretive frames "profoundly shaped respondents' expectations, 
experiences, and retrospective evaluations of virginity loss" (p. 137). In other words, as 
the respondents talked about losing their virginity, it was evident that the meaning they 
attached to virginity at the time influenced their behavior and the experience they had. 
For instance, among men in the sample it was most common to regard virginity as a 
stigma. Respondents who interpreted virginity in this way often took intentional steps to 
protect their "secret," either by lying about their sexual histories or allowing others to 
assume they were sexually experienced. Many of the respondents in this group lost their 
virginity to relative strangers, who were less likely to know or question their sexual 

Fear of "exposure" also may have kept many of these people from using 
contraception. Respondents who saw virginity as stigma were least likely among all 
participants to have used contraceptives when they lost their virginity, and at least one 
adherent to the "stigma" frame reported that he did not use or discuss contraception 
because he feared looking inexperienced. By contrast, the group that used the gift 
frame — a group which included half as many men as women — was most likely to use 
contraception during virginity loss. 

It should be emphasized that what Carpenter documents are tendencies, not 
statistical trends. Her goal is not to predict, for instance, the degree to which men are 
more likely than women to use particular interpretive frames. Rather, she identifies the 
variety of frames that respondents employ and notes differences across groups (e.g., men 


and women; heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals). What is important for my purposes is 
the interpretive terrain that Carpenter's findings suggest for male adolescent sexuality. 
Young men may orient to virginity as a gift, as a stigma, or as a process, but heterosexual 
men may be most likely to see virginity as stigma. The assumption of particular 
orientations is likely to have consequences in terms of the degree of openness or 
deliberateness in the communication they have with their partners, the likelihood that 
they use contraception during virginity loss, and their subjective evaluation of their first 
intercourse experience. Just as important, the meanings these males attribute to the 
experience may change over time. A full one-third of all the respondents in Carpenter's 
study (men and women) said their perspective had evolved, which meant that they drew 
upon more than one interpretive frame over the course of the interview. 

Another important finding of Carpenter's study was that multiple definitions of 
virginity loss exist and that definitions tend to vary according to group membership. For 
instance, 59% of nonheterosexuals believed that one would cease to be a virgin after 
experiencing vaginal, oral, or anal sex, but only 18% of heterosexuals believed each of 
these acts was equally capable of resulting in virginity loss. In terms of heterosexual sex 
acts, three-fourths of respondents believed that a person who engaged in oral sex with an 
opposite sex partner would not have lost his or her virginity. This high proportion is 
consistent with the notion that, since the 1920s, it has become increasingly more common 
for Americans to engage in all sorts of sexual acts and, provided that they stop short of 
intercourse, still consider themselves "technically" virgin. In fact, it supports Rubin's 
(1990) assertion that the content of "everything but" coitus (e.g., the behaviors that don't 
"endanger" one's virginity) has expanded over time and now, for many people, includes 


oral sex. Although Carpenter does not provide a specific breakdown of how the 
heterosexual men in her study defined virginity loss, the variation in definitions that she 
documents point to the relevance of my decision to explore with my respondents what 
sexual event they would or did define as virginity loss. 

An anonymous internet study (Donnelly, Burgess, Anderson, et al. 2001) that 
included 34 older virgins (26 male and 8 female; 85% aged between 1 8 and 34 years) 
provides a kind of elaboration of the notion of the "stigma" frame used by some of 
Carpenter's respondents to make sense of virginity. The open-ended responses to on-line 
questions that these virgins provided suggest that as adolescents move into adulthood, 
they are more and more likely to experience virginity as a stigma because they associate 
it with being "off-time." Experiential ly speaking, they feel that they are lagging behind 
others their age. Indeed, several of the virgins in this study described feeling immature or 
childish because of their lack of sexual experience. 

Information collected from the participants also illuminates some of the social and 
social psychological factors that contribute to long-term, involuntary virginity. The most 
common factors cited by respondents were shyness, lack of dating experience, and body 
image concerns. Problems with work and living arrangements and with transportation 
were also mentioned. For some male heterosexual virgins, masculinity also appeared to 
have contributed to their troubles. By following notions of masculinity that emphasize 
education and the "hard" sciences, they entered academic programs and professions that 
were heavily sex segregated. As a result, their "manliness" became a barrier to their 
ability to meet and date women. 



A number of ethnographies provide information that enriches our understanding 
of adolescent male sexuality as a by-product of exploring adolescent or preadolescent 
culture in various contexts. In her study of gender and play behavior among middle and 
junior high school students, Thorne (1993) observes that when preadolescents first start 
to experiment with the adolescent concept of heterosexual dating, their coupling tends to 
be quite impersonal. While personal affections may be involved, such relationships are 
almost inevitably also "a way of claiming status with one's peers, and a qualitatively 
different, more mature ("teenage") form of femininity or masculinity" (p. 153). And, in 
fact, the establishment and dissolution of "goin' with" relationships at this age is typically 
a social process that is engineered as much by members of the partners' friendship groups 
as by the boy and girl themselves. Later, in high school, the direct involvement of friends 
in the management of couplings wanes, but the peer influence remains in the form of 
informal rankings about the desirability of particular partners and collective assessments 
of "how far" intimacies between couples should progress. 

At the conclusion of this discussion about the progression from preadolescent to 
adolescent, Thorne makes the following observation: "In middle school or junior high the 
status of girls with other girls begins to be shaped by their popularity with boys; same 
gender relations among boys are less affected by relationships with the other gender" (p. 
155). Certainly her claim with respect to girls is consistent with others' observations of 
shifts in the social landscape that occur once preadolescence gives way to the sexually 
charged teenage years (Pipher 1994). The existence of such a dynamic is also supported 
by studies of women in higher education (Canaan 1986 or 1987?; Holland & Eisenhart 


1990). It may be to our advantage, however, to withhold judgment on Thome's claim 
that boys relationships with each other are not similarly affected by their relationships 
with the other gender. To be sure, the dynamic is not identical. But as we examine the 
narratives of the adolescent males I talked to, we may find that among boys there is a 
different, perhaps subtler, way in which relationships with girls figure into male-to-male 

Two other studies, both of which are ethnographic in nature but do not rely solely 
on traditional methods of participant observation, offer evidence of how young males 
learn about sex. The first of these is the classic study of adolescence in a small 
Midwestern town that A.B. Hollingshead (1949) completed with the help of his wife in 
the mid- 1940s. The Hollingsheads complemented their observations with analysis of 
secondary data, quantification of behaviors, structured and unstructured interviews, and 
questionnaires in their quest to document relationships between the social behavior of 
adolescents and the social position of their families. In terms of sex, the Hollingsheads 
observed that information was passed from older kids to younger ones in homosocial 
groups, with boys typically learning about sex beginning between ages 10 and 12. For 
boys, becoming knowledgeable about sex included learning that girls can be "played" for 
sex and that "girls are expected to be submissive to physical advances after the boy has 
made the proper overtures by bestowing material favors such as a show, a ride, food, 
candy, perhaps some small gift" (p 314). Some also learned about sex in other ways. 
Nearly half of the boys who were high school dropouts admitted having sex with farm 
animals, and some reported masturbating with a friend. (Leaving aside group 
masturbation, none of the boys admitted having had a homosexual experience.) 


Among both high school boys and dropout boys, dating below one's class was 
much more common than dating within it or above it, and there was consistent evidence 
that boys exploited girls of lower classes for sex. Some times males' youthful sexual 
explorations took on a decidedly predatory cast in the context of male friendship groups. 
According to the boys, it was common for groups of two or three boys to spend an 
evening touring local hangouts with the express goal of finding girls and seducing them. 
This cultural practice found its most sexist and extreme incarnation in a clique of boys 
from the highest social class. The members' enormous pride in their ability to get girls 
was announced in their group name, "The Five F's," which stood for "Find 'em, feed 
'em, feel 'em, f— 'em, and forget 'em." The name also indicates that their predatory 
sexual activity was central to their purpose and identity as a group. 

This sort of predatory sexual behavior among adolescent males is not an 
aberration or a relic of the era in which it was documented. Recent examples (Associated 
Press 1993) and research (Lefkowitz 1997; Sanday 1990) confirm the persistence of a 
particular, collective expression of adolescent male sexuality that denigrates women and 
can culminate in sexual violence. Indeed, the research points to a number of social 
circumstances and dynamics that often characterize the groups and group members that 
approach sexuality in this manner. These males tend to spend most of their time among 
other males. Their interactions with women are almost exclusively a means to the end of 
sexual gratification, and they have few, if any, meaningful relationships with members of 
the opposite sex. Among their male peer group, they receive recognition and status for 
their sexual conquests. In fact, the members of the friendship group may engage each 
other in friendly competitions regarding sexual "accomplishments." In its most extreme 


expressions, the tendency for the youth's sexuality to be an exchange between group 
members, with females as meaningless intermediaries, may become manifest in group 
masturbation, collective viewing of pornography, and sexual episodes involving group 
members, including gang rapes. Sexual activities may even be video taped for later 
consumption by all group members. 

An important theme that runs through the sociological literature on gang rape and 
male sexual predation is that such behavior must be viewed as much as a product of the 
social environment, as the aberrant acts of unstable individuals. Social historian Bernard 
Lefkowitz (1993) recognized this fact after he completed his 7-year investigation of the 
community of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The quiet, affluent suburb had gained notoriety 
in the early 1990s when a group of the most popular student athletes in the local high 
school were convicted of the gang rape of a 17-year-old retarded girl. Using a mix of 
ethnographic and other methods similar to what the Hollingsheads used, Lefkowitz 
assembled a strong argument that the local culture of Glen Ridge championed modes of 
masculinity that made the gang rape incident a tragic, yet almost predictable, extension of 
community values. First, the social and political climate of the town rewarded masculine 
athletic accomplishment to the point that male athletes developed a sense of entitlement. 
Part and parcel of this entitlement was an ethos of "boys will be boys" that tended to keep 
repeated incidents of delinquent behavior by these teens — from incidents of vandalism 
and alcohol consumption to harassment of girls and sexual misconduct — below the 
"radar" of official punishment or even recognition. The glorification of male sporting 
accomplishments also served to marginalize females; women and girls achieved status 
primarily by playing a supporting role to male athletic endeavors. Additionally, the type 


of adult, upper-middle class masculinity cherished by the town's leaders facilitated a 
"problem-solving" dynamic that privileged the image of the community over constructive 
engagement with issues. It made troubles, such as their sons' incidents of drinking and 
vandalism, "go away" (usually through the transfer of money) without their being solved. 

Ethnographic studies that address adolescent sexuality, such as those by 
Lefkowitz and Hollingshead, are important because they examine male sexual behavior 
in its local cultural context in a way that is unavailable through interviews or surveys 
alone. Not only does the research reveal aspects of sexual behavior that individuals 
might otherwise prefer to keep hidden, it demonstrates how that behavior is fostered by 
existing social conditions. One important aspect of these social conditions is, of course, 
the ways in which boys are raised and the models of manhood they are given. Thus, 
Lefkowitz's search to discover how the "perfect suburb" could be the site of a malicious 
gang rape ultimately leads him to question the ways in which sexuality and masculinities 
are linked in the values of the town. 
Masculinity as an Interpretive Lens 

Other researchers have long recognized that sexuality is an important part of how 
contemporary males define themselves as men, and they have self-consciously brought 
masculinity studies to bear on questions of sexuality. The findings of one recent study 
(Mandel & Shakeshaft 2000) indicated that middle-class White boys as young as middle- 
school age constructed their identities in the most polarized gender terms. They 
consistently denied any aspect of femininity in their identities and defined their 
masculinity in terms of avoiding the feminine and exhibiting machismo, athleticism, and 
heterosexuality. The authors, who conducted both interviews and field observations at 


two middle schools, contend that this hypermasculinity contributed greatly to the 
atmosphere at the school, which was characterized by (1) sexually harassing and 
disrespectful language; (2) homophobic attitudes toward those perceived to be lesbian or 
gay; and (3) sexually intensive gender relations. Each of these aspects of the middle 
school environment served to limit the identities available to both boys and girls. Girls, 
for instance, felt pressure to date and to give in to boys' sex-related requests. They also 
felt little power to counter sexually aggressive or inappropriate activity or comments by 
boys. For their part, boys felt required to date, display heterosexuality. and exhibit 
machismo around other boys. 

These findings thus confirm some of the theoretical notions about masculinities 
that I set out in Chapter 1 (e.g., masculinities being defined against the feminine; 
masculinities operating through homophobia; masculinities displayed for other males), 
and they are consistent with other studies that have documented the bind for girls that 
emerges when adolescent femininity confronts adolescent masculinity (Mitchell & 
Wellings 1988). But more than this, they also demonstrate the eagerness of very young 
boys to articulate their identities in terms of gender discourses, and they point to the 
strictures that certain enactments of masculinity can place on selfhood. 

An innovative way of exploring the ties between sexuality and masculine 
identities has been advanced by Marsiglio (1998). Combining elements from symbolic 
interactionism, identity theory, and the scripting perspective, Marsiglio has developed a 
conceptual model for examining what he calls the "procreative realm" of men's lives. 
This realm encompasses the diverse array of physiological, social psychological, and 
interpersonal experiences men can have with respect to pregnancy, birth control, and 


procreation. Using procreation as the organizing principle recognizes that experiences 

that had previously been considered in isolation are in fact related by their association 

with a man's ability (or lack of ability) to sire children. Marsiglio offers a sense of these 

connections when he provides a sampling of what falls under the purview of the 

procreative realm: 

The procreative realm includes such things as men's perceptions about 
begetting or not being able to beget children, their contraceptive attitudes 
and behaviors, their thoughts about and their actual involvement in their 
partner's pregnancy, their reactions to various permutations of in-vitro 
fertilization and artificial insemination, men's sense of obligation to their 
offspring prior to and after their birth, and the symbolic meaning that men 
associate with begetting and raising children, (p. 15) 

In essence, the notion of the procreative realm concretizes examinations of sexuality 
through its link to procreation. 

Within this model of the procreative realm, two sensitizing concepts, procreative 
consciousness and procreative responsibility, are central. The former references men's 
attitudes, impressions, and feelings about themselves as individuals who are (presumably) 
capable of procreating. The latter describes two related matters: (1) Men's perceived 
sense of obligation related to paternity and social fatherhood roles; and (2) their thoughts, 
attitudes, and behaviors with regard to the practical aspects of events in the procreative 
realm (e.g., talking with a partner about contraception; choosing a contraceptive method; 
accompanying a partner for an abortion). 

In-depth interviews about procreative impressions and experiences with a diverse 
sample of single young males (ages 16 through 30) have begun to elaborate how young 
men recognize that they could impregnate a woman and become a father (Marsiglio, 
Hutchinson, Cohan 2001). It appears that most males become aware of their fecundity 


between the ages of 13 and 15, but some reported awareness as early as age 10. In their 
minds, some boys immediately link this awareness to the possibility of paternity. Others, 
it seems, require a more experiential connection to their own fecundity (e.g., first orgasm 
during vaginal intercourse; pregnancy scare) before it becomes a meaningful part of their 
procreative identity. Also, partners are often influential in determining how a male's 
procreative consciousness becomes manifest in particular situations. For instance, a 
partner who is extremely concerned about avoiding pregnancy may raise issues of 
contraception before every sexual episode, thereby forcing the male to be conscious and 

Marsiglio's conceptual approach is important because it encourages us to think 
about all of the multifarious ways that men can engage issues of impregnation, birth, and 
fatherhood in terms of a more or less unified, more or less developed identity. In my 
interviews, I did not specifically seek to "activate" the young men's procreative 
identities, and discussions of procreative issues were uncommon. This is not surprising 
because the stories I sought to elicit from my respondents were about sexual, not 
procreative, decision making. Also, every time I oriented the interviews toward one of 
the major organizing elements, virginity, I was literally asking respondents to speak from 
a position nearly outside of the procreative realm. In spite of these contextual 
"inhibitors," procreative issues did occasionally emerge as relevant to particular decisions 
youth made about sexual behavior. This point is important because it remains to be seen 
to what degree or in what contexts young men articulate a procreative identity when they 
talk about their sexual behavior without specific prompting about pregnancy, birth 
control, or paternity. The answer to this question may help to indicate the degree to 


which young men experience their sexual selves and their procreative identities as linked 
or integrated. For the most part, this issue is beyond the purview of the current study, but 
to the extent that my respondents address procreative issues, Marsiglio's work warrants 

Narrative Analysis 

As I mentioned earlier, a narrative approach to qualitative research differs from 
the traditional naturalist approach in that narrativists treat language, whether it be 
interview speech or verbal exchanges observed in the field, as a constitutive element of 
the data. Recognizing that what we say cannot be separated from how we say it, 
narrativists are as interested in the way experience is "storied" as they are in the content 
of the stories. 
The Narrative Quality of Experience 

The explosion of interest in narrative across academic disciplines in the past 
decade is the result of a new (some would say, renewed) appreciation of the narrative 
quality of experience. Recent proponents have hailed the impetus to narrate as a cultural 
universal (Maines 1993, Richardson 1990), an intrinsic feature of human nature 
(Plummer 1995; Sandelowski 1991), an engine of social life (Plummer 1995), and a 
property of experience itself (Crites 1997). Possible hyperbole aside, there is a 
conviction among those who study narrative that telling stories is a fundamental and 
ubiquitous means by which people create meaning in everyday life (Reissman 1993), 
experience over time (Richardson 1990), the world, ourselves, and others (Berger 1997; 
Holstein & Gubrium 1995). Story telling is not simply "spinning tales," it is a way to 
"impose order on the flow of experience to make sense of events and actions in our lives" 


(Reissman 1993, p. 2). Examining people's stories, then, represents a powerful means for 
sociologists to explore subjective experience. At the same time, the narrative quality of 
social life beyond the everyday (e.g., the textual mediation of institutional processes; 
cultural and organizational discourses) makes narrative strategies viable at any level of 
analysis (Maines 1993). 
Narrative and Identity 

For social psychology, a particularly important implication of narrative sense- 
making is that talk is crucial to the production of individual identity. In life stories or 
stories of everyday life, we try to assemble pictures of our selves that make sense of our 
past and are consistent with a future that we project for ourselves (Hinchman & 
Hinchman 1997; Holstein & Gubrium 2000b). What's more, all this narrative identity 
work must be done in accord with the contingencies of the storytelling moment. The 
process is complex, and the stakes are high. Gergen and Gergen (1997) have 
demonstrated, for instance, that effective narration of the self is an important social 
survival skill. Social life demands that we convince others that we are certain selves, 
such as a stable partner, a diligent workers, or a devoted father, and accomplishing these 
depictions is largely a narrative task. But the social nature of identity construction can 
work to assemble as well as compel stories. Mason- Schrock's (1996) work with a 
support group for transsexuals showed, for example, that when the identity task is 
particularly treacherous and the cultural resources for constructing relevant identities are 
scarce, individuals may learn appropriate self stories from others. Selves and stories are 
thus inexorably social, interrelated phenomena. 


Defining Narrative 

When it comes to identifying narratives for the purposes of analysis, notions of 
what constitutes a narrative are as varied as narratives are ubiquitous. Most analysts use 
the word "narrative" more or less synonymously with story. For these researchers, there 
is consensus that, at minimum, stories are distinct segments out of larger sequences of 
talk that are characterized by a selecting and ordering of past events in a manner intended 
to be personally and culturally coherent and persuasive (Berger 1 997; Hinchman & 
Hinchman 1997; Reissman 1993; Sandelowski 1991). 

They differ on a number of finer points, however, such as the degree of emphasis 
they place on two aspects of event ordering: sequencing and emplotment. Most 
narrativists believe that a passage must place events in some temporal sequence to be a 
true story (Berger 1997; Hinchman & Hinchman 1997; Maines 1993; Reissman 1993). 
and some insist further on chronological sequencing (Reissman 1993). These 
expectations are not surprising, since they are consistent with the way that Western 
listeners are accustomed to telling and hearing stories. But some researchers have 
specifically recognized these expectations as arbitrary cultural limitations and argued that 
thematic sequencing — in which story episodes are tied together by theme, rather than 
time— also be considered a legitimate way of ordering a narrative (Reissman 1993). 

The other aspect of narrative order, emplotment, refers to the introduction and 
arrangement of people, places, and actions in stories. It is essentially the narrative 
production of the "drama" that a narrative is intended to convey. David Maines ( 1 993) 
argues that what he calls emplotment — a story structure that involves plot, setting, and 
characterization— is the most important, defining element of narrative. Echoing his 


perspective, Seymour Chatman (see Sandelowski 1991) and Faye Ginsburg (see 
Reissman 1993) have specifically examined emplotment across different narratives, on 
the assumption that similar story elements, differently plotted, result in very different 
narratives (and, by extension, very different meanings). 

In other popular definitions of narrative, emplotment is implied but not 
highlighted. For instance, William Labov's classic definition of "narrative as story" (see 
Reissman 1993) asserts that "fully formed" narratives have six essential elements: an 
abstract, which summarizes what is to come; orientation in terms of time, place, situation 
and participants; complicating action; evaluation, which offers the narrator's 
interpretation of and attitude toward the action; a resolution that tells what finally 
happened; and a coda that returns the narrator's perspective to the present. Here, the 
orientation and complicating action would most likely identify the place where 
emplotment occurs. Likewise, in Kenneth Burke's description of narrative (see Reissman 
1993) as consisting of act, scene, agency, and purpose, we can intuit which elements 
would contribute to emplotment, but the ordering scheme emphasizes a dramatic 
metaphor more than the meaning-making process. 

Still other researchers retain the idea that narratives are discrete portions of talk 
with a beginning and end, but they broaden the definition, in part by deemphasizing 
emplotment. For instance, Reissmann (1993) recognizes several narrative genres, of 
which the story is just one. She asserts that narratives can also be habitual and describe 
events that repeat, with no peak in action like a story; hypothetical in that they depict 
events that did not happen; or topic-centered, so that themes, not the passage of time, link 
events. Of these alternative genres, the habitual and the topic-centered diverge most from 


the more restrictive definition of "narrative as story." Habitual narratives diverge 
because of the absence of culminating action, and topic-centered ones are not "story-like" 
because the sequencing is not temporal. 

The most liberal definition of narrative of all, however, puts much less emphasis 
on the identification and deconstruction of structures within talk (such as stories and 
hypothetical narratives) and instead focuses on what people do with talk and how they do 
it. "Narrative" in this context becomes virtually any sequence of talk, whether it be the 
discussion of a particular topic in an interview or an exchange between natives in the 
field. While it may be a stretch to claim that this broad notion of narrative has active 
proponents, it is implicit in the empirical (Gubrium 1993; Holstein 1993) and theoretical 
(Gubrium & Holstein 1997; Holstein & Gubrium 2000b) work of Gubrium and Holstein. 
Susan Chase (1995a) also draws on it in her study of women school superintendents 
when she notes that she analyzed stories using Labov's definition of narrative in 
conjunction with attention to "the entire linguistic event through which a woman 
constructs her self-understanding and makes her experiences meaningful" (pp. 24-25). 
Narrative, in this use, is more synonymous with talk or verbal interaction than with story. 
Some authors (Reissman 1993) would even say that what is actually referenced here is 
discourse, but I disagree. To conflate "narrative as linguistic event" with discourse, it 
seems to me, is to ignore the sense of collective understanding — a particular, cultural 
perspective on reality — that discourse connotes (Chase 1995a). 
Examining Narrative: Analytical Strategies 

Given that researchers hold different beliefs about what constitutes a narrative, it 
should not be surprising that narratives are approached analytically in many different 


ways. Differences arise not only in terms of what qualifies as narrative for the 
researcher, but also how thoroughly narrative the analysis is. In some studies, 
examination of talk as narrative is employed as a kind of supplement to the broader more 
naturalistic strategies and aims of the project. These projects might be said to exemplify 
a limited narrative approach. Other studies are designed, top to bottom, with narratives 
and narrative analytical techniques at their centers. They represent what I call a 
comprehensive narrative approach. These two distinctions do not represent the full range 
of analytical approaches to narrative, however. A third, novel approach is Ken 
Plummer's "sociology of stories" paradigm, which does not examine the construction of 
meaning in individual instances of talk, but is nonetheless undeniably sociological and, 
analytically speaking, as focused on narrative as anything that might be identified with 
the comprehensive narrative approach. In the interest of providing a faithful survey of 
the breadth of existing strategies for examining narratives, I begin with a brief description 
of Plummer's sociology of stories. Next, I review an example of limited narrative 
analysis. I conclude with two examples of comprehensive narrative analysis, both of 
which inform my study of the sexual decision-making narratives of adolescent 
heterosexual males. 

According to Plummer (1995), "a sociology of stories seeks to understand the role 
of stories in social life" (p. 31). Thus, the focus is not on stories as texts, but on stories as 
"social actions embedded in social worlds'" (p. 17, emphasis in original). The questions 
that such an approach generates include the following: Who is involved in story telling? 
(Plummer identifies producers, coaxers/coercers, and consumers.); How are stories made, 
told, and consumed?; How do ways of telling effect how stories are received?; And how 


do stories "fit" within larger frameworks of power, including cultural hierarchies of the 
acceptability or desirability of different narratives? The meanings conveyed in stories are 
certainly relevant to answering these questions. As Plummer demonstrates, the stories 
told about particular experiences (e.g., rape, "coming out") have a history and are 
enmeshed in social and political webs with other, related stories. But Plummer' s aims are 
too historical and macro-sociological to leave room for interest in the intricacies of 
narrative structuring that characterize more textually oriented narrative analyses. At 
base, he is trying to offer a glimpse of a new way that analysts interested in narrative can 
address the interplay of narratives and the social world(s) in which stories are produced 
and circulate. 

In an examination of the life stories of pro-choice and antiabortion political 
activists, sociologist Faye Ginsburg (see Reissman 1993) also shies away from in-depth 
analysis of the construction of meaning in individual accounts, but for a very different 
reason. Whereas Plummer eschews such analyses because they are too microsociological 
for his project, Ginsburg seems to do so because she is committed to a naturalistic, rather 
than a narrative, framework. As a result, she ends up conducting narrative analysis "lite." 
The analysis is limited with respect to narrative in two ways: First, no attention is paid to 
language use or narrative forms, such as stories or other narrative genres. In fact, the 
entire interview text is considered the narrative. And second, for the most part, the 
interview material is used in a naturalist way. She compares the life stories of her pro- 
choice and antiabortion respondents and produces a traditional thematic analysis that 
highlights differences in experiences and understandings between the two groups. What 
qualifies this study as a narrative analysis in some sense is Ginsburg's attention to 


narrative sequencing. Working from the recognition that cultural and narrative 
conventions guide how women in contemporary America typically tell their life stories, 
Ginsburg traces how both groups of activists construct and account for stories that 
deviate from these conventions. Still, the attention to narrative in this project cannot be 
considered comprehensive because the production of meaning is a secondary concern and 
the treatment of language as constitutive of meaning is, at best, intermittent. 

Now, as I turn to examples of what I call comprehensive narrative analysis, a 
word of caution or at least explanation is in order. My criterion for designating 
something as "comprehensive" is exactly what I mentioned earlier — putting the notion of 
language as constructive of reality at the heart of the analysis. I suspect that 
others — notably Catherine Kohler Reissman, author of the very influential and practical, 
Narrative Analysis (1993) — would take issue with my standard as being too "loose," too 
liberal. For Reissman and others, truly comprehensive examinations of narrative involve 
transcribing that accounts for pauses and tries to use line breaks to mimic speech patterns, 
and parsing (interview) text into segments of some kind, whether these be stories, story 
segments, or stanzas, as in Reissman's own examination of poetic structures in talk 
(1990). In some form or fashion, the analyst gets his or her "hands dirty" with the nitty- 
gritty of word choice, speech patterns, speech units, metaphors, even word repetitions, 
rhythms, and verb tense. 

While I agree whole heartedly that these strategies are indicative of 
comprehensive narrative analysis, I do not believe that they are requisites for it. To be 
sure, any analysis that foregrounds the construction of reality through talk will make use 
of at least some of these techniques. But Reissman's equation of "true" narrative analysis 


with the intricate deconstruction of talk segments ties the analysis too tightly to the text 
or speech event. While she does recognize the interview context as constitutive of 
meaning, she leaves little or no room for the examination of the social conditions of story 
telling, even at the level of local culture. In this view it seems that there is nothing but 
the text (or speech), no recognition of the influence that cultural and biographical 
particulars (e.g., discourses, personal histories, and material objects) have on the stock of 
resources available for constructing particular narratives in particular contexts (Holstein 
& Gubrium 2000b; Gubrium 1988). The examples of narrative analysis to which I now 
turn are comprehensive, in my view, precisely because they never lose sight of the fact 
that narratives are as much social as individual products. 

Susan Chase (1995a) is very clear on this point in the introduction to her study of 
the work narratives of women school superintendents. She argues that the narrative 
process is at once personal and cultural because when the women tell their stories they 
draw on existing discourses (Chase defines these as "meaning systems"). Indeed, her 
contention is that narrative is an ideal avenue for exploring the relationship between 
culture and experience because, for her, narrative represents "the embodiment of that 
relationship in actual practice" (p. 6). 

Her study involving women school superintendents brings the person-culture 
relationship into sharp relief because the women are in a precarious social position that 
complicates how they make sense of their professional standing. By virtue of being 
women in a male-dominated, executive-level position, they have likely faced 
discrimination in their pursuit and performance of their jobs. Yet their very presence in 
these high-level jobs seems to testify to their individual abilities and argue against the 


existence of discrimination. So when these women talk about their professional lives, 
how much weight do they give to their experiences of inequality on the one hand and 
their own abilities on the other? Her analytical method for answering this question is a 
hybrid approach that combines a liberal definition of narrative with Labov's narrower 
"story" definition. Beyond separating out excerpts that qualify as stories, she does not 
parse the narrative into minute segments or transcribe it in a way that mirrors 
respondents' speech. So in terms of the "depth" of the analysis of the narratives in and of 
themselves, her approach might be called superficial. But Chase's analytical goal targets 
something broader (and, I would argue, something more social) than the structure of the 
narratives: She examines how, in their narratives, these women negotiate the implicit 
tension between drawing from both a discourse of individual achievement and a 
discourse of inequality to tell their stories. 

Another approach to narrative analysis that is comprehensive yet not predicated 
solely on the identification and explication of narrative structures is what Holstein and 
Gubrium (2000b) call narrative practice. In narrative practice, as in Chase's work, the 
social conditions of narrating are given equal footing with the production of meaning 
within the narrative. This balance is a deliberate goal of the method, and it is achieved 
through a recognition that all instances of narration involve both discursive practice and 

The "discursive practice" part of this dyad refers to the interest that is common to 
virtually all narrative studies — that is, the way language is used to make meaning and 
persuade. The notion of "discourses-in-practice" brings in social and cultural elements; it 
represents the authors' recognition that stories do not come out of thin air, but instead are 


the result of people's artful appropriation and manipulation of existing resources for 
meaning-making. Personal experience — writ as large as possible to include memory, 
expectation, and imagination — is a vast narrative resource, but there are also 
"impersonal" resources that can shape our stories. These "coherence structures" are 
existing ways of knowing, framing, and talking about experience ("language games") that 
make it familiar and malleable. Professional therapeutic models and self-help programs 
are common examples, but virtually any organization, institution, or group that seeks to 
sort, help, or control people develops a coherence structure that guides workers and 
clients in constructing narratives relevant to the "going concern" (see Holstein & 
Gubrium 2000b) of the agency. Group memberships, such as those based on race, 
gender, or sexual orientation, can also shape stories, but for most people their influence 
varies with the salience they have in particular contexts. 

The important point here is that personal experience, personal choice, and 
creativity are never the only ingredients that go into a "personal" story. Discourses of all 
kinds facilitate, condition, and are otherwise "put into practice" in the telling of stories, 
even (perhaps especially) ones of the most "personal" nature (Plummer 1995). In 
practical terms, that means that narrative analysts must look not only at how a narrative is 
put together (discursive practice), but also at the narrative resources it uses and how it 
uses them. For instance, Holstein (1993) has explored the varied and situational 
relevance that gender and age are given in legal proceedings concerning involuntary 
commitment. As Holstein and Gubrium (1995) indicate, analysis of this type truly has an 
"artful" aspect to it. The analyst must examine rhetorical elements (i.e., word choices. 


bits of jargon, viewpoints expressed) throughout the interview and draw on her or his 
own cultural knowledge to decipher what discourses are being put into practice. 

Narrative Studies of Adolescent Sexuality 

As my presentation of the various ways of examining narrative has no doubt made 
clear, I believe that the most "comprehensive" narrative analyses are those that 
investigate the ways in which narrative production is linked to its social context, rather 
than those that most thoroughly deconstruct narratives and compare narrative structures. 
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of narrative analyses of any kind in the literature on 
adolescent male sexuality, never mind ones that take a comprehensive approach. In my 
exploration of the literature, I have uncovered one that comes closest to offering a 
comprehensive narrative analysis with regard to boys and sexual talk. The majority of 
the "review" that follows focuses on this study. I begin, however, with a study involving 
preadolescent boys that has something to say about how they use talk with respect to 
sexuality. Although the boys involved in it are younger than my respondents, I present it 
briefly because the issues it raises are relevant to my study. 
"Where the Boys Are" 

In the course of conducting participant observation in the late 1970s among 
preadolescent boys in several Little League baseball teams in northern U.S. and New 
England, Gary Alan Fine (1988) took note of how the boys used sexual talk and 
occasional sexual behavior to present themselves in particular ways to their (male) 
friends and teammates. He argues that, for the most part, boys of this age are unprepared 
physiologically for sex and not particularly motivated to have sex. They are, however, 
interested in earning the respect and awe of their friends that comes with demonstrating 


that they are "sexually mature, active, and knowledgeable" (p. 88). Sometimes they vie 
for this esteem by actually engaging in sexual or quasi-sexual behaviors, such as mutual 
masturbation, homosexual experimentation, or comparing penis lengths. 

Just as often, if not more so, however, the boys use talk to demonstrate sexual 
competencies. One way of doing this is to tell "the guys" about intimate involvement 
that one has had (or purports to have had) with a girl, such as kissing, necking, or 
"making out." Since the act is not readily verifiable, the success of this strategy hinges 
on the boy constructing a convincing narrative. Another strategy is simply to sexualize 
one's everyday speech, peppering it with sexualized insults and talk about biological and 
physiological processes. In this latter case, the mere fact of being able to use sexual 
words and ideas in talk in a way that the other boys hear as competent achieves the goal 
of identifying the speaker as "one of the guys." 

Two factors that represent threats to the "mature," masculine identities that the 
boys seek to claim with sex talk are girls and the ever-present potential for homophobic 
taunts. With respect to girls, boys must walk a fine line with their male friends between 
showing enough interest in the opposite sex to seem "adult" and not effeminate, and 
showing "too much" interest and seeming "girl crazy." As Fine states succinctly, "Girls 
can easily break the bonds of brotherhood among boys" (p. 89). 

More often than not, when a threat of "eviction" from the brotherhood comes, it 
arrives in the form of homophobic taunts. Fine argues that sexual orientation and sexual 
behaviors are not really at issue when boys call one another "queers" or "faggots," rather 
the taunt indicates that the target is immature. However, he goes on to say that, for 
preadolescent boys, being gay is synonymous with being a girl. It signals that a boy's 


speech, manner, interests, or behavior are not consistent with an idealized (and quite 
traditional) notion of maleness. So even if preadolescent boys are not directing hatred 
toward homosexual behavior when they use this sort of talk, they are certainly enforcing 
a particular, rather stringent, code of acceptable masculinity. 

In sum, Fine's work reminds us of the robust tie between talk and identity, and it 
also provides evidence that, at a very young age, boy's interactions with other boys are 
predicated on using talk to police boundaries between the sexes and assert heterosexual 
masculinity as a prerequisite for acceptance. Although his observations are now some 20 
years old, many of my respondents talked about girls and male friendship groups in ways 
similar to those he described, suggesting that the dynamics he documented continue to 
influence today's adolescent males. 
"School Talk" 

Support for my conviction is provided by an innovative narrative study conducted 
in the mid-1990s. A four-person research team led by Donna Eder (Eder, Evans, and 
Parker 1995) logged the collective equivalent of over two years of observations in a 
Midwestern middle school as they explored how early adolescents construct peer culture 
in everyday informal talk. Their observations, which were complemented by a number of 
formal and informal group and individual interviews, focused on what the researchers 
called speech routines, that is, ritualistic, interactive modes of talk. Study of insult 
exchanges, teasing, collaborative storytelling, and gossip, illuminated many aspects of 
adolescent culture, including how the youth reproduced and, in some cases, challenged or 
altered traditional notions of gender and gender inequality. 


Eder and her colleagues found, not surprisingly, that traditional norms of 
masculinity held great sway in the developing adolescent culture. Dominance, disregard 
for the feelings of others, and an orientation toward girls as "sexual property" and tokens 
in competitions between boys were values that received continual reiteration and 
reinforcement in boys' and girls' speech routines. The collective and constructive power 
of these routines is evident when the researchers describe an instance in which interaction 
with male peers encouraged one boy to alter his narrative regarding sexuality from one 
that considered what was situationally appropriate to a more impersonal and aggressive 
one. Eder and associates contend that examples like this one demonstrate how traditional 
notions of masculinity come to dominate and constrain adolescents' constructions of 
gender and sexuality and their notions of appropriate "sexual scripts." 

Though all routines frequently served to reproduce and reinforce traditional 
gender norms and hierarchies, some provided greater opportunities for the construction 
and adherence to nontraditional gender dynamics. For instance, several male friends 
telling a story together could support each other in the construction of a narrative that 
subverted the traditional male stricture against showing fear in the face of danger. On the 
other hand, insult exchanges among boys (and even among mixed-gender groups) 
typically depended on traditional notions of hegemonic masculinity and were structured 
in such a way that resisting them could easily cause relatively playful exchanges to turn 
deliberately hostile. 

While the decision by Eder's team to study adolescents primarily through field 
observation has the advantage of addressing the children in their natural setting and thus 
making the youth's everyday modes of interpretive practice available for analysis, the 


interview-based approach that I have chosen provides equally important, though 
different, analytical opportunities. First, it brings into focus entirely different forms of 
talk. Rather than ritualized interactive speech routines that are produced as part of social 
contact within peer groups, the unstructured interview allows investigation of how youth 
respond to questions on potentially sensitive topics outside of the context of their peer 
group. Routines of teasing, insulting, and collaborative storytelling are supplanted in the 
analytical lens by accounts, stories, and biographical work. Second, talk in this context 
does not presume the immediate relevance of the peer group to the issues at hand, rather, 
if, when, and how peer groups are referenced in talk becomes an important analytical 
concern. Indeed, the one-on-one interview scenario could provide a useful check on the 
power of peer-group speech routines. In other words, it may be beneficial to investigate 
to what extent young males rhetorically distance themselves from peer group norms when 
they are physically separate from the groups. 

Although I have tried, in the preceding pages, to bring some organization and 
coherence to the qualitative literature on adolescent male sexuality, my earlier 
characterization of the story told by this literature as fragmented and incomplete remains 
apt. Few studies address the topic directly, so relevant findings must be culled from 
diverse sources, including naturalistic studies of virginity and procreative issues, 
ethnographies, research in the subdiscipline of masculinity studies, and narrative analyses 
of adolescent and preadolescent sex talk. The scant existing literature provides a 
tantalizing glimpse of what qualitative research methods could contribute, making the 
current state of fragmentation and obvious deficiencies all the more frustrating. 


Yet in spite of the patchwork approach I have had to take to assemble "a story" of 
the literature, there are some surprisingly uniform threads that appear when the story is 
considered as a whole. Unfortunately, some of these threads reveal problematic streaks 
in the way adolescent boys learn about and practice being sexual. The research 
consistently indicates, for instance, that boys often learn about and experiment with sex 
in all-male friendship groups. Isolated from girls, they encourage each other to present 
hypermasculine identities predicated on dominance, avoidance of feelings, compulsory 
heterosexuality, and devaluation of the feminine. Ironically, these same boys may be 
engaging simultaneously in homoerotic sexual experimentation. What's more, in 
extreme instances, the centrality of the male friendship group to boys' masculine identity, 
coupled with the construction of women purely in sexual terms, can lead the friendship 
group to become a vehicle for predatory sexual behavior or even gang rape. 

Although the literature is largely silent on the intersections of virginity and 
masculinities, it is tempting to suggest that young men's orientation to their virginity is 
influenced by early peer group experiences and the lessons about manliness they impart. 
Could the tendency for males to regard their virginity as a stigma more often than 
females reflect a form of gender identity work that equates manliness with sexual 
experience? To the extent that it does, the negative impact it tends to have on male's first 
sexual experience (e.g., lack of communication; hesitancy about using contraception) 
may represent another problematic thread in the dominant story of males' development of 
gendered, sexual identities. 

The entire story of boys' emergence as heterosexual males need not to be so 
harrowing, of course. In part, the prominence of troubling portraits is likely an artifact of 


the tendency for sexual stories to be told (or sought by researchers) only when they are 
sensational or subversive. As of yet, we simply do not have many pictures of adolescent 
heterosexual masculinities that diverge from the hypermasculine model. Indeed, Thome 
(1993) has criticized some ethnographic studies of boyhood precisely for their tendency 
to privilege dominant males and their constructions of masculinity. 

This fragmented, incomplete story of qualitative researchers* contributions to the 
literature on adolescent male sexuality thus seems to suggest two trails that future 
research ought to blaze. First, scholars should take heed of the not-so-subtle links that 
seem to exist between boys' informal education about sexuality, the masculine identities 
they strive to present, and their individual and collective expressions of contempt for 
females. Second, studies need to be targeted toward the stories of male heterosexual 
development that have not been told, those that lead to identities that are not inexpressive, 
sexist, or bound to the male peer group. I believe that my project will contribute, in small 
ways at least, to the opening of both these trails. And, as I have taken pains to 
demonstrate in this chapter, comprehensive narrative analysis needs to be a primary 
vehicle researchers use for this scholastic "trail blazing" because it illuminates the active 
interplay of culture and experience at the level of narrative practice. 


When researchers begin a project such as this one, they are often plagued with 
worries about its usefulness. "Will we learn something?" they ask themselves. "Will 
others be interested in what we learn?" Thankfully, I am free of these worries because, if 
nothing else, my initial review of the interviews taught me a valuable lesson: Never 

doubt the essential truth of the old adage: "The best laid plans "I expected that once 

I had the interviews collected, I would have a wealth of stories about sexual decision 
making to analyze. Indeed, that expectation is clearly evident in the context for the 
research that I have set out in the previous chapters. Unfortunately, the boys I 
interviewed did not rely heavily on stories to convey meanings in their experience. 

The question of why stories were not central to guys' narratives is an important 
one that I take up in a later chapter. But the immediate issue is that I had prepared to 
conduct a narrative analysis, and I found myself with very few narratives, in the strict 
sense of the word. Although I was dismayed at having my expectations so thoroughly 
trounced, I knew that the minimal role of stories did not mean that these boys were not 
"doing" something with language. On the contrary, their ability to convey quite 
sophisticated ideas about sexuality and sexual decision making without relying on stories 
suggested to me that they were doing something powerful and important with language. 
If it is true, as so many narrativists insist, that life comes to us in the form of stories, what 
are we to think of people who talk about their worlds with little reliance on them? My 



thought is that they are artful minimalists, the communicative equivalent of painters who 
work without brushes or potters who work without wheels, yet nonetheless manage to 
produce substantive, meaningful pieces "by design." 

The question for me was as follows: How do I analyze what these guys are doing 
with talk, when so many of the analytical tools that exist are designed for work on 
traditionally defined narratives? The answer, I realized, lie in the notion of 
"comprehensive narrative analysis," which I introduced in the previous chapter. Implicit 
in that concept is the realization that all instances of language use are expressions of and 
interactions with cultural meanings, whether in story form or otherwise. The boys I 
interviewed were active, creative meaning-makers, but their primary "medium" was 
discourse— "meaning systems," in Chase's words (1995a)— rather than story. 

In this and subsequent chapters, then, my focus is essentially narrative practice, 
understood as the integrated examination of discursive practice and discourses-in-practice 
(Holstein and Gubrium 2000). I examine what discourses the boys draw upon to make 
meanings ("discourses-in-practice") and how they seem to "manipulate" those discourses 
like tools in their efforts to present themselves in particular ways and respond to narrative 
challenges raised in the interview ("discursive practice"). I still attend to the storied 
quality of talk when it appears, but I do so always with concern for how stories represent 
instances of narrative practice. 

Giving Form to the Formless: The Pitfalls of Describing Discourses 

It seems to me that the most logical way to start telling the story of these boys' 
narrative practices is by describing the discourses that they use most widely, but this is 
easier said than done. Discourses are slippery things by their very nature because they 


represent narrative possibilities, not full-blown actualities. They might best be described 
as linguistic and semantic stocks of knowledge, invisible narrative storehouses of what 
we might say and how we might say it. We cannot see them or touch them, and the only 
"proof of their existence comes in instances of language use, at which point what we 
have are not discourses at all, but articulations of discourse, acts of speech or writing that 
remind us that certain ways of making meaning are culturally available for use, 
manipulation, and modification. 

For all their elusiveness, however, discourses are identifiable from the traces they 
leave behind. Confronted with a long series of articulations from the same discourse, we 
recognize the consistency and interconnection of ideas and perspective that form a more 
or less unified way of understanding some category of phenomenon. Training manuals, 
position papers, and theoretical treatises provide some of the most tangible evidence of 
the existence of discourses precisely because they are designed to delineate particular 
ways of acting or thinking. By the same token, incompatibility of the meanings conveyed 
by various articulations can signal the presence of competing discourses, as when public 
policies are debated. 

So although I cannot produce for inspection the discourses used by my 
respondents, in the pages that follow I will reproduce excerpts from the respondents* talk 
and explain why I see them as articulations of particular discourses of sexual decision 
making. Presenting a series of articulations from various respondents may have the effect 
of decontextualizing their comments, but such an effect is hard to avoid when the goal is 
to point to a larger, textual entity. In subsequent chapters, where I focus on specific 
narrative challenges faced by particular respondents, context receives its proper attention. 


One benefit of a decontextualized presentation, however, is that it may reduce 
potential confusion over the unit of analysis in this study. By presenting a quote from 
one or another adolescent boy as representative of a particular discourse, I do not mean to 
suggest that the discourse defines the person. As will become clear as the analysis 
progresses, it was very common for a boy to articulate two and even three discourses over 
the course of his interview. It is important to remember that my unit of analysis is 
individual speech acts, not individuals. And thus the sample for study of these speech 
acts is strikingly larger than the number of boys interviewed. 

For the most part, three discourses dominate the interviews. One. which focuses 
on religious teachings as the guide to decisions about sex, I have called the "discourse of 
piety." Without exception, the message of articulations of the piety discourse involve 
abstinence of some sort. The discourse most diametrically opposed to piety is one I have 
called the "discourse of conquest," This meaning system is organized around an 
articulation of sex as a goal or accomplishment that a guy must achieve, sometimes at the 
expense of the humanness of his partner. The third discourse — the "discourse of 
relationship" — asserts the interaction between partners as the paramount concern in 
making decisions about sexual activity. It lies somewhere in between the other two in 
terms of the emphasis it places on moral versus carnal values. 

I present each discourse by identifying the four or five elements that assume 
prominence within it and detailing how these are articulated. Because all of the 
interviews focus on sexual decision making, the same elements are always available as 
focal points for the boys' talk. Sex, girls, virginity, virgins, self, and others are common 


elements of concern, but they receive different degrees of attention, depending on which 
discourse is being articulated. 

Also worthy of mention is the notion of risk as a factor in the guys' sexual 
decision making. Although my interviews do not suggest that worry over pregnancy, 
STDs, or both inform a system of constructions and interpretations so complete that it can 
be called a discourse, it clearly exists as a fourth way of relating to some aspects of male 
adolescent sexuality. I discuss it briefly at chapter's end as a distinct "horizon of 
meaning" (Gubrium 1993) relevant to sexual decision making. 

The Discourse of Piety 

The organizing principle of the discourse of piety is the belief that youth ought to 
stay abstinent until marriage because a higher, spiritual power decrees that they should. 
In particular articulations, the boys may provide varying descriptions of what constitutes 
abstinence or how their God's words should be heard or interpreted, but the fundamental 
message is that premarital sex should be avoided because, in a moral and religious sense, 
it is wrong. Given the preeminence that teachings and religious doctrines are given in 
this discourse, it is not surprising that boys using this discourse place great emphasis on 
the influence of others. 
Articulating Others 

The designation "others" is a catch-all category that includes everyone that the 
guys might talk about besides themselves, partners or potential partners, and women in 
general. As articulated within the discourse of piety, others encompasses two specific 
entities and three broad groups of people. The specific entities are God and the 


respondent's imagined future wife, while the three groups are mentors or authority 

figures, nonvirgins, and like-minded friends. 

Most of these others assume great importance within the discourse because of 

their association with the provirginity message. Sometimes the guys say they receive the 

message through prayer, and sometimes they reference God's Word as revealed in the 

Christian Bible. More than a disembodied source, however, God is commonly articulated 

with an identity in His own right. Both the importance of God as messenger and the 

tendency to personify Him are evident in the answer Matthew (R for respondent) gives 

when I (I for interviewer) ask him what virginity means to him. 

R: To me it's just that, you know, you don't do anything, you know, that God 
wouldn't want you to do, like sex or kissing. You know, kissing to some 
people could be right, you know, if God tells them, "You can kiss that 
person," or whatever. I mean, I don't really know. I mean, for me, I 
wouldn't say it is. But, I mean, so just whatever God doesn't want you to 
do or whatever, just don't do it. 

I: And how do you, uhm, keep up with what God wants? 

R: Prayer. I mean, pray and talk to my parents, that's the main thing. I guess 
I've always thought, you know, if God wants me to really, you know, do 
something, then he would tell my parents and me. You know, it'd be a 
pretty bold thing. So I just pray and talk to my parents. 

(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) 

Mentors and authority figures, who are, by and large, parents and youth ministers, 

gain their relevance within the discourse from their association with this religious 

message about sex, as do future wives. Sean articulates these others when he talks about 

a kind of "thought experiment" he took part in on a retreat with his church youth group. 

My youth pastor on the [retreat], he made us, uh, write a letter, write a, write a, 
write a letter to our, to the person we're gonna marry and, like, tell 'em if we 
waited or not. And be, like, you know, I just wanted be a— just wanted tell you 


that I'm still waiting for you, I'm still waiting. And I was kinda — kinda hit home. 
[That (?)] was kinda cool. 
(Sean: 1 6-year-old, White, virgin) 

Sean's description of his experience shows how mothers, fathers, and, in this case, youth 
ministers are important to the discourse of piety because they teach and support the pro- 
virginity message. They construct virginity as something to be valued and buttress that 
construction with the idea that its untimely loss represents a failure not just to God, but 
also to a flesh-and-blood (though as yet unknown) human being, one's future wife. 

Within this discursive context, nonvirgins are foils that can either remind 
committed virgins of the importance of their choice or stand as troubling lures toward a 
more permissive view of sexuality or life in general. 

R: You know, so they kind of look down on you, you know, like, you know, 
"Are you gay?" You know, they'll say stuff like that a lot, but. So, yeah, 
I mean, there's only — I mean, not a lot because I don't really hang out 
with 'em anymore. I'm always with, you know, my group of friends, so. 
Not as much any more, but it has happened. 

I: How does it make you feel when they do that? 

R: Nah. I, I really don't care. I'm like, "Okay," you know, "whatever. If 

you say so." I mean, I think it's sad for them because, you know, they just 
don't know any better. You know, they might, they're gonna regret it, I 
would think, in the long run, but. 

(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) 

It's kinda I just get stressed out a lot and, uhm, and I just look at my other friends 
who, who do drugs and who have sex, and they're just like so carefree. They're 
like, "Oh, whatever," you know, "I'll go to school today, or I won't go to school 
today, or," you know. And it's just like, it's just like, it's like, "Wow, I just wish 
I could just blow everything off like them, just be like, 'Who cares.'" 
(Sean: 16-year-old, White, virgin) 

Regardless of how a religious virgin responds to the example of nonvirgins, 
however, nonvirgins gain their relevance within the discourse by virtue of the contrast 
they represent to virgin guys' commitments. Guys who articulate the piety discourse 


frequently counterbalance this mention of nonvirgins with reference to like-minded 

friends who share their commitment to abstinence before marriage. The discursive effect 

is to set up a traditional "good versus bad" struggle within which the virgin guy can 

locate his identity and judge his decisions about sexual behavior. 

Articulating Self 

As they locate themselves within the discourse of piety, virgins try to construct a 

favorable identity. By and large, the qualities they strive to portray are their interest in 

self-improvement, resoluteness in their commitment to virginity, and independent- 

mindedness. In the following interview extract, for instance, Matthew describes how his 

commitment to virginity evolved from something he accepted out of blind faith to 

something he has decided that he wants for himself in his quest to be the best person he 

can be. 

Over a length of time, you know I was, you know, I guess, you know, they were 
saying, you know, "You shouldn't have sex before marriage." And I was, like, 
"You know, okay," you know, "I won't do that" just because that was more of 
like a rule to me. [Int: Right] You know, "You don't do that." And I was, like, 
"You know, that's fine, whatever." And then, but then over a length of time a 
started thinking, you know, I don't want a kid, so I don't want to do that just 
because I don't want to. It's not that it's a rule, it's that I don't want to. I believe 
that's what God, you know, wants for me. So that, you know, is over a length of 
(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) 

For the most part, commitment to virginity allows these guys to construct a positive self- 
image by identifying with religious and moral values. They are, in a sense, winning the 
battle for the side of "good." 

The overarching scenario of a battle makes the possibility of failure ever-present, 
however, and selves sometimes appear susceptible to temptation or torn by the effort to 
maintain virginity, as the following exchange illustrates. 


I: How does it feel to be 18 and be a virgin? 

R: How do you mean how does it feel? Emotionally? Physically? What? 

I: Emotionally. 

R: Emotionally, because of my goals and beliefs, it feels right. Physically, 
you know, I'm 18. I question it a lot. But I know that I know that it's the 
right thing for me. 

(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

In this example, Derrick constructs himself as literally torn between his struggle with 
sexual urges and his dedication to the values that moved him to commit to virginity until 
marriage. His words demonstrate that the self can be constructed as fallible within this 
discourse, but this portrayal is typically tempered, as it is in this passage, by the 
reassertion of the importance and appropriateness of abstinence. Thus, regardless of how 
Derrick or any of the other virgins behaves, the Tightness of the religious doctrines of 
sexual decision making is affirmed. 
Articulating Virginity and Sex 

As I noted earlier, the unifying theme that distinguishes the discourse of piety is 
that sexual decisions should be governed by religious teachings that exhort the 
maintenance of virginity until marriage. In their specific articulations of this theme, the 
boys are largely consistent in constructing virginity as a path for one's life that one 
follows because it is consistent with God's wishes. It is also common for virginity to be 
presented as a means of expressing love for one's future wife. 

There are variations within the discourse, however, with regard to how virginity 
relates to particular religious discourses and how the loss of virginity is reckoned. All of 
the boys who claim a religious or church affiliation associate themselves with some form 
of Christianity. But while some follow traditions that simply advocated abstinence 


before marriage, others couch their concern for staying a virgin within a larger religious 
notion of spiritual, moral, and physical purity. Derrick and Matthew both speak in terms 
of purity when I ask them about virginity, and their explanations of purity reveal how 
much more it involves than simply one's sexual behavior. 

I: Does it relate to mind, body, spirit? All three? 

R: All three. And it's purity in, purity as your whole being. It's hard to be 
pure when your mind is constantly on, you know, sex, just thinkin' about 
that kinda stuff. But your spirit is thinkin' — It's almost impossible to have 
one without the other. 

(Derrick: 18-year-old, White, virgin) 

To me it means that, you know, not to have sex before marriage, of course, and 
just not even to, you know, I try not even to think about it or not even, you know, 
do stuff like kissing. Don't, you know, don't even go anything near that. 
(Matthew: 15-year-old. White, virgin) 

Virginity references (largely unspecified) sexual actions, but purity encompasses one's 

actions, thoughts, and emotions. In essence, virginity requires abstaining from sex, while 

purity requires keeping one's entire orientation away from the sexual. 

Given the large role that purity plays in how some of the guys articulate virginity, 

it is perhaps not surprising that defining sex is less important in this discourse than 

articulating how particular behaviors are interpreted in relation to one's observance of 

religious dictates about sexuality. In some instances, virginity is the only issue, and it is 

treated as an "all-or-nothing" quality that simply exists or does not, depending on 

whether one has had heterosexual intercourse. In other articulations, virginity may be 

maintained by avoiding intercourse, but purity is nonetheless compromised by other 

thoughts and actions. Derrick, for instance, has had liaisons with girls, many of which 

involved heavy petting and one in which he received oral sex. He still considers himself 


a virgin, but he sees himself sliding down a slippery slope of compromised purity that 

threatens his virginity and his overall well-being. 

Because I want to be pure for my wife. I want the relationship to not have any 
baggage. But I know that things that I've done right now are not helping. So at 
the same time it's like, "Okay, I've done this. Why can't I do that?" But it's 
kinda like, you know, it's takin' another step in the wrong direction. 
(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

According to his own reckoning, much of Derrick's purity has been eroded by his 

involvement with girls, but his depiction of his current course as "the wrong direction" 

signals his continued desire to articulate his experience in terms of a discourse of piety. 

One final, unusual way that virginity is articulated within a discourse of piety is as 

a reclaimable commodity. Jordan, who admits to having had intercourse once, identifies 

himself as a "born-again" virgin, and he draws on religious examples to stake his claim: 

Borns again virgins? When you decide not to have sex no more. You just stop 
having sex. [Int: Okay.] Uh, a lot of nuns, the nuns, the priests, same thing. 
They're just born-again virgins. [Int: Okay.] They decide not to have worldly, 
uh, relations. 
(Jordan: 1 8-year-old, African- American, born-again virgin) 

Jordan's case was an anomaly among the guys I interviewed, but it is important to 
include as one of the ways in which virginity can be articulated within the context of a 
discourse of piety. 
Articulating Girls /Worn en 

By and large, girls appear in this discourse as allies to boys in their quest to 
remain virgin. For instance, Sean talks about how he appreciates dating girls who value 
virginity because together they can support each other in moments of weakness: 

I've only had two real relationships this year. Uh, with a girl named JJ. She goes 
to my church, and I mean we both believe the same thing, you know, uh. And. 
uh, then RH, uh, we both believe the same thing. So, I mean, I mean it's real easy 
to be in a relationship who looking, looking for the same things 'cause that way in 


case, like, like, I don't know, I get sidetracked and I want to one night or one 
afternoon or whenever. And she [Int: Right.] she can be like, "No," you know. 
And then if she wants to, "No." 
(Sean: 16-year-old, White, virgin) 

Sean's depiction of girls as allies here further strengthens the sense that maintaining 

virginity is constructed as a struggle within the discourse, albeit a pious one. 

There is, however, another, less pervasive articulation of girls and women evident 

within this discourse that does not cast them as allies. Among those who subsume 

virginity within a larger quest for purity, the female body can itself become an indicator 

of purity that confers religious status. Matthew provides an example of this articulation 

of girls and women when he talks about some friends of his family: 

Some of our family's best friends, the wife, nobody had ever seen her belly button 
before. [Int: Wow.] Yeah. And I was like, "Whoa!" She was, you know, she 
was like twenty-something when she got married, so until she was twenty- 
something, nobody besides her family had ever seen her belly button before. 
And, you know, he was like, "And I love that. She's that pure, where nobody's 
ever even seen her." 
(Matthew: 1 5-year-old, White, virgin) 

As Matthew tells it, the woman's purity is demonstrated by the fact that most of her flesh 

was hidden from view until she was married. Females are presented here as having a 

very fragile purity, one that is linked to their physical bodies and one that can be 

diminished simply as a result of that body receiving public display. Also implicit in this 

construction is a kind of commodification of the female body, where religious credentials 

are conferred on a male by virtue of the purity of his partner. In Matthew's story, the 

husband exclaims his excitement that his wife was so pure when he married her. Her 

purity is thus something that makes her valuable to him, and he "cashes in" on that value 

by noting that he married someone who was that pure. 


In sum, the discourse of piety is defined by religious concerns that color how the 
guys act and interpret their actions, what they expect from girls as potential partners, and 
what meanings they attribute to aspects of sexuality as "advanced" as oral sex and as 
"innocent" as kissing. My interviews, though limited in number, suggest that the 
discourse is most frequently introduced, often quite deliberately, by significant others. 
So parents, stepparents, and church leaders assume a large part of the responsibility for a 
guy's acceptance and use of the discourse. At the same time, guys who interpret their 
experience through the discourse take pains to assert that their decision to adopt it was an 
independent choice. 

The Discourse of Conquest 

In sharp contrast to discourse that is organized around religious tenets, the 
discourse of conquest coalesces around an achievement-oriented approach to sex. 
Language events are identifiable as articulations of this discourse because they express or 
contribute to a mode of sexual decision making in which the paramount concerns are 
pursuing and consummating sexual encounters. The single-minded attention to sexual 
conquest expressed through this discourse has a radical influence on how related factors, 
like girls and the guys' sense of themselves, are articulated. 
Articulating Sex 

Within the discourse of conquest, sex is first and foremost an individual act that 
serves individual ends. It is pursued to satisfy curiosity, accumulate experience, and 
achieve sexual gratification. 

You just, you just wanna experience it for the first time. See what it's like. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 


R: Like a person that already had sex, they got, they kinda confident in they 
self that they can go head and, like, get them. And add them to they 
collection. That's all they wanna do. 

I: So guys have collections? 

R: [laughing] They keep a collection in the back of they mind. They know 

who they had sex with. 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Well, like, sometimes I'll, like, I'll just be really fuckin' horny, and I'll want to 
have sex. So I'll go out with that, like, that is my sole purpose for tonight. My 
mission tonight is to find someone to have sex with. 
(Drew: 18-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Sex is also understood as a powerful, potentially dangerous, means by which one 

can exert control or be controlled, and an important way in which one conforms and gains 


A guy'll become a cop, so he can feel up girls when he arrests 'em, and stuff like 
that. I mean, I've read a lotta really weird "True Crime" stuff, and, uh, you know, 
people, people do this. And it's because of ideas that have been put in their head 
from childhood that they are — You know, the more women you have sex with, 
the more dominant you are, the more powerful person you are. If you can control 
another person and make them do what you want sexually, well then you can. you 
know, control everything about them. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

I: Why do you think that you had sex when you did? 

R: Because I could a did it. 'Cause I could a did it, and I would a been, like, 

doin' what everybody else was doin'. 
(Jamal: 16-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

None of the qualities of relationship or partnership often associated with sexual 

interactions enter into articulations of sex within this discourse. Meanings are 

constructed and arranged so as to have the bizarre effect of making acts that typically 

involve coupling seem solitary. 


Adding to the strangeness, the sex act is constructed as solitary within the 
discourse, but its consequences are presented as highly social. Having sex, especially for 
the first time, is constructed as a transaction between males that facilitates belonging and 
serves as a rite of passage to heterosexual manhood. Consider, for example, the scenario 
within which Alvin had intercourse for the first time. 

I: How did that happen? 

R: Hangin' with my uncles. So, 'cause they just pushed me along, talkin" 
'bout, "Just go head. Go head. Go head." Talkin' 'bout, "Be a man," 

I: Did they actually set it up for you? 

R: Uhm-hm. It was like a little birthday present for me. 

I : What did you think of it at the time? 

R: I was scared. I got lost a mind. I didn't know what to do or anything like 
that, at first. And then after a while, didn't bother me any more. Kinda 
got used to it. 

(Alvin: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Alvin' s story of virginity loss is particularly dramatic, but the sense that his having sex 
was crucial to his standing among other males is typical of how sex is constructed as 
social within a discourse of conquest. Most of the other guys who articulate their 
experience in terms of this discourse speak of willingly pursuing sex, rather than having 
it thrust upon them, but their pursuit derives its urgency from the importance imparted to 
sex in male peer groups. 

These androcentric constructions of the social meaning of sex raise a critical 
question: Where are the girls who are, by definition, an integral part of guys' efforts to 
accumulate sexual experience? By and large, girls as partners are rendered invisible in 
this discourse by virtue of not receiving mention. They appear only to the extent that 


they facilitate or hinder the guys' goal of having sex. Morgan demonstrates this goal- 
driven articulation of girls in his own inimitable style when I ask him to distinguish 
between instances in which he did and did not heed his friend's advice that he "keep it in 
his pants" (i.e., not have sex): 

Times that I have is when there's people, like, they, like I said. Titanic size. I 
ain't gonna mess with it. They'll squish me. I'll just let them go. We'll chill, be 
friends, you know, whatever. And times that [aren't (?)], it's my girlfriend and 
she looks really good and we're, "Choo-choo-choo. Go, go, go." 
(Morgan: 17-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

In Morgan's explanation, the girl's relevance to his sexual decision making is limited to 

whether or not he deems her attractive enough to be a sex partner. Similarly, girls enter 

into Grady's talk when their "teasing" frustrates his attempts to get sex. 

It's just like if the girl turns you on that much, you gonna wanna have sex. And if 
she just playin' wit you, you gonna get really, really mad because the tes — all that 
stuff runnin', you getting' all hot and stuff. So you just get mad if they don't 
wanna have it. And you just sittin' there tryin' to, tryin' to get them to do it the 
whole time. 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

When sex is viewed in terms of the discourse of conquest, it is distinct from partnership 

or relationship, so girls merit mention solely in sexual, not relational, terms. 

A final oddity of how sex is articulated within the discourse of conquest is how 

remarkably blase guys can be about pursuing and getting sex. In the context of a 

discourse that treats sex as a goal to be accomplished, the guys typically downplay that 

they sought sex when it actually happens. Instead, they portray it as an accident of 

circumstances, an unforeseen, spontaneous event that "just happened": "I don't know. 

It's just kinda one of those spur of the moment type things. I've never really decided, 

'I'm gonna have sex with that girl.' It's just, it just kinda happen, you know" (Evan: 1 5- 


year-old, White, nonvirgin). Indeed, a few of the guys, like James, presented their sexual 

encounters as so accidental that they did not even involve physiological sexual urges. 

R: I never really know what a sexual urge is. You know, I never really felt 
anything. I know it's fun when you're doin' it. I just never really thought 
about it until it comes up to that point, you know. 

I: Okay, so you don't feel like, when you're not having sex, you have these 

urges that you'd like to be having sex. 

R: Right. I've never really felt that. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

While it is not clear in James' case why he is having sex even though he apparently has 

no urge to do so, others — like Alvin, whose uncles "set him up" so he could lose his 

virginity — find themselves in this position because of the intense pressure that other 

males place on them to be heterosexually active. 

And although it is clear that getting sex can have enormous social benefits for 

guys if they associate with other guys who interpret sex through a discourse of conquest, 

the act itself is often described as essentially inconsequential. For instance. James brims 

with frustration when I ask him what the importance of sex is to him: 

Aw, man! I can't. I don't. The importance of it? I'm not really certain. I don't 
know the importance of it. It's not like everybody has to have it to survive or 
anything, but. There's not really any, like, really importance to it. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

James' sentiments, which are echoed by other nonvirgins, suggests that, except as a 

means of serving the physiological and social psychological needs described earlier, sex 

is actively constructed as meaningless within this discourse. In essence the discourse 

provides a blueprint for meaning-making by which guys (1) imbue sex with a great deal 

of importance for their social lives outside of the coupling with girls that heterosexual sex 


requires; and simultaneously (2) minimize the reality of their sexual behavior and their 
sex partners to the greatest extent possible. 
Articulating Virginity 

Through the lens of the discourse of conquest, virginity is seen as a vulnerability 
to a myriad of ills, virtually all of them social. To begin with, peers, particularly male 
peers, are a continuous threat to expose, ridicule, reject, and question the heterosexuality 
of virgins or suspected virgins. Evan clearly has some of these risks in mind when he 
describes what it might be like for him if he were still a virgin: 

I: How do you think your friends would treat you? 

R: Totally differently, I bet. 

I: Like what? 

R: They'd probably think I was gay or somethin'. 

I: Why? 

R: I have no clue. That'sjustkindahowit is, you know. It's just one of 

those secret things that nobody tells you about. 
(Evan: 15-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

And Del, who is a virgin, describes taunts he has heard directed at his friends: "Like. 

'You're stupid. Man, you haven't had sex yet. God, you're stupid.' Stuff like that" 

(Del: 14-year-old, White, virgin). Although many of the boys, virgin and nonvirgin 

alike, say that the teasing about being virgin that they have heard or experienced is 

inconsequential and not malicious, they all recognize it as a familiar part of growing 

up — an indication of the pervasiveness of the discourse of conquest. Regardless of what 

discourse of sexual decision making dominates a guy's thinking, he must reckon with the 

"conquest" articulation of virginity. 


Furthermore, the vulnerabilities associated with virginity within this discourse are 
not limited to susceptibility to others' taunts. Virginity is also presented as a direct threat 
to the bearer's physical and mental health and his self-concept. It threatens the self 
because guys internalize the message that it must be shed, preferably sooner rather than 
later. Evan articulates this concern (linked to a presumed hyper-sexuality among people 
in his generation) when I ask what it would be like for him if he had stayed virgin into his 
late teens: 

R: I would probably think something was wrong with me. 
I: Why? 

R: Because, I mean, nowadays more people are havin' sex than becoming 
virgins. I think it used to be, back then, like in the olden days, like when 
like my grandparents were around, it used to be more people were virgins 
in the teenager- type thing. 

(Evan: 15 -year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Virginity threatens physical mental health, according to this discourse, because guys find 
it difficult to cope with unsatisfied sexual urges: 

I: Do you remember anything about what it felt like to be a virgin? 

R: Uhm, stressful. 

I: Yeah? 

R: It's like all I thought about. 

I: For how long? 

R: [laughs] I went to sleep thinkin' about sex. I woke up thinkin' about sex. 

[Int: Okay.] It was on my mind all day. 
(Drew: 18-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Here, the conquest of discourse fosters another strange irony: In an era of global concern 

about the spread of deadly sexual transmitted diseases, virginity {not having sex) is 


presented as the primary health threat posed by sex. That is not to say that the boys who 

articulate this discourse do not recognize the dangers associated with being sexually 

active, only that this particular discourse foregrounds virginity and downplays STDs as 


Finally, within the discourse of conquest, virginity is believed to leave a guy open 

to control by girls. A guy's eagerness to have sex leads him to become enthralled with 

the girl who gives it to him, which, in turn, exposes him to manipulation. This scenario is 

often described by the term "pussy-whipped," a phrase that dramatically captures the 

image of a male beat down by his addiction to the sexual availability and talents of a 

particular female. As articulated within the discourse of conquest, the danger of 

becoming pussy-whipped is everpresent, and it is believed to be particularly great for 

virgins, who are new to the joys of sex. L.J. makes this point, and also articulates the 

belief, consistent with this discourse, that some women and girls are quite deliberate in 

their attempts to control males using sex: 

The majority of the females I know, the grown women, they like virgins. They 
like young boys 'cause they figure they could overpower 'em and like break "em 
in, and like put the whipping pill, pussy whip 'em and have 'em like walkin' 
around, have 'em like followin' the girl around doin' anything the girl want. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Although some guys, including L.J., argue that males, too, try to control their partners 

with sex, virgin guys are constructed as particularly vulnerable, especially given that a 

guys' attentions to a sex partner necessarily draw him away from his male peer group. 

This point is a critical aspect of the discourse of conquest, in fact, and it will be explored 

further in Chapter 6. 


Articulating Virgins 

Consistent with the construction of virginity as a stigma or an obstacle to be 

overcome, the articulation of virgins in the discourse of conquest is that they harbor 

failings, best kept hidden, that explain their virgin status. Guys who are virgins are taken 

to be scared, immature, ignorant of sex, inept at "hooking up" with girls (in the boys* 

parlance, they have no "game"), or any combination of these. For instance, Grady 

believes that both fear and lack of "game" are evident when a virgin talks to a girl: 

If like a virgin just talks to a girl, he probably won't like really just try to talk, 
speak game to 'em or whatever. They won't really try to mac to 'em or nothin'. 
They just. They just might talk to 'em once or twice and be scared to talk again 
because — I don't know. 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

With the potent equation "virgin equals failure" guiding the evaluation of virgins within 

this discourse, both virgins and nonvirgins recognize the practical value for virgins of 

secrecy about their status. In a comment that is perhaps a jab at religious virgins who are 

vocal about their abstinence, Evan asserts the "stupidity" of exposing yourself as a virgin. 

Not many people know, if you're a virgin, that you're a virgin, unless you 
actually tell 'em. But, I mean, some people are that stupid where they go like 
promoting it. And then that's when they get hit, you know. They get made fun of 
and everything. 
(Evan: 15-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Evan's statement is a brash but accurate expression of the perspective on virgins 

promulgated by the discourse of conquest: Male virgins are people who have something 

wrong with them. If you are a virgin, the least you can do is be smart and try to hide it. 

Interestingly, guys appear to be much more circumspect about applying these 

constructions when the subject is an actual person, rather than virgins in the abstract. 

When asked directly about the treatment of virgins, guys who articulate this discourse say 


that being a virgin warrants little more than harmless ribbing, and they point out that they 
themselves have friends who are virgin. The crux of this disparity — between the 
pathologizing of virgins in the abstract and the relatively benign treatment of known 
virgins — may be illuminated by a more "sophisticated" articulation of virgins that some 
guys advance as part of the discourse of conquest. These guys argue that the meaning of 
virginity is ultimately determined by the attitude and personality of the virgin. Thus, 
there are good and bad ways of being virgin. If one is a virgin because of personal 
conviction, that is good. But if one is a virgin because one has some of the failings 
mentioned before, that is bad. Derrick, a religious virgin, and Drew, a nonvirgin, agree 
on this distinction: 

I don't think people perceive virgins, at least people that I run with ... do not 
look at me, I don't think, any differently. They may look at me even with more 
respect because I've done it. Because I'm not one of those people that, "Okay, 
you're a virgin because you just can't meet chicks." 
(Derrick: 18-year-old, White, virgin) 

It really depends on who you are. Like, if you're just some, if you're someone 
who's like, you're stupid and you're dorky, you don't have any friends and you 
haven't had sex, just like ppphh! [exasperated sound] I'm not even dealing with 
you. You're stupid. [Int: Right.] But if you're like anywhere decently self- 
confident, it really isn't a thing. It's just like, "You haven't had sex? Whatever." 
(Drew: 18-yer-old, White, nonvirgin) 

This more context-dependent articulation of virgins allows for the acceptance of some 
guys who happen to be virgins, yet still maintains the primacy of sexual accomplishment 
that is the hallmark of the discourse of conquest. Certain virgins are okay because their 
presentation of self demonstrates the potential for sexual conquest, the rest remain on the 
"outs" because they are associated with a devalued masculinity that is believed to impose 
involuntary virginity. 


Articulating Women/Girls 

As I indicated earlier, girls are invisible within this discourse, except as suppliers 
of sex. This limited role does not leave them short of attention, however. Through the 
lens of "conquest," girls are divisible into categories based on their suitability as potential 
sex partners, which is often inversely proportional to their perceived level of sexual 
experience or interest in sex. (In this construction we see yet another manifestation of the 
sexual double standard: The more sex males have, the better. But the more sex women 
have, the more they are stigmatized.) 

Although there is a seemingly endless inventory of names that guys use for types 
of girls and some guys recognize several fine gradations within categories, in broad 
terms, the categorization systems distinguish between "nice girls" and "nasty girls." The 
term "nice" or "clean" girl is often, but not always, synonymous with "virgin." In any 
case, it indicates a girl who, by virtue of having little or no sexual experience, is attractive 
as a potential sex partner because she is believed to carry a low risk of STDs. Nice girls 
are also physically attractive, and their dress and demeanor are reserved, not showy. Put 
simply, they are demur, proper, even classy. In the following passages, James articulates 
the link between comportment and sexual behavior believed to characterize "nice girls," 
while Grady provides an example of how guys associate a girl's physical attractiveness 
with her suitability as potential partners: 

R: You just can't go around school yellin' and acting like you're somethin' 
all special like and everything. You gotta just carry yourself like a lady. 
You can't just be— Like, it's alright to be a girl that's like got a loud 
mouth and talks a lot and looks good. But at the same time isn't like 
really sexually active a whole lot. It's alright, but. 

I: What about the way they dress? 


R: Oh. That tells a lot, but at the same time you can't judge somebody by 

how they dress. Like the more skin they show, the dudes are gonna think 
like, "Oh, she's havin' sex a lot," and stuff like that right there. But the 
girls that wear jeans and stuff like that right there, they're gonna think 
like, "Oh, she's not havin' sex." 

(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

See, we like number the girls from, like, 1 to 10. And like we'll call 'em 8 or 7 or 
6 or 5. They real, real nasty, they about a 3. So you can't mess with no real, real 
nasty, ugly girls, 'cause you'll get clowned. But a dime, a dime is the finest girl. 
Is a real, real — You just gotta find a dime. A dime is like the tightest thing that 
you ever messed with, and the tightest thing that anybody else done seen. And 
that's the one you like really get a relationship with and bring home to mom or 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Notice that in both of these passages, the guys' assessments of girls are inextricably 

linked to an anticipated response from other guys. James grounds his assessment of how 

girls dress in what the "dudes" will think, and Grady notes that guys must pursue girls 

who have a certain degree of physical attractiveness or risk getting "clowned" (i.e., 

mocked). These examples demonstrate that, like so many other aspects of sexual 

decision making as articulated through the discourse of conquest, the designation of "nice 

girls" is bound to the guys' peer groups. 

The same is true of the other end of the spectrum, "nasty girls." Indeed, the 

influence of others is perhaps even stronger here because identifying undesirable girls 

and linking other guys to them feeds into some guys' seemingly insatiable desire to tease 

and ridicule one another. Certainly, there is a more developed language for undesirable 

than desirable girls in this discourse. The term "nasty girl" is more or less synonymous 

with a range of designations, including freak, whore, scummy girl, and trashy girl. The 

effect of placing a girl in one of these categories is first and foremost to designate that she 

is undesirable as a sex partner. Sometimes a girl's physical looks contribute to her 


receiving this designation, but the key factor is virtually always that the girl is considered 
to be overly interested in sex, sexually adventurous or promiscuous. Jordan makes the 
point directly when he explains the term "freak," and Grady does so indirectly when he 
rhetorically "manages" the sexual history one of his former partners in an effort to protect 
her from the label "nasty": 

R: A freaky girl? Like a girl that she's down for anything. 

I: Do anything? 

R: Menage a trois and — 

(Jordan: 18-year-old, African-American, "born-again" virgin) 

Yeah. She did somethin'. But she wasn't that serious. She wasn't all nasty and 
stuff. She always in the house wit her mom, 'cause her mom was sick. 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Whether a girl is labeled nasty or nice, clean or a freak, the categories offered by the 
discourse of conquest always orient to girls in terms of their presumed relationship to the 
sexual realm. 

The misogynistic bent of this sexualization of females is compounded by the host 
of flaws, failings and faults attributed to girls when the possibility of partnership with 
them is articulated in the terms of this discourse. From a "conquest" perspective, girls 
and women have a panoply of traits that make them undesirable, even threatening, to 
associate with or relate to in a meaningful way. The list of girls' supposed deficits runs 
the gambit, from the unkind, which include their being materialistic, opportunistic, and 
gullible, to the damning, which start with their being inferior and end with an insistence 
that they are evil. The underlying danger that girls pose to the guys who partner with 
them is evident in Jerry's characterization of girls as manipulators: "Cause girls do 
play— I ain't gonna lie, girls do play games. They know how to mess up your head real 


good now" (Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin). Drawing on some rather 

ironic evidence, Grady suggests that girls' faults include being untrustworthy and 


I learned to never really trust girls like I used to. I used to trust 'em and be quick 
to fall in love with 'em all the time, but that made me figure out, [time time (?)] 
like cra2y they are and how they think, how they act toward other people. 
Because if a girl just like talkin' about you right in front of your face to other girls 
and stuff, I mean, she's not anything. If me and my other homeboy is havin' sex 
with her at the same time — we just takin' turns on her — she's not nothin' that 
turns me off, to me. I just don't like that. 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

And finally, in a statement that synthesizes the attribution of failings to girls with the 

concern for peer approval of one's sex partners that characterize this discourse. Drew 

cannot even explain why he knows that a particular woman he finds attractive is 

unacceptable as a sex partner: 

R: There's this one girl, [pause] And, I mean, she's the kinda girl that I 

would, like, I would have sex with her, but then the next day I'd realize 
what I did, and I would feel bad about it and hope no one ever found out 
'cause they would make fun of me. 

I: Okay. Why? What's—? 

R: I don't know what it is about her that people don't like, but she just isn*t 

the kind of girl that you can hook up with and go tell everybody about. 
(Drew: 18-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Drew's "dilemma" is in some ways the "logical" extension of the typical constructions of 

girls in the discourse of conquest. Collectively, girls are associated with so much 

nebulous negativity and subjected to so much judgment by (predominantly male) peer 

groups, that ultimately neither guys nor girls can win. Guys like Drew are inclined to 

relate to girls through a haze of negative, sexual preconceptions, even when those 

expectations cannot be supported in particular instances. And girls are consistently 


handicapped in their relations with these guys by cultural constructions that demean them 

and subject their behaviors to the least flattering interpretations. 

Another consequence of this array of harsh constructions of females is that girls 

are objectified and dehumanized, rather than spoken of as individuals or fellow human 

beings. Indeed, if the comments of Andrew and Grady are any indication, the tendency 

to objectify is ever-present when guys talk amongst themselves: 

And then outside a school all my friends, you know, they were male. And, you 
know, the whole conversations we'd ever have about girls are, "Oh, yeah, she was 
fine." You know, "Nice set a tits on that girl. Oh Geez." You know, that's the 
guys talkin' that I've always been with. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

[Guys] compare, like, sex and the face, the attitude, all that. They just all 
compare it together. Is this girl doin' it better than this one did, and does she have 
a better booty, titties or whatever. 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Girls are reduced to parts, mostly breasts and rear ends, as the guys use their ability to 
objectify girls much as they do demonstrations of sexual experience — as a means of 
relating to one another. 

In some instances, however, the reduction of girls to their sexual potential takes 
on a more ominous quality, and it becomes clear that this discourse offers guys the 
rhetorical tools by which they can strip girls of their humanity altogether. Consider, for 
instance, Jordan's description of girls with whom he had sexual encounters that he 
intentionally stopped short of intercourse: "Really, they were just flesh to me, so. Pbbt!" 
(Jordan: 18-year-old, African-American, "born-again" virgin). In this one damning 
sentence, Jordan makes actual people with whom he was sexually involved 
indistinguishable from cadavers. 


Another example is provided by James' assertion of how "everybody" — by which 

I assume he means guys — expresses their sexual interest in attractive girls: 

See 'cause most people whenever they talk about girls, they say 'whoes.' They be 
like, "Man, that whoe's fine." And then somebody be like, "Man, I'll fuck that 
whoe," or somethin' like that right there. And then you gotta — That's basically 
how everybody talks. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

In this hypothetical scenario, the guys convey attraction toward a girl by demeaning her 
and intimating a desire to dominate her sexually. Describing a girl as a "whore" who is 
to be "fucked" goes a long way to reducing her to mere flesh, yet James attributes this 
way of talking to "everybody." This unabashed tendency to normalize such 
dehumanizing language, which was demonstrated by others besides James, provides a 
stark indication of the pervasiveness and power of the discourse of conquest among 
adolescent males. 
Articulating Others 

As articulated by the guys I interviewed, parents and advisors — two of the 
primary others in the discourse of piety — play a much smaller role in the discourse of 
conquest. Affiliates of churches do not play a significant role as others in this discourse. 
Where elders do appear in the guys' talk, they do so because they encourage the guys to 
interpret their experience with girls in terms of sexual conquest, and they foster the guys' 
ability to do so by providing the relevant rhetorical constructions and strategies for 
meaning-making. In fact, some times they offer this "encouragement" whether the guys 
want it or not. For instance, Donnie is committed to abstinence until marriage, yet he 
cannot ignore the conquest perspective because it is consistently articulated by his uncle, 
and it is part of his Latin heritage: 


Like my uncle is very machita, very into macho, very much into, you know, 
women are — The term doesn't apply to his wife, but women are, you know, "Hey. 
they're good. Gotta experience 'em." He used to ask me all the time, "How 
many girlfriends do you have?" I'm like, "I have seven, one for each day of the 
week. So in a year, I'll have, Thio" I call him Thio. "Thio, within a week I'd 
have. Fourteen on a good week." And he's like, "That's my boy." I'm like. 
"Damn right." And of course this was all bullshit, but I was like, "Damn right. 
(18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

Donnie, who has committed to a different discourse of sexual decision making, does not 

want to adopt his uncle's articulations of girls and sex, but he must at least have a 

strategy (i.e., lying) for coping with them in order to save face. 

By far the most influential "other" within the discourse of conquest, however, is 
the male peer group, the importance of which I have highlighted at a number of points 
during the discussion of this discourse. A guy's male friends — sometimes collectively 
known as his "boys," "homeboys," or "homies" — are consistently intimated as the major 
influence on or reference point for decisions about sex when the guiding discourse is 
conquest. Whether the issue is the suitability of a girl as a sexual partner, the meaning of 
virginity, the place that a female partner should play in a guy's life, or any of a multitude 
of other matters relating to adolescent sexuality, the discourse of conquest consistently 
identifies the male peer group as the arbiter of these concerns. 
The Male Fraternity 

The influence of other males within the discourse of conquest is so great. I believe 
it is best understood as a distinct social form (Gubrium 1988) that I call the "male 
fraternity." The notion of fraternity signifies both how close the bonds between members 
can be and the immense loyalty that the association demands. The designation of the 
fraternity as male once again calls attention to the exclusion of females from these 


friendship circles. More importantly, however, it emphasizes the gender-based interests 
that bind the group. The friends act as a fraternity specifically to enforce ways of being 
male. This interrelationship between masculinities and the male fraternity has many 
facets and implications, many of which are taken up in Chapter 6. For the purposes of 
the current discussion, it is sufficient to note the importance of the male fraternity as a 
special category of "others" within the discourse of conquest. 

For all the importance of the male fraternity, however, the unifying principle of 
the discourse of conquest remains its advancement of the pursuit of sex as the concern 
that should guide sexual decision making. Girls, virginity, virgins, even sex itself all gain 
their fundamental character from the fact that the physical act of sex (usually left 
undefined, but ultimately pointing to heterosexual intercourse) is given prominence. In 
sharp contrast to the discourse of piety, in which spiritual concerns give sex qualities 
beyond the physical, the conquest discourse emphasizes the act and its accomplishment 
to such an extent that it can seem to be almost partnerless and without context (it just 
happened). The discourse divides all guys into those who have and those who have not 
had sex, and the identification of those who have not takes on the importance of a group 
purification ritual, since virginity is associated with a host of unsavory characteristics. 
And as harsh as the discourse can be on virgins, nothing compares to its articulations of 
women and girls. They are judged almost solely in sexual terms, dismissed if they want 
too little or too much sex, and treated as threats when they become sexual partners. So 
although guys who understand sexuality in terms of the discourse of conquest may 
achieve their goal of having sex, the discourse may exact costs in terms of the guys' 


understanding of their own sexuality, their relationships with females, and steep 
obligations to a male fraternity. 

The Discourse of Relationship 

This discourse represents a kind of middle ground between the elevation of 
decisions regarding sex to spiritual importance in the discourse of piety, and the reduction 
of these matters to the physical act, as in the discourse of conquest. True to its name, the 
key to sexual decision making as articulated by the discourse of relationship is the bond 
between partners or potential partners. When a boy articulates this discourse, he 
intimates one of two things, either that the existence of some degree of relationship with a 
partner is the prerequisite for him to consider having intercourse, or that the affiliation or 
connection he felt with a girl justified his decision to have sex with her. Other aspects of 
sexual decision making, such as the meaning of sex and how guys should relate to girls, 
are interpreted through this lens that emphasizes relating to one's partner. 
Articulating the Link Between Relationships and Sex 

Because concern for relationship guides sexual decision making in this discourse, 
sex and relationship are inextricably associated. The fundamental meaning attributed to 
sex (i.e., intercourse) is that it should be a compliment, extension, or expression of a 
guy's relationship with a girl. Great variation exists, however, in terms of what sort of 
involvement is construed as a relationship and what sort of relationship is advanced as a 
prerequisite for sex. 

At the "weak relationship" end of the spectrum, simply talking to a girl as an 
individual and recognizing that she has a legitimate say in sex negotiations constitutes a 


relationship that can support sex. James articulates the discourse of relationship in this 

way when he talks about how he negotiates sex with potential partners: 

First, for me, I just get to know 'em on a real personal basis. And then after that, 
if everything goes through, talk about everything. First, with most of the girls, I 
talked about it first. I was like, whenever I walked 'em home or somethin', I was 
like, "I don't wanna do it, if you don't wanna do it." And they were like, "Well, 
it's up to you." "I wanna do it if you wanna do it." So, I guess that's basically 
what I try to tell 'em before we, like, get into that type a situation. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

When the notion of relationship that is acceptable is as limited as it is here, there can be a 
sort of symbiotic relationship between the discourses of conquest and relationship. A 
guy's primary interest may still be in getting sex, but he can at least relate to his partners 
on a basic level and ensure that they consent to sex. As we move toward the opposite end 
of the continuum, however, the incompatibility and even antagonism between the two 
meaning systems grows. 

At what might be considered the middle of the spectrum of articulations of the 
relationship-sex dynamic, some elements indicative of relationship quality are treated as 
requisite for sex. In some cases, the presence of mutual trust and respect or the 
endurance of the relationship over a span of time, perhaps 6 months or a year, suggests 
that the relationship is strong enough to become a sexual one: "Me and her had sex at, 
like, at eight months into the relationship we had sex. We just figure everything was 
pretty much square, so we had sex" (L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin). 
In other instances, the quality a relationship needs to have is love: 

I: Uhm, so the ideal situation for you, to be with somebody and sexually 

active would be what? 

R: Like with my first girlfriend. I loved her a lot, and she loved me back. 
(Drew: 18-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 


Not all of Drew's sexual decisions have been guided by the discourse of relationship. In 

fact, he often articulates the discourse of conquest. But he indicates that to be considered 

ideal, sex must occur in a relationship that has the levels of both quality and intensity 

associated with love. 

In still other instances — ones representative of the "strong relationship'* 

articulation of the discourse — love is a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite for sex. 

At this end of the spectrum, sex is constructed as such an intimate act that it is 

inappropriate and perhaps even dangerous to engage in outside of a relationship that 

promises love, long-term commitment, and mutual understanding. Consequently, the 

perspective provides a nonreligious rationale for remaining virgin until one is married or 

establishes a marriage-like, life-long commitment: 

That's one of the most intimate things you can do. I mean, probably stay together 
for almost the rest of your life if it works out. 
(Del: 14-year-old, White, virgin) 

I don't feel I'm ready for it. I personally think it implies three things: you love 
the person, you're willing to commit, and you wanna have kids eventually. 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

With this particular construction of sex, the discourse of relationship resembles a secular 
version of the discourse of piety. In both cases, the quest for sex is sublimated to a 
greater, more valued interest. Within the discourse of piety it is the quest for purity or 
spiritual rewards; in the relationship discourse it is the quest for "the one," the single 
person to whom one can commit. In both discourses, too, sex is given sacred or near- 
sacred status. In the context of the piety discourse, this status is God-given, while in the 
relationship discourse sex is treated as near-sacred by virtue of its being, as Del said, "the 
most intimate thing you can do." 


An interesting twist on this "strong relationship" scenario is presented by Andrew. 
Like others who articulate the discourse of relationship, Andrew intends to stay abstinent 
until he finds, "the one." However, he does not construct sex as a near-sacred act that 
must be "confined" to a committed, intimate relationship. Instead, he attributes near- 
sacred status to the nonsexual intimacy of relationships, and insists that sex is just one 
expression of that intimacy, and a rather unimportant one at that: 

Being able to be so connected with another human being that it doesn't even 
really matter if you have sex. That you are so, just, happy and wonderfully in 
tune with another person that, that sex is just a little, you know, a little thing on 
the side, you know, a little perk [Int: Right.] of having another human being 
mentally connect. You know, the chi, the mental life force, uh, flowing through 
two people, you know, that whole idea. And I don't think sex really even ties in 
at all. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

The understandings that guide Andrew' sexual decision making are clearly derived from 
the discourse of relationship. But his commitment to relationships is based on an 
articulation of sex that minimizes, rather than elevates it, as a form of intimacy. 
Articulating Relationships 

The notion that relationships are valuable is implicit in the fact that this discourse 
constructs them as essential for the justification of sexual activity. But their value is 
critical to the stability of this meaning system, so it should not be surprising that the 
discourse also offers resources for articulating their value directly. These articulations, 
for the most part, depict relationships independent of the link between relationships and 

One way these boys articulate the value of relationships is by describing some of 
their features that are important to them. Some speak of intimacy or having someone to 
go home to. Honesty and trust are mentioned frequently, just as their absence is when 


girls and relationships are articulated through the discourse of conquest. But guys also 

say that relationships are valuable because they provide companionship and a context in 

which two people give support to one another — in the colloquial language, they are 

"there for each other." Darryl hinted at the importance of these aspects of relationships, 

albeit in a one-sided manner, when I asked him what role girls play in his life: "Hmm, 

Someone, you know. Like, someone who's like a companion toward you. She's there 

for you. Someone you can rely on, trust" (Darryl: 18-year-old, African- American, 

nonvirgin). Another value attributed to relationships hinges on the notion of 

understanding and being understood, and is often captured in the word "connection": 

Me and her had a connection, like a serious connection. Like anything I would 
talk about she agree with and she'll disagree with it, cause, you know, everybody 
have their own opinion. She was cool like that. Anything I did she always just 
tell me, "Let me know where you are at. Make sure you let me know who you're 
with, so anything happen so I can let somebody know what is going on or where 
you at when your momma call." And she was telling me that right there. We had 
like a deep discussion. That let me know she was real down for me. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

I don't see how people can't put, you know, 98.5 percent of the emphasis on, you 
know, being able to connect with someone mentally. And that little physical 
connection should be in their somewhere because . . . if you're sexually attracted 
to someone or not, you really can't just throw that aside completely, you know. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

"Connections," "being there" and the other features mentioned all buttress the discourse 

of relationship because they suggest why one might chose to make the pursuit of a 

relationship the guiding principle of one's sexual decision making. 

The value of relationships is also articulated in terms of loss or absence. Many 

guys describe breaking up with a girl or realizing that a prospective relationship is not 

going to pan out as an emotionally difficult experience. Grady, for instance, presents 


most of his decisions about sexual activity in terms of the discourse of conquest, yet he 

has experienced pain that is unique to the experience of having a "connection" severed: 

R: Nah, she wasn't the first, but. I told her she wasn't the first, but she was 
like the first person I really loved, fell in love with. 

I: Well, it musta been tough, losing her then. 

R: Yup. Very hard. I still think about her now. 

I: And how long ago was, was that. 

R: It was about two years ago. 

(Grady: 18-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

In this passage, Grady does not focus on the loss of sexual opportunities, as we might 

expect if conquest were the active discourse. Instead, he pines over love lost. In so 

doing, he joins other guys who articulate the discourse of relationship when the 

significance they assign to the dissolution of a coupling emphasizes the loss of emotional 

or relational ties. 

Finally, for committed virgins, the preeminence of the discourse of relationship is 

indicated by the fact that relationships, not sex, are often the centerpiece of their fantasies 

about girls. Donnie, for instance, mentioned that when he is attracted to a particular girl, 

his thoughts are not lustful anticipations of sex acts, which he finds vulgar, but rather 

they are expectations of talking and sharing experiences with her. Andrew also focuses 

on intimacy instead of sex, as is evident in the relationship fantasy he shared: 

Oh, you know, just seeing reactions from another person as to like, you know, uh, 
wanting to treat somebody in a new way and seeing their, like, eyes light up to see 

that they're meeting a new person I'd like to see their eyes light up and, you 

know. I guess. You know, the whole like 'dinner and a movie'-type thing. I 
know that's kinda cheesy. You know, you wanna cuddle up on the couch 
afterwards and watch a movie in the dark, that type a deal. You know, that's 
that's always been my idea of, like, getting intimate with somebody. 
(Andrew: 17-year-old, White, virgin) 


Because they understand sexual issues in terms of the discourse of relationship, 
nonreligious virgins like Andrew put a premium on getting to know partners, rather than 
having sex with them. Consequently, it is this process of establishing intimacy, instead 
of sexual acts, that becomes the subject of fantasies. 
Articulating Others 

Given the relative dominance of the discourse of conquest, the number of 
articulations of others in the "relationship" vein is small. Even those whose sexual 
decision making is dominated by the discourse of relationship are likely to encounter 
others articulating the discourse of conquest. (Recall, for example, Donnie's uncle 
quizzing him about the number of girlfriends he had.) But when guys do identify others 
who espoused the discourse of relationship to them, they speak primarily of relatives, 
especially mothers, and female friends. For instance, Donnie describes how female 
friends he had in high school expressed their staunch commitment to virginity until 

At least the girls that I went to school with, ones that are my friends— they're like, 
"If my boyfriend can't handle that I'm holding out, well then that's his problem. 
Then he's gotta find someone else. Because I don't care how much, you know, 
sweet nothings he whispers. I don't [care] how many roses he buys me. Could 
give a shit. It's not happening. Until he slips the ring on my finger, and then he 
can THINK about it. He can think about the wedding night. He can think." And 
I'm like, "Right on!" They see it— at least my best friend, she sees it as 
something special, same way I do. 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

Not all friends and relatives who articulate the discourse of relationship advocate the 

"strong relationship" model expressed so forcefully by Donnie's friends. However, even 

guys whose decision making is dominated by the discourse of conquest occasionally 


encounter someone who asserts the necessity of relating to females on more than a sexual 


One guy also noted that the discourse of relationship is articulated by some 

alternative media sources. On the whole, Andrew is contemptuous of mass media 

because he believes they flood the airwaves with messages that advance the discourse of 

conquest. However, he also contends that most people's failure to look beyond the 

surface keeps them from appreciating more obscure elements of the media that articulate 

the discourse of relationship by advocating gender equality: 

And the music I listen to now is, uhm, it's all punk, [laughs] And it's, they'll 
sing about equality. They'll sing about, uhm, you know, treating women well. 
They'll sing about these things, and everybody's like, "How do you listen to that 
crap?" Because, you know, they're screaming and they're play in' their 
instruments all sloppy and all that sort of stuff. But people don't look beyond, 
you know, the cover. You know, they don't look at, uhm, the poetics of music. 
(Andrew: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

Although Andrew' experience of being exposed to the discourse of relationship through 

lesser known media sources was not shared by the other guys I talked with, it nonetheless 

confirms the potential of media as another outlet for articulations of this discourse. 

Articulating Virginity 

Among guys who typically speak in terms of the discourse of conquest, 

articulations of the discourse of relationship vis-a-vis virginity tend to be confined to 

their views on male virgins. Some nonvirgins indicate that although virginity is not a 

choice they would make for themselves, they understand or admire guys who commit to 

virginity because relationships are important to them. These sympathetic reflections on 

virgins aside, committed virgins are the guys most likely to articulate virginity in terms of 

the discourse of relationship. They did so in a number of ways, several of which were 


mentioned in the earlier discussion of the link between sex and relationships. Guys who 

commit to virginity for other than religious reasons tend to construct it in a way that links 

it to one or more of the following interests: a concern for relationship stability; a belief in 

the sacredness of sex; the need to preserve sex as a demonstration of love; or a desire to 

promote equal sharing with their future partners. An excellent example of these 

constructions is offered by Donnie, whose decision to remain virgin until marriage 

factors in several of these elements: 

But I don't necessarily base my morality on church guidelines or pedagogy, if 
anything. I just think that marriage is sacred, and I think it's something special. 
And it's gonna be kinda sad when you are with your wife the first time and 
you've already done it. And you can just think of, "She's not as good as these 
other girls I slept with." If she's gonna wait off and give her my virginity, I 
wanna give her mine, equal sharing and whatnot. 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

As Donnie's comments suggest, the expectation that one's future wife will be virgin is 

sometimes an implicit aspect of the construction of virginity in the discourse of 

relationship. Whether that specific expectation is articulated or not, the discourse depicts 

virginity as a gauge of one's appreciation of the moral significance of love, sex, and 


Committed virgins also make this moral aspect to their articulations of virginity 

evident by constructing their choice as a struggle against others who promote the 

discourse of conquest. Andrew describes the battle in abstract terms: 

That's an ideal is that when you lose your virginity it's a, uhm, you know, you 
know, it's a step forward. You know, you're conquering some — You're a new 
person because of it, but. [sigh] I don't think virginity has anything to do with 
anything, really. It has to do with whether or not you're gonna have sex with 
somebody for the sake of having sex, or whether or not you're going to, you 
know, be a part of another person. 
(Andrew: 17-year-old, White, virgin) 


But he and other committed virgins also face the discourse of conquest as a direct 
challenge to their beliefs. Donnie remarks that he has had people suggest that he should 
"get laid," to which he simply replies, "Do you know me?" Thus, on both ideological 
and personal fronts, nonreligious, committed virgins sometimes chose or are driven to 
articulate virginity and their commitment to it in terms of its contrast to the discourse of 

As the preceding discussion illustrates, the semantic parameters of the discourse 
of relationship are harder to define than those of the other discourses, given that so much 
variation exists in how relationships are defined. Delaying intercourse until one's 
connection to a partner has endured for six months and committing to abstinence until 
marriage are both ways in which the notion of relationship can guide sexual decision 
making, but they also clearly belong to different orders. The key to understanding this 
discourse, I think, is managing this complexity. We must recognize that, for some, 
relationships take on an almost sacred quality, which is entangled with and further colors 
the meanings of sex, virginity, and marriage. For others, the concept of relationship is 
less profound, and the interactions so named may be less enduring. Yet in spite of 
variations in scope, each specific articulation conveys that it is the fact of relating, 
however defined, that dominates decisions about the partnership or anticipated 
partnership at hand. In this fundamental aspect, all the diverse representations of 
relationships speak as part of a common language. 

A Fourth Way: Worry as an Horizon of Meaning 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, the last distinct means of orienting 
to sexual decision making that emerges from my interviews focuses on concerns about 


acquiring STDs or being responsible for a pregnancy. While these fears do not seem to 
inform an entire discourse of sexual decision making, they do amount to a recurring 
theme in some of the guys' statements. Gubrium's (1993) concept of a "horizon of 
meaning" seems to best capture this sense of an array of meanings that is less than a 
discourse, yet still a source of some unique interpretations germane to the sexual 
decision-making process. In this vein, then, the notion of "worry" (about STDs and 
pregnancy) warrants discussion as a fourth way that guys may organize at least some of 
their thoughts and understandings about sex and its relevance to them. In the subsequent 
discussion, I focus on the two articulations of worry voiced by guys I interviewed: 
constructions of "others" who emphasize caution regarding STDs and pregnancy, and 
constructions of sex. 

When sex is constructed in terms of worry, the possibility that sexual activity 
might lead to a pregnancy or the acquisition of an STD dominates guys' talk and provides 
the rationale for a variety of specific strategies for approaching sex. Some guys' 
strategizing is dominated by prophylactic behavior, such as developing a protection plan 
with a partner before sex is imminent, wearing condoms, or getting regular exams for 
signs of STDs. Some guys speak of developing and utilizing "folk methods" for 
assessing the level of STD risk posed by potential partners. For instance, several guys 
comment or intimate that they gauge a girls' sexual health— and therefore the kind of risk 
she posed— by her reputation, particularly as promulgated by other guys. Still others 
articulate their worry by describing limits they have deliberately imposed on their own 
sexual activity. Jordan, the self-identified "born-again" virgin, places himself among this 


group when he tells me how he dealt with the risk of STDs he associated with those 

partners he had called "just flesh": 

I: Well, when you were dating some of the other — Well, not dating, but 

when you were with some of the other girls, how do you decide what level 
of physical contact there's gonna be? 

R: Naw. I figured they were trifling and I didn't trust 'em. So I wouldn't 
have sex, er, genital sex with 'em. But oral sex, there's really a low 
chance of you getting diseases and stuff, so I figured "Ppbbbt! Hey." 

(Jordan: 1 8-year-old, African- American, "born-again" virgin) 

Jordan's approach to protecting himself differs from the others because he actually 
abstains from certain activities (with certain girls), but all of the strategies speak to 
instances in which guys let their worry guide their understanding of sex (as risky) and 
inform their sexual decisions. 

In many instances, articulations of the "others" who expose guys to the worries 
associated with sex are limited to an indication that someone repeated some version of 
the stock advice: "Don't do it. But if you do, make sure you use protection." However, 
some of these "others," who are typically parents or friends (both male and female), are 
described as doing or saying something that the guys find particularly relevant. For 
instance, Morgan indicates that his mother not only told him to "use protection," but she 
also bought him condoms. Likewise, L.J. appreciates the multitude of tips his mother 
gave him for protecting himself. She had suggestions about how to evaluate the genetic 
health of a girl, should L.J. consider having a child with her. Plus, she had a very specific 
strategy for STD risk assessment: 

She just be like, "Did you use a condom?" I'm like, "Yeah." "If it ain't smell 
right don't go in." 'Cause like, you know, if it don't smell right, you don't want 
to go in somethin' that don't smell good. If somethin' don't smell right, you're 
not gonna eat it. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 


Regardless of the actual protective value of the advice or practical assistance offered by 

these mothers, they represent instances in which others' articulations of worry had a 

notable impact on guys' orientation to sexual decision making, at least in the short term. 

It is worth noting that a few guys indicate that particular experiences also helped 

raise the relevance of worry to their sexual decision making. For L.J., having to be 

treated for gonorrhea awakened him to the risks implicit in sex: 

So when that happened that opened my eyes up and realized that you don't realize 
what you are getting into when you have sex and you taking a risk. Anything you 
do is, you taking a risk. When you wake up and go outside, that's a risk. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

And Alvin reports that watching "The Miracle in Childbirth" in school caused him to 

appreciate the seriousness of paternity: 

R: "Miracle of Childbirth." That's the only thing that scared me. 

I: What was that? 

R: Ugh! Make me scared to be up in there. It was, Whoo. Ooh! 

I: What is it? It's a film? 

R: Uhm-hm. 

I: About? 

R: About a lady givin' birth. 

I: Oh, actually shows — ? 

R: Uhm-hm. I'm like, "Ugh!" So I decide I don't wannabe no dad just yet. 

I can wait for another 5 years. 
(Alvin: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Both guys present their experiences as unexpected, powerful happenings that transformed 

how they understood sex. In other words, they construct them as epiphanies. The 


epiphany story is a well-established form of narrative (Denzin 1989; Woodward 2001), 
and its use in these cases has a number of important implications. First, it represents one 
form of story that guys do have in a meaning-making arsenal that is relatively bereft of 
story forms. (The full compliment of stories that guys made use of in my interviews will 
be described in the next chapter.) Second, it provides further evidence that guys tend to 
experience and articulate their introduction to different discourses or horizons of meaning 
in different ways. We have already seen, for instance, that different sorts of people tend 
to be described as conveyers of the discourse of piety (e.g., parents; youth ministers) as 
compared with the discourse of relationship (e.g., female friends; media sources). 

This is not to say that the epiphany story could never be the vehicle through 
which guys articulate their appreciation of other discourses. Matthew, a religious virgin, 
articulates his decision to commit to virginity as one consequence of his being saved, and 
he conveys the experience of being saved and accepting Christ into his life through an 
epiphany story. The point is simply that the nature of the "others" that propagate ways of 
interpreting the sexual realm does generally vary across discourses because different 
meaning systems link most effectively to different cultural concerns. 

Given that worry, as an horizon of meaning for sexual decision making, is 
organized around risk and fear, it should not be surprising when guys present their 
awareness of it through epiphany stories. Certainly fearful experiences, as much as any 
others, have the potential for transformative impacts on our lives. Also, the epiphany 
stories remind us that the outside influences or "others" we speak of should be considered 
most broadly to include influential experiences as well as people. 



The three discourses and fourth horizon of meaning I have described represent, in 
broad strokes, an array of ways that adolescent males narrate sexual decision making. 
Sometimes religious ideals come to the fore, and sometimes primary importance is placed 
on relationships. In still other instances, the desire to acquire sexual experience or 
concern about causing pregnancy or catching an STD provide the organizing principle for 
sexual decisions. By virtue of offering systematic ways of approaching sexual decisions, 
these discourses encourage those who use them to orient to an array of distinct but related 
concerns — such as sex, girls, virginity, and self— in particular ways. In other words, 
committing to the articulation of one aspect of the sexual realm in terms of one discourse 
brings with it strong incentives to accept that discourse's "take" on other aspects as well. 
This quality of discourses can be comforting, for it provides a sense that we have answers 
to questions we have not yet confronted. Yet it also makes them somewhat inflexible, 
creating the sense that we "should" be or think in ways we have not anticipated or cannot 
abide. This is the "catch-22" of discourses: The world seems too disorderly without 
them, but their adoption always creates narrative challenges. Narrative challenges are 
situations in which one feels compelled to use talk to try to reconcile the "expectations" 
of a discourse or competing discourses with one's particular sense of self or reality. The 
specific narrative challenges that adolescent males face vis-a-vis discourses of sexual 
decision making and how they wrestle with them is the topic of the next two chapters of 
Part II. 

As we move to those chapters, it should be noted that in this chapter I presented 
the discourses largely in isolation from one another for the sake of clarity. In practice, in 


the guys' talk, discourses exist and are articulated very much in relation to one another. 
We have already seen, for instance, that guys who articulate the discourse of relationship 
and are committed to virginity can define the importance of relationships in terms of its 
opposition to the discourse of conquest. 

Finally, the fact that I have outlined the discourses with the help of the 
articulations of adolescent males does not mean that these orientations to sexual decision 
making are exclusive to them. Although specific issues may be different, it is certainly 
reasonable to imagine men, and in some cases women, of varying ages drawing on these 
same discourses to make meaning out of their own dilemmas in the sexual realm. For 
instance, does a 3 5 -year-old man experiencing impotence orient to the problem in terms 
of his relationship with his partner, his concerns about not being able to father children, 
or difficulties satisfying sexual partners? I have described the discourses in broad terms, 
but I still need to demonstrate how the dilemmas and possibilities they raise are unique to 
young men. I explore these challenges and how the guys endeavor to meet them in 
Chapters 6 and 7, but I preface this with an examination, in Chapter 5, of the narrative 
strategies the guys have at their disposal for meeting narrative challenges. 


In earlier chapters, I described how narrative practice — the analytical mode that 
guides this study — brings together interest in discourses-in-practice and discursive 
practice. The examination of the three discourses in Chapter 4 addressed the former. By 
drawing on one or another of the discourses or meaning systems I described, the guys 
bring various cultural understandings into the practice of providing relevant responses in 
an interview. Turning to the latter, discursive practice, means shifting focus from the 
cultural resources available for meaning-making to the role of the language user in 
assembling meanings. Some of this meaning-making derives from rhetorical moves that 
are idiosyncratic; a particular guy's perspective on sexuality hinges on his interpretation 
of a particular word, for instance. But much of the meaning-making process involves 
context-specific use of general narrative strategies that all or many of the guys use and 
that are, ostensibly, available to any competent speaker in virtually any instance of 
narrative production. In Chapters 6 and 7, 1 want to be able to examine the confluence 
of discourses and idiosyncratic and general narrative strategies as the guys confront 
specific narrative challenges. So in this chapter, I provide the last building block for that 
analysis by examining general narrative strategies that the guys commonly used in the 



Identifying Narrative Strategies 

Before I introduce the five narrative strategies that I will examine in this chapter, I 
should provide the caveat that identifying narrative strategies is, like identifying and 
describing discourses, an act of interpretation. There are no hard and fast rules that guide 
an analyst in deciding that a speaker is doing something significant with language at one 
point and not another, nor are there directives for how he or she should define and label 
what that significant "something" is. Likewise, once a narrative strategy is identified, 
even one as ubiquitous as "story," interpretation is still required to determine whether 
particular sequences of talk should be included in the category. All of these 
qualifications are not to say that narrative analysts are chasing ghosts or that anything 
goes. The fact that stories do get identified and do get analyzed is proof against that 
suggestion. Nevertheless it is worth noting that this can be slippery business. Focusing 
on what the guys' accomplished with language in any given sequence and how they did 
so, I have identified five general categories that I believe represent distinct strategies of 
meaning-making that pervade the interviews. My decisions were guided by my interest 
in the guys' presentation of sexual selves, a desire to examine any "formal" narratives 
that were presented, and the need to characterize how guys asserted meanings in the 
absence of formal narratives. Other analysts, guided by other imperatives, would likely 
identify some other strategies or categorize particular sequences of talk differently. I am 
confident, however, that their interpretations would share much with mine and they 
would recognize the reasoning and interpretive value behind my decisions. 

By my reckoning, five narrative strategies were essential to the self-construction 
that took place in the interviews. I call those strategies telling, presenting selves, 


contrasting, categorizing, and parroting. Two of these — telling and presenting 
selves — are umbrella categories for a family of related strategies. Each of the five 
general strategy groups is named in the form of a gerund to emphasize the ongoing, 
active nature of what it represents; each is a way of doing things with words that guys 
"activate" by structuring their narrative in specific ways. For instance, by presenting a 
specific topic in terms of oppositions, a guy can use contrasting to articulate a variety of 
positions, including his own, with regard to it. These ways of arranging talk are, at least 
theoretically, always available. Speakers determine the level of impact each has on their 
narrative, however, by how they strategically apply them. 

Telling encompasses rhetorical maneuvers ranging from the production of stories, 
narrowly defined, to the assembly of story-like narratives that lack some elements 
associated with stories but nonetheless can be seen as a kind of "telling." Speakers are 
"presenting selves" when they use any of three strategies, each of which primarily 
functions as a vehicle for the construction and management of self in relation to the 
exigencies of the interview. The next two strategies, contrasting and categorizing, are 
fairly self-explanatory. In one case, a speaker makes meaning by directing how things 
are named, in the other, by determining how those names are related. The final narrative 
strategy, parroting, refers to instances in which guys shift subject positions during the 
interview and actually speak as some other person, thing, or self. 

Although the group of narrative strategies I call "presenting selves" specifically 
identifies narrative work that relates to the articulation of identities, all of these narrative 
strategies can be and are used to facilitate identity work. With these other strategies, 
however, the designation of particular selves or management of identities is indirect or 


results while other narrative goals are also being pursued. The "presenting selves" 
strategies are unique only in that articulating the self of the speaker is their only effect 
and it occurs in a context in which identity is the "going concern." 

Another important note is that all of these narrative strategies are collaborative, to 
some degree or another. It is appropriate, I think, to place most of the emphasis on what 
the guys are doing with language since, for the most part, they are the ones being incited 
to produce meanings. We should not lose cite of the fact that the interview is active, 
however. I, as the interviewer, shape narratives by the topics I rise, the way I phrase 
questions, and the manner in which I respond to the guys' comments. In some cases this 
influence is obvious, as with the form of storytelling I call collaborative narratives. In 
other instances, it is less visible but no less consequential, as when guys appear to relate 
to me as an authority figure, calling me "sir" and asking if their answer gave me "what I 
wanted." For convenience sake, I will most often refer in this section to what the guys 
did with language, but it should be understood that their narrative strategies always 
operate in the context of parameters set, heavily influenced by, or negotiated with me. 

Just as the guys' narrative strategizing is not done independent of my influence, 
the strategies themselves are not independent of one another. Although it is convenient 
for me to separate the strategies for examination, as I did with the three discourses, in 
practice the guys may use multiple strategies simultaneously to construct an intricate web 
of meanings. Even in this discussion, in which I endeavor to keep each strategy separate, 
some meshing of them will be evident. But the complex interplay that guys create 
between the narrative strategies will be fully evident when I examine narrative challenges 
in Chapters 6 and 7. 



In Chapter 4, 1 indicated that the guys do not rely heavily on stories to convey 
meaning. That statement is certainly accurate, particularly if we define stories narrowly 
as sequences of talk that present an ordering and evaluation of past events. Such 
constructions are not so central to each of the guys' narratives as to warrant making them 
the basis for an entire narrative analysis. Far too much narrative work would be left out. 
The limited importance of stories should not, however, be taken to mean that the guys do 
not tell stories. A small number of guys tell a lot of full-blown stories. Others tell fewer, 
less involved stories. These guys seem to make up for this, however, by producing what 
we might call pseudo-stories, narrative constructions that satisfy some but not all of the 
criteria by which stories are typically identified. In short, many of the guys do not 
produce an appreciable amount of what analysts would hear as complete stories, but they 
all rely to some degree on an activity I would call telling, which results in stories or 

Telling, as it appears in these interviews, comes in four forms. In addition to full- 
blown stories, guys tell hypothetical narratives and habitual narratives, and with my 
involvement they produce collaborative narratives. The three pseudo-narratives deviate 
from the strict definition of story in patterned ways. Hypothetical narratives dispense 
with the expectation, essential to stories, that the events described are real and happened 
in the past. Habitual narratives breach the expectation that the past referred to in the 
narrative is a single moment or time frame, and collaborative narratives violate the rather 
traditional assumption that stories are individual productions. 


In the discussion that follows, my goal is twofold. I want to provide examples of 
the different forms of telling, but I also want to demonstrate the strategic use of each 
form of telling. These examples should not be seen as an exhaustive delineation of 
strategic usage, but merely suggestive of how particular guys made them relevant to 
specific narrative needs raised in the interview. 

What the narratives collected under the rubric of stories have in common is that 
they relate actual past events or states of being, sequence these in some way, and offer 
some explicit or implicit evaluation of these happenings. By this definition, stories can 
be as simple and brief as the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme (Berger 1997) or as lengthy 
and complex as a woman's in-depth description of her recognition that she has an 
inherited disease (Bell 1988). 

The stories the guys in this study tell certainly reflect this diversity. Some stories 
are quite involved and contain nested narratives— that is, related stories or pseudo stories 
told within the boundaries of the over-arching story. These highly developed stories 
sometimes run for three or four pages when transcribed. In other instances, stories last 
for just two or three sentences and include the story elements described above in their 
barest forms. 

Not surprisingly, there is also great diversity in the rhetorical uses to which the 
stories are put. The guys tell stories about everything from their most influential mentors 
to their experiences of virginity loss in the interest of goals as diverse as presenting 
particular selves, explaining sexual decisions, and typifying groups of people. At the 
same time, the fact that I elicit the stories in interviews that share common themes means 


that the guys face similar rhetorical demands and sometimes enlist stories to address 

similar concerns. This sense of guys telling very different stories to accomplish similar 

ends is evident in three types of stories that are told by several of the guys. I call these 

transformation, demonstration, and history-making stories. 

Transformation stories make the statement "I changed." Some times the change 

described is a gradual one, like an evolution or a progression, and sometimes it is sudden, 

as in the epiphany stories mentioned in Chapter 4. Matthew's story of religious 

conversion— what he describes as "being saved"— is an excellent example because it 

includes both types of transformation. As this abridged reproduction of the story 

demonstrates, there is Matthew's slow acceptance of the idea of giving church a try and 

then the epiphany of religious awareness that occurs when he is saved: 

I always wondered, where am I goin'? I was just sittin' in class one day: "Why 
am I here? Am I going to heaven or hell? What makes it? If I kill somebody, 
does that mean I'm goin' to hell? Or if I do drugs, does that mean I'm goin' to 
hell?" Uhm, and then — let's see. Gosh. It was whenever my mother got saved, 
[describes process of mother getting saved] And then she kept tellin' me, you 
know, "You should come with me. You should come with me." And I was like, 
"I don't wanna come. What's the point of it? You always said there was no point 

of it. Why should I?" And finally, I don't know I was bored that Sunday 

morning, you know, something. I just got up, and I went. And, you know, I went 
to church, and still didn't know what, you know, I was like, "That was nice. He 
gives a nice sermon," or whatever, [describes process of stepfather and sister 
getting saved] And I was still, you know, "Why are you guys doin'— What's the 
point?" And then I talked to my mother after I got off the bus, and she talked to 

me And she told me all about Jesus and stuff. And I just started crying, and 

then I got saved. I mean and then I felt, you know, "Wow, there's"— I know that, 
you know, there's a purpose and, you know, why I'm here. And there's actually a 
difference. And then, you know, that's when I started doin' better in school and 
not partying. I stopped goin' to parties, and I stopped, you know, doin' all that 
stuff. And I just quit everything, and then. 
(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) 

Notice that the story begins and ends with Matthew's assessment of himself, first 

before and then after he is saved. Coupled with the descriptions of the transformative 


events, these "before and after" self-assessments give force to Matthew's assertion that 

he has changed. They provide evidence that the long, deliberative process and the 

epiphany experience have had an impact. Once lost in existential quandaries, he is now 

aware of God's plan for him and has changed his lifestyle accordingly. 

Not all transformation stories are as involved as Matthew's is. In fact, while 

transformations often involve changes in both thought and behavior, sometimes the 

stories only focus on how a guy's awareness has been raised. Consider, for instance, this 

excerpt from the story L.J. told about his bout with gonorrhea: 

When I was pissing again and it was hurting, I told my mama what happened and 
she was like, "We'll just take you to the clinic." They gave me some, a hundred, 
a thousand milligram antibiotics and some penicillin to get the virus, the disease 
out of my system, the bacteria. And that worked. That right there opened my 
eyes up, that experience. Like I was talking about earlier with my brother that 
experience open your eyes up. So, I opened my eyes and realized that you need to 
use a condom when you're having sex, because you don't know what is out there. 
(L . J. : 1 7-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

L.J. does not assert that after this experience he used a condom every time he had 
sex. In fact, later in the interview he mentions having unprotected sex and calls himself a 
hypocrite for not protecting himself. But the story makes the statement "I changed" 
because L.J. credits the gonorrhea scare with raising his awareness about the risks of sex. 

Another statement that some of the guys make with stories is, "That's my point." 
They use stories to demonstrate the importance or validity of an assertion they have 
made. In essence, they offer their personal experience as support for their contentions. 
For instance, during our interview, Grady makes the point that some guys, like him, keep 
their sexual exploits private, while others are "nasty" and tell everything. When I ask 
him to elaborate on the difference between the two types of guys, he eventually tells a 


brief story (beginning in the third line) about one of his male friends — his 

homeboy — getting vulgar with some girls: 

They just don't care. They probably like the nasty ones, that tell everything they 
did. Or they'll just like mention it like in third person, like, "My Homeboy did 
this the other day." And, "I wonder if it was good." They'll ask one of the girls. 
Like, my Homeboy, W., he did somethin' with a girl and he asked our dawg. M, 
she a girl, and K, was that a good or not, the what he did to her the other night? 
He talk about he did somethin' until she went to sleep. She talked about, if she 
went to sleep, you must ain't feel nothin'. [both laugh] He just sat there. He got 
kinda mad and stuff. He just start laughin' 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

Grady's story provides an example of how some guys, including his friends, 
engage in explicit talk about real or imagined sexual exploits, not just with other guys but 
with female friends as well. 

Evan drew on his personal experience to tell a more sobering demonstration story 

at the beginning of our interview. He mentioned that the men his mother date tend to 

have an influence on him, and then provided this story: 

Like, one instance, my mom was going out with this one guy, and he was really 
cool and everything. I really looked up to him. He was like my role model. And 
then, like, he beat her one night, and that was kinda traumatizing. But, uhm, he's 
had like a mixed effect on me. 
(Evan: 15-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Evan's tale is actually both a demonstration and a transformation story. It 

demonstrates his point that his mother's boyfriends can have an impact on him using a 

particular instance in which a man's violent behavior transformed what was initially an 

entirely positive relationship for Evan. While at the outset Evan indicates that he "really 

looked up to" the man, after relating the violent incident he concludes that the man's 

effect on him was "mixed." 


One last example of story types is what I call the history-making story, which 

makes the statement, "This is why I am who I am." This strategic use of story amounts to 

a particular sort of identity work. The story delineates particular events from the past and 

asserts that these help explain some aspect of the teller's current self. For instance, 

Andrew engages in "history making" when he tells stories about his family life in an 

effort to explain why he has developed such a strong commitment to the mental but not 

the physical aspects of intimacy: 

I was raised by a single mother, and she, you know — My father left her. and I've 
never met him. And, uh, she's always had like, a, I, I was the product of an 
unhappy coupling, you know. I was always a fault. And, you know, I was always 
spoken down to and, uh, never anything physical. And, uh. I remember, when I 
left for college, my mom told me she loved me, and it sounded really weird, 
'cause she had never said it before. I had never heard the words come out of her 
mouth, and I was like, "Oh my God!" It just sounded really weird. It sounded 
really awkward. And I've — You know, when I was 14, er, 13 or whatever and 
wanting to explore my sexuality, I never did because by then, I had read, like, just 
so much stuff that I wasn't willing just to go out and have sex, just to go out and 
just do it for whatever. You know? Since then I've been looking for that mental 
connection and, uhm, I think it was just never, never really having that sort of 
connection, ever, to this point, with another human female. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

The main events of Andrew's story are the recognition that he is unwanted, his 

being the target of verbal abuse, and a more recent incident in which his mother 

awkwardly professed her love for him. In the evaluation portion of the story, Andrew 

posits these occurrences as causal factors that help explain his reticence to explore the 

physical side of sexuality and his yearning to bond intellectually with a female, to 

experience a "mental connection." He states explicitly, "I think it was just never, never 

really having that sort of connection, ever, to this point, with another human female." 

With this last sentence, Andrew completes the history-making process, drawing an 

emphatic link between what he has experienced and the person he has become. 


Another example of a history-making story is provided by L.J. when we discuss 

committed virgins. I ask L.J. if he thinks he would have been able to remain virgin if he 

had been taught he ought to "save himself for marriage. In response, he tells a story 

about his younger years that ostensibly explains why he is not someone who can wait: 

I: Do you think that when you were younger, if you had been taught that you 

shouldn't have sex, until you are married, do you think you could have 

R: I don't think so. Because when I was younger, I can remember sneaking 
in the living room like around 12 o'clock, watchin' a little Cinemax, had a 
little Red Shoe Diaries and stuff like that. And when I went to my uncle's 
house one day, I had saw a flick. It was a hard-core flick. And I saw it 
and it just caught my eye. In my head, the wheels started turning. I'm 
like, "Man, I could be doin' that." So it is just like that influenced me. I 
got caught up in society that influenced me. I would have waited — I 
probably still would have did it cause I seen what was going on. 
Everybody around was talking about it at my age. Like. I was ten years 
old, little boys talking about her boobies and stuff and like right there, 
[unintelligible — 3 words] It just hypnotize me so. That's me. 

(L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

At one level, L.J. is making the argument that his experiences with soft- and hard- 
core pornography helped make him who he is today — someone who lost his virginity at 
age 13. In this sense, the story is a simple example of history making. But on another 
level, it is an especially remarkable instance. Because my question asked him to 
speculate about alternative paths he might have taken in terms of his sexual decision 
making, L.J. also manages this story in a way that rejects these alternatives and confirms 
the inevitability of the life he has led. When L.J. says, "I probably still would have did it 
cause I seen what was going on," he suggests that even if his past had not included the 
specific incidents he described, other similar experiences would have awakened his 
fascination with sex. With this rhetorical maneuver, L.J. binds even the alternative paths 
I have suggested to the end result that he has lived. Regardless of what he might have 


been taught, some incident would still have led him to be curious about sex and to lose 
his virginity at a young age. The introduction of the notion of alternative lives, then, 
creates a narrative challenge for L.J., which he meets with creative use of the history- 
making story. 
Hypothetical Narratives 

When the guys are not being creative with stories, they are often telling about 
their lives in other ways. The most common alternative or "pseudo" story form is the 
hypothetical narrative. In this form of telling, speculation is essentially given a narrative 
form. The speaker indicates that the events described are fictional, then "sets them in 
motion" in a narrative sequence. In this way, guys demonstrate how their ideas might 
take concrete form in actual situations. 

The use of a hypothetic narrative to concretize speculations or ruminations is 

aptly demonstrated by Jerry when he and I discuss how men deal with sexual urges. He 

comments that he thinks most men can handle their urges and remain faithful to their 

partners, and he supports his contention with a hypothetical narrative that demonstrates 

how he thinks this fidelity is maintained in practice: 

But it's like some guys know how to handle it. I say some of the married men, 
most. Because if you're married, you're gonna get those kind of, like, "Man, 
wooh! Only if I was 20 years younger. Oh, wooh! Only if I wasn't married/" 
But then when you think about and you got beautiful kids, beautiful wife. You 
got — what more? You got in-house vagina, that's yours for life. You know what 
I'm saying? I mean, what's the use of going out hittin' this girl, hittin' that girl, 
when you gonna get the same satisfaction. 
(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Jerry begins his hypothetical narrative in the second line, when he introduces an 

imaginary, typical, married man. As the narrative unfolds, the man is tempted by 

beautiful women who make him long for a bachelor's freedom, then he recognizes that 


his wife and family are more valuable than the sexual satisfaction he might get having 

sex with ("hittin"') some random woman. While I certainly wonder about the 

designation of a man's wife as "in-house vagina," I cannot deny that Jerry's hypothetical 

effectively articulates his sense that married men ought to be able to weigh the "benefit" 

of infidelity against the cost of risking one's family. 

A more down-to-earth example of a hypothetical narrative appears in my 

conversation with Sean. In the course of our discussing sex differences in young 

people's interest in and reactions to virginity commitments, I ask Sean if he thinks guys 

and girls respond differently to social pressures to be sexually active. His answer is 

dominated by a hypothetical narrative that compares girls' and guys' reactions to 

attractive people: 

When you're with guys, for a guy, you're more pressured into doing it than if you 
were a girl [Int: Uhm-hm.] because I think that guys are more open to talk about 
than, than girls are. I mean, I mean, you sit with some guys and if a good-looking 
girl walks by, they're gonna comment. You know, they're gonna be like, you 
know, "I wouldn't mind getting' some play with that girl," something like that. 
And girls'll just be like, "That guy, that guy, that guy there's hot," you know. 
[Int: Right.] I mean, so it's kinda like, guys are more open than girls, I think, are. 
Or from, from what I know, they are. 
(Sean: 16-year-old, White, virgin) 

After a sentence that suggests how we should hear what is to come, Sean launches 

into a narrative (starting at the third line) in which fictional events happen (e.g., a girl 

walks by; guys make sexually suggestive comments) to actors that are mere typifications 

(a group of guys, a good-looking girl, and a group of girls). Like Jerry, Sean is thus able 

to reveal something about how he understands a specific issue, even though his own life 

experience may not include one distinct story that conveys that understanding. 


Habitual Narratives 

Like some hypothetical narratives, habitual narratives amalgamate multiple events 

and thus are presented in an indefinite time frame. They differ from hypothetical, 

however, in that all of the events are purported to have actually happened. Indeed, much 

of the force of the narrative results from the assertion that the events described do not 

change from one instance to the next. For instance, when Drew and I are discussing sex 

education, he volunteers this habitual narrative about the impact the possibility of STDs 

has on his sexual activity: 

Well, you're always worried about getting an STD. I don't usually think about 
that till afterwards. And then I like, "Huh. Well, I used a condom, so I guess it's 
alright. I'm not gonna worry about it." I don't really worry about much. 
(Drew: 1 8-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Beginning by asserting that one is "always worried" about STDs. Drew presents a 
series of events that typify his response to that ever-present concern: He keeps it out of 
his mind until after he has had sex, then reassures himself that he is safe because he used 
a condom. 

Another example of a habitual narrative is provided by Dairy 1 when I ask him 
where he got his information about sex: 

Like, you know, like, school they always have presentation. They always used to 
talk about it. So through that. And like sometimes, you know, through classes, 
you know, talk about it or teachers'll bring up the topic and like they'll debate 
about it, you know. It wasn't like — I never had sex education — but [I got 
information] through middle school through high school. So I was aware of 
certain things. 
(Darryl: 18-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

Here, Darryl constructs a habitual narrative as a way of demonstrating the 

pervasiveness of sexual information in school, rather than its concentration in a single 

instance, like a sex-education class. Darryl produces an image of his middle and high 


schools as places where there were "always" presentations, talk, and debate about sex, 
and can thus assert that he learned about sex almost incidentally by virtue of being 
immersed in those mediums. 
Collaborative Narratives 

The final type of pseudo-story, the collaborative narrative, refers to instances in 
which my ability as the interviewer to raise and pursue topics is instrumental to the 
production of a story. Typically, in these cases, a guy's initial response to a question 
references a specific past event, but it does not seem to complete the sequencing of this 
event with other, related ones. Also, in some cases, the speaker does not provide a sense 
of how the events are meaningful to him. In essence, the speaker produces the 
beginnings of a story but leaves it incomplete. By indicating my interest in the matter 
and sometimes asking additional questions, I help the speaker continue the sequencing, 
develop the story, and reflect on the meaning it has for him. A case in point is an 
exchange I had with Matthew when we are discussing the advice he gets from others 
about how to stay "pure," even when he is attracted to a girl. When Matthew begins to 
talk about a specific instance involving a particular girl, I try to help him advance the 

I: Well, how did you know that this was a situation that you needed to get, 

that it was potentially more than friendship, that you needed to get some 
advice on it? 

R: Well 'cause , you know, me and the person were both, we were both 

asking each other, you know, "Should we do this?" or whatever. And we 
were still having doubts and whatever. So I — That's probably how, you 
know — I would talk to my parents, and then I'd talk to my friends and 

I: And you talked to her, as well? 

R: Yeah and then I talked to her. 


I: What was her, uhm, part in the situation? What was her approach? 

R: It was the same. She talked to her parents. She talked to some of her 
friends. And we both decided, you know — She came back and. it was 
weird because she was like the same thing, you know, both at the same 
time, we were like, you know, "I don't think that's right" or whatever. So 
we — She was basically the same way as I was. 

I: Well, that's good. 

R: Yeah. That's was pretty cool. 
(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) 

At Matthew's first turn in this exchange, he simply answers my question: He 
knew he needed advice because he was having doubts. However, he also suggests that 
his prospective girlfriend was having similar doubts and that he was going to talk to his 
parents and friends. In essence, he insinuates that there was a series of events that 
unfolded, but only clearly describes the first one (i.e., the doubts). As to the rest, he 
leaves us wondering, "What happened next?" With some additional prompting, Matthew 
provides an answer to that question and evaluates the whole experience as "pretty cool." 
The end result is that Matthew and I collaboratively produce a story that begins with 
Matthew's doubts about dating and ends with a "meeting of the minds" between two 
youth who are concerned with staying pure. 

In my interview with Morgan, there is an instance in which narrative 
collaboration proceeds in a rather unique way. We are discussing the ways that virgins 
are treated in his high school, and Morgan indicates that a group of kids he calls "preps" 
are the ones most likely to ridicule virgins. I intend to ask Morgan if he has ever 
witnessed one of the preps hassling a virgin, but he takes the conversation in a different 


I: Have you ever had a situation where one of the preps — or somebody 

else — was — ? 

R: Was incriminating me? 

I: I don't know. 

R: They were talking about me? 

I: Yeah. 

R: I grabbed 'em by their neck and told 'em listen here, "What you don't 

know, what you don't need to know, are two different things. Keep your 
mouth shut, especially about me." 

I: What kinda stuff were they saying? 

R: You know, "Look at him! He's unpopular." And now I get to walk 

around with a [high school football team] jersey, and they changed their 
heart real quick. 

(Morgan: 1 7-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Morgan's interruption of my question with his own suggests to me that he has a 
story to tell, one that is perhaps substantially different than the one that my question 
might invite. By simply pleading ignorance, I encourage him to begin to articulate the 
situation that he has in mind. The result is not a story about preps and virgins, but one 
about a direct confrontation Morgan had with one of the preps. The story, in turn, 
becomes a vehicle through which Morgan defines himself in relation to the social cliques 
at his school. 

These and many other examples indicate that collaborative narratives deserve 
attention as a separate form of pseudo-story, particularly in relation to interview 
participants, like many of these guys, who are sometimes reticent to dominate a 
conversation that includes an adult. Still, I think this genre of story should be appreciated 


with two qualifications in mind, both of which remind us of the active aspects of the 
interview context. 

First, the narratives that result from my exchanges with a participant are 
collaborative productions, not completions of preexisting stories. Although it may seem 
that my role is to help a guy "finish" a story, in truth what my intervention does is direct 
his meaning-making process. In some cases, this may remind him of aspects of a story he 
has neglected, but it is just as likely to encourage him to produce meanings that would 
not otherwise occur to him. For instance, had I not specifically asked what Matthew's 
girlfriend's position on dating was, would the story have ended with the two of them 
realizing they shared a common perspective? The point is simply that collaborative 
narratives do not help to advance some innate script that guides the interview. They are 
productions that take the interview into new territory, and they occur primarily because of 
my assumption that stories are a powerful means of conveying meaning. 

The second qualification is that calling these exchanges collaborative narratives 
should not blind us to the fact that the entire interview process is fundamentally a 
collaboration. In most cases, the collaboration operates with me, the interviewer, 
orienting the other participant to particular issues and encouraging them to produce 
accounts in relation to them. Such was the case, for instance, when I asked L.J. to 
speculate about the effects of having a different sort of upbringing. But there are 
instances in any interview— and particularly in deliberately active ones— in which the 
subjective positions of interviewer and interviewee are contested, suppressed or modified. 
For instance, Derrick comments during our interview that it is difficult to know how to 
frame certain responses about his sexual decision making since he does not know "where 


I was coming from." Taking this as an implicit question, I essentially take his place as 
"respondent" and tell him the story of the evolution of my sexual decision making and 
my virginity loss. Situations like this that destabilize the presumed roles of the 
participants occur to a greater or less extent in virtually every interview and should serve 
as a constant reminder that interviewing is always and unalterably collaborative. 

In sum, the guys in this study often produce meanings by sequencing and 
interpreting events; however, this "telling," as I call it, does not always take story form. 
Sometimes the scenarios described are hypothetical, sometimes they exemplify 
circumstances that are experienced as habitual, and sometimes the production of the 
telling is dependent on collaboration with me. The question of why many of the guys tell 
few bona fide stories is an important one that I take up in Chapter 8. For our immediate 
purposes, however, the important feature of the interviews is the proliferation of tellings, 
not the shortage of stories, for the tellings demonstrate the guys' active use of the story 
form as a narrative strategy, regardless of whether actual stories are produced. 

Presenting Selves 

When the guys narrate their experience using one of the forms of telling, one of 
the results is almost always some sense of themselves. But they do not depend solely on 
tellings to "narrate themselves." The guys also make use of three unique narrative 
strategies to produce direct, deliberate depictions of themselves. The first two of 
these — identity claims and distancing — are typically short declarative statements of who 
the speaker is or is not. The third, biographical work (Holstein & Gubrium 2000a), 
describes a more extensive passage in which an identity is not so much claimed or 
disclaimed, but negotiated. Although each of these narrative strategies can be used in the 


context of a telling, they do not depend on such a context. They represent a separate 
class of narrative strategies that facilitate identity work. As I did with the different types 
of stories, I organize my discussion of the strategies for presenting selves in terms of 
particular uses to which they are put. These are examples, not an exhaustive inventory. 
Identity Claims 

Identity claims are statements through which a guy asserts the type of person he 
is. They typically take very simple forms. Theoretically, in fact, an identity claim could 
be made with just two words, such as "I procrastinate." All that is required is for the 
speaker to create a direct link between himself and some quality. 

Despite their simple design, identity claims further illustrate the artfulness of 

narrativity. They can operate in very sophisticated ways in practice because their use is 

always bound to context. This complexity is evident, for instance, when guys make 

claims to masculinity or manhood. In the following examples, each guy makes a claim to 

a different sort of manhood, for different reasons and to different effect: 

I don't think I'm a man yet. I think that I'm, like, a young man, I guess. 
(Sean: 16-year-old, White, virgin) 

And see, I consider myself to be average. I'm an average male. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

But if it do happens, if it happens, to me, to me, I'm a gentleman, so of course. 
I'm going to take care of my responsibilities. I'm going to be there and I'm going 
do what I have to do, you know what I'm saying? 
(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

In the context of a discussion about the meaning of manhood. Sean claims he is a 

young man, implying that that designation makes him qualitatively different from a 

"man." L.J. identifies himself as an "average male" as a way of emphasizing that he does 

not have extraordinary looks or wealth that would draw girls to him. Consequently, he is 


a kind of "every man," and the way girls respond to him tells a lot about what they really 

look for in a guy. Jerry claims the identity "gentleman" to indicate that he will take care 

of his procreative responsibilities in the event that he is responsible for a pregnancy. 

Taken together, these cases demonstrate the power and flexibility of identity claims. In 

making them, guys do not simply associate themselves with established categories or 

typifications, they mold and modify them to fit their own sense of themselves and the 

rhetorical demands of the situation at hand. In the previous examples, each guy 

constructs and claims a nuanced notion of manhood that produces a relevant, situated 



In some cases, the guys construct who they are through opposition, by articulating 

who they are not. This is the narrative strategy of distancing, a sort of inverse of identity 

claims, and it comes in two forms. In what I call the direct form, the guys make overt 

statements that separate their own identities from undesirable characteristics or qualities, 

often associated with some typified group. In this form, distancing amounts to the use of 

what Dorothy Smith (1990) calls "contrast structures" in the specific interest of 

constructing one's identity. For instance, in the course of our conversations, two of the 

guys deliberately distance themselves from the identity of "player," which describes a 

kind of playboy who is intent on showing off his ability to attract and seduce girls: 

Some girls might say that and they be like, "L, he's a pimp player and all that 
stuff." Man, that ain't me. I can be if I want to. If I choose to. But that ain't me. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

I'm not a player. I don't pretend. I'm not a player. That's not my thing. I don't 
see women as a game in any way shape or form. 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 


Although L.J. mitigates the distancing somewhat by insisting that he can be a 
player if he wants to, both he and Donnie are emphatic in defining themselves in 
opposition to the "player." In these passages, neither guy provides affirmative statements 
about the kind of person he is in relation to girls; all the identity work is done "in the 
negative," as it were, through distancing. 

Rhetorical distancing, the other form that this narrative strategy can take, is not so 

overt as direct distancing. It does not involve the construction of explicit contrast 

structures; rather, it is evident more in how meanings are phrased and structured than in 

the actual words used. Frequently, this form of distancing is not so much a matter of 

opposition as mollification. Where direct distancing seeks a deliberate, intentional break 

from something, rhetorical distancing simply insinuates some degree of separation. With 

rhetorical distancing a speaker does not say, "That's not me," the message is more akin 

to, "I may associate myself with that, but I won't commit myself to it." A fascinating 

example of rhetorical distancing is offered by Morgan, when he describes the situation in 

which he lost his virginity: 

I don't know how I went there. I was kinda stoned when that happened. It was 
just on the bus. Wasn't feelin' too well. And the girl had like for a long time, 
since kindergarten. And she called me at my dad's house, where she lived right 
next door to me. So I just went over there. Started makin' out, got a little bit 
further, little bit further, and finally, intercourse. 
(Morgan: 17-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

In this excerpt, Morgan describes an event in which, it is safe to assume, he was 

fully and actively involved, at least in a physical sense. Yet throughout the story he 

introduces elements that militate against the notion that he actively pursued or desired the 

sexual encounter that occurred. To begin with, he emphasizes the fact that he was stoned 

and feeling sick— both states that might lessen the likelihood that he would be interested 


in sex. Next, he places virtually all of the responsibility for the liaison on the girl: She 
had liked him for a long time; she called him. The only initiative he took was going to 
her house, which was in response to her call and was, after all, right next door. As a final 
act of distancing, when Morgan describes his actual physical encounter with the girl, both 
he and the girl are absent; the sentence has no subjects: "Started makin' out, got a little 
bit further, little bit further, and finally, intercourse." The cumulative effect of all of 
these rhetorical maneuvers is that Morgan lost his virginity, but, as he tells it, he was not 
there at the time. In essence, Morgan's telling of the event, with all its distancing, allows 
that the sexual encounter occurred, but simultaneously keeps Morgan's identity out of it. 

Strange as it seems, this sort of severe distancing from involvement in one's "first 
time" is relatively common among the nonvirgin guys. Few tell artfully crafted stories 
like Morgan, perhaps because the mere act of storying the event would give it more 
substance than they wish to attribute to it. But many describe the entire virginity loss 
event with some variation of the three words "it just happened." The distancing in this 
phrasing, while not as evident as it is in Morgan's story, is severe. There are no actors, 
and therefore no one to whom initiative can be attributed, and the sexual encounter itself 
is hidden in the word "it." 

Rhetorical distancing need not involve such a severe degree of self-effacement, 

however. Guys can also create distance by strategically positioning their identities in 

relation to some event or idea. Derrick engages in this sort of rhetorical distancing when 

I ask him about the sex talk that occurs among his friends: 

I mean, I try and not get involved in that kinda thing, but I mean I'll laugh and I'll 
encourage it. You know what I mean? It's not, like, "A ww! Phew! That's 
wrong!" I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" You know, stuff like that. 
(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 


In this passage, Derrick does not omit references to self from his talk, as Morgan 
does in his story of virginity loss. Instead, he distances himself from the crude comments 
of his friends by distinguishing his level of involvement. He says that he laughs at and 
even encourages the talk, but he does not take an active part in it. In fact, he "tries not to 
get involved" in it. With this rhetorical maneuver, Derrick aligns himself with his 
friends, but not so closely as to be branded a purveyor of vulgar sex talk. For himself, he 
stakes out the less-damning territory of consumer. 
Biographical Work 

With the last narrative strategy for presenting selves, identity takes center stage. 
Whereas identity claims and distancing occur in the context of the production of other 
meanings, biographical work describes those instances in which who the speaker is 
constitutes the "going concern" of the talk. As a result, these passages tend to be longer 
than the simple statements that can convey most identity claims and distancing. Also, 
among the guys in this sample, biographical work is relatively uncommon, perhaps 
because many of the guys are only minimally self-reflective. 

Those who dwell on who they are and how they present themselves, however, 
often spend as much time articulating, questioning, and negotiating their identities as they 
do discussing their sexual experiences and sexual decision making. For these guys, 
biographical work is critical to their efforts to share their experiences because their sense 
of self is an integral part of the context that makes those experiences meaningful. 

One of the most striking examples of this dependence on biographical work is 
offered by Donnie. In the early part of our interview, when we are discussing his time in 
high school, he tells a lengthy story about an incident that occurred in his Junior year. 


Although I will certainly not do justice to the story by summarizing it, the key features 
are important to the biographical work that Donnie produces in relation to it. 

The story describes a vacation that Donnie took with two male friends to a resort 
in Florida. On the first night of their stay, all of the guys had been drinking. When they 
returned to their hotel room, one of the other guys made a pass at Donnie and was 
persistent to the point that Donnie feared he would be molested. But immediately 
following the incident, both other guys turned on Donnie and spread the news around 
school that he had made the advances. Donnie was ostracized at his all-male Catholic 
school and graduated with few lasting friendships. 

This incident, its aftermath, and the fact that Donnie was disparaged throughout 

his childhood for being overweight provide the central narrative resources for elaborate 

identity work that Donnie does throughout the interview. Often, as in the following 

(abridged) passage, this identity work takes the form of biographical work that is 

dedicated to self-presentation: 

I mean, I did very well in school. I don't know how, but I did very well. I mean, 
you'd think with the shit that happened to me, you think it'd be a little more, a 
little more phased, but. When you get picked on from first grade and on, you just 
build a really hard outer shell, and you're just like, "Well, fuck you. You don't 
know what you're missing." And that's how I am with people. I don't mean to 
not trust them, but I'm just very protective of myself because you don't know 
how people will react. And you don't know if you just do the wrong thing, that's 

it. It's over But, uhm, that was high school. And I carry it with me every day. 

There's not a day that doesn't go by that I don't remember it. And it's not easy to 
live with. But it's incredible. I give a lot of credit to women who have been 
raped because this almost turned into a rape and was just something that's marked 
me. And luckily it didn't escalate to that situation. But then I wondered, you 
know, what type of vibe was I giving off? Was I sending any signals to this guy 
that I was interested in him or something [like] that? And, I wouldn't know what 
to deal with, if this actually ever happened. Like if [it (?)] ever [progressed (?)]. I 
wouldn't know what the hell, what I'd do with myself. So I give a lot of credit to 
those survivors [and what they've gone through (?)]. Because I know it can't be 


easy. [Int: Uhm-hm.] I mean, this was just a freak, a fluke of nature, if anything. 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

Over the course of this extract, Donnie presents a number of different identities in 
relation to the incident and other indignities he has suffered. Initially, he presents himself 
as a victor, one who has overcome innumerable hardships to succeed. Quickly, however, 
that depiction gives way to one of a person who has had to become self-protective and 
untrusting to survive. The "survivor" becomes part of Donnie' s presentation of self as 
well: Like a rape victim, Donnie has been "marked" by his experience, which he cannot 
forget and from which he still feels lingering effects. One of these effects bears directly 
on his identity: He occasionally doubts himself and wonders if he bears some 
responsibility for his own victimization. 

The passage is a paradigmatic and powerful example of biographical work 
because the talk of which it is composed is devoted to figuring out, demonstrating, or 
convincing me who Donnie is in relation to his past experiences, particularly the near- 
molestation incident. As he tells it, he is both a victim and a survivor, one who has both 
succeeded and paid a price. The diversity of answers Donnie provides highlights the 
dynamism of biographical work. The strategy does not provide a forum for the 
delineation of static states of being, it is a narrative space in which guys wrestle with who 
they are and how they account for who they are. 

Another example of biographical work that demonstrates this "wrestling" aspect 
even more clearly is offered by Derrick, who is a committed virgin. When I ask him 
what limits he would ideally like to put on his physical encounters with girls, he resorts to 
biographical work to manage the disconnect he perceived between his ideal and his actual 


I would love to be able to not do anything, but that is impossible to me at this 
point right now, it seems. There is no way that I'm gonna be out and this great- 
lookin' girl and, you know, we're ooking' or whatever and then it's like, "Oh, 
well, I'm not gonna kiss you." I mean, that is — I mean, I feel bad about it the 
next day. And like, regardless of how far I go past the point of kissing, it's 
like — I mean, this is making-out full-on kinda thing. I don't know. I'd like to 
curb it at just that, if at all. But, I mean, especially now, especially at this age. It 
was a lot easier in high school. But now, I mean, these girls are just ready to go. 
They're like more aggressive than I am. It's like, "Oh my, God. Gimmie a 
break." So that's where I'd like to. And I feel — Anything past that I feel bad, and 
it's like, "I can't believe I did that. I don't even like this chick." I mean, it's 
more of a sense that I'm cheating myself. 
(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

The passage begins with an odd sort of identity claim: Derrick wants to be a 

certain kind of person (i.e., one who avoids all physical intimacies with girls until he is 

married), but he asserts that "that is impossible to me at this point." In the biographical 

work that follows, he articulates why this is so in terms of his age, the aggressiveness of 

girls who are past high school age, and his notion of masculinity. The role of age is not 

clearly delineated, but it appears to relate to Derrick feeling strong physiological urges, 

having graduated from high school, and being free from parental constraints. The 

aggressiveness of girls contributes to Derrick's conflicted identity because they place the 

burden of avoiding encounters on his shoulders. And masculinity appears to be a third 

factor when Derrick says, "There is no way that I'm gonna be out and this great-lookin* 

girl and, you know, we're ooking' or whatever and then it's like, 'Oh, well, I'm not 

gonna kiss you.'" In a sentiment that clearly associates him with discourse of conquest, 

Derrick insists that he is not the kind of guy who will turn down a girl when kissing is the 

"logical" progression of their involvement. Finally, at the same time that he works to 

manage his identity in relation to the "inevitability" of his involvement with girls, he 

articulates a guilty self who knows that he is only hurting himself by succumbing to girls 


he does not even like. This latter identity provides a kind of damage control in relation to 
the other identity struggle: Although it may be impossible for him to be the type of 
virgin he wants to be, he recognizes his shortcomings and regrets their effects. 


Biographical work, distancing, and identity claims thus comprise an arsenal of 
narrative strategies by which the guys present selves. Sometimes they do this with 
simple statements, sometimes by artful modes of self-reference, and sometimes through 
lengthy deliberations about who they are in relation to past events or the exigencies of the 
interview itself. Each strategy brings identity to the fore and makes visible the 
interpretive work the guys do to construct who they are as they simultaneously strive to 
meet the rhetorical demands of the interview. 


Whether his interview is long or short and his use of narrative strategies simple or 

sophisticated, each of the guys makes frequent use of contrasting. Very simply, 

contrasting refers to the production of contrast structures, placing two or more narrative 

constructs (e.g., ideas, people, groups, events) in relation to one another and interpreting 

the significance of the differences that are identified. In my interviews, I sometimes 

solicit contrast structures deliberately. For instance, James and I are discussing what it 

takes for a person to be comfortable with and agreeable to the idea of having sex, and I 

ask specifically about sex differences in what constitutes this "readiness": 

I: Do you think it's different for guys and girls in terms of how they get 

ready for sex, when they're ready for sex? 

R: Naw. Well, actually, yeah. 'Cause a girl, a nice ooking' girl can get it 

anytime she wants it. But dudes have to like work for it. They got to like, 
know what I'm say in', go out with the girl, take her out to eat, be nice to ' 
her and stuff like that. But a girl, she's got what you want. So if she's just 
givin' it out, then she's gonna have what she wants and then. You, you 


gotta work for it. Dudes gotta work for it. But if a girl wants it, she can 
have it just about any time. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

In his response, James equates "readiness" with "availability." The essential 
difference that he articulates is that sex is always available to girls, particularly attractive 
ones, while guys always have to pursue it and persuade girls to give it to them. The 
contrast structure introduces this difference in the first two sentences ("'Cause a girl, a 
nice ooking' girl can get it anytime she wants it. But dudes have to like work for it."), 
then emphasizes it by shifting back and forth between depictions of guys and girls. The 
striking thing about this passage, as with all contrast structures, is that it polarizes topics 
and places differences in sharp relief. In this case, for instance, the implication is that 
there is little if any common ground between how guys and girls experience their 
readiness for or the availability of sex. And while it may be argued that my question 
asked for such a stark contrast, such entreaties also leave open the possibility for the 
person responding to contradict or seek to amend the terms of the question. 

At any rate, guys often produce contrast structures without any prompting from 
me. For instance, when I ask Del what he thinks it will be like to loss his virginity, he 
uses a contrast structure to convey his sense that the quality of the experience will depend 
on the context: 

Well, depends on who it is with. I mean, if it's someone I don't really know, like 
a hooker or something like that, not be too great. But if it's someone I really love 
and care about and they care about me, it's probably gonna be one of the best 
things in the world. 
(Del: 14-year-old, White, virgin) 

Del's choice of sex with a hooker and sex in a loving relationship as the targets of 
his contrast makes the relationship between the partners the defining feature of the 


experience. It is in this regard that the two scenarios differ, and it is on the basis of this 
difference that Del asserts that losing his virginity to a hooker would "not be too great," 
while losing it to someone he loves and cares about would be "one of the best things in 
the world." 


As ubiquitous as contrasting, perhaps more so, categorizing represents the most 
fundamental act of meaning-making, naming. In our everyday lives, we often treat 
names as though they were inherent properties of the things we attach them to, and in so 
doing we render the naming process invisible. Identifying categorizing as a narrative 
strategy is simply a recognition that naming is not an automatic or impartial act, but a 
deliberate one that produces meaning. 

When the topics at hand are sex and sexual decision making, the role categorizing 
plays in the production of particular realities can be especially powerful. Simply 
recalling the many ways that the language common to the discourse of conquest 
sexualizes, objectifies, and dehumanizes girls makes the point. However, another aspect 
of the interviews that is worth examining in this regard is the relative importance of 
sexual status (i.e., virgin versus nonvirgin) to guys' sense of self and others. Looking at 
categorizations will not provide a definitive answer to this question of personal and social 
identity. It will, however, suggest some of the ways that guys construct the relevance of 
sexual status, while simultaneously demonstrating how categorization functions as a 
narrative strategy. 

When the question of sexual status comes up in the context of actual social 
relationships, both virgins and nonvirgins categorize their friendships in ways that 


minimized its importance. Consider, first, how Sean, a virgin, describes the people in his 

church who are sexually active : 

I: Well, how do you, how do you view the other people in your church, in 

your youth group that you know, uhm, have had sex. 

R: Well, I mean. I view 'em just as my friends, you know. I mean, most of 
my, most of my friends have had sex before, I mean. And, most of 'em. I 
mean, some of 'em haven't, uhm. But I really don't think less of 'em or 
think any more of them, I just think of them as [my?] friends. 

(Sean: 16-year-old, White, virgin) (emphasis added) 

Twice in this passage Sean describes the nonvirgins in his church as his friends, 
and each time he does so he adds the qualifier "just" to emphasize the irrelevance of 
sexual status. By categorizing them "just as my friends," Sean asserts that their status as 
nonvirgins does not qualify how he sees them. These nonvirgin friends are on equal 
footing with Sean's virgin ones. 

When James, a nonvirgin, talks about virgins who might be in his friendship 
group, sexual status is not irrelevant, but, again, specific categories help minimize its 

I: Do you and the guys that you hang out with, does it make a difference 

whether somebody you're with is a virgin or not? 

R: No. We might mess with him every now and then, just playin' with him. 
But we won't like blow it outta proportion like not chill with him 
anymore. They're gonna be our boy regardless, but. They're virgins, 
that's just fine. 

(James: 1 6-year-old, White, nonvirgin) (emphasis added) 

In this instance, James admits that the virgin is likely to be teased occasionally. 
But when all is said and done, he is still one of the boys. By describing the virgin as "our 
boy," James invokes a vocabulary of adolescent male friendships, often associated with 
African- American youth, in which one's closest allies are his "homeboys." Categorizing 


the virgin in these terms denotes that he will be embraced by the group with the same 

loyalty and intensity of any other member, virgin or otherwise. 

While sexual status thus appears to be largely irrelevant when specific social 

relationships are considered, some guys still find it relevant in terms of the general social 

environment. In various ways, several virgins (and many nonvirgins) indicate that the 

message they receive from society at large (the generalized other) is that virginity is not 

normal for guys. Matthew and Sean enlist powerful categories to make the point: 

I think they just think, you know, goody-two-shoes or whatever. 
(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) (emphasis added) 

I: When you feel that pressure, is the feeling similar or different or. you 

know, and how is it — 

R: It kinda builds up like, like anxiety kinda, you know, or it builds up — not 
uncool, just, like, different, you know. I'm just, Vmjust different. I'm 
not, I'm not savin' myself at that point, I'm just bein' different than 
everybody else. 

(Sean: 16-year-old, White, virgin) (emphasis added) 

Matthew's use of the term "goody-two-shoes" suggests that the "problem" with 
virgins, as others see it, is that they are overly proper, unwilling or afraid to do something 
that others might consider wrong. Sean makes a similar observation, but he does so by 
focusing on how he feels, not what "society" implies. Most of the time, Sean says he 
does not feel the social pressure to have sex. However, when he does, he is transformed 
from someone who is saving himself into someone who is just different. This shift in 
how Sean categorizes himself reflects the weight of social expectations. But even more 
importantly, the description of his altered sense of self as "different" conveys the 
detrimental nature of the transformation. In the discourse of adolescents, few categories 
are as powerful and pejorative. 



In our interviews, it is common for the guys to occasionally take on different 
voices — figuratively and sometimes literally — and to signal in other ways that their 
words should be bracketed, via quotation marks, from other speech. This narrative 
strategy, which I call parroting, can be put to a number of strategic effects. By way of 
introduction to the strategy, I describe three of these uses: quotations as adjectives, 
speaking for collectives, and quotations as "straw men." 
Quotations as Adjectives 

On the face of things, it seems reasonable to assume that a primary reason why a 

speaker would assume a different narrative voice would be to attribute some idea or 

attitude to the person or group spoken for. Yet in some instances this function, while 

present, appears to be superceded by a different purpose. The guy speaks for others 

primarily to dramatize a point that he is trying to make or to articulate an idea for which 

he cannot find his own words. In this unique scenario, the words that the speaker 

attributes to some other subjective position become, in essence, an adjectival or adverbial 

phrase in a sentence that the speaker begins from his position as narrator. Matthew 

demonstrates this strategic use of quoting others when he explains what he believes 

would constitute having sex in opposition to ("out of) God's will: 

Out of God's will I think they're just doin' it for pleasure, the spur of the 
moment, you know, "Let's get high or off of this for the moment, and we'll 
do it." Do it with anybody you want just for the thrill of it, just to get, you 
know, pleasure for that one moment. 
(Matthew: 1 5-year-old, White, virgin) 

While Matthew's quote certainly reflects an attitude that he attributes to this generalized 

other— this "they" that has sex for fun— the phrase he speaks for them is not a separate 


thought that can stand separately from the sentence he has already begun in his voice as 
narrator. The entire quotation represents another way of saying "doing it for pleasure" or 
"spur of the moment," and, semantically, it could be replaced with a single word like 
"hedonistically." Rather than searching for his own adjectives or adverbs, however, the 
context of the interview gives him the freedom to shift narrative positions in mid- 
sentence and put words in the mouths of those whose ideas he seeks to describe. Doing 
so not only preserves the flow of his speech, but it also allows him to give the others a 
presence in the interview that is tailor-made to his perception of them. And while this 
particular strategic use of narrative shifts, more than others, seems concentrated among 
the speech of my younger participants, I find it occasionally in the talk of several older, 
more eloquent guys as well. 
Speaking for Collectives 

As often as the guys assume the subjective position of a single person or some 
projected sense of themselves, they give a voice to some group in order to articulate how 
they believe the group's members think or act. Jerry uses this strategy, for example, 
when he explains to me what some of his male peers, who he described as "sex fiends," 
say when they talk about girls and sex. After suggesting that they should masturbate if 
their urges are so strong, he speaks for them to demonstrate their vulgarity: 

If you so much a fiend for sex then why don't you do that [masturbate]? 
You know, everybody, "Oh, I want to hit this girl. She's fine. She got a 
fat bootie. Oh, she look good! Man, I want to get up in that!" You know, 
it's just crazy man. 
(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Although he is not relating the specific words of a specific person, Jerry rhetorically 

constructs a class of people (male sex fiends) and portrays them through what are. 


ostensibly, their own words. Notice that the strategy allows Jerry to present these people 

in all their coarseness and slang, without himself being "defiled" by association with their 

words or thoughts. (In fact, the sentence that follows their quote is an evaluative 

statement that intentionally creates distance.) In this way, speaking for collectives 

"immunizes" speakers in a manner similar to disclaimers (Hewitt and Stokes 1975). 

Another element of the rhetorical power of this strategy lies in its malleability: 

Any collection of persons that a speaker can assemble can be given its own narrative 

voice. Male respondents can speak for "all women," as many of the guys do at some 

point in their interview. As the interviewer, I can use the technique to query respondents 

about the attitudes presumed to be held by particular groups. For instance, I might speak 

for young Christian males who are committed virgins in an effort to elicit a response 

from a nonvirgin respondent. The power to speak for collectives even extends beyond 

the realm of sentient beings to include inanimate objects, as Andrew demonstrates when 

he contrasts the "voices" of television and books: 

And the TV says, "This is right and this wrong. This is right and this is 
wrong." And books say, you know, "This is this guy's perspective, and 
this is this guy's perspective. And this is how this is right in this guy's 
eyes and this is how this is wrong in this guy's eyes." And you see ideas 
and, you know, and books aren't telling you, "This is how you should live 
your life." 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

Encapsulating his notion of the difference between the mediums in short, stark statements 

and speaking for them is an extremely effective way for Andrew to dramatize his disgust 

with television. Not only does it carry the novelty of making inanimate entities speak, it 

limits their voice to exactly what he "hears" — namely, unequivocal pronouncements from 

television, and nuance and ambiguity from books. 


Quotations as "Straw Men" 

Speaking for someone, some collective, or some thing also appears to be an 

effective and popular way to tell others that they are wrong. It is extremely common in 

the interviews for the guys to take on another subjective position for the express purpose 

of then returning to their voice as narrator and contradicting, disagreeing with, or 

distancing themselves from what has been said. Andrew provides an example of this use 

of quotations in talk when he makes it clear that he does not agree with males or females 

who believe they can control members of the opposite sex with sex: 

You know, you see a girl, and she'll be like, "Ha," you know, "I got him 
wrapped around my finger because I'm having sex with him." And the 
guy's like, "Ah, she's gone in a week, once I get my kicks off." And 
[pause] both those ideals are pretty friggin' wrong. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

In this and other cases of quotations as "straw men," the evaluative statement that 

concludes the quotation is as important as the quotation, if not more so. The words that 

are spoken in the narrative voice or voices of others are set ups that allow the Respondent 

as Narrator to clarify his or her position, often in an evaluative statement, by means of 

stark contrast to that attributed to others. With complete rhetorical control over not only 

what they say, but what others are alleged to say, the interview is an ideal context for 

respondents to raise and raze straw men in the interest of constructing meanings that 

serve the demands of both persuasion and self-presentation. 

As the example of these three particular uses demonstrate, parroting is a powerful 

and flexible narrative strategy. With it, speakers add multivocality to interviews in ways 

that serve a variety of rhetorical ends. To be sure, researcher interpretation is involved in 

deciding exactly when speakers make shifts in narrative position, but this ambiguity 


should not diminish our appreciation and recognition of this narrative strategy. The need 
for interpretation is no greater with regard to parroting than it is with telling, and 
parroting may be a more important strategy than telling for these guys. A cursory 
examination suggests that use of the former is at least as prevalent as the latter. Indeed, 
the strategy may be attractive to guys precisely because it does not require the production 
of sophisticated narrative structures associated with stories and, to a lesser extent, pseudo 

Some of the narrative strategies I have reviewed in this chapter are quite 
sophisticated; stories can be intricate, lengthy tales and parroting involves purposeful 
manipulation of other narrative voices, for example. But if we consider categorizing, 
identity claims, distancing, contrasting, and the pseudo stories, many of the strategies are 
remarkably simple; they are just statements, particular words, or the loose ordering of 
less-than-real events. The fact that they are simple does not mean that they are trivial, 
however. In fact, just the opposite is the case. As I noted at the beginning of the chapter, 
the relative lack of dependence on stories in the interviews with these guys prompted me 
to ask the following question: "How do they convey their ideas, some of which are quite 
sophisticated, without making liberal use of stories?" I, like many narrative analysts, 
assumed that complicated ideas needed sophisticated narrative vehicles to carry them. I 
was wrong. The strategies described in this chapter represent the primary means by 
which the guys achieved their rhetorical goals in our interviews, and, by and large, they 
are deceptively simple. In retrospect, it makes sense: If your experience does not include 
a large storehouse of stories or you do not have the narrative sophistication to construct 


complex narrative structures (two possibilities that will be explored further in Chapter 8), 
your best course of action may be to do more with less. 

I believe the notion of doing more with less aptly characterizes what the guys do 
with narrative in our interviews. Few of them tell intricate stories, but virtually all of 
them make use of every tool in the vast array that I have described here. What's more, 
they take full advantage of the fact that the different strategies are largely complimentary. 
Speaking as a collective can provide the basis for contrasting, distancing can be achieved 
in the context of a habitual narrative, and so on. In the end, the interplay of these 
relatively simple strategies results in complex meaning-making arrangements that rival 
many highly developed stories. 

In the next section, I examine some of these instances of narrative work in 
relation to their result. Recall that at the conclusion of the last chapter, I noted that the 
three discourses of sexual decision making, while not available exclusively to young men 
like the guys I interviewed, raise unique narrative challenges for them by virtue of their 
sex and position in the life course. In the next two chapters, I describe those age- and 
sex-specific mediators, and I examine how the guys use the narrative strategies to 
navigate the narrative challenges the mediators raise. In Chapter 7, 1 focus on the 
mediation of the discourses of relationship and piety by the three 
mediators — independence, belonging, and masculinity. However, I first devote an entire 
chapter to the mediation of the most influential discourse, the discourse of conquest. 


The groundwork I laid in previous chapters, which focused on discourses-in- 
practice (the three discourses) and discursive practice (narrative strategies), now allows 
me to examine how the boys navigate various narrative challenges that arise during the 
interviews. Doing so can be an extremely powerful means of examining how boys use 
language to account for their sexual decisions and present their sexual selves. The key to 
this approach is carefully identifying the narrative challenges that will be investigated. 

Narrative Challenges 

At base, virtually every moment in an interview presents a narrative challenge 
since meanings must always be made and identities constructed. But not all moments tax 
a guy's narrative practices such that the effects of his selection of narrative resources and 
use of strategies are highly visible and consequential. Nor are the most powerful 
narrative challenges purely idiosyncratic. In a previous chapter, I mentioned that 
discourses constantly raise narrative challenges for those who draw on them because 
individuals rarely, if ever, wish to commit to every single idea, perspective, or mode of 
action promulgated by a particular discourse. These challenges can be important 
instigators of identity work for individual guys, but even larger challenges — ones that 
virtually all the guys must confront in some fashion — may arise by virtue of the way that 
discourses interact with social factors. 



In the case of the guys in this study, gender and age appear to effect the identities 
the guys seek to convey. This fact should not be surprising since it is a fundamental 
sociological principle that those factors that people have in common will often cause 
them to confront similar issues. Also, academic and popular writing suggests that 
adolescence is a time when males confront a number of pressing, on-going identity 
concerns. Although we could surely compile a lengthy list of identity issues that 
adolescent males face, three in particular seem to have the greatest urgency for these 
guys. These concerns are (1) demonstrating some form of masculinity; (2) asserting 
independence from others; and, paradoxically, (3) confirming that one "belongs," 
particularly among peer groups. During our interviews, talk rarely proceeds for long 
without one or more of these elements being somehow insinuated into a guy's self- 
presentation. It is as if the guys approach the interview with "identity agendas" 
associated with their gender and position in the life course. Each of the three items on 
that agenda then mediate guys' articulations of the three discourses of sexual decision 
making. Narrative challenges arise as the resources offered by particular discourses 
complicate, challenge, or otherwise frustrate guys' efforts to satisfy their identity agendas 
in the course of participating in the interviews. 

It is these narrative challenges that I will target in the ensuing chapters because, to 
paraphrase Susan Chase (1995a), it is these that represent the embodiment of cultural 
relationships in actual practice. In Chapter 7, 1 will focus on how the discourses of 
relationship and piety are mediated by the three items on the guys' identity agendas. 
However, the current chapter is devoted exclusively to the mediation of the discourse of 
conquest. This discourse is singled out because, as will become evident in both chapters, 


the resources of the discourse of conquest, by virtue of their relative concurrence with 
ideals of hegemonic masculinity, function as a kind of benchmark, against which guys 
define their sexual decisions and sexual selves. This benchmark relates primarily to 
expressions of masculinity, but it also includes implicit indications of how concerns 
regarding independence and belonging should be addressed. In the following discussion, 
I remain cognizant of the theoretical propositions about masculinities that I outlined in 
Chapter 1, including the fact that there are multiple masculinities. For the sake of clarity, 
however, I use the singular "masculinity" when referring in general to the gender-based 
identity concerns of males. 

The Three Mediators 

I mentioned earlier that academic and popular literatures support my contention 
that adolescent males typically struggle with a myriad of identity concerns. This point 
fosters little debate. Indeed, if we assume that identity development is required to reach 
adulthood, then such struggles are implicit in the very definition of adolescence 
(Webster 's New Ninth Collegiate Dictionary 1990). What may require a greater degree 
of justification is my assertion that these concerns in particular — masculinity, 
independence, and belonging — mediate adolescent males' encounters with the discourses 
of sexual decision making. On what basis do I stake my claim that these factors are 
likely to be part of guys' identity agendas? Let me address this question briefly. 

The importance of belonging to guys' sense of self is not hard to document. The 
very notion of peer pressure, the social compulsion to do as your friends are doing, is 
synonymous with adolescence. Recent novels (Plum-Ucci 2001) and self-help titles 
(McCoy & Wibbelsman 1996) aimed at teens reflect the importance belonging has for 


that audience, and some researchers have linked the difficulties of not belonging to 
adolescent violence (Lefkowitz 1997; Page 2001). Research also continues to suggest 
that displays of heterosexuality provide a critical means by which guys establish their 
"insider" status to other guys (Connell 1998; Hollingshead 1949), and for support of 
these assertions one need look no further than popular cinema. The link between 
belonging and public affirmations of heterosexuality among guys has often been 
portrayed in film, most recently in the blockbuster comedy, American Pie (Herz 1999). 
Aimed at young males, the movie tells the story of a group of guys who make a pact 
designed to ensure that each of them loses his virginity before graduating high school. 
The incredible popularity of this movie provides evidence not only that belonging is a 
prime concern for adolescent males, but also that the demonstration of heterosexuality as 
a sign of belonging among guys continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. 

The status of independence as a pressing identity concern is also fairly simple to 
establish. In academic circles, psychologists especially (McElhaney & Allen 2001 ; 
Noom, Dekovic, & Meeus (1999), but sociologists, too (Thome 1993), have noted that 
adolescence is a period in which both boys and girls struggle with the transition from 
dependence to autonomy. The concern for establishing independence has also received 
attention from self-help authors (Palmer & Froehner 2000), although not as much as has 
been paid to belonging and peer pressure. In the final analysis, however, the urgency of 
the quest for independence among adolescent males may be most aptly demonstrated 
where it has been vented for the last 50 years, in music. Factions of hip-hop, rap, heavy 
metal, speed metal, and punk rock take the rejection of authority and the assertion of 
independence as their raison d'etre. 


My confidence that masculinity is a part of the identity agenda of virtually any 

adolescent guy comes from both direct and indirect sources. One indirect source of 

support is the fact that the popular conception of male development remains that 

manhood is not a given, a boy must become a man (Clatterbaugh 1997). Direct support 

comes from men who have written first person accounts of how they worried about 

becoming men when they were adolescents. For instance, Julius Lester describes how 

the focus of his clumsy efforts to demonstrate his masculinity shifted from sports to girls 

when he entered adolescence: 

Through no fault of my own I reached adolescence. While the pressure to prove 
myself on the athletic field lessened, the overall situation got worse — because 
now I had to prove myself with girls. Just how I was supposed to go about doing 
this was beyond me, especially because, at the age of fourteen, I was four feet 
nine and weighed seventy-eight pounds. (I think there may have been one ten- 
year-old girl in the neighborhood smaller than I.) Nonetheless, duty called, and 
with my ninth-grade-gym-class jockstrap flapping between my legs, off I went, 
(quoted in: Franklin 1988, p. 158) 

In what he calls a "critical autobiography," David Jackson (1990) recalls being 

similarly self-conscious about failing to measure up to benchmarks of traditional 

masculinity, a situation that he now interprets through the lens of his academic 

understanding of gender: 

From early adolescence onwards I've been ashamed of my "unmanliness." I 
think I know how that sense of inadequacy was produced in me. I certainly know 
that my culturally learned view of my own body as "unmanly" mainly comes 
from the socially constructed contrasts between ideal, heterosexual norms, and a 
withering sense of my own puniness. But that recently acquired awareness didn't 
prevent me from feeling inadequate, especially between the ages of 10 and 16: 
ashamed of not having to shave until well after most boys had started; ashamed of 
my breaking voice, seesawing from husky gruffness to a thin, squeaky piping; 
ashamed of my ridiculous, unboylike hands — smooth, delicate and "never seen a 
hard day's work in their lives." (pp. 168-169) 


These and other poignant depictions of boys' struggles to claim masculinities during 
adolescence date from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, loosely mirroring the period 
during which some men were spurred to a personal, self-conscious examination of their 
manhood by their encounters with feminism. 

Although the promulgation of such stories appears to have abated in the past ten 
years in favor of theoretical and sociopolitical critiques of masculinities, many of the 
cultural features that provide a context for such stories remain, including age-segregated 
school environments that invite boys to compare themselves with their peers and a 
relative lack of bona fide sexual education in a culture that is saturated with sexual 
messages. In light of this context and the persistence of the "coming of age" narrative as 
an expression of adolescent male experience, I feel confident in asserting that coming to 
terms with the masculine (however defined) is an on-going, pressing identity concern for 
contemporary young men. As such, it is bound to mediate how the guys I interviewed 
use available discourses to account for their decisions about sexual behavior and how 
they present themselves in relation to those decisions. 
Masculinity, Mediation, and Hegemony 

Managing this on-going identity concern compels these boys to relate themselves 
in some way to the hegemonic mode of masculinity. As the commonly accepted ideal of 
manhood, the mode that tops the hierarchy of masculinities, the hegemonic form 
ostensibly represents how every guy should strive to be a man. In the mid-1970s, 
psychologist Robert Brannon summarized this standard of manhood in four "catch" 


1. "No Sissy Stuff!": Masculinity is the relentless repudiation of the feminine. 

2. "Be a Big Wheel.": Masculinity is measured by power, success, wealth, and 


3. "Be a Sturdy Oak.": Real men never show their emotions, particularly 

emotions that might be associated with weakness, such as fear or crying. 

4. "Give 'em Hell.": Real men are daring, aggressive, and eager to take risks, 
(adapted from Kimmel 1994, pp. 125-126) 

Despite the passage of a quarter century, Brannon's description needs little revision to be 

current. If we add a phrase like, "Be a Player," that points to the importance of active 

and routine demonstrations of heterosexuality to the contemporary model of masculinity, 

I think this characterization provides a useful touchstone for our subsequent discussions 

of masculinity as a mediator. 

In practice, few men, if any, can live up to this ideal (Kimmel 1994) and some 

have intentionally stopped trying to (National Organization of Men Against Sexism 1998; 

Stoltenberg 1993). Nevertheless, it exists as the standard, and most guys feel compelled 

to account for even minor deviations from it. Groups who experience significant social 

or practical barriers to meeting the standard often construct and seek to validate 

alternative masculinities. Franklin (1984) and, more recently, Majors and Billson (1992) 

have documented this trend among African-American adult males, for instance, and Brod 

(1994) has examined the construction of Jewish masculinities. Adolescent males, too, 

may seek to develop different masculinities that de-emphasize the emblems of hegemonic 

masculinity that are less accessible to them, such as financial success or certain 

indications of independence (e.g., housing of their own). Still, these alternative 

masculinities reflect back on hegemonic masculinity in as much as they are adaptations 

of or reactions to it. Thus, hegemonic masculinity creates narrative challenges for guys 

whether they seek to embrace or resist it. 


The Relationship of the Discourse of Conquest to Hegemonic Masculinity 

These challenges are likely to involve the discourse of conquest as well, since this 
discourse provides the narrative resources for the hegemonic project. As I have noted in 
previous chapters, discourses are repositories of narrative resources for constructing, 
among other things, masculinities. In and of themselves, however, they do not produce 
masculinities. That said, it should be clear from my description of the three discourses in 
Chapter 4 that each discourse includes resources that facilitate the construction of certain 
masculinities over others. For instance, with its emphasis on relating to girls, basing 
sexual decisions on one's degree of "connection" with partners, and striving for 
commitment, the discourse of relationship provides resources more amenable to a 
sensitive, nurturing masculinity than the dominance-oriented hegemonic masculinity. 

By the same token, I think it is appropriate to say that the discourse of conquest 
provides the resources for the construction of hegemonic masculinity. This is not to say, 
however, that articulating the discourse of conquest invariably produces hegemonic 
masculinity. As with all instances of narrative practice, the meanings that result depend 
on how resources are assembled and managed. One guy may draw heavily on the 
conquest discourse and construct an identity consistent with the hegemonic model of 
manhood. However, another may use similar resources in ways that exaggerate 
hegemonic characteristics to that point that the identity he produces is hypermasculine. 
Still a third guy may manage the resources of the discourse such that his masculinity does 
not exhibit the focus on dominance associated with hegemonic masculinity, but 
nonetheless privileges the pursuit of sex over the pursuit of relationships. In sum, while 
it is fair to say that hegemonic masculinity represents a convenient code for the axis 


along with the resources of the conquest discourse coalesce, we should never lose sight of 
the fact that masculinity, like other aspects of identity, is produced through narrative 
practice, never given a priori. 

In the remainder of the chapter, I examine the narrative challenges raised by 
masculinity as well as the other two discourse mediators — independence and 
belonging — as they emerge in relation to guys' articulations of the discourse of conquest. 
I begin by demonstrating how the guys' manage resources from the discourse to construct 
the terms of belonging for themselves and others. Next, I explore how the guys navigate 
three different challenges to their masculinity that arise from their articulation of the 
discourse of conquest. Finally, I examine how guys seek to navigate identity challenges 
that emerge when they try to construct identities with a mix of resources from the 
discourse of conquest and one of the other discourses. 

In the interest of space and providing the fullest possible reckoning of the 
contours of these challenges, I will in some cases present the navigation of the challenge 
through a single case study. The majority of the time, this single case is axiomatic of 
other cases that are not presented. In a few other instances, the case presented is unique 
among those I interviewed, but I present it because I believe it represents either a 
narrative challenge that other guys may face or a response to a challenge that others 
might employ. 

Constructing the Importance of Belonging Within the Discourse of Conquest 

So long as adolescence is identified as a distinct portion of the life course and 
constructed as a transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, belonging will 
likely be a central concern to those who are in it. Evaluating to what degree self and 


others "fit in" becomes a way of learning, sharing, molding and testing the norms of new 
social situations, like dating, assuming leadership roles, and separating from parents and 
other authority figures. 

While belonging may always be important, how it is defined is always subject to 
change. Different groups use different criteria, and that which earns one acceptance 
within a particular group can vary radically over even short periods of time. The fact that 
the meaning of "belonging" is not given means those who articulate the discourse of 
conquest must work to construct belonging in a particular way. The guys I interviewed 
manage the resources of the discourse so that belonging is tied to two basic criteria, being 
sexual and being loyal to a male peer group. The importance of being sexual necessitates 
the use of rhetorical strategies— what I call "virginity status tests" — by which guys seek 
to determine who is and who is not appropriately sexual. The male peer group, or "male 
fraternity," insulates guys in a homosocial environment into which girls are allowed only 
intermittently and only as sexual partners or potential sexual partners. Thus, by its very 
nature, the male fraternity provides a check on guys' adherence to the sexual component 
of belonging at the same time that it demands loyalty from its members. In the 
discussion that follows, I examine how the guys routinely assert and affirm these criteria 
of belonging as they articulate the discourse of conquest. 
Male Fraternity 

Passages that construct belonging in terms of a male fraternity abound in the 
interviews. They appear even in the talk of guys who are especially reticent or who tell 
few stories. For instance, Jamal and Alvin, who are among the quieter guys, articulate 
the relevance of a male fraternity to their sense of belonging and, by extension, their 


sexual decision making during a volley of questions and answers with me. Their 
comments highlight how displaying heterosexuality and fitting in with other guys are 
inextricably linked in the context of the fraternity, but they also demonstrate subtle 
variations that can occur within that context: 

R: With me, I just hang out with about 4 or 5 people. 

I: And among those 4 or 5, are you the top guy? 

R: Not really, I'm [probably (?)] about second or third. 

I: Tell me about the guys that are like second with you and first. 

R: They probably the one that everybody like and stuff. The one that can 

fight and all that. Get any girl they want. The rich ones. 
(Jamal: 16-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

I: And in some ways, it was also that you knew that this would change how 

your uncle and his friends thought of you? 

R: Mmm-hm. I probably thought it probably would, which it did, anyway. 

I: How did their attitude toward you change after that? 

R: How'd my attitude change? 

I: No, their attitude toward you. 

R: Well, they just took me around more often with them. I went about 

everywhere wit 'em. I was always wit 'em. I was just like the little, little 
man with them. 

(Alvin: 19-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

Both Alvin and Jamal suggest that the fraternities they belong to are to some degree 
hierarchical and that one's position in the hierarchy is related to one's prowess (or 
presumed prowess?) with girls. Indeed, Alvin points to the loss of his virginity as the 
critical rite of passage through which he gained membership to his fraternity. Alvin's 
experience is perhaps unusual, however, because it appears that he is a sort of junior 


member of a fraternity that consists of older males, including his uncle. Most of the guys 
indicate that their male fraternities consist of guys who are their age. The age difference 
between Alvin and the rest of the members of his male fraternity likely accentuates the 
sense of hierarchy in this case. At the same time, it aptly reflects the kind of striving for 
emblems of adult masculinity, like sexual experience, that characterize male fraternities. 

Jamal's description of the terms of belonging he associates with his fraternity 
underscores this point. Among his peers, acceptance and standing are garnered not just 
by demonstrating success with girls, but by displaying other hallmarks of hegemonic 
masculinity as well, such as fighting and being wealthy. The inclusion of these latter 
criteria in the "status accounting" of the male fraternity is not common among the guys I 
interviewed, but it is consistent with the notion of male fraternities as domains within 
which the terms of belonging are linked to the "practice" — in all senses of the word — of 
hegemonic masculinity. 

An interest in sex and the display of heterosexuality are not the only ties that bind 

a male fraternity together, however. Male fraternities are also constructed as groups that 

extol the bonds of brotherhood. As such, they emphasize and encourage guys' social 

distance from girls, and they foster the notion that guys owe loyalty to other members of 

the fraternity precisely because they are males. L.J. articulates the centrality of maleness 

and loyalty to the fraternity in a story he tells about a friend who is— in L.J.'s 

words— "pussy-whipped." The evaluation portion of that story sums up his points: 

Man, it's like this cat he don't wanna keep with the boys no more, Man. He be 
like at the girl's house all day, all night. [Us two (?)] he ain't wanna spend time 
with. But, Man, your boys were here before your girl. Know what I'm sayin'? 
Keep it real. Hang with your boys. He was just getting' pussy-whipped and 
wanna go walk to the girl's. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 


The candor and passion of L.J. 's speech are rather unique, but his suggestion that guys 

betray their brethren when they choose relationships with girls over the camaraderie of 

the male friendship group is not. Indeed, the notion of pussy-whipping, which is hardly 

L.J.'s creation, functions as a check on guys' commitments to their fraternities. Much 

like "cooties" to elementary school boys, the term "pussy-whipped" carries the 

implication that a guy has strayed too far into the "girls' camp" and risks contamination. 

As such, it encourages and reinforces the repudiation of the feminine that is a hallmark of 

hegemonic masculinity. 

Virginity Status Tests 

While baiting guys with the epithet "pussy-whipped" primarily functions to 

establish the rules of belonging within male fraternities, the strategies guys have 

developed from the resources of the discourse of conquest for establishing who belongs 

are not limited to this insulated environment. Those who articulate this discourse assert 

the importance of interest in sex and the display of heterosexuality in larger social circles 

by making an effort to separate the virgins from the nonvirgins. To that end. several 

guys, even some who tend to articulate the discourse of relationship, report that they have 

tactics for ferreting out virgins based on how they talk about sex. Donnie, for instance, 

does not so much describe his strategy as display it in a passage that combines parroting 

and contrasting. He speaks in the voices of two guys claiming to have had sex; one 

displays excessive bravado while the other is more pensive and reticent, almost contrite: 

You know, when you hear a guy, "Oh, she was GREAT!" I'm like, "You know, 
you're so insecure of yourself you have to just fuckin' go head and say it to the 
whole world. I don't believe you." Your eyes do not lie. That's one thing. Your 
eye won't lie. And when a person can tell, look you in the eye and say, "Yeah, 
look it happened. I wasn't expecting it. And I regret it." Or, most times their 


like, "Well it was great, but I kind wish I waited off." I tend to believe it more 
than just, "Oh, she was GREAT! Three or four times! Oh my God!" 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

As Donnie sees it, excessive boasting about sexual exploits is the mark of the liar; it is the 

way a guy talks when he is putting on a show of being experienced. In contrast, guys 

who have actually lost their virginity speak in less vulgar, hyperbolic terms, and will 

likely express some regret about having had sex. For Donnie, who is a committed virgin, 

the poles of belonging are reversed in favor of virgins. But his description of a strategy 

for identifying those who lie about their status belies his recognition that virginity status 

is an important aspect of belonging among adolescent guys. 

Other guys take a more interactive approach. When a guy makes a claim about 
his sexual status, they challenge it, believing they can establish the guy's "true" status 
through his response. In essence, they force the guy to endure a rhetorical gauntlet, the 
experience of which they believe will expose those who are lying about their status. 
Morgan describes a particularly viscous version of this gauntlet that he uses with guys 
who claim to be committed virgins. In this case, the challenges to the guy's claim 
degenerate into a kind of shaming ritual: 

I: So a guy who says he doesn't wanna have sex till he's married is lying? 

R: Oh, most definitely. You know for a fact they're a liar. We both know 
they'll lie. Let's put it that way. I mean, come on, you know he's gonna 

I: So what do you think of a guy that does that? 

R: I call him a liar, until he'll admit it. And if he don't admit it, and you keep 
sayin' it. Alright. And then he finally cries and breaks down and says, 
"Yeah, Man, I'm still a virgin." Then I'll believe him. Till he cries and 
proves to me he's not, you're a liar. 

(Morgan: 1 7-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 


Morgan's strategy is undoubtedly cruel, but it is this cruelty that so clearly aligns 
this test of belonging with the discourse of conquest: Guys who want their claims to 
virginity to be believed must abdicate their claims to a privileged masculinity by crying. 

Not all efforts to separate the virgins from the nonvirgins are as direct and 

aggressive as Morgan's, but they share the basic philosophy that the more guys talk, the 

more the truth will come out. Jerry makes this point in an hypothetical narrative he tells 

about how guys scrutinize other guys' sex talk: 

Yeah, it's like this male thing like man. Yeah. Coming like a bunch of males, 
"Yeah. All right. You know what I'm saying? Yeah. Had sex with this girl last 
night. Man, whoa! She was the bomb! Whoa! Man, she had some good pussy," 
like that. You know, and then he could say the same thing but different to the 
next guy. Like say for instance, like this guy come over, he talkin* bout, "'Yeah I 
just had sex with this girl." There's like four guys there. And then, the guy that 
was there that he was talking to and telling about it and the other two guys that 
was there, then the next guy might be there with a new crowd and he telling the 
story, but differently. And the guy's witnessing that. "Wait a minute. Hold up. 
But he said he just had sex with — What? He's lying!" You know what I'm 
saying? And that's bad! It's bad to lie on your penis like that. It's bad. It's very 
(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

In this instance, the guy purporting to have had sex is not challenged by a single 
person, but his lie is exposed as he is caught telling the story differently to different 

The narrative production of male fraternities and the rhetorical strategies by 
which guys determine others' virginity status are important for a number of reasons. At 
base, they are relevant because they vividly demonstrate how important sex is to these 
guys and how the guys who articulate the discourse of conquest routinely and 
purposefully group themselves together as males. However, these narrative maneuvers 
are even more important in that they demonstrate how concern for belonging mediates 


the guys' management of the discourse of conquest. We can imagine other groups, such 
as twenty-something professionals, for whom bonds between males — or belonging, for 
that matter — are of little importance to their articulation of the discourse of conquest. 
But for these guys, belonging is important, and the male fraternity provides a context in 
which they can articulate a discourse of conquest, including the rejection of all things 
feminine, and simultaneously assert that they belong. Not only do they belong, the group 
to which they belong supports and advances the hegemonic agenda that is at the heart of 
the discourse of sexual decision making they are articulating. Additionally, virginity 
status tests provide a means by which guys can at least presume to be maintaining the 
boundaries between those who belong and those who do not in terms of the all-important 
category "sexual experience." 

I should point out that virtually all of the guys who use some sort of virginity 
status test or align themselves with a male fraternity take pains to assert that they do not 
denigrate virgins or give one's virginity status any credence. The fact remains, however, 
that guys take note of one another's status, and "nonvirgin" is the preferred category 
within the dominant discourse. Hence, those whose claims to that status are secure are in 
the privileged position of determining to what extent they will use their status as a 
criterion for belonging. Virgins may reject guys who would exclude them because of 
their status, but the social circles within which they might turn the tables and use virginity 
as a criterion for belonging are extremely small by comparison to those in which being 
"experienced" reigns. 


Navigating Narrative Challenges Related to Masculinity 

As the preceding discussion makes clear, when the guiding discourse is conquest, 
adolescent guys' efforts to belong hinge on their aligning themselves with aspects of 
hegemonic masculinity. In particular, assuring acceptance requires the repudiation of the 
feminine and the assumption of a sex-savvy "player" identity. In this sense, the 
mediating effects of belonging and masculinity on the guys' articulation of the discourse 
blend together. Since, in the context of this discourse, belonging means assuming certain 
emblems of a particular type of masculinity, I could not discuss the mediating effects of 
belonging without revealing some of the influence of masculinity. 

There are, however, many ways in which masculinity mediates guys' use of this 
discourse that are distinct from their efforts to belong. This mediation gives rise to three 
broad narrative challenges: (1) avoiding a spoiled identity; (2) managing partial 
commitments to the discourse; and (3) navigating threats implicit in the discourse. The 
first of these challenges arises for guys who adopt the discourse wholesale. The second 
confronts others who make claims to a masculinity consistent with the discourse but who 
also reject key features of the discourse. The third category refers to three specific 
challenges that confront all whose sexual decision making is guided by the conquest 
discourse, regardless of whether their commitment to it is partial or complete. I call these 
challenges the dilemma of advertising sexual conquests; the challenge of declining sex; 
and the challenge of negotiating to secure sex. Examples of discourse mediation par 
excellence, these challenges are simply by-products of the intersection of the discourse of 
conquest and adolescent concerns about masculine self-presentation. In the next three 


subsections, I examine the contours of the three broad narrative challenges and detail how 
the guys use narrative strategies to confront, if not always overcome, these challenges. 
Avoiding a Spoiled Identity 

In some respects, guys who articulate the discourse of conquest in all of the many 
ways that it can inform sexual decision making (e.g., the social place of girls; the 
meaning of sex; the importance of the male fraternity; one's own self-presentation) are 
lucky. By adhering to the discourse they have ready-made justifications for their 
decisions, the choices they make will be internally consistent, and their alignment with 
the dominant discourse is likely to carry benefits in the form of social acceptance. 

But blind allegiance to the discourse also carries a danger. As we saw in Chapter 
4, articulations of girls, sex, virgins, and others from a conquest perspective can be quite 
pejorative: Girls are sexualized, dehumanized, or rendered invisible, as the situation 
dictates; sex has little meaning beyond its accomplishment and the accolades that it will 
bring among one's male fraternity; and those who are or appear to be inexperienced are, 
at best, seen as immature, and, at worst, derided as gay. In short, the discourse is a recipe 
for dominance, and as such, its resources must be carefully managed. A guy can use 
them to construct a masculinity consistent with hegemonic ideals, but articulating sexual 
decision making primarily in terms of dominance can also produce the image of someone 
who is dangerously hypermasculine (Adler 1927/1998; Klein 1993). In the latter case, 
the guy appears so bent on accumulating sexual conquests, so dismissive of virgins, and 
so intent on dehumanizing women that his masculinity looks to others like a massive 
effort to compensate for traits that are antithetical to hegemonic masculinity — namely, 
weakness, fear, and vulnerability. In other words, guys who articulate the discourse 


wholesale run the risk of presenting not as a "man's man," but as a hypermasculine 

pretender. Given that both masculinities are predicated on the same notions of 

dominance, it is worth considering just how many degrees of separation there are 

between the guy who displays hegemonic masculinity and the guy who others would 

deride as hypermasculine. For present purposes, however, the important fact is that the 

guys I interviewed appear to recognize that presenting too strong a commitment to the 

discourse of conquest might spoil their identities, so they take steps to forestall such 

spoilage. The following briefcase studies of Jordan and Drew exemplify how guys who 

are strongly committed to the discourse of conquest head off the possibility that the 

masculinities they are presenting will be seen as hypermasculine. 

Throughout our interview, Drew constructs a masculinity that features many 

hegemonic elements drawn from the discourse of conquest. However, two articulations 

in particular demonstrate his commitment to the discourse of conquest dramatically. The 

first, in this excerpt that contains some material presented earlier, is his endorsement of 

sex as an end in itself: 

R: Well, like, sometimes I'll, like, I'll just be really fuckin' horny, and I'll 

want to have sex. So I'll go out with that, like, that is my sole purpose for 
tonight. My mission tonight is to find someone to have sex with. [Int: 
Okay.] Like, sometimes, that'll happen. Usually it's just, like — Usually 
I'm not too worried about it. I'm too worried about hitting on girls or 
flirting with girls. It's just — I don't know. 

I: But sometimes the urge hits. 

R: Sometimes just like, gotta go do that this weekend. 
(Drew: 18-year-old, White, non-virgin) 


The second is his acceptance of the male fraternity as a reference group for his sexual 

decisions, indicated in this passage by his recognition that, within the male fraternity, a 

girl's value is determined by her physical attractiveness: 

I: Like among the group that you hang out with, does it mean something for 

a guy to have sex with a particular girl or have sex more often than other 
guys, or—? 

R: Well, you can have sex a lot, but if you're havin' sex with a really, really 
fine girl, it doesn't matter how many girls you've had sex with because 
they girl you're having sex with now is just, she's a hotty. 

I: Right. And does that mean something to the other guys? 

R: Yeah. It's like, Man, I would — Like, I would trade every girl I've had sex 
with to have sex with her 'cause she's just so hot. And like I can brag 
about that. Like, "Yeah I had sex with her." 

(Drew: 1 8-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

These passages clearly demonstrate Drew's commitment to his male fraternity, approval 
of meaningless sex, and tendency to dehumanize of girls. With respect to sex in 
particular, he presents himself as driven and goal-oriented. He fits the image of the 
"sexual predator," a guy who pursues sex at all costs, with little regard for consequences 
or for his partners. 

Do these excerpts, coupled with all of the other ways in which Drew aligns 
himself with the discourse of conquest, prove that Drew's self-presentation is bordering 
on the hypermasculine? To some extent, this must remain an open question because the 
notion of excessive masculinity that is delineated by the term "hypermasculine" is in the 
eyes of the beholders. The more important and constructive question is whether or not 
Drew himself fears that others will see him as overcompensating. Does he feel that he 
faces a narrative challenge to in some way "soften" his articulation of the discourse of 
conquest? The answer, I would argue, can be found in a number of rhetorical maneuvers 


Drew makes over the course of the interview that mitigate his relationship to the 

discourse of conquest. Whatever other narrative purposes these maneuvers may serve, I 

would argue they also stave off the implication that Drew is demonstrating 


The first such maneuver is distancing himself from some of the activities of his 

male fraternity. At one point in our interview, Drew indicates that although he does not 

see his own virginity loss as an act that conferred manhood upon him, he recognizes that 

many guys do approach it as a rite of passage into manhood. When I ask how he knows 

that other guys make this connection, he tells a story about a guy in his friendship group 

who has not yet had sex. Notice how Drew does not include himself in the story, even 

though the others involved are "his boys": 

I: How do you know that the whole thing about being a man is something 

that is part of it for your friends? 

R: Well, a couple of them, they're like — after they had sex first time — they 
were like, "Yes, I'm a man now." So they just flat out said it. [Int: 
Right.] And a lot of, and like other ones — Like one of my boys was 
having a hard time having sex, like, I don't think he's had sex yet, and he, 
like, like with him, and basically with like everybody else, they're always, 
like, they encourage him to do it. They like try to set him up. And like 
one of 'em — we call him Mikey — they're like, "After you have sex, your 
name's Mike." It's like before you have sex you're Mikey 'cause, just, 
you haven't grown up yet. But afterwards you're Mike. [Int; Okay.] So, 
that's part of it. [emphasis added] 

(Drew: 1 8-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Drew's distancing efforts are almost absolute. If not for a few telling phrases, we would 
have difficulty recognizing that he considers himself part of this group. The guys 
involved in the story are described as others, separate from him: They encourage their 
friends to have sex; they tell Mikey he will be called Mike once he has sex. Drew only 
hints at his connection to the others when he refers to the first virgin as "one of my boys" 


and when he says of the second virgin, "We call him Mikey." These two instances 

indicate that he does see himself as part of the group, but the distancing that characterizes 

the rest of the passage suggests that he is taking pains to separate himself from this 

particular fraternal activity. In doing so, Drew not only avoids linking his identity to the 

notion — endemic to the discourse of conquest — that virginity loss is a prerequisite for 

achieving manhood, but he also demonstrates a degree of independence from his male 

fraternity. Both of these rhetorical accomplishments suggest that his adoption of the 

discourse of conquest is less than total, and therefore they help insulate his identity from 

the damaging implications of the hypermasculine label. 

The second means by which Drew mitigates the intensity of his commitment to 

the discourse of conquest is by making intermittent articulations of the discourse of 

relationship. For instance, although he orients to sex in terms of the discourse of 

conquest throughout his interview, he also asserts that his first sexual experience was 

about love, not conquest: 

R: I don't just go around havin' sex with anybody. I definitely — Like, I like 
for there to be something there, but at the same time, I've also had like 
one-night stands. [Int: Okay.] But I definitely, I like it better if there's 
something deeper involved. It means a little bit more. 

I: Okay. Uhm, so the ideal situation for you, to be with somebody and 

sexually active would be what? 

R: Like with my first girlfriend. I loved her a lot, and she loved me back. 
(Drew: 1 8-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

I have presented parts of this passage before. It bares repeating, however, because even 

in this passage Drew hints at the importance of the discourse of conquest to his sexual 

decision making: He prefers that his sexual experiences occur in the context of 

relationships, but he does not avoid or regret those that do not. Still, the indication that in 


some instances — including his first experience of intercourse — the discourse of 

relationship guided his decision making strengthens the claim that he is not 

hypermasculine, despite his prevailing commitment to the discourse of conquest. 

Finally, Drew insulates himself from suggestions that he is hypermasculine by 

minimizing the relevance of virginity status to guys' identities. We have, in fact, already 

seen this tendency in the previous excerpts. Drew insists that he lost his virginity because 

the situation was right, not because he felt he needed to shed the label "virgin." And in 

another portion of the interview, he says that losing his virginity did not change how he 

felt about himself. Neither does he treat the virginity status of others as particularly 

consequential. He distances himself from his male friends who attribute great importance 

to another's virginity loss, and he insists that he does not look down upon those who 

commit to virginity: 

I: Okay. Uhm. In general, what do you think being a virgin says about a 


R: Says they have self-control and a lot of restraint [Int: Okay.] to not do that. 
I: Is that a good thing or ... ? 

R: Well, I mean, I can respect somebody who wants to hold out. If they don't 
want to have sex until they're married, I can respect that. [Int: Mm-hmm.] 
I don't think any less of somebody who doesn't wanna have sex. 

(Drew: 18-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Although it would be consistent with the discourse of conquest to question, criticize, or 
dismiss guys who consider sex irrelevant to their masculinity, Drew indicates a level of 
sympathy with them. In so doing, he advances the construction of a masculinity for 
himself that— for all its commitments to the discourse of conquest — does not appear to be 
of the hypermasculine variety. 


Unlike Drew, whose masculine presentation tends toward the excessive most 

noticeably in terms of his approach to sex, Jordan's excess is most evident with respect to 

his attitudes toward girls. In the earliest moments of our interview, he boldly claimed a 

masculinity that embraced even the most misogynistic elements of the discourse of 


So I somewhat look at mostly women as not on the same level as myself, even 

though that they may be more intellectual than myself, but I don't look at them on 

the same level, physically, emotionally. And I don't think that we're equal 


(Jordan: 1 8-year-old, African- American, born-again virgin) 

This commitment to male superiority, in turn, provides the rationale for sexual behavior 

that, like Drew's, is such an extreme expression of the goal-oriented approach to sex that 

it could be described as predatory. In the following passage, for instance, Jordan 

categorizes girls in different ways. These different categories confer varying degrees of 

humanness on them and construct them as suitable for varying types of sexual acts: 

I: It sounds like with previous girlfriends, you went to a certain point, maybe 

as far as oral sex. 

R: Yeah. 

I: And then with your current girlfriend, you've sort oP'gone all the way," 

as they say. 

R: Well, really they weren't girlfriends. They were just — whores. I guess 
you could say. 

I: Okay. 

R: I don't wanna use the term so loosely, but they weren't really — They 
didn't mean anything to me, really. 

I: And how long were you with them, in general. 


R: Weeks. Months. Just receiving, like, favors and stuff, but not anything in 

(Jordan: 1 8-year-old, African- American, born-again virgin) 

The only girl that Jordan describes as a "girlfriend" is his current partner, with whom he 
had intercourse. The rest of his sexual partners are, by his reckoning, just whores. 
Jordan uses this latter category to group together girls he deems unworthy of having a 
relationship with him. These lesser girls are the ones he describes elsewhere as "just 
flesh," and he treats them as such: Their sole relevance to him is that they can provide 
sexual favors to him, which, we later learn, means they perform oral sex on him. 

Through these and other passages, Jordan clearly articulates the discourse of 
conquest and makes claims to a hegemonic masculinity. In as much as these claims are 
made through unrepentant assertions of male dominance, dehumanizing language, and 
the sexual use of girls, however, they represent extreme expressions of hegemonic ideals. 
Perhaps Jordan differs from other guys who articulate a discourse of conquest only in that 
he espouses a belief in hegemony at the same time that he draws upon the discourse. 
Other guys whose sexual decision making is guided by the discourse of conquest may 
share Jordan's misogynistic views but not express them openly. Certainly the discourse 
provides the narrative resources for such constructions. But the primary issue here is the 
type of masculinity guys construct from those resources, and passages like those I just 
quoted attest to the fact that Jordan, more than other guys, constructs a masculinity that 
borders on the hypermasculine. Self-reliance and indifference to what others think is also 
part of his masculine self-presentation, yet he does make two complex rhetorical 
maneuvers during the interview that appear designed to the fend off the identity spoilage 
that hypermasculinity threatens. 


The first maneuver acts as a kind of convoluted defense against the suggestion 

that he is a sexual predator. In the process of explaining how he approaches girls and 

relationships, Jordan shows us the flip side of the male superiority he espouses elsewhere: 

R: I approach relationships mostly not trusting the woman in the beginning, 
and having her have to earn my respect, really. 

I: Okay. And how does she do that? 

R: The things she does. How she acts. For instance, my first girlfriend — My 
girlfriend now — Well, actually, any girlfriend I went out — I didn't kiss my 
girlfriend for the first three months that I went out with her. [Int: Wow.] 
Because I believe in knowing, for her to earn my respect first, before I 
even go into in an intimate relationship. 

(Jordan: 18-year-old, African-American, born-again virgin) 

Whereas in other instances what we see is the denigration of girls that is inherent in such 
claims, in this passage Jordan directs our attention to the high esteem in which that 
philosophy encourages him to hold himself. Concerned about the trustworthiness of the 
girls he dates, he actually holds himself back, reserving his kiss as a symbolic act of trust. 
The perspective inverts the traditional image of guys placing girls on proverbial pedestals 
and having to win them over. By placing himself on the pedestal as a defense against 
girls presumed failings (i.e., their lack of trustworthiness), Jordan effectively changes the 
definition of sexual encounters from "male conquest" to "male capitulation." In that 
context, he cannot be a predator, since being involved with girls who have not won his 
trust becomes a matter of "giving in" that threatens his integrity, not a matter of 
accomplishment that confirms his masculinity. 

The other defense Jordan mounts against identity spoilage also relates to his 
construction of sex and relationships and, paradoxically, it involves something of a 


rejection of hegemonic masculinity. When I ask Jordan about sexual urges and how he 

copes with them, he says he only gets urges in the context of intimate situations: 

Nawjust. When I'm with my girlfriend, uhm, sometimes I get urges. But I 
never — outside of my girlfriend — I never get urges. So I never have the feeling to 
cheat or anything like that. [Int: Right.] And I never needed it. I never needed 
sex. After I've had sex, I never needed it, unless I — When I have sex, it's not 
because I need it. It's because just that intimate thing. [Int: Okay. Okay.] It's 
not something that — I'm not a [fiend (?)] for it or anything like that. 
(Jordan: 18-year-old, African- American, born-again virgin) 

Although squaring this passage with Jordan's history of meaningless sexual encounters 

may be difficult, the excerpt counters the hypermasculine identity in several ways. First, 

Jordan's assertion that he has never needed sex and that it has always been a by-product 

of intimacy represents a turning away from hegemonic masculinity. Jordan is essentially 

portraying himself as indifferent to sex as an act distinct from relationships. Whether this 

portrayal is true or not, the rhetorical move amounts to a renunciation of the "masculinity 

dividend" awarded within the hegemonic mode for always being ready and willing to 

have sex. Second, by playing up the importance of intimacy, Jordan encourages us to see 

his sexual behavior through the lens of the discourse of relationship, not conquest. And 

finally, the most direct counter to the hypermasculine identity comes in the last line, 

when Jordan says he is "not a fiend" for sex. 

Each of these maneuvers manages the construction of Jordan's masculinity in 

relation to the discourse of conquest in a different way: One relinquishes his claim to a 

specific aspect of hegemonic masculinity, another draws on a different discourse to 

reframe Jordan's masculinity, and a third explicitly distances his mode of masculinity 

from the type that one might associate with hypermasculinity. Taken together, they help 

mollify the strident claims to hegemonic masculinity Jordan makes and provides him 


some defense against the claim that his articulation of the discourse of conquest is an 
anomalous exaggeration of its terms. 

As the cases of Jordan and Drew demonstrate, commitment to the discourse of 
conquest has its pitfalls for guys who are conscious of making claims to masculinity at 
the same time they articulate their orientation to sexual decision making. Although 
articulating the discourse of conquest carries the appeal of linking one's identity to the 
emblems of hegemonic masculinity, it also brings the danger of over committing to the 
discourse and seeming hypermasculine. Concerns about masculinity, therefore, mediate 
how the guys articulate the discourse of conquest. Stories, distancing, and contrasting 
appear to be especially useful narrative strategies as speakers try to distinguish their own 
identities from those that might come across if their commitment to the discourse of 
conquest appears too complete or too fervent. 
Managing Partial Commitments to the Discourse 

If articulating a commitment to the many facets of the conquest orientation to 
sexual decision making has its hazards, so too does the opposite tact of making only a 
limited commitment to the discourse. Guys like Jordan and Drew express their adherence 
to the discourse of conquest so strongly that they have to employ narrative strategies to 
ensure that others do not deride it as too strong. But other guys find their claims to 
hegemonic masculinity stand on shaky ground because they do not commit to a central 
aspect of the discourse. Consequently, they have to manage their articulation of the 
discourse carefully in order to address this threat to the identity they wish to construct. 

A case in point is L.J. In some ways, the identity he constructs over the course of 
our interview is unfalteringly consistent with the discourse of conquest and supportive of 


claims to hegemonic masculinity. He highlights his curiosity about and readiness for sex 

at an early age, identifies his experience of virginity loss with his emergence as a man, 

and describes girls as threats to male social groups. At the same time, however, he 

rejects the identity of the "player," which is at the heart of the conquest notion of 


Everybody, when they see me, they be thinking I got a lot of kids cause how old I 
look. They be like, "You bout twenty-five. You got like four kids/* Some girls 
might say that and they be like, "L, he's a pimp player and all that stuff." Man, 
that ain't me. I caw be if I want to. If I choose to. But that ain't me. "Cause I'm 
lookin' for something besides just having sex with women and just goin' on like 
that. I want something that I know I can just come home to and know she gonna 
be there and not with no bullshit. Even though bullshit is gonna be in a 
relationship anyway because that's basically how life is. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

Considered in light of his unqualified acceptance and promotion of so any other aspects 
of the discourse of conquest, L.J.'s insistence that he is not a player seems incongruous. 
Suddenly, a guy who associates himself with so many of the characteristics of hegemonic 
masculinity is drawing on the discourse of relationship to depict himself as someone who 
wants more than just sex. 

I do not want to dismiss L.J.'s assertion that he is interested in having meaningful 
relationships. In several parts of the interview he describes relationships he has had that 
have lasted more than 6 months, and more than once he expresses strong, caring feelings 
for his partners. But considered in context, L.J.'s rejection of the "player" identity does 
not translate into a repudiation of the conquest discourse in favor of the discourse of 
relationship. Rather, it represents one element in the construction of a different 
masculinity predicated on conquest resources, one that privileges action over self- 
promotion. Rhetorically speaking, the primary reason that L.J. distances himself from 


players is not to endorse relationships but to align himself with a superior masculinity in 

which manliness is secured by sexual experience, making talk irrelevant. This point is 

evident in several passages, like this one, in which L.J. contrasts himself to players and 

then quickly segues into descriptions that highlight his sexual prowess: 

Cause, like, just about every day or every week it's a new girl out here, and all the 

boys want to try to do their best to like talk they talk with the girl They throw 

their new shoes on and their new outfit on to impress the girl and make it [sound 
like?] they got cheese or they know how to dress good, whatever. But me, I sit in 

the background. I watch And, like, I won't hop on every new girl that come 

here to this school. I just — If they have something on that gets my attention, I 
give them a compliment. I'm like, "You have something nice on." "You caught 
my attention," that's all. I don't try to get nothing perverted or nothing like that. 
'Cause that's not me. Me, I know I like sex. I talks about it. I know a deal about 
it 'cause I['ve] experienced a lot. My brother done showed me what he done. 
[Hooked me on (?)] to what he done did, like, with threesomes with girls and stuff 
like that. I done experienced that, so I pretty much know what's going on. And 
me — well, when I was having sex — I was havin' sex with grown women, like 23 
years old. 
(L.J.: 17-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

L.J. is not distancing himself from players because they orient to sex in terms of the 
discourse of conquest. For the most part, he does this too. But L.J. is also not allowing 
the fact that he is not a player threaten his masculinity. On the contrary, he is asserting 
the hegemony of his version of manhood by articulating it in the context of a favorable 
contrast structure. In that sense, L.J. offers us an example of managing a partial 
commitment to the discourse of conquest, but also much more than that. First, this 
passage provides a visible instance of the contentious struggle for dominance among 
masculinities. And second, L.J.'s artful use of narrative strategies remind us of the 
discursive possibilities that exist when factors like masculinity mediate guys' articulation 
of discourses. 


Navigating Threats Implicit in the Discourse 

The narrative challenges of avoiding a spoiled identity and managing partial 
commitments to a discourse arise when a guy's commitment to the discourse of conquest 
is unusual in some way. But there are other narrative challenges that have nothing to do 
with one's level of commitment to the discourse. I call these challenges implicit threats 
to masculinity because they are essentially traps that exist in how hegemonic masculinity 
is defined and signified that can be sprung as guys articulate the discourse of conquest. 
These three challenges attest to the fact that staking a claim to masculinity, particularly 
its most valued form, is never easy because the simplest statements or the most mundane 
admissions can threaten to invalidate one's identity claims. Like L.J.'s management of 
the challenge involving partial commitment to the discourse, however, investigating the 
guys' confrontations with these implicit challenges reveals complex and creative 
narrative practice. 

I call the first of these implicit narrative challenges the dilemma of advertising 
sexual conquests. As I have amply demonstrated already, one way guys stake claims to 
hegemonic masculinity is by broadcasting their sexual "conquests" to others, especially 
other guys. Doing so often brings a challenge in the form of a virginity status test that 
seeks to discredit their claim. But some guys face a different challenge, one that arises 
because they downplay their sexual experience. While it may seem counterintuitive that 
guys seeking to construct masculinities in terms of the discourse of conquest should 
minimize that which will garner them "masculinity dividends," we saw in Chapter 4 that 
a number of guys distance themselves from their virginity loss experiences or gloss over 
their sexual exploits as incidents that "just happened." Perhaps this downplaying of 


sexual experience occurs because guys recognize many authority figures disapprove of 
their being sexually active. Most likely they oriented to me as an authority figure 
because I was twice their age. Whatever the reason, when guys articulating the discourse 
of conquest minimize their sexual experience, they generate a narrative challenge for 
themselves. They must bolster their claim to a mode of masculinity that exalts sexual 
experience in spite of the fact that they have tried to abdicate responsibility or credit for 
their own experience. 

Many guys neutralize the threat to their identities at least in part by staking claims 
to other emblems of masculinity offered by the discourse of conquest. For instance, in a 
passage that I noted in an earlier chapter, Evan allies himself with the conquest 
promotion of the importance of sex by disparaging virgins. His willingness to criticize 
virgins — even though he does not know why they warrant scorn — is evident when I ask 
him to imagine remaining virgin until his late teens: 

I: How do you think your friends would treat you? 

R: Totally differently, I bet. 

I: Like what? 

R: They'd probably think I was gay or somethin'. 

I: Why? 

R: I have no clue. That's just kinda how it is, you know. It's just one of 
those secret things that nobody tells you about. 

I: Have you seen that kinda thing happen to people here? [silent agreement] 

Can you give me an example? 

R: Uhm. Like, uhm, [one of(?)] my friends, D., he used to make fun of 
people. It's just one of those things, you know. I mean, you don't 
really — Not many people know, if you're a virgin, that you're a virgin, 
unless you actually tell 'em. But, I mean, some people are that stupid 


where they go like promoting it. And then that's when they get hit, you 
know. They get made fun of and everything. 
(Evan: 15-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Evan's insistence that others would think he was "gay or somethin"" if he remained a 

virgin indicates that he interprets his own sexual experience in terms consistent with the 

discourse of conquest. In this way he affirms a masculinity consistent with hegemonic 

ideals both by denigrating nonvirgins and subtly reaffirming the fact that he is not a 

virgin. Within the accounting scheme of dominant masculinities, such claims may not be 

a substitute for sexual experiences that are advertised and recognized by others, but they 

help to bridge the gap. 

In addition to the common strategy of laying claim to other signifiers of 

hegemonic masculinity, Evan employs another, more idiosyncratic means of neutralizing 

the threat to his conquest-inspired masculinity: He emphasizes how he plays the role of 

tutor for a male friend of his, helping him gain experience with girls. While this tutelage 

does not go as far as facilitating his friend's virginity loss, it aims to at least initiate him 

into the ways of "players": 

R: 'Cause, I mean, he feels that if he's that popular, he should at least get one 
or two girls. I mean, he goes out on dates all the time, because I have lots 
of friends and everything, and I like to set him up. My friends are all cool 
with it. It's just like. It's like one of those rules, you know, if you screw 

up on this date They like tell me, "If he screws up, I'm never gonna 

go out with him again or anything," you know. So. 

I: So is that, when he screws up, is that that he's not, just saying the wrong 


R: Yeah, stuff like that. Like, uhm, like he becomes clumsy or something 
'cause he gets really nervous, you know, and like he stutters and says the 
wrong things. And, like, it's kinda retarded. It's funny to watch. It's 
extremely funny to watch. 

(Evan: 15-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 


In describing what he tries to teach his friend and pointing out his friend's difficulties. 
Evan creates an implicit contrast between his own and his friend's knowledge of and 
"abilities" with girls. Through the contrast, Evan asserts a claim to the "player" identity 
(and its link to hegemonic masculinity) that might otherwise elude him, given his self- 
effacing depictions of his sexual encounters. 

The difficulty raised by declining sex — the second implicit challenge to conquest 
masculinities — is easy to imagine. The resources for constructing masculinities offered 
by the discourse of conquest stress always being ready and eager for sex, being tough, 
and showing no fear. On its face, choosing not to have sex when the opportunity presents 
itself runs counter to these mandates and thus threatens a guy's claim to these types of 
masculinities. For instance, when James tells me about instances in which he turned 
down opportunities for sex, he clearly recognizes this admission might raise questions 
about his readiness for sex and, by extension, his masculinity. In an effort to head off this 
implicit threat, he accounts for his actions with an elaborate hypothetical narrative that 
contrasts his true motivations with the ones he expects others will impute to him: 

R: Oh, all the time. I want to. I don't always go through with it [sex], but, I 
mean, I want to. But I don't go through with it all the time. 

I: Are there — What are the — What distinguishes times when you go through 

with it and times when you don't? 

R: Feel better whenever you go through with it. You know what I'm sayin'? 
You just, you just— Whenever you go through with it, you probably want 
to. You're probably thinking in your mind, "I want to do this. I want to 
do that." But whenever you don't want to, you're just thinking about it, 
but you don't go through with it. It's just. I don't know why, but it's just 
harder to go through with it when you don't want to. And if you don't 
want to, don't go through with it. 

I: I guess I don't understand 'cause it sounds like you feel better when you 

do go through with it. 


R: Yeah, but see that's like sometimes you wanna go through with it, but not 
with that person. So you just be like, "Naw." And then they think you're 
scared. But then again, at the same time, you just don't wanna have sex 
with them. So they're gonna think you're scared, even though you just 
don't wanna have sex with 'em. That's what it is. 

I: Okay. And you don't wanna have sex with them, why because . . . ? 

R: Because you've heard stuff about 'em. They got STDs or they have sex 
with a lot of people or they're just ugly. They just don't appeal to you. 
(James: 16-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

James' strategy for responding to the emasculating assumptions of others is essentially to 
offer a dose of realism. In the face of the presumption that he should have sex with every 
girl who shows interest in him, he insists that the decision to have sex must be situational: 
Sometimes sex should be avoided because a girl is believed to pose a high STD risk; 
sometimes a guy is simply not attracted to a girl who wants him. Although this argument 
is quite sensible, it amounts to an abdication of his claim to hegemonic masculinity on the 
grounds of being ready for sex. For although he states at the outset that he wants to have 
sex "all the time," the conditions he later applies belong to a more logical and cautious 
masculinity than the dominant one associated with the discourse of conquest. Thus, for 
James, the mediating effect of masculinity on his articulation of the discourse of conquest 
creates a narrative challenge that he cannot answer with resources from that discourse. 
His efforts to respond to the challenge ultimately compel him to appeal to an alternate 

The third and final threat implicit to this discourse involves talking about sex. In 
order to achieve a sexual liaison with a girl, a guy must somehow convey his interest in 
sex. Yet young guys, like just about everyone, find it difficult to talk about sex. Thus, 
the need to "get" a girl— and thereby confirm one's masculinity— places guys on a 


collision course with both their fear of talking about sex and the hegemonic mandate not 

to show fear. Many guys navigate this problem by developing indirect strategies for 

conveying their sexual intentions to girls. For instance, James describes a rhetorical 

strategy, which was familiar to some of the other guys as well, that involves the repetition 

of what is ostensibly an entirely innocent phrase: 

R: Over at [a local high school] all you gotta do is, like, whenever you're 
talkin' to a girl or whatever, just be like, "What's up? Man, what's up?" 
After you say, 'What's up' enough times, they'll realize what you're 
talkin' about. And that's exactly how it is right there. You just be with a 
girl and be like, "What's up?" She be like, "What you mean?" "Was up?" 
She'll be like, "What are you talkin' about?" And you can just be like, 
"What's up?" And she'll be like, "Oh." And she'll just get it in her head. 
She'll figure out what you're talkin' about. 

I: Wow! How did you find out that that's how it worked? 

R: I don't know. That's just how everybody does it over at [local high 

school]. So that's just what I started doin'. 
(Evan: 15-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Others, like Drew, avoid speaking about sex even in the most oblique ways and instead 

depend on contextual clues to impose sexual meanings on the definition of the situation: 

I: I mean, do you talk to her about the possibility of having sex? 

R: Not usually. It's just like, over the course of the night, by the time, like, if 
we make it to a room with a bed, it's cause we're gonna have sex. It isn't 
something that like, like, "So you wanna have sex tonight?" It's just like, 
I find a girl, I talk to her, I hit on her, and, like, if things go well with that, 
then I'll have sex with her that night. 

(Drew: 1 8-year-old, White, nonvirgin) 

Whether they use rhetorical strategies or contextual elements, most guys whose 
articulation of manhood relies on the discourse of conquest have to navigate between 
their anxiety regarding talking about sex, which threatens to expose them as fearful, and 


not getting sex, which amounts to an even stronger threat to the type of masculinity they 
are constructing. 

My explication of these threats to masculinity surely bears out my description of 
them at the outset as traps within the discourse. Whether the issue is advertising one's 
sexual exploits, declining sex, or revealing one's sexual intentions to a prospective 
partner, one false move can throw a guy's claim to hegemonic masculinity in doubt. The 
absolutism inherent in hegemonic masculinity ensures that virtually all guys will fail to 
live up to its mandates in some instances, and, as we have seen, the discourse of conquest 
offers few resources that can facilitate effective rhetorical repairs. Despite guys' 
inventive efforts to meet these challenges, often they must salvage their identities by 
relying on their claims to other emblems of hegemonic masculinity or identifying with an 
alternative masculinity. 

The virtual impossibility of articulating an identity with conquest resources that 
does not run afoul of some expectation of hegemonic masculinity does not mean that 
none of the guys presented their manhood in hegemonic terms. It does mean, however, 
that none could do so without confronting instances in which they did not "measure up," 
at least in a rhetorical sense. Furthermore, the ubiquity of the implicit threats, considered 
in light of the other narrative challenges I have described, affirm the powerful mediating 
effect masculinity has on guys' articulations of the discourse of conquest. 

Reconciling the Discourse of Conquest with Other Discourses 

Up to this point I have focused on discourse mediation in situations in which the 
guys articulate the discourse of conquest in total or near-total isolation from the other 
discourses. But some guys endeavor, throughout their narratives, to construct identities 


that draw heavily from another discourse as well as the discourse of conquest. Still 
others attempt to reconcile the conquest discourse with others to address particular 
narrative challenges. Constructing such "hybrid" identities is difficult and not always 
successful because that which makes discourses distinct — their unique orientations to 
sexual decision making — also ensures that they orient to the discourse mediators in 
different ways. In this section, I chronicle several guys' efforts to manage these 
differences and reconcile the conquest discourse with other ones as they relate to the 
three mediators. 
Reconciliation with the Discourses of Conquest and Piety 

Before we look at cases in which guys try to reconcile these two discourses, it is 
important to identify the specific incompatibilities that make such efforts problematic. In 
terms of belonging, the essence of the incompatibility is that the discourses champion 
belonging to different groups. The discourse of conquest asserts the importance of the 
male fraternity, while the discourse of piety is often predicated on membership in a 
religious community. Similarly, both discourses recognize threats to independence, but 
from different sources. Within the conquest discourse, the threat is posed by girls, who 
raise the specter of pussy-whipping. From the piety orientation, in contrast, blind faith to 
religious doctrine threatens independence, so guys who articulate it often feel the need to 
demonstrate that their commitment to a faith and its doctrines regarding sex are free 
choices, not burdens imposed by parents or pastors. 

The two guys that are the subject of my case studies for efforts to manage these 
incompatibilities and reconcile these two discourses approach the task from different 
directions. Derrick is a virgin who is trying to reconcile his religious beliefs and 


commitment to virginity with his recent, enthusiastic adoption of views (and behaviors) 

consistent with the discourse of conquest. Jordan, on the other hand, has lost his 

virginity, and his articulation of girls expresses such a concern with conquest and 

dominance as to be hypermasculine. At the same time, he tries to mollify this identity 

with appeals to the discourse of piety, including committing to abstinence and describing 

himself as a born-again virgin. The two cases provide vivid examples of the mediating 

effects of belonging and independence on the discourses of conquest and piety, the 

difficulties inherent in trying to construct identities that bridge two discourses, and the 

intricate narrative strategies that guys develop in an effort to build these bridges. 

Jordan's efforts to produce an identity that combines the "man's man" qualities of 

the discourse of conquest with the pious abstinence of the born-again virgin are rooted in 

a particular way he responds to concerns about independence. Throughout his interview, 

he constructs a masculinity consistent with hegemonic ideals that espouses the superiority 

of men over women. This reliance on the discourse of conquest raises the expectation 

that his efforts to assert his independence will focus on avoiding the "controlling'* 

tendencies of girls. But Jordan articulates the discourse in a way that does not commit 

him to a male fraternity. Instead, his identity is predicated on radical independence: 

R: I'm really a seclusive (sic). I stay to myself. I don't really follow the 

I: So you don't — You're not one of— You don't think of yourself as one a 

person who feels like there's this thing about having sex and being a man? 

R: Well, really it's like, I don't care. I do what I wanna do. If I feel like I 

think I should do it, than I'll do it. But some people, they don't think that 
way. They figure, uh, "Well, everybody else is having sex, so I might as 
well have sex." Which I don't really look at it like that. 

(Jordan: 1 8-year-old, African-American, born-again virgin) 


Jordan is not a virgin. He has had sexual intercourse once and received oral sex 

numerous times. In that regard he is no different from the people he criticizes. He sets 

himself apart, however, by insisting that his sexual encounters are always acts of 

individual choice made with only his interests in mind, not scenarios created and played 

out for the benefit of a male fraternity. 

Perhaps the last thing we would expect someone who presents himself as so 

fiercely independent to do is interject elements of a discourse of piety into his narrative. 

Given the large role that religious doctrines and faith-based communities typically play in 

the discourse, appealing to it seems antithetical to the almost defiant self-reliance Jordan 

espouses. Jordan does articulate the discourse, however, when he discusses his studies of 

Catholicism and their role in his decision to be a born-again virgin. And with some artful 

narrative practice, he manages to construct his religious commitments in a way that 

compliments rather than contradicts his independence. His basic strategy is to focus less 

on his commitment to religious principles and more on how his commitment provides a 

forum for him to demonstrate his independence from temptation and peer pressure: 

I: What do you think being a virgin says about a person? 

R: I don't think it says very much. I know rotten people that are virgins [Int 
laughs], so I really don't — Uh. One, it says self-control. And it always 
says self-control if that's your key. If you wanna be a virgins, but you 
can't be a virgin, then that means you have no self-control. But if you 
don't care about bein' a virgin, then it really doesn't show self-control, 
since you're not concentrating on not being a virgin. [Int: Right.] So to 
each his own. 

I: In your case, is it gonna be an issue of self-control or — ? 

R: In my case, when I say I'm not gonna do somethin', I'm not gonna do it. 

So it's self-control. 
(Jordan: 1 8-year-old, African-American, born-again virgin) 


I: Like some guys, under that kind of pressure would just, would lie. They 

would just say, "Yeah," you know, "I've done it." 

R: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But I never. No. I never had to feel to be under 
pressure. I never been under pressure. 

I: Okay. 

R: I probably been under pressure, like pressure, like, to some people, but. It 
really doesn't bother me none, 'cause I really don't care what people 

(Jordan: 18-year-old, African-American, born-again virgin) 

In both these passages, the religious basis of Jordan's commitment to "virginity" remains 
implicit, while the self-control and immunity to peer pressure that are expressed in that 
commitment are emphasized. 

The benefit of Jordan's approach is that it allows him to draw from both the piety 
and conquest discourses when constructing his identity. By being selective about the 
elements of the discourse of conquest with which he aligns himself, Jordan avoids the 
threats to independence that can arise when the discourse is adopted more completely. 
He can then defensibly add elements of the discourse of piety to his self-presentation by 
articulating that discourse in a way that presents religious commitment as a showcase for 
his independence. The drawback of this approach, however, is that it allows for only a 
limited inclusion of piety elements. By not referring back to religious commitments as he 
articulates his independence from temptation and peer pressure. Jordan appears to 
minimize their importance. He seems to attribute his ability to remain abstinent as much 
to personal fortitude, which we might associate with the discourse of conquest, as to his 
understanding of and appreciation for Catholic doctrine. 

The context in which Derrick seeks to reconcile the two discourses is quite 
different from that which Jordan confronted. While Jordan sought to interject elements 


of the discourse of piety into a narrative that began with identity claims consistent with 
the conquest discourse, the two discourses are intertwined in Derrick's narrative from the 
outset. Throughout his narrative Derrick stakes claims to the identities of both the 
"player" and the "pious virgin." As the following passage demonstrates, this rather 
convoluted identity work is evident early on in the interview. After briefly describing his 
religious upbringing, Derrick talks about his current "partying" lifestyle, and the clash of 
identity claims is startling: 

I: What happens at those parties? [laughs] 

R: What do you mean? 

I: Well, uhm, in terms of— I mean, are they tame? Are they wild? Is there a 

lot of alcohol? Is there — ? 

R: Depends on the night. There's always a lot of alcohol. They will get to 
the point where they're wasted out of their mind and they don't even 
comprehend what's going on, so there's no chance of them picking up. 
And then there's points where it's a few beers and, you know, I'm in the 
mood to, in the zone, kind of thing. Game "A." "A" game. 

I: Right. Now that's for them. Or is that for you, too? 

R: That's for me, too. I mean, I get wasted and stuff where I don't know 
what's goin' on, but I do not — You know, I'm a virgin and I plan on 
stayin' that way. But, you know, I've come close after nights like that, 
goin' to parties or goin' out to clubs or whatever. 

I: So you definitely hook up with women. 

R: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, there hasn't been like 20, but more than one, 

(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

By his own admission, Derrick is enjoying wild, alcohol-soaked nights with his 

roommates and friends, and he clearly enjoys "hooking up" with girls in the course of 

these festivities. In this regard, he is every bit the "player" that epitomizes hegemonic 


masculinity. In the same breadth, however, he lays claim to a masculinity that 
emphasizes restraint and piety by insisting that he's a virgin and plans on staying that 

Derrick employs a two-pronged strategy for reconciling these two identities and 
the discourses from which they emerge. On the one hand, he insists that he cannot be 
expected to have the self-control necessary to avoid all the situations that threaten to end 
in the loss of his virginity. On the other hand, each time he describes a provocative 
encounter he had with a girl, he expresses guilt about it and reaffirms his religious 
commitments by interpreting the situation in terms of the discourse of piety. 

One instance in which Derrick draws upon the first strategy is when I ask him 

what limits he would, ideally, like to put on his interactions with girls. Parts of his 

response have been quoted earlier, but the full breadth of his response is important for the 

purposes at hand. In it, Derrick points to several features of the social context in which 

he finds himself, including his age, the fact that he is out of high school, and the sexual 

aggressiveness of college-age girls, to insist that he can not be expected to live up to his 


R: [pause] I would love to be able to not do anything, but that is impossible 
to me at this point right now, it seems. There is no way that I'm gonna be 
out and this great-lookin' girl and, you know, we're dancin' or whatever 
and then it's like, "Oh, well, I'm not gonna kiss you." I mean, that is — I 
mean, I feel bad about it the next day. And like, regardless of how far I go 
past the point of kissing, it's like — I mean, this is making-out full-on kinda 
thing. I don't know. I'd like to curb it at just that, if at all. But, I mean, 
especially now, especially at this age. It was a lot easier in high school. 
But now, I mean, these girls are just ready to go. They're like more 
aggressive than I am. It's like, "Oh my, God. Gimmie a break." So that's 
where I'd like to. And I feel— Anything past that I feel bad, and it's like, 
"I can't believe I did that. I don't even like this chick." I mean, it's more 
of a sense that I'm cheating myself. 


I: How so? 

R: By wasting time with people that I don't care about. But at the time it 
seems right. 

I: Why was it easier in high school? Partly because the girls are — 

R: Because the girls are puttin' the brakes on. And you, as a male, hot- 
blooded, are just, whatever they'll let you do, you'll do. And now, it's 
like, "Oh my God, I've gotta like" — /have to put the brakes on 'cause 
they're not gonna. And that, to me, makes me wanna avoid the situation 
because I know that it's gonna be hard to put the brakes on, especially if 
I'm the only one puttin' 'em on. 

(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

Rhetorically speaking, this passage is quite complex. In the first several lines, after 
asserting that he "would love to be able to not do anything," Derrick constructs a 
hypothetical narrative that dramatizes how the attractiveness, availability, and desire of a 
girl with whom he is dancing virtually compels him to "make out" with her. Derrick's 
participation in encounters like this one enhances his "player" identity, but the narrative 
suggests that this is not a case of Derrick seducing someone. As the story would have it, 
Derrick is almost a victim; he has no reasonable alternative but to make out with the girl. 
Following this hypothetical narrative, Derrick reaffirms his desire to put limits on 
his contact with girls, but then immediately employs another narrative strategy that 
allows him to abdicate control over that contact. This time, the strategy is a contrast 
structure between the girls he encountered in high school and the older girls he meets 
now. High school girls, he says, are resistant to guys' advances, but older girls are 
sexually aggressive and actually make advances themselves. This shift in girls' approach 
to physical intimacy complicates Derrick's efforts to balance the conquest and piety 
discourses enormously. With high school girls, he could be a "hot-blooded male" and 
depend on them to ensure that the encounters did not infringe greatly on his commitment 


to purity and piety. In other words, he could behave in ways that would garner the 

dividends of hegemonic masculinity, yet still also articulate a discourse of piety with 

confidence. Now this delicate balance is threatened, and, by Derrick's reckoning, there is 

little he can do about it. After all, he did not change, the girls did. 

Since Derrick ostensibly has such little control over how his "player" identity is 

expressed (i.e., how far his encounters with girls go), he must also have a strategy to 

repair the damage his intimate encounters wreck on his pious identity. Expressing regret 

is critical in this regard, but so too is reasserting the relevance of the discourse of piety by 

interpreting encounters in its terms. Both of these techniques of identity repair are 

evident when I ask Derrick to reflect on the implications of his having given and received 

oral sex: 

I regret it, that I did it. I feel really bad because of-I don't know-it's like [pause]. 
It was fun, but then it's like, after, it's like, "That was not worth feeling this bad 
about. It's not worth, you know, me feelin' sorry for this girl. Me not wanting to 
ever see her again. Never wanting to deal with her. I didn't even like her." You 
know? And it's like, "Ugh." It would be one thing if I really liked the chick. You 
know what I mean? And it was more of a passionate love moment than drunken 
stupor kinda thing. So. I feel bad. I feel like I've lost some of my innocence, and 
I've lost some of my purity. 
(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

Derrick's regret about the experience takes many forms: He feels bad because it makes 

him feel bad about himself. He feels bad for the girl, who he now wants to avoid like the 

plague. He feels bad that the incident was driven by alcohol, not feelings of intimacy. 

But, most notably, he feels bad because the incident compromised his purity and, by 

extension, his claims to the identity of "pious virgin." 

Even the brief glimpse I have provided of Derrick's efforts to reconcile the 

conquest and piety discourses reveal both the enormous creativity the guys exhibit in 


coping with narrative challenges and the immense difficulties inherent in trying to 
reconcile competing discourses. Although Derrick is quite active and inventive in 
repeatedly making claims to a pious masculinity, the success of his efforts seems limited 
by the persistent appearance of dramatic counter claims to the "player" identity. 
Virtually every instance in which Derrick expresses his commitment to purity follows a 
description of an instance in which his purity was compromised. In this context, 
Derrick's efforts at blending the identities may garner some legitimacy if we accept his 
abdications of responsibility for his intimate encounters. But even so, his claim to purity, 
which is at the heart of his construction of pious masculinity, holds only in the strictest 
sense of abstaining from intercourse. 
Reconciliation with the Discourses of Conquest and Relationship 

As with any attempt to reconcile the conquest and piety discourses, the possibility 
of bringing together the discourses of conquest and relationship is complicated by 
fundamental incompatibilities. In terms of how they orient to girls, the context they treat 
as "proper" for sex, and the degree of importance they attribute to the male fraternity, for 
instance, the discourses are nearly polar opposites. While girls are seen largely as a 
means to a sexual end from the perspective of the discourse of conquest, the relationship 
discourse places them and guys' interactions with them at the center of sexual decision 
making. By extension, the conquest discourse privileges the male fraternity as the site 
where sexual accomplishments are celebrated, but the fraternity is irrelevant within the 
discourse of relationship because couples have sex for themselves, not for the benefit of a 
peer "audience." Granted, this opposition is mitigated somewhat in the case of guys who 
articulate the discourse of relationship in terms of "weak" or short-term couplings. For 


instance, when the relationship discourse is articulated in this manner, the construction of 
virgins is virtually the same as it is in the discourse of conquest. Yet even in these 
instances, the discourses are difficult to reconcile because of the effects of the mediators, 
particularly masculinity and belonging. In the subsequent discussion I explore these 
difficulties through the case of Grady, whose narrative includes a tortured effort to 
reconcile the discourse of conquest with the "weak" version of the discourse of 

In a whole host of ways, Grady satisfies the adolescent male "narrative agendas" 
associated with belonging and masculinity with articulations of the discourse of conquest. 
He describes having a grave distrust of women, expresses a fear of being "pussy- 
whipped," and identifies his male fraternity as the place to which he retreats to escape 
"girl trouble." All of these aspects of his efforts to construct his masculinity and assert 
that he belongs are evident when he compares himself to other guys who are committed 

I gotta do somethin', Man. I couldn't do it. I gotta have some kinda experience 
with a girl, 'cause. Girls, like, they'll make you happy one minute, but. like, if 
you really get into 'em too much, they can really make you mad, like everyday, 
all day. Because, just the stuff that they do. It just makes you mad. And you'll 
just be upset all day or whatever. You go out there. You get off the phone with 
'em or whatever, talkin' and stuff. You can't have sex with 'em so. You ask 'em 
can you come over — they home by they self— you'll go back up to where you're 
homeboys hang out at. You'll just got up there and just try to relieve all that 
(Grady: 18-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Grady presents himself as someone who is trying to strike a delicate balance. On the one 

hand, he cannot be like the committed virgins and forego sex. On the other hand, he 

seems hyper-aware of the conquest assumption that too much involvement with girls 

results in a guy becoming pussy- whipped and needing to retreat to his male fraternity. 


Given the apparent intensity of Grady's concern about being pussy-whipped and 
his commitments to the discourse of conquest, one would expect that Grady would 
manage this situation by articulating an intense resistance to meaningful relationships. 
Remarkably, however, when I ask Grady to account for his continued pursuit of sex in 
the face of the threat of pussy -whipping, his response comes from the discourse of 
relationship. His rationale is a desire to surrender to the illusion of love, seemingly to 
yield to dependency: 

I: So there must be something that makes all that agony worth it. 

R: Yeah. Yeah. It's just having somebody there that — know what I'm 

sayin' — really cares about you all the time, you know what I'm sayin'. 
And somebody that's always gonna be there for you. But they might be 
there for you all the time, but you'd like to think that. That's why you tell 
'em you love 'em or whatever. Because you may think you love them, but 
they might be messin' wit your homeboy on the side or whatever. But it 
still makes you feel good to hear them tell you that they love you all the 
time. So you really just gonna go wit that feeling. And most guys fight 
for what they want, so they just get mad or whatever. They just start 
fightin' over girls all the time, so. 

I: But it's rough. 

R: Yup. I ain't never fought over no girl, though. 'Cause if he gets her, 

that's him. There are a lot more girls out there. [Int: Uhm-hm] A lot of 

(Grady: 18-year-old, African-American, nonvirgin) 

Suddenly, Grady is not concerned with his male fraternity or with being perceived as 
"pussy-whipped." He wants a relationship; he wants to feel loved. In fact, his 
willingness to maintain a relationship even when he suspects the sentiments on which it is 
founded are false reflects the kind of self-delusion that the term "pussy-whipping" 
derides. It also introduces enormous contradictions into the identity he is constructing: 
Does he want to present hegemonic masculinity, or a more relational, emotional 


masculinity? Does he somehow hope to belong both to a male fraternity and a 
committed, love relationship? 

In subsequent parts of his interview, Grady might have endeavored to resolve 
these contradictions in favor of one discourse (and view of himself) or another. For 
instance, he might have renounced the male fraternity or rejected the tendency, associated 
with the conquest discourse, to generalize negative attributes of some girls to all girls. 
Either of these rhetorical moves would have strengthened his claim to a relational 
masculinity and located his sense of belonging more in relationships than in male peer 
groups. Conversely, one option that might have allowed him to preserve love as 
something more than an illusion while simultaneously demonstrating a masculinity 
consistent with the discourse of conquest would be fighting for "exclusive rights" to a 
girl. Grady employs none of these strategies, however, and as a result the identity he 
presents is contradictory, plagued by the incompatibility of his desire for love and his 
belief in the conquest depiction of girls as fickle and threatening. 

The cases of Grady, Jordan, and Derrick demonstrate vividly the enormous 
challenges inherent in attempting to construct identities by blending resources from 
competing discourses. In some instances, exemplified by Derrick and Jordan, one 
discourse appears to be dominant, and the articulation of aspects of another end up, 
intentionally or unintentionally, fortifying that dominance. In others, like Grady's, 
neither discourse assumes uncontested dominance, and the result is unresolved 
contradictions. Regardless of the outcome, every effort at reconciliation brings the 
mediating effect of social factors to the fore, for these mediators are the focal point of the 
incompatibilities between the discourses. As we have seen, each discourse offers 


different ways for the guys to resolve their need to present some form of masculinity, 
assert their independence, and establish that they belong. 

What do these efforts at discourse reconciliation mean in terms of how guys talk 
about and orient to sexual decision making? First and foremost, I think they remind us of 
the limits of the interplay between narrative resources and narrative practice. In spite of 
their creative use of narrative strategies, language users are hard pressed to construct 
compatible meanings from discourses that are essentially in contradiction. Put more 
concretely, when guys approach sex and relationships primarily from the viewpoint of 
sexual conquest, it is difficult for them to simultaneously make the claim that other 
considerations, such as religion or love, are important. This is not to say that narrative 
practice is inconsequential. While the reconciliation efforts I explored were largely 
unsuccessful at blending discourses, they certainly succeeded in creating tensions in 
identities and exposing the multiple ways that a guy can cope with discourse mediators. 
In that sense, the narrative work these guys did reaffirms that discourse is not destiny and 
that language users' artful manipulation of discourse resources will always be a 
destabilizing force on the boundaries between discourses. 


Exploring the mediation of the discourse of conquest by the social factors of 
masculinity, independence, and belonging is a tall order. Like all discourses, the 
discourse of conquest is multifaceted, meaning each of the three mediators can influence 
its articulation in multiple, complex ways. My investigation of these mediating effects 
demonstrates that each of the mediators does have an effect on the guys' articulations, but 
not to equal degrees. 


The need to belong affects how the discourse is articulated a moderate amount, as 
guys actively construct the importance of male peer groups (male fraternities) and 
routinely engage other guys in virginity status tests to determine whether or not they 
belong with nonvirgins. Independence is not as powerful a mediator of this discourse, 
but Jordan's narrative demonstrates that it can influence how guys articulated the 
discourse of conquest if they reject the importance of the male fraternity. 

Masculinity is by far the most influential mediator of how the discourse is 
articulated. Articulating the discourse of conquest affords guys the opportunity to claim 
hegemonic masculinity, but it also confronts them with a host of related narrative 
challenges. Presenting themselves as too enamored with the trappings of hegemonic 
masculinity raises the possibility that their identities will be discredited as 
hypermasculine. Conversely, rejecting key elements of the discourse leaves one's claim 
to hegemonic masculinity in doubt. In both instances, guys feel compelled to account for 
their level of commitment to the discourse in an effort to achieve the masculine 
presentation they desire. 

Even if their degree of commitment to the discourse is not an issue, however, 
guys' strategies for articulating it are effected by concerns about masculinity. In the 
course of presenting themselves in terms consistent with the discourse of conquest, guys 
face the imminent danger that some aspect of their experience will be inconsistent with 
hegemonic masculinity. Out of concern for the opinions of authority figures, they may 
minimize the role they play in achieving their sexual "accomplishments." For reasons 
particular to a given situation, they may have declined a sexual opportunity they had. Or, 
they may be uncomfortable about raising with their partners the possibility of having sex. 


In each of these instances, the reality of the situation runs counter to the template 
provided by hegemonic masculinity, which emphasizes demonstrating masculinity 
through sex, being fearless, always being ready for sex. Trying to square that reality with 
the sense of manhood to which they aspire moves guys to all manner of strategic 
meaning-making. Some guys seek to minimize the particular disconnect between their 
experience and hegemonic masculinity by asserting their claim through other aspects of 
the discourse. Some meet the narrative challenges by finding indirect or creative ways to 
satisfy the expectations of hegemonic masculinity. Still others address the challenge by 
asserting a claim to an alternate masculinity and insisting on the superiority of this 
definition of manhood. Regardless of how they grappled with the challenge, however, all 
of these guys are confronted with the mediating effects of masculinity on their 
articulations of the conquest discourse. 

As I reflect on guys' engagement with the narrative challenges they face as they 
articulate the discourse of conquest, I am left with two strong impressions. The first has 
to be the incredible flexibility, creative, and seeming intentional ity with which the guys 
manipulate the resources of the discourse. Through categorizing, distancing, storytelling, 
and contrasting, the guys construct meanings for notions like belonging, virginity, sex 
talk, and independence that satisfy the demands of particular contexts. The same 
resources that help one guy construct a "player" identity are used by another to produce a 
masculinity that dismisses the player as a charlatan. This narrative elasticity in the 
production of meaning provides dramatic evidence of the power of discursive practice. 

At the same time, however, I cannot help but be struck by the futility of some of 
the narrative work that guys engage in when trying to identify themselves with 


hegemonic masculinity. Time and again, they confront narrative challenges that require 
them to engage in complex narrative work just to salvage a portion of their claims to the 
hegemonic ideal of manhood. The difficulties they encounter seems to lend credence to 
the claims of men's studies scholars who contend that the hegemonic ideal is unattainable 
and guys' quest of it is self-destructive (Kaufman 1994; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku 1993; 
Stoltenberg 1993). Some guys certainly manage to identify with hegemonic masculinity 
in multiple ways. But for many guys, presenting an identity consistent with hegemonic 
masculinity entails an enormous amount of narrative work, with little guarantee of 
success. Whatever these difficulties may ultimately say about masculinities and their 
production, in terms of meaning-making, they remind us of the limits of narrative 
practice. However creative the guys may be in manipulating the resources of the 
discourse of conquest, they cannot produce whatever meanings or identities they wish. 

Indeed, that tension between guys' artful narrative practice and the somewhat 
permeable boundaries imposed by discursive resources encapsulates the essence of the 
narrative challenge. At the same time that guys express their views on sex and sexual 
decision making, they are endeavoring to wrest from discourses the flexibility to produce 
identities that, to their reckoning, favorably satisfy the "identity agendas" inspired by the 
three mediators. In this chapter, I examined this tug-of-war in relation to the discourse of 
conquest. In the next chapter, I conclude my substantive analysis by exploring the 
narrative challenges guys face when they articulate the discourses of relationship or piety. 
This examination will reveal that the three mediators raise different types of challenges 
for those articulating discourses other than conquest. Still, many of the challenges 


require or motivate guys to engage the discourse of conquest since it represents the 
repository of articulations they reject. 


My examination of the mediation of the discourse of conquest in Chapter 6 
revealed that the boys' articulations face an array of narrative challenges. In their efforts 
to meet those challenges, they tell stories, establish novel categorization schemes, draw 
telling contrasts, strain the boundaries of discourses, and otherwise stretch their powers of 
narrative practice. 

As my focus shifts in this chapter from the discourse of conquest to the discourses 
of relationship and piety, many things stay the same. My concern is still how pressing 
identity concerns — independence, belonging, and masculinity — mediate the guys' 
articulation of discourses of sexual decision making. These mediating effects are still 
manifest in narrative challenges, and I have every reason to believe that the boys' 
responses to these challenges will be as active and inventive as the one's I have 
documented already. 

The challenges that arise are not the same, however. The discourses that now take 
center stage present very different contexts for the emergence of narrative challenges than 
that associated with the discourse of conquest. In a rather crude way, it may be 
reasonable to characterize the difference as one of mainstream versus alternative 
approaches to sexual decision making. Although it is cause for dismay for some (myself 
included), the evidence is all around us that popular messages urge guys to construct their 
masculinity in terms of sexual conquest and guys typically orient to concerns about 



belonging and independence according to peer standards. To the extent that the 
discourses of piety and relationship offer different ways for guys to address these aspects 
of their identity agendas, they constitute resources for dissidence from the dominant 
approach. But this dissidence frequently comes with a price, as guys feel compelled to 
account for the "subversive" identities they construct. Thus, the narrative challenges 
faced by those who articulate the discourse of piety or the discourse of relationship are, 
by and large, generated by and relate back to the mainstream orientation to adolescent 
male sexual decision making that is consistent with the discourse of conquest. 

My explication of the narrative challenges associated with these two "dissident" 
discourses is organized in terms of the mediating factors that prompt them. I begin by 
examining the narrative challenges associated with belonging and then shift attention to 
those related to masculinity. In each case, the nature of the challenge dictates logical 
divisions within the section, but these divisions are different for each mediator. With 
belonging, it makes sense to tell a separate story for each discourse. With masculinity, 
however, it is more constructive to group those who articulate the discourse of piety with 
those who articulate a strong commitment to relationships, and then tell another, unique 
story about guys who articulate a weak commitment to relationships. Finally, since 
independence appears to create challenges primarily for guys committed to piety, this 
mediator is discussed solely in relation to that discourse at the close of the chapter. 

Navigating Challenges to Belonging 

The tendency for the narrative challenges associated with these discourses to be 
driven by their variation from the discourse of conquest is nowhere more evident than 
with respect to belonging. Guys who articulate either the discourse of piety or 


relationship routinely presume that others perceive them as "not cool" or "misfits" 
because of the choices they make regarding sexuality. And although the challenge is 
similar for adherents to both discourses, the guys' responses differ. Guys whose 
commitment to virginity stems from relationship concerns (hence forth referred to as 
"relationship virgins") tend to address the challenge directly, seeking to undermine the 
assumptions on which it is based. Pious virgins, in contrast, employ a variety of less 
direct strategies, some of which seem acquiescent to the conquest discourse. 
Discourse of Piety 

One way in which pious virgins assert that they do, in fact, belong is by appealing 
to a sense of belonging that transcends decisions about sexual behavior. Sean 
exemplifies this approach when I ask him if he feels physical urges toward girls. In his 
response, he not only affirms that he does, but he also seizes on that fact as an indication 
of his commonality with other guys. Describing himself as "just a regular, regular 
teenager," Sean constructs an inclusive category to which both he and nonvirgins belong. 
In this way, he does not capitulate to the conquest orientation to virginity in order to 
belong, but neither does he actively assert the piety orientation. He stakes out a middle 
ground that de-emphasizes his commitment to virginity and establishes him as an insider 
on the basis of his interest in— not experience with— heterosexual sex. 

It is apparently not beyond the pale, however, for a pious virgin to capitulate 
completely to the discourse of conquest and seek to establish that he belongs on its terms. 
We have already seen that Derrick constructs his identity as much or more in terms of the 
discourse of conquest as the discourse of piety, so it should not be surprising that he 
stakes his sense of belonging on the conquest discourse as well. 


But how can he claim to belong in terms consistent with the discourse of conquest 

when he is a virgin? Derrick's strategy is to elaborate the category of "virgin." Much 

like Jordan did when he sought to affirm his independence, Derrick creates a contrast 

between guys who choose virginity and those who have virginity thrust upon them. By 

affirming that he is one of the former types of virgins, Derrick also allies himself with the 

discourse of conquest and the peer acceptance associated with it: 

'Cause people know, you know, I love women and can pick up a girl without 
really any trouble, so they're not gonna be like, "Oh, well you're just a dork." 
You know, they know that I can do it, so they don't hassle me about that. I mean 
some people probably get hassled for it. 
(Derrick: 1 8-year-old, White, virgin) 

Some guys are virgins because they are "dorks" and cannot pick up a woman even if they 

try, but Derrick is a virgin whose heterosexuality and prowess with girls are not in 

question. In short, he is a player. Therefore, he fits in with the sexually active "cool 

kids," even though he has not had sex. Fitting in on these terms, however, means that he 

implicitly reaffirms the outsider status of many other pious virgins, who reject the 

identity of the player and all sexual involvements, not just sexual intercourse. 

Sean exemplifies this latter group of virgins, and his narrative demonstrates that 

pious virgins need not orient to belonging in conquest terms. While he is not particularly 

aggressive in asserting an alternative "pious" notion of belonging, he exhibits a keen 

awareness that there are multiple reference groups for evaluating virginity: 

R: I mean, I'll be talkin' to some of my old friends and they're sittin' there, 
you know, "I did this with this girl last night." And I'll be like, "Oh, 
really." And they're, "Have you done that yet?" And I'll be like, "No. I 
don't wanna do that." And then, you know, they'll make comments like, 
"Why not? It's cool. It's fun.," you know, "It's. You enjoy it," or 
whatever. And I — You know, so they kind of look down on you, you 
know, like, you know, "Are you gay?" You know, they'll say stuff like 
that a lot, but. So, yeah, I mean, there's only— I mean, not a lot because I 


don't really hang out with 'em anymore. I'm always with, you know, my 
group of friends, so. Not as much any more, but it has happened. 

I: How does it make you feel when they do that? 

R: Nah. I, I really don't care. I'm like, "Okay," you know, '"whatever. If 

you say so." I mean, I think it's sad for them because, you know, they just 
don't know any better. You know, they might, they're gonna regret it, I 
would think, in the long run, but. 

(Matthew: 1 5-year-old, White, virgin) 

In this passage, Sean identifies two distinct groups that apply competing meanings to his 
virginity. His "old friends" are those he hung around before he converted to Christianity 
and was saved. Given a presence in the narrative by Sean's parroting, they articulate the 
discourse of conquest and use homophobic taunts to paint Sean as an outcast for being a 
virgin. The other group, composed of his current, Christian friends, provides a buffer 
against the criticisms of the secular guys by supporting and sharing his religious 
commitment to virginity. Sean aligns himself with them and thus establishes that he 
belongs on their terms, which are sympathetic to virginity commitments and quests for 
purity. In addition, his insistence that he no longer has much contact with his old friends 
suggests that he recognizes isolation from his old friends as an important strategy for 
maintaining what, in mainstream terms, is an "alternative" sense of belonging. 

Having effectively established that he belongs while remaining true to the 
discourse of piety, Sean makes a respectful, but nonetheless deliberate, effort to assert the 
superiority of his constructions of virginity and belonging. He does not claim directly 
that his pious approach is better or morally superior, but his categorization of the 
conquest approach as pitiful ("I think it's sad for them") carries the implication that his 
way is wiser because it accounts for the long term. While Sean's criticism is couched in 


nonjudgmental terms, its claim to what we might call the "intellectual high ground" 
anticipates the strategies for negotiating belonging employed by relationship virgins. 
Discourse of Relationship 

In considering how belonging mediates guys' articulations of the discourse of 
relationship, we first have to return to the distinction I have made between weak and 
strong commitments to relationships. All of the guys whose commitments to 
relationships are weak, in the sense that even couplings of limited intensity and duration 
are considered appropriate contexts for intercourse, are also nonvirgins when I interview 
them. As such, the narrative challenges they encounter with respect to belonging tend to 
have much in common with those faced by guys who make partial commitments to the 
discourse of conquest or who seek to reconcile the conquest discourse with the 
relationship discourse. In essence, their story has already been told, and so I focus here 
exclusively on "relationship virgins," guys whose commitment to relationships compels 
them to delay virginity loss until they find "the one." 

Relationship virgins, more so than pious virgins, confront the narrative challenge 
associated with belonging head-on. Recognizing that their decision not to have sex for its 
own sake casts them as outsiders, these guys respond by embracing their dissident status 
and constructing it as an indication of superior insight. Donnie, for instance, has no 
difficulty renouncing belonging because in its absence he has achieved greater self- 
awareness. He, more than anyone, knows what is right for him, and he has learned to 
adhere to that, even if the consequence is being outcast. He has been outcast throughout 
his youth, in fact, and has cultivated the perspective that "they don't know what they're 


Similarly, the insight that supersedes an interest in belonging for Andrew is his 

recognition that guys' sexual activity and the other behaviors that make them "cool" are 

essentially acts of conformity. Andrew thus redefines coolness as conformity and rejects 

conformity as ignorance: 

And people shun the idea of being a virgin 'cause you're supposed to be sexually 
active, you know. The real, the cool people, the mature people, the mainstream, 
MTV people, they're the people that are out there runnin' around havin' sex. And 
those are the people that are idiots, you know. [Int: Right.] Those are the people 
that are, you know, that are being force-fed, uh, brand names and being force-fed, 
you know, women have to make themselves puke and wear makeup so that men 
can be happier with them. And men have to be big and buff and burly so that they 
can, you know, punch each other in the shoulder all homoerotically to prove [Int 
laughs] to prove how homosexual they're not, you know. [Int: Right.] And it's, 
it's so idiotic that people won't just look at themselves and realize how wrong 
they're being and doing. And, you know, they're gonna shun somebody because 
of their sexual ethics and they're sexual morals and how they live their lives. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

To Andrew, the "necessity" of having sex is just one of a multitude of erroneous ideas 
that young people have been "force-fed" by mainstream influences. It is ludicrous to him 
that anyone would even want to achieve insider status among a group that accepts such 
ridiculous, destructive ideas uncritically. Since his perspective equates conformity with 
ignorance and a conquest orientation toward sex, being an outcast emerges as the only 
reasonable option for him. 

Andrew is, in fact, explicit about extolling the virtues of being an outsider. He 
regards it as a sign of superior mental toughness: 

You know, there's a lotta people out there that are just not mentally as, as strong 
as others and can handle, you know, being outcast or thrust aside for a little 
while, maybe, because they haven't found the right niche for their ideas. So 
instead they'll change their ideas to fit everybody else's and run around and start, 
you know, having sex and, you know, being all MASCULINE and "Oh 

(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 


Andrew's strategy for meeting the narrative challenge of belonging within the discourse 
of relationship thus amounts to an all-out assault on the discourse of conquest and 
hegemonic masculinity. Reversing established interpretations, Andrew insists that guys 
who follow the hegemonic script are not strong; they are weak because they adopt 
traditional notions of masculinity out of fear of not belonging. 

Although both Andrew and Donnie are not social pariahs in the sense of having 
no friends and being isolated completely, they perceive that many others consider them 
outsiders in terms of their orientation to sexual decision making. In contrast to the pious 
virgins, who either capitulate to conquest notions of belonging or seek belonging in 
religious enclaves, these relationship virgins reject the social pressure to belong. 
Insisting that pursuing sex is an ignoble means of bonding with others, they seek to 
justify and even celebrate their outsider status. In this way, they also simultaneously 
manage to forcefully assert their independence. 

Navigating Challenges to Masculinity 
When guys articulate either the discourse of relationship or piety, concerns about 
masculinity influence their narrative tremendously, just as they do for guys who articulate 
the discourse of conquest. In fact, guys whose commitment to relationships is weak tend 
to confront challenges and produce responses that are analogous to those I have discussed 
with respect to conquest adherents. Committed virgins articulating either discourse, 
however, face a different challenge, by virtue of their complete rejection of the 
construction of sex associated with hegemonic masculinity. In some instances, they 
respond to this challenge by constructing alternative masculinities, but they are as likely 
to instead produce critiques of the notion of gender itself. I begin this section by 


exploring the masculinities constructed by guys with weak commitments to the discourse 
of relationship. In the course of the discussion, I pay particular attention to how their 
narrative work compares to that of guys who articulate the discourse of conquest. I then 
turn to the more radical responses to the problem of masculinity produced by users of the 
discourses of piety or relationship who are committed virgins. 
Commitment to "Weak" Relationships 

By insisting on the importance of relationships to their sexual decisions but not 
committing to virginity, a number of guys place themselves in a unique position with 
respect to constructing their masculinities. On the one hand they embrace a discourse 
that is antithetical to fundamental aspects of hegemonic masculinity, such as treating sex 
as an end in itself and orienting to girls and relationships through the notion of "pussy 
whipping." On the other hand, the fact that they are sexually experienced aligns them 
less with virgins articulating the same discourse and more with nonvirgins articulating the 
discourse of conquest. Given this precariousness of their position within the discourse of 
relationship, guys' efforts to construct masculinities typically involve some capitulation 
to conquest definitions of manhood. Specifically, they construct their manhood in 
relational terms, but they also stake claims to certain aspects of hegemonic masculinity 
that are compatible with sexualized relationships. Jerry provides one example of how 
these guys construct their hybrid masculinities. 

From the outset, Jerry is explicit about the fact that he orients to sexual matters in 
the terms of the discourse of relationship. He notes that he is not the type to have sex 
unless he is ready for it, and, as the following passage indicates, he associates being ready 
with being in a relationship that is about more than sex: 


I: What's the problem with being with — With finding yourself with a girl 

who just wants to have sex? 

R: The problem is that a girl that just wants to have sex is just, the 

relationship is just based on sex. And if you want somethin' more out of 
that relationship like love, commitment, trust, and understanding, you 
gonna want those things and the relationship is not all about sex. It's not. 
It's about love, trust, commitment you know, being there for your, uhm, 
spouse and it's all about that. It's not just all about having sex. If you 
want to have sex, it's plenty of girls just wanna have sex. You know what 
I am saying? You go to a party. They get drunk. They do this and it's just 
you know. Some. Men like me, I don't. Like me, personally, like me, I 
don't look for that. That's not my concern. 

(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Jerry's declaration of the preeminence of love, trust, and commitment over sex indicates 
clearly which discourse guides his sexual decision making, but it does not, in and of 
itself, confirm that he is seeking to construct a relational masculinity. Only in the phrase 
"men like me" is there an implication that he associates the choice he has made with a 
particular way of demonstrating manhood, rather than, say, an isolated, idiosyncratic 

Confirmation that Jerry links his commitment to the discourse with types of 
masculinities comes later in the interview when the discussion turns to players. Jerry 
rejects the player identity for himself, but his subsequent damning critique makes it clear 
that the player represents a specific way of approaching girls, sex, and manhood: 

I: What do guys get out of being players? 

R: I mean, (laugh) I basically don't know. I think they assume that they 

getting' power for theyself cause they got that pipe game. So the next girl 
gonna come and be like, "Man, I want to do this and that with you." 
Whoa, come on now. If you gonna have a lot of whores sweatin' you, and 
that's what you gonna chased for, for the rest of your life. And you tiyin' 
to find someone out there that's gonna benefit you, but she's turnin' out to 
be a whore. And then you finally tryin' to settle down and you messing up 
your life. So, I'm saying they really ain't getting nothin' out of it but just 
the only thing they getting' out of it is a piece of pussy. To me. What? 


One-night stand. The next day they back at it again. So they with a 
different girl. So I'm sayin' that's confused. A player is the most 
confused person. They confused a lot, a whole lot. 
(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Whereas Jerry's earlier articulation of the discourse of relationship put little emphasis on 

collective ways of being a man, this one is predicated on the rejection of the player as the 

embodiment of what Jerry considers an untenable masculinity. Focusing solely on sex, 

wanting for love and trust in relationships, and always ending up alone, the player 

provides the straw man, the contrast against which Jerry stakes his claim to a masculinity 

that privileges its opposite. 

Jerry's relational masculinity is not the antithesis of hegemonic masculinity, 
however. His dismissal of players represents a rejection of manhood based on the 
relentless pursuit of sex, but it is silent on other dimensions of sexual decision making, 
such as virginity and sex talk. Furthermore, Jerry is not a virgin. So while he may 
distance himself from the discourse of conquest with respect to its fundamental 
orientation to sexual decisions, he stands to gain "masculinity dividends" by linking his 
identity with these other signifiers of hegemonic masculinity. The challenge within this 
narrative challenge for Jerry is constructing these links in ways that are consistent with 
his avowed commitment to relationships. 

With respect to virginity, constructing a compatible link presents few difficulties 

since a guy's constructions of virgins and virginity can remain largely independent of his 

notion of relationships. Jerry associates himself with conquest interpretations of virginity 

by placing virgins in an unfavorable contrast with nonvirgins: 

I think they, virgins— men virgins— they crazy. They can flip it this way and 
sayin' they not a virgin and be all macho about it and all this about it. But a 
man's that not a virgin, he's like laid back. Like, "Okay, I'll let this out. This 


feels good." A virgin is uptight all the time. They, like, pushy-pushy. They got 
like a little attitude, just like girls. They always got a little attitude. To me, they 
just need, you know, a little piece. 
(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Depicting virgins as "pushy-pushy" and "just like girls" and insisting that they can 

resolve these conditions by getting "a little piece" (i.e., losing their virginity), Jerry 

constructs a connection between virginity loss and manhood that reflects hegemonic 

ideals to a tee. This denigration of virgins, furthermore, carries with it an implicit 

affirmation of Jerry's own status as a nonvirgin, which bolsters his claim to this marker 

of hegemonic masculinity. Thus, Jerry's belief that relationships are a necessary 

prerequisite for sexual intercourse does not prevent him from constructing his manhood 

in terms that privilege being "experienced." 

He faces greater rhetorical challenges, however, when he tries to link his 

masculinity to another hallmark of hegemonic masculinity— sex talk that objectifies 

girls — while simultaneously maintaining the importance of relationships. The 

obj edification of girls is part and parcel of the conquest reduction of females to their 

sexual potential, and it underlies the restriction of girls to the borders of guy's lives that is 

policed by notions like pussy-whipping. Therefore, if Jerry wants to identify with this 

treatment of girls, he must somehow finesse the contradiction that it appears to create in 

his masculine self-presentation. His strategy is to align himself with the objectification of 

girls, but in a modified way. He qualifies his acceptance of this behavior by 

distinguishing between inappropriate talk with acceptable talk, the latter of which he 

associates with the identity of the "gentleman": 

I: Like around school and stuff, the guys that you hang out with, how much 

talk about sex is there? 


R: Man, every time man. With guys it's natural. I could be a gentleman and 

just be like, "Man, damn, man." 
[end side 1] 

R: I could just be like, "Man that girl looks good over there, Man. Oh, man, 

she look good." And, "I'll beat " It's all natural. You could still be a 

gentleman and talk. I mean, it's nothing wrong with, it's amongst us guys. 
But — you know what I'm saying? — You don't have to blow it out of 
proportion like some men do. You know what I'm saying? Some men, 
they're [in a lusty voice] "Oh man, I want to hit that. Oh yeah, there's no 
telling what I'll do. Ooh!" You know what I'm saying? You don't even 
have to be all like that. If you want to compliment a woman, be a man 
about it and go up and say, "Hey, you look nice," Or, "Can I get your 
phone number? Maybe we could talk or go out some time." Stuff like 
that. Or you could just be, like, "Man, she look good," if you don't want 
to talk to her. Okay, it's amongst y'all guys. If she looks good, she looks 
good. If you feel like — If you wanna beat, you just tell in your mind, like. 
"Man, she look good enough to have sex with." 

(Jerry: 19-year-old, African- American, nonvirgin) 

Jerry's perspective is that it is natural for guys to talk about sex. But whether that talk 
occurs between guys or in the presence of girls, there are right and wrong forms that it 
can take. Using the narrative strategy of contrasting, Jerry constructs two different types 
of sex talkers— gentlemen and others— that embody the two ways of talking about sex. 
The others, who represent the wrong way, are guys who "blow it out of proportion" and 
talk about girls in vulgar, ultra-sexual, dehumanizing ways. Jerry, by contrast, is a 
gentleman. Gentlemen talk about sex when they are with their guy friends, but their 
language remains respectful. They use phrases like, "Man, she look good." rather than 
the more crude, "Oh man, I want to hit that." And when it comes to approaching girls, 
they are— in Jerry's estimation— more manly than the others. While other guys use crude 
talk to cover their fear of talking to girls, gentlemen display their superior masculinity by 
appealing to girls in a way that shows class. The category of gentleman thus designates a 


masculinity characterized by a kinder, gentler form of sex talk that is not inherently 
inconsistent with a relational masculinity because it does not dehumanize girls. 

In sum, the masculinity that Jerry constructs strikes an uneasy balance between 
his weak commitment to relationships and certain aspects of the discourse of conquest. 
On the one hand, Jerry is the kind of man who values relationships; on the other hand, he 
presents his status as a nonvirgin and his participation in sex talk as emblematic of his 
manhood. He suggests that in his case these two notions of manhood are not mutually 
exclusive, however, because his code of gentlemanly masculinity tempers his expression 
of the conquest orientation to girls. 

In terms of rhetorical strategies, Jerry's case thus has similarities to that of L.J., 
who espouses only a partial commitment to the discourse of conquest. Both draw 
selectively from the discourse to satisfy narrative challenges. But while L.J. manages his 
articulations in the interest of a securing a stronger claim to hegemonic masculinity, Jerry 
produces an alternative masculinity that purported to be more refined than the hegemonic 
masculinity with which it shares some roots. 
Commitment to Virginity 

With respect to masculinity, the narrative challenge for guys whose articulations 
of the discourses of piety or relationship include a commitment to virginity differ 
substantially from that of guys like Jerry. Those who articulate a weak commitment to 
relationships have grounds from which they can make claims to hegemonic masculinity if 
they choose, such as through the denigration of virgins or the objectification of girls. For 
committed virgins, however, the incompatibility between their orientation to sexual 
decision making and the conquest discourse that supports hegemonic masculinity is 


virtually absolute. Consequently, hegemonic masculinity and its variants derived from 

the discourse of conquest are denied them. 

In general, the strategy guys implement for asserting masculinity in this context is 

to actively redefine it so that the basis for the evaluation of one's manhood is something 

other than the hegemonic standard. However, their strategies for redefinition diverge 

significantly. Consider these statements, cited earlier, from Sean and Donnie: 

I don't think I'm a man yet. I think that I'm, like, a young man, I guess. [Int: 
Okay.] But, but I think that, uh, I think that to be a man, I mean, it 'd be a lot 
harder of a challenge to not have sex, until, until you get married than it would be 
to have sex. [Int: Uhm-hm] So I think that doing that to prove that you're a guy 
is kinda like the easy way out, I guess. I mean, not — I mean, it depends on who 
you are, what you believe, but, I mean, I think that that's probably a pretty easy 
way to prove that you're a guy, you know. Just go out and have sex. 
(Sean: 1 6-year-old, White, virgin) 

I don't think having to have a serious relationship or getting laid requires you 
becoming a man, personally, because I feel that I'm a man, and I haven't had 
either of the two. I mean, I've had one relationship, but it was short lived, just 
because I had to break it off 'cause I was coming over here. I was like, I'm not 
gonna cheat the person either. But, uhm. I don't think being a man — Or, I think 
you're more of a man if you can hold it and wait long, and wait for the long run 
and wait till you find that right person to give it to. I think you're more of a man 
if you can hold it, and then tell yourself, "You know, that isn't you." And 
constantly remind yourself who you are. That's being more of a man than 
anything else. 
(Donnie: 18-year-old, Hispanic, virgin) 

Both guys contest the equation of sexual experience with manhood as it is typically 
articulated within the discourse of conquest. Sean calls being sexual "the easy way out" 
of the dilemma of proving masculinity, and Donnie insists that having sex does not make 
a male into a man. This basic sentiment is echoed elsewhere by Andrew, another 
committed virgin. 

However, the three virgins respond differently to the breach created by their 
rejection of conquest definitions of manhood. In the passage presented above. Donnie 


goes on to assert his own masculinity on the grounds that self-awareness and self- 
control — demonstrated in his case by his not having sex until he can lose his virginity on 
his own terms — are the stuff of which true masculinity are made. Sean, on the other 
hand, does not claim an alternate masculinity. In fact, he actually rejects the relevance of 
gender categories altogether: 

I mean, if I'm not a man, than I'm not a man, just as long as I feel that I'm who I 
wanna be and who I think is the best person for me to be, then it's the best thing 
for me, 'cause bein' happy's the most important thing in life. 
(Sean: 1 6-year-old, White, virgin) 

Taking a radically individualized view of the significance of gender, Sean insists that 
masculinity is irrelevant to his self-image. What is important, he says, is his state of 
being, not how he is categorized. In this way, Sean "solves" the identity issue of 
masculinity by negating it. From a sociological standpoint, Sean's denial will not stop 
gender categories from influencing his life. In terms of the presentation of identity in the 
context of our interview, however, it provides an answer for Sean's deviation from 
mainstream standards of masculinity. If the "gender game" is stacked against him, he 
chooses to quit playing. 

Andrew, a relationship virgin, takes a dizzyingly paradoxical approach to the 
mediating influence of masculinity. He rejects the quest for dominance exemplified by 
hegemonic masculinity adamantly, but he does so in a way that implicates him in his own 
quest for dominance. After indicating that he considers himself a fairly masculine person 
and that he likes to fight, Andrew admits that he has occasionally fought with guys who 
were trying to assert masculine dominance over him: 

I just get into a lot of little small quarrels over guys that are trying to prove their 
masculinity to you, you know. "Oh, I'm, I'm more bad ass than you, so if you 
wanna come up to me and ask me about," you know, "my actions, I don't have to 


explain myself to you. I'm going to pummel you until I'm right." [Int: Right.] 
You know, "I'm gonna beat you up until you agree that I am," you know, "more 
masculine than you," and, uhm. I won't — I won't stand for it! [Int laughs] I'll, 
I'll, I'll lay myself down on the line physically for that sorta thing. 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

Andrew's parroting of other guys in this passage confirms that he believes the guys' 

defensive, combative attitudes emerge because they feel their masculinity is being 

threatened. But by opposing their demonstrations of hegemonic masculinity through 

physical violence, Andrew jumps headlong into the battle for supremacy that defines the 

hierarchy of masculinities. 

Andrew's tactic raises an obvious question: Given that he thinks of himself as 
"fairly masculine," what sort of masculinity is he fighting for? Throughout our 
interview, Andrew presents himself as extremely thoughtful, particularly when it comes 
to relationships and sex. He believes that people should be introspective and think about 
sexuality before they involve others in their exploration of it. His own ruminations have 
convinced him that the physical act of sex pales in importance to the intimacy and sense 
of connection that characterize meaningful relationships. That said, one might expect 
that the masculinity Andrew espouses would be far more cerebral and relationship-based 
than hegemonic masculinity. 

Here again, however, Andrew constructs a paradox: Although he has previously 

aligned himself with some notion of masculinity, however ill-defined, when I ask him to 

describe his vision of masculinity, he stakes out a position outside of the gender order on 

the grounds that it is an ill-conceived social construction: 

I don't think there's a right way to be a man. I think there's a right way to be a 
human being. [Int: Okay.] And I don't think there should be, uh, the sort of, the 
wall between the sexes that: He is a man. He is a woman. He is a man, and he is 
a woman 'Cause I think we all have the same brains. We are just brought up 


differently, and we have different ideals. And girls are told, "You're a girl. And 
you're supposed to be passive and you're supposed to be quiet, and you're 
supposed to have sex with guys. And guys, you're a guy. And you're supposed 
to be loud and you're supposed to be obnoxious and you're supposed to play 
football and go and, you know, do what you want with women because, you 
know, they're there for you." 
(Andrew: 1 7-year-old, White, virgin) 

When addressing the issue of gender directly, Andrew orients to it in the most 

stereotypical terms: Girls are passive and derive their relevance from their sexuality; 

guys are loud, active, and entitled to exploit girls sexually. He does not conceive of the 

possibility of alternative masculinities that might be more consistent with his ideals. 

Instead, he throws the proverbial baby out with the bath water and insists that the relevant 

category of concern is not "man," but "human being." 

The contradiction between Andrew's claim that he is masculine and his 

subsequent resistance to presenting himself in gendered terms has no simple resolution. 

Perhaps it is explained by the fact that the "masculine" he sees in himself does not fit 

within the stereotypical notion he has of masculinity. In any case, it raises a final, thorny 

question: How does this contradictory, fluid position facilitate his resolution of the 

narrative challenge posed by masculinity? Frankly, it is hard to say. On the one hand. 

one could argue that by resorting to violence, Andrew stakes a claim of his own to 

hegemonic masculinity, thereby undermining whatever alternative masculinity or 

alternative to masculinity (i.e., nongendered humanness) he might also construct. From 

this perspective, Andrew's answer to the masculinity question is no answer at all, since 

the alternatives he offers are grounded in a concern for hegemony. Another possible 

interpretation is that Andrew's fights with these guys epitomize the dynamic through 

which the masculinities hierarchy is transformed. By challenging "manly men" on their 


own terms, Andrew seeks to topple the hierarchy and earn a privileged spot for 
nongendered humanness. Finally, it may simply be that Andrew's identity is 
contradictory with respect to masculinity: He believes that gender should be 
unimportant. He certainly believes that sex should not be associated with manhood. At 
the same time, however, he prefers to think of himself as masculine, and in the absence of 
other "mainstream" avenues for demonstrating that masculinity, he turns to fighting. 

Andrew's response to the narrative challenge to masculinity faced by committed 
virgins is unique in being so convoluted and seemingly contradictory. But the basic 
problem he wrestles with confronts all these guys: How should a guy respond to the 
expectation that he display masculinity when his choices with regard to sex alienate him 
from the discourse associated with "ideal" manhood? The virgin guys are united in 
challenging the established ideal of masculinity, but they have different ideas about what 
sort of identity to claim in its place. Some, like Donnie, construct an alternative 
masculinity on terms consistent with their chosen discourse of sexual decision making. 
Others, like Sean and Andrew, flirt with rejecting the need to be masculine in the same 
way that Andrew abandons the need to belong. Whatever resolution they seek, the 
intense rhetorical work these guys do in relation to masculinity is testament to its 
presence as a pressing identity concern, even among guys who wish to reject it. 

Independence and the Discourse of Piety 
In the same way that guys recognize that committing to virginity place them outside 
of mainstream articulations of adolescent male masculinity, pious virgins seem keenly 
aware that their adherence to religious interpretations of sexual issues raise questions 
about their independence. Considered alongside many guys who spend their adolescent 


years rebelling against authority figures — sometimes by having sex — the pious virgins 

risk seeming like "do-gooders," who are fettered to the wishes of church and family. 

Each of these guys, therefore, uses narrative strategies to depict his commitment to 

virginity as one of free choice, not simply blind conformity to religious dictates or the 

wishes of parents. 

One strategy pious virgins use to assert their independence is to play up the fact 

that they had had opportunities to be sexual. Sean makes a point to do this when he 

asserts his independence from the people who taught him his religious values: 

Being a virgin is something that I wanna do, I mean, like, like, I know that, that 
like, all the teachings I've had from my youth pastor, my mom, and my church, I 
mean, they've probably influenced me to do that, but I'm only a virgin because I 
wanna be a virgin. 'Cause, I mean, you know, I mean, I've had opportunities, too. 
I mean, I mean, I'm not like the best-looking guy at school or whatever, but, I 
mean, I mean, I mean, I, I could have sex if I wanted to. [Int: Right] But I choose 
not to because I don't want to. 
(Sean: 1 6-year-old, White, virgin) 

Indicating that he could be having sex if he chose to bolsters Sean's claim to 
independence in two ways. First, it demonstrates that he is not simply repeating an 
abstract ideology he has learned; his personal commitment to the choice of abstinence has 
been tested in a context where religious and parental influences have difficulty 
reaching — namely, his intimate interactions with girls. Second, it suggests that his 
decision to remain abstinent is not ultimately a cover for an inability to relate to girls. In 
this way, his claim that he has had opportunities to be sexual also shrinks the gap 
between the discourse of conquest and piety. Although he does not go through with 
having sex, he makes a limited claim to being a "player" by indicating that he can pique a 
girl's interest. 


A different strategy that other pious virgins use is to acknowledge that their ideas 

about virginity came from authority figures, but emphasize the process by which they 

adopted these teaching as their own. For instance, when I ask Matthew how he learned 

about the importance of virginity and staying pure, he couches his explanation in a 

transformation story. The story details a progression that begins with Matthew 

committing to purity out of obedience to his religious mentors, primarily his mother and 

stepfather, but culminates in his deciding that purity and virginity are things he wants for 


kinda did it over, like, you know, a process of time. You know, when I was saved, 
you know, I still didn't know exactly — I just got saved, so I didn't really know what 
was up. [Int: Right] Uhm, but, yeah, over a length of time, you know I was, you 
know, I guess, you know, they were saying, you know, "You shouldn't have sex 
before marriage." And I was, like, "You know, okay," you know, "I won't do that" 
just because that was more of like a rule to me. [Int: Right] You know, "You 
don't do that." And I was, like, "You know, that's fine, whatever." And then, but 
then over a length of time a started thinking, you know, I don't want a kid, so I 
don't want to do that just because I don't want to. It's not that it's a rule, it's that I 
don't want to. I believe that's what God, you know, wants for me. So that, you 
know, is over a length of time. 
(Matthew: 15-year-old, White, virgin) 

Matthew admits that his commitment to virginity was not, initially, an independent 

choice; he accepted it because it was "more of like a rule to [him]." This dependent state 

represents only the starting point of his story, however. As the story progresses "over a 

length of time," Matthew reflects on his attitudes toward paternity and his sense of God's 

plan for him. He determines that he does not want to have sex or compromise his purity, 

regardless of whether others set these commitments up as rules or not. Constructing this 

story, therefore, allows Matthew to do more than assert that his choice of virginity is an 

independent one. It provides a dramatic and undeniable contrast between his present 

state of independence with his former one of dependence. The story asserts that Matthew 


is not the dependent person he once was, and he can never go back to that state because 
of the personal, intentional growth that he made happen. In this way, Matthew's claim to 
independence may be as strong or stronger than that of guys who do not identify with an 
initial state of dependence because his transformation story creates an insurmountable 
distance from that dependence. 

The cases of Sean and Matthew demonstrate two very different strategies for 
asserting independence. Whereas Sean describes actual opportunities he had had to be 
sexual and emphasizes his ability to resist temptation, Matthew focuses on the 
philosophical process through which he internalized his commitment to virginity. These 
two diverse examples thus demonstrate the variety of strategies pious virgins can bring to 
bear on this narrative challenge, at the same time that it confirms the relevance of 
independence to these guys' identity agendas. Expecting that they may be seen as 
followers at a point in the life course that practically demands rebellion, they expend 
considerable energy to construct independence in their narratives. 


The preceding discussion demonstrates clearly that guys who articulate the 
discourses of relationship and piety face narrative challenges that are qualitatively 
different, but no less pressing, than those who adopt the discourse of conquest. Indeed, 
the challenges that confront the former group are largely a product of the ways in which 
their orientations to sexual decision making differ from the conquest discourse. 
Particularly among committed virgins, guys' efforts to construct themselves as ones who 
belong, as masculine, and as independent are complicated by their awareness that the 
discourse of conquest provides the mainstream responses to these identity agendas. 


Consequently, the narrative challenges of adherents to the discourses of piety and 
relationship are largely struggles for legitimacy, battles to stake out underappreciated 
ground. In the process, guys often have to choose between completely rejecting 
privileged avenues for meeting identity agendas, or trying to construct interpretations of 
their identities that draw on the resources of the dominant discourse. Pious virgins, for 
instance, must adopt one of two mutually exclusive strategies. They can assert that they 
belong in terms that minimize the difference between being sexually active and having 
opportunities for sex, thereby associating themselves with dominant modes of belonging. 
Alternatively, they can reject the relationship between the display of heterosexual ity and 
belonging altogether, and affirm that they belong on other terms, such as their association 
with a religious community. 

Similar choices face committed virgins as they seek to construct masculine 
identities: By virtue of their decision to remain abstinent, they place themselves in 
opposition to hegemonic masculinity, which privileges sexual conquest over relationships 
or religious principles. But how do they position themselves with respect to gender after 
rejecting privileged definitions of manhood? Do they construct alternative masculinities 
founded on the sense of responsibility, interconnection, and caring that underlie their 
commitments to virginity, or do they renounce the relevance of masculinities altogether 
and stake out a precarious position outside of the gender order? My analysis does not 
suggest any ready guidelines for choosing between strategies, as each approach brings 
with it its own pitfalls and rhetorical struggles. It does, however, make those pitfalls and 
struggles visible. As a result, it brings depth and specificity to our understanding of the 
difficulties of articulating a subordinate discourse. 


My examination of the struggles faced by guys who articulate the discourses of 
piety and relationship as they seek to manage the mediating effects of belong, 
masculinity, and independence brings my substantive analysis to a close. It is, literally, 
the final chapter in the story of how these guys construct their identities in the process of 
explaining their sexual decisions to me. It is not, however, the final chapter of my study 
of that story. What remains is for me to review the analytical tale that I have told and 
explore what can be learned from it, what it lacks, and, most importantly, what I and 
others can do with that information. The next and last chapter is devoted to these tasks. 


At the start, I pointed out that much of our understanding of life comes to us 
through stories, and I noted that a research report like this one is, itself, another story, 
albeit one that aspires to convey systematic, empirical knowledge, perhaps even a form of 
truth. In keeping with this openness about the constructed nature of research knowledge, 
I think it is appropriate at this juncture to reflect critically on the story I have told and 
explore how it has been constructed. 


The first point that becomes evident upon reflection is that this story is not the one 
I initially planned to tell. When I envisioned this study and began conducting interviews 
for it, I expected that it would focus on the stories young men told that exemplified their 
sexual decision making. It soon became clear, however, that stories carried a relatively 
small portion of the burden of meaning-making in the guys' narratives. I took a step 
back, then, and began to think about the narrative resources guys had at their disposal. 
These resources could be used to construct stories, but they could also be arranged 
meaningfully in other ways that typically slipped through the net cast by narrative 
researchers who fixate on stories. Discourses, as repositories of narrative resources, 
came to the fore, and the focus of the analysis shifted from the story ing of sexual decision 
making to the production of approaches to sexual decision making through the 
articulation and management of discourse. 



This analytical reorientation facilitated a particularly deliberate examination of 
the constituent elements of the guys' narrative practice. On the side of narrative 
resources, I traced the contours of three discourses of sexual decision making (plus a 
horizon of meaning) suggested by the guys' ways of talking about sex, virgins, virginity, 
girls, manhood, and other aspects relevant to sexuality. Then I attended to the guys' 
active use of these resources by identifying five primary narrative strategies they 
employed in constructing their sexual identities. Isolating discourses and discursive 
strategies from their context in the guys' talk was an artifice, but it provided the 
necessary background for an analysis of the guys' narrative practices — that is, how they 
drew on both discourses-in-practice (narrative resources) and discursive practices 
(narrative strategies) to make meaning. 

When I turned my attention to narrative practice, it was evident that the guys I 
interviewed confronted issues that were unique to them as young males. In particular, 
three pressing identity concerns — masculinity, belonging, and independence — mediated 
how they articulated the discourses of sexual decision making. That is to say, in the 
process of accounting for their decisions regarding sexual behavior, the guys were also 
inclined to manage discursive resources so that the identity they ascribed to themselves 
projected a form of masculinity, a sense of belonging, and a degree of independence. The 
challenges the guys faced in this effort differed depending on the discourse and the 
discourse mediator (i.e., masculinity, belonging, or independence) in question. 
Examining how guys' sought to resolve these challenges in their narratives thus provided 
a natural organizing principle for my study of their narrative practices. 


So, starting from the simple ideas that it makes sense to explore young men's 
sexual decisions on their own terms and that doing so would shed light on their strategies 
for self-presentation, I developed a rather complex analytical framework. The products 
of the consequent analysis can, however, be presented in relatively simple terms. 

First, it is clear that the discourse of conquest holds a preeminent position among 
the three discourses for these guys because the orientation to girls, sex, virginity, and 
manhood it offers is consistent with popular, well-publicized images of adolescent life 
and how boys should live it. When guys construct their sexual identities, they necessarily 
account for the position they stake out vis-a-vis the discourse of conquest. 

Similarly, masculinity appears to be the most pressing of the three identity 
concerns that mediate the guys' articulations of the discourses. It raises the greatest 
number of narrative challenges and is the target of some of the most complex narrative 
practice. In confronting the narrative challenges associated with masculinity, guys also 
variously construct, reinforce, and challenge a hierarchy of masculinities. The 
hegemonic form at the top of this hierarchy is predicated on sex as an indication of 
manhood, the importance of homosocial bonds between males, the denigration of 
virginity, and the marginalization of girls. Guys who commit to virginity face the 
greatest difficulty constructing a sense of masculinity against this ideal, but even guys 
who aspire to identify with the hegemonic standard often find it riddled with 
contradictions and hazards. Concern with masculinity also contributes to the importance 
of the discourse of conquest, as that discourse provides the narrative resources for the 
construction of hegemonic masculinity. 


Finally, although there is enormous creativity in the ways in which the guys draw 
upon the five narrative strategies as they confront narrative challenges, there are some 
commonalities, if not in their narrative practices, certainly in the strategies that support 
those practices. In other words, we can speak in general terms of the guys' meta- 
strategies for addressing narrative challenges. Regardless of the discourse mediator in 
question or the discourse being articulated, guys appear to confront narrative challenges 
by manipulating definitions and being selective about where they place emphasis. 
Committed virgins redefine manhood, for instance. Guys who fear that their identity will 
be seen as hypermasculine are selective about the aspects of the discourse of conquest 
they articulate, and they distance themselves from certain features of hegemonic 
masculinity in order to preserve a favorable identity. Whatever the narrative challenge, 
the powers of language that these guys harness to their advantage are its abilities to make 
distinctions, introduce shades of gray, and control which elements take the foreground 
and which recede into the background. 

This basic summary of the development and results of this study does not tell the 
whole story, however. The project is multidimensional, and as such it is the product of 
several interrelated stories, stories of discourse and narrative, masculinities, and 
adolescent sexual decision making, and interviewing. In the remainder of this chapter. I 
take a closer look at each of these stories more or less individually, with an eye toward 
what can be learned from them, what they lacked, and how they might be improved in 
future efforts to examine the sexual identities of adolescent, heterosexual males. 


Discourse and Narrative 

In order to facilitate my examination of narrative practice, I took the bold step in 
this study of trying to define discourses of sexual decision making. I called this effort an 
attempt to "give form to the formless" because discourses are typically treated as 
invisible repositories of meaning that exist only in the traces — instances of language 
use — that simultaneously construct, activate, and refer to them. Success in this sort of 
endeavor is not easy to document. I would argue, though, that the consistency in 
perspective across elements of the same discourse and the conflicts among discourses I 
demonstrated are a good indication that I have identified relatively distinct "systems of 
meaning." Furthermore, I think my strategy of giving shape to each discourse by 
identifying representative articulations of constituent elements (e.g., sex, virginity, girls, 
others) could serve as a model for defining discourses of all kinds. 

In addition to the possibility of defining discourses, I think this study also firmly 
establishes the importance of the relational nature of discourses. The notion that 
discourses can clash is not new. Foucault has shown the importance of conflicts between 
discourses to social transformations in the prison system (1979), the treatment of mental 
illness (1965/1988), and sexuality (1978/1990). But these clashes are on a broad socio- 
historical scale. My analysis shows that on a micro-sociological level different 
discourses do not clash recklessly, they are managed by individuals who recognize and 
actively engage the different systems that exist for making meaning of the same 
phenomena. Sometimes clashes are irreconcilable, but guys do sometimes succeed in 
managing their articulations of different discourses in ways that stave off conflict, 


insulate their identities from the paradox of their multiple commitments, or otherwise use 
the existence of multiple discourses to their advantage. 

By illustrating this dynamic, my study brings new perspectives to both discourse 
and narrative practice. Discourses, which Foucault tends to depict as detached from 
everyday life, are shown here to be fundamental contributors to the construction of 
meaning at the level of narrative. And while they represent competing orientations in 
their "ideal" abstractions, their inherent differences and even their conflicts are open to 
interpretation and revision through strategic narrative work. Thus, at the same time, 
narrative practice is revealed to involve the management of competing discourses, not 
just the production of stories. These new perspectives thus pave the way for more studies 
of narrative that attend as much to speakers' selective articulation of various discourses 
as to their storytelling. 

The intense, creative narrative work done by the guys in this study also sheds new 
light on established understandings of what is involved in moving through the life course. 
The notion of "life transition" is common currency in most discussions of adolescence. It 
suggests that the challenge of adolescence is essentially one of moving through time from 
point A to point B and enduring or achieving a number of developmental milestones. 
This study suggests that it is much more than this. Adolescence requires a great deal of 
narrative work in the interest of navigating a veritable "sea" of discursive and semantic 
possibilities, and each of these possibilities implicates the youths' identities in the courses 
of action to which it relates. In other words, youth do not simply pass through the time 
between childhood and adulthood the way a kitten grows into a cat. As human beings 
who are self-reflective— albeit to varying degrees— they are at virtually every moment 


narrating their identities into being in ways designed to present a consistent identity 
(Gergen & Gergen 1997), navigate the immediate narrative challenges posed by the 
interview context, and meet the broader challenges raised by the identity agenda that 
characterizes male adolescence. Orienting to adolescence solely in terms of recognizing, 
achieving, and coping with various developmental milestones thus glosses over the 
critical interpretive work youth do as they determine how to address these challenges of 
adolescence. Just as this study shows the important interpretive work young men do with 
respect to virginity loss, one could imagine other studies that would explore the 
interpretive work involved in a whole host of other "milestones" of adolescence, such as 
the experience of the bodily changes of puberty or the changes in social life that 
accompany the deliberate "pairing off into heterosexual couples. 


Because of the prominent role masculinity plays in guys' articulations of their 
sexual selves, my examination of narrative practice in this context offers much to the 
academic study of masculinities. Specifically, the current study contributes to our 
understanding of the interplay of multiple masculinities, the construction of adolescent 
masculinities, and methodological issues related to studying masculinities in interviews 
with young guys. 
The Interplay of Multiple Masculinities 

The well-established notion that masculinities exist in a state of competitive 
hierarchy has been demonstrated empirically in a number of ethnographic and historical 
studies (Connell 1995; Espiritu 1998; Hayward & Mac an Ghaill 1997). These studies 
examine how conflict between groups of men or boys grows out of and is fought in terms 


of their differing ways of being masculine. The analytical focus on group behavior in 
these examinations can create the impression that each individual involved is committed 
fully to his group's masculinity. My research cautions us to be wary of such 
assumptions, for it shows that individual guys typically negotiate and construct their 
masculinities with full knowledge of the variety of discourses — and associated competing 
notions of manhood — they can draw from. Believing that a combination of elements 
from multiple discourses best reflects who they are as young men, some guys try to 
construct "hybrid" masculinities on the basis of partial commitments to two seemingly 
contradictory masculinities. Guys who present their sense of manhood in this way should 
hardly be treated as members of some recognizable group masculinity. Instead, their 
cases should be taken as evidence that, at the level of narrative practice, masculinities are 
constructed as much through negotiation and integration as through competition. 
Moreover, even when guys seek to articulate a single, consistent mode of 
masculinity, such as the hegemonic standard, they rarely if ever achieve the kind of clean, 
simple, and complete identification that is assumed in the ethnographic studies. Claiming 
the qualities associated with hegemonic masculinity too stridently raises the specter of 
being deemed hypermasculine, and all claims to it involve pressures to demonstrate that 
one "measures up" in seemingly endless, sometimes contradictory ways. So although 
there is value in studies that document the competition between masculinities that occurs 
at the level of social groups, my research reminds us that these portrayals are narrative 
productions. They gloss over any inconsistencies or complications in individuals' 
commitments to particular masculinities to bring the story of group contentions into 
sharper focus. My research suggests that groups of men who identify or are identified 


with a specific mode of masculinity should, at best, be thought of as representing clusters 
of masculinities that coalesce around the target masculinity. In other words, each is not a 
paragon of that masculinity, and, indeed, no one man is likely to be. Rather, the qualities 
that describe that masculinity emerge when the men's individual enactments of manhood 
are considered collectively. Being aware of the disconnect between collective 
representations and individual enactments of masculinities is important because it points 
to narrative practice as a site where established masculinities can be resisted or 
destabilized, even in the absence of the kind of collective challenge highlighted by other 
The Construction of Adolescent Masculinities 

In addressing the interplay of multiple masculinities, I have already touched upon 
two important features of adolescent males' active construction of masculinities that 
emerged from this research. First, guys typically construct their masculinities with an 
awareness of the multiple discourses from which they can draw meaning-making 
resources. In other words, they understand both the terms upon which their own 
masculinity is based and several other ways of constructing manhood that they have 
eschewed. This point anticipates the second, which is that guys sometimes construct 
their masculinities from multiple discourses through a delicate process of selective 
articulation and narrative management. These two aspects of the construction process 
remind us that young men are not cultural dopes. They do not simply align themselves 
with a particular discourse and articulate the notion of manhood that follows logically 
from it. They select narrative resources from the available discourses, modify them as 
needed, and assemble them with an eye toward producing the most effective, positive 


picture of themselves that responds to the conversation's going concerns. In this context, 
ambiguity and contradiction in self-presentations are as much responses to limitations in 
the resources for meaning-making as evidence of "failure" to construct a "consistent" 
masculine identity. 

With respect to the construction of masculinities, this study also provides a new 
understanding of how inequities between masculinities are managed. As I mentioned 
previously, the discourse of conquest and the hegemonic mode of masculinity it supports 
represent the standard against which other approaches to sexual decision making and 
manhood are judged. Consequently, those who construct masculinities from the 
resources offered by the discourses of piety and relationship find that they must account 
for the masculinity they did not construct (one consistent with the discourse of conquest) 
in the process of articulating the one they claim. The narrative work they do in this 
regard not only provides concrete evidence of the hierarchy of masculinities, it also offers 
a glimpse into the strategies of narrative resistance devised by foes of hegemonic 

In many cases, resistance involves an assertion of a different definition of 
manhood, the construction of an alternative masculinity. What it really means to be a 
man, these guys say, is to be more prescient of the long-term consequences of present 
actions, deliberate about one's choices, self-aware, resistant to peer pressure, or cognizant 
of the social or religious implications of intercourse. By and large these redefinitions are 
predicated on knowledge and self-control. From this perspective, pious and relationship 
virgins are better men than those who aspire to hegemonic standards because their 
behavior is guided by their intellectual or spiritual interests, rather than libidinal ones 


thrust upon them by peers or the media. Recognizing these terms as the foundation of 
these alternative masculinities should allow researchers conducting future studies on 
adolescent males to rapidly identify them through their points of conflict with other 
constructions of manhood, particularly hegemonic masculinity. 

Other guys resist hegemonic masculinity by claiming a position outside the 
gender order, an approach that is similar to the move toward "color blindness" that some 
people, most often Whites, espouse as the answer to racial tensions. In both cases, people 
who generally advocate equality and reject any intention to oppress others argue that the 
best way to end the inequality in question is to deny the relevance of the category on 
which it is based. The philosophy purports to be profoundly humanistic: We need to 
stop treating each other as White people, Black people, men, or women, and relate to one 
another just as people. 

In race and ethnic studies, color blindness has been criticized as a naive— if often 
well-intentioned— maneuver of the dominant group (Whites) that allows them to 
maintain their power and privilege without engaging the institutional racism on which it 
is based. In a very basic sense, this criticism can be leveled at gender blindness as well. 
A male who repudiates the importance of gender as a social category obscures his male 
privilege and the subjugation of women on which it is founded. The similarity ends 
there, however, because appeals to gender and color blindness resonate differently within 
their respective dominant groups. Within the dominant White racial group, renouncing 
the importance of color is typically met with benign acceptance, except in communities 
that espouse White supremacy. Within the gender order, however, a guy rejecting 
masculinity is explicitly or implicitly attacking the masculinities hierarchy and directing 


the strongest assault against hegemonic masculinity. We can thus expect that the attack 
will be repulsed in the same way that the dominant masculinity subjugates subordinate 
masculinities. On a personal level this occurs through belittling (particularly 
feminization and homophobic taunts), intimidation, and physical violence. 

In terms of racial politics, the nearest equivalent to this scenario might be light- 
skinned Blacks — often disparaged by dark-skinned Blacks for being "too 
White" — arguing that color is irrelevant. Unless the more dominant group (i.e., dark- 
skinned Blacks; guys who claim hegemonic masculinity) join the subordinates in their 
renunciation, all the subordinates have succeeded in doing is relinquishing their position 
(i.e., their Blackness, their masculinity). But here, again, the analogy breaks down. 
While a light-skinned Black might then develop alliances within the White community 
and thus have his or her color blindness "rewarded" with some of the privileges of the 
dominant group, a guy who renounces his masculinity has nowhere to go, except perhaps 
to a group even more subordinated by gender categories, women. I am not suggesting 
that men should be hesitant in any way to align with women. I am only pointing out that 
a man's appeal to gender blindness does not benefit him in terms of power or status 
within the gender order. Already marginalized by other men, if he denies the relevance 
of masculinity, he seems to risk even greater isolation and powerlessness. 

The one exception I can foresee to this downward spiral for gender-blind men is if 
their closer affiliation with women prompts them to appreciate gender oppression and 
join women in the fight against sexism. In this case, their individualized attacks against 
hegemonic masculinity become part of a broader, sustained social effort to undermine the 
institutional sexism that sustains that hegemony. At least one of the guys I talked to 


showed signs of making this shift. Of course, to achieve this, the same men can no 
longer remain gender blind, they have begin to look at gender in a new way. If such 
transformations are possible, then gender blindness might not be the subtle support of the 
status quo that color blindness appears to be. Instead, it may be the indication of an 
opportunity to help a man develop a positive, constructive relationship with feminism. 
Masculinities and Method 

Given that gender is best understood as situationally activated (Holstein 1987), I 
could not be sure when I began this project that it would allow me to explore the 
construction of masculinities as I hoped. I believed that topics like virginity and sexual 
decisions were so saturated with gender connotations that they could not help but serve 
my purpose, but I had to wait and see. For the most part, I would say my approach was 
successful. Over the course of the study, however, difficulties associated with addressing 
masculinities in interviews were exposed, and these deserve closer inspection. 

First, guys have difficulty articulating what masculinity means to them. My 
examination of masculinities did not depend on self-reports, of course, but I often asked 
guys what being a man meant to them as a way of bringing masculinity to the fore of the 
discussion. Some of the trouble they had may be a matter of their being young, new to 
their own masculinities, and inexperienced at reflecting upon them. Some of the 
difficulty may result from a lack of narrative sophistication, an issue I explore in the 
section on interviewing. By and large, however, I think the trouble they had simply 
shows that they are just like everyone else— scholars and laypersons alike— who finds it 
challenging to relate this elusive, abstract concept to his or her everyday experience. 
Asking guys to talk about their own masculinity puts them on the proverbial spot, and I 


think it would behoove me to prepare better strategies to help guys if I attempt to brook 
the topic in the future. At this point, I can only speculate as to what those strategies 
might be. One option might be asking about male role models. Given that masculinities 
are largely produced and enacted for male audiences, another helpful strategy might be 
encouraging guys to talk about situations that affected their standing among their male 
peers. The key, I think, is to make the issue more relevant and less daunting to the guys 
who face it. My experience with this study has demonstrated to me that that is not easy. 
Getting at guys' sense of their own masculinity is important, however, so developing 
these strategies is a high priority for me and should be for anyone who wants to explore 
masculinities in an interview context. 

Another limitation I see in this project with respect to the study of masculinities 
has to do with the identification of types of masculinities from guys' articulations of the 
three discourses. With my focus on the production of meaning at the level of narrative, I 
think I have done a good job of demonstrating how guys "personalize" resources for 
constructing masculinities through narrative practice. Such personalization can be 
overemphasized, however, leading to the impression that all masculine identities are 
distinct, individualized. One starts to imagine that there is little that is social about 
masculinities at all, since each guy simply creates his own from available resources. 

I have tried to prevent this misinterpretation by relating the narrative work of 
individual guys to more or less cohesive modes of masculinity, such as hegemonic 
masculinity and others I have called gentlemanly masculinity and relational masculinity. 
But in retrospect, it seems to me that these notions of collective masculinity are 
oversimplifications, and I believe I know why. I think my efforts were frustrated by the 


downside of what makes this study different from the ethnographic ones I mentioned 
earlier. In discussing the interplay between masculinities, I argued that my focus on 
narrative practice allowed me to see nuances in individual guys' production of 
masculinities that were lost to researchers who remained fixed on the competition 
between masculinities represented by different groups. By the same token, however, it 
appears that my attention to narrative practice makes it difficult for me to see the 
collective masculinities to which the guys I interviewed belong. Some of this limitation 
might be circumvented by increasing the sample size. As I interviewed more guys, 
distinct masculinities defined by race, class, religion, or attitudes toward girls might 
emerge. Kathleen Gerson (1993) demonstrated that large sample sizes can accomplish 
exactly this elaboration of masculinities in her narrative study of men, family, and work. 
The fact that she had to interview 138 men to do it, however, may be an indication that a 
interview-based, narrative approach simply is not as conducive to identifying collective 
masculinities as other qualitative methods, such as ethnography. 

Adolescent Males' Sexual Decision Making 
Although I designed this study such that the investigation of guys' sexual decision 
making was largely indivisible from issues of masculinities and narrative, the lessons we 
can learn from these guys about their sexual decisions deserve their own spotlight. I 
believe there are three fundamental things we hear when we listen to these guys' 
narratives. First, they confirm that it is important to explore guys' strategies for making 
sexual decisions. Second, some guys need strategies for coping with pressures to be 
sexually active, and the kernels of these strategies can be found in the words of the guys 
themselves. And lastly, guys' efforts to resist the undue influence of the discourse of 


conquest will continue to be an uphill battle unless they are supported by broader cultural 
change. In the remainder of this section, I explore each of these lessons in turn, and, 
where appropriate, I discuss changes they seem to warrant in adults' perspectives on 
adolescent males and in public policy. 

The current study demonstrates the value of eliciting narratives of sexual decision 
making from adolescent males, although one might argue it does so in a negative way. 
The narratives provide a glimpse of the social world within sexual decisions are made, 
and this glimpse should give us pause. To be sure, there are enclaves in this world in 
which girls are respected; love, connection, and even spirituality are central to bonds that 
become sexual; and virginity is treated as a virtue at best and a nonissue at worst. But 
these are only enclaves. Regardless of their own orientation to sexual decision making, 
all of the guys I interviewed indicate that the heart of this male adolescent world is far 
different. By their own accounts, this is a world saturated with sexism and homophobia 
that not only goes unchallenged but is a social lubricant in male-to-male interactions. It 
is a world suffused in myths and half-truths about girls, sex, and STDs, and it is 
populated by other males — usually friends, but sometimes older brothers, fathers, and 
uncles — who seem to feel a duty to ensure that their charges adopt the conquest discourse 
and lose their virginity. Much of this boy culture is hazardous to girls, who become 
pawns in guys' efforts to help other guys lose their virginity, are victimized by the sexual 
double standard, or are derided as harpies that threaten the independence and brotherhood 
of guys. Perhaps anyone, male or female, who has survived adolescence in an American 
school has an inkling that this is how it is. However, narratives like the ones I have 
collected give us the opportunity to look at it with new eyes and get beyond vapid cliches 


like "boys will be boys." They provide a starting point for a sincere, informed 
examination of the ways in which the prominence of conquest-based interpretations of 
girls, sex, and virginity impacts the everyday lives of young men and women. As such 
they offer a vital contribution to existing efforts to develop programs and policy 
interventions that promote greater sexual responsibility and appreciation of the 
importance of paternity and fatherhood among young males (Sonenstein, Stewart. 
Lindberg, Pernas, & Williams 1997). 

These narratives also shed light on the oft-discussed issue of the pressure to be 
sexually active among adolescent males. The conventional wisdom is that, regardless of 
whether they are virgins, in a relationship, or known to have had intercourse with many 
girls, guys continually receive the message from other guys that they should want sex and 
be pursuing it and having it. There is certainly truth to this conventional wisdom. Guys 
who articulate the discourse of conquest, in particular, report that they have contests to 
see who can be more "successful" with girls, and peers can influence who guys have sex 
with and how much value they place on relationships. 

However, the conventional wisdom also includes the belief that virgins are 
ostracized and derided as homosexuals because they are not having sex, and my 
interviews suggest that this is not entirely true. While there are no doubt guys who have 
been taunted for not having had sex and others who have perpetrated taunting for exactly 
that reason, the narratives I studied suggest that one's sexual image, not actions, are what 
counts in the social accounting scheme. In other words, since much of the behavior that 
is presumed to carry so much importance is unverifiable, coping with the expectations of 
the discourse of conquest is largely a dramaturgical and rhetorical accomplishment. It is 


not whether you are a virgin, but whether you act or talk like a virgin. Virgins and 
nonvirgin alike need to present themselves as capable of "getting" a girl in order to avoid 
criticism. In the final analysis, this distinction between actions and social act means that 
what drives sex-related peer pressure among young men is not concern about virginity 
status, but concern about heterosexuality. Within the realm dominated by the discourse 
of conquest, there is room for guys who can attract girls but choose to avoid intercourse. 
Derrick is a perfect example. There is no room, however, for guys who appear 
disinterested by or inept at the pursuit of heterosexual "accomplishments." 

In their everyday interactions, guys can and do insulate themselves from the 
pressure by putting on a show of interest in and competence with heterosexual 
pursuits — hence, the elaborate virginity status tests that purport to ferret out "fakers." 
Talking to guys about how they identify virgins provides an indication of what 
distinguishes a good act from a bad one. In general, the guys I interviewed suggest that 
presenting a "successful" heterosexual identity involves appearing confident but not 
boastful, keeping the language used in sex talk with other guys respectful, not letting sex 
talk dominate one's conversation, and avoiding bravado when mentioning actual sexual 
experiences. Being aware of these social performance elements could prove useful to 
guys who feel powerless to confront sex-related peer pressures. Like light-skinned 
Blacks who hide their heritage to gain acceptance in the White world, these affectations 
may allow them to "pass" (Sanchez & Schlossberg 2001). 

Unfortunately, "passing," whether it is done with respect to race or sexual 
identity, is a very limited response to a problem. It can be an adequate coping 
mechanism at the level of the individual, but it does nothing to combat the root social 


problem. In the case of the sex-related peer pressure faced by adolescent males, that 
problem is homophobia. Consequently, if we want to help guys resist the discourse of 
conquest and the pressure to be hetero sexual that it fosters, our focus needs to be squarely 
on combating homophobia. While it is unrealistic to expect that public policy or 
education will eradicate the human tendency to form in-groups and out-groups, we can 
teach young people that it is unacceptable to form such groups on the basis of 
presumptions about and prejudices toward another's sexual orientation. It is critical, 
furthermore, that these efforts involve all youth — boys and girls, virgins and nonvirgins, 
heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals — because the message will be ineffective if it 
reaches just the victims and not the perpetrators of homophobia. 

Giving youth the tools, knowledge, and social support to understand and combat 
homophobia should help reduce the indignities guys visit on other guys, but by itself such 
action is not enough to challenge the dominance of the discourse of conquest. Yet doing 
so is critical, I think, for those who want to entice young men away from the discourse of 
conquest toward other discourses, such as relationship or piety, or address the 
dehumanizing effects the discourse can have on young women. Given the degree to 
which the power of the conquest discourse is predicated on dehumanizing depictions of 
girls and the feminization of other guys, any serious challenge to it needs to confront 
sexism as well as homophobia. 

Based on what the guys in this study have said, I think that two central elements 
of any such challenge should be (1) working to counter the isolation from females that 
guys tend to develop, as epitomized by male fraternities; and (2) advancing gender 
awareness in much the same way that racial diversity is promoted. It seems to me that 


the tendency toward gender-based isolation needs to be disrupted consistently throughout 
childhood. Coed sports and other games, curriculum that encourages cross-gender 
interaction, and coed social events increase the chances that by the time boys reach 
sexual maturity, they will have one or more Platonic, cross-gender friendships or at least 
they will have had some memorable, positive experiences with girls that are not cast in a 
sexual light. The goal is not to keep boys from forming homosocial groups, it is to 
ensure that these interactions are balanced by others that include girls as equal 
participants. To that end, coed programs should include safeguards to ensure that boys 
do not dominate activities and marginalize the girls. 

As important as these opportunities for cross-gender interaction are, encouraging 
youth to reflect upon them and learn from them is even more so. Gender awareness 
programs would foster these activities, with the fundamental goal of helping boys and 
girls recognize their similarities and appreciate and respect their differences. I anticipate 
that such programs would explore the sexual double standard that girls face, foster critical 
discussion of the different ways that boys and girls tend to garner social status, and 
examine the nature and consequences of stereotyping and dehumanization. Coupled with 
a greater emphasis on having boys and girls, young men and women, work and play 
together, these programs could go a long way toward mitigating the sexism that, along 
with homophobia, is the crux of the social power of the discourse of conquest. 


It is a fundamental assumption of proponents of active interviewing that 
interviewer and participant construct narratives collaboratively. The power of this 
assumption is that it shifts the interviewer's focus away from concern with 


"contaminating" the information he or she wishes to "extract" from the participant and 
toward facilitating the production of stories grounded in the participant's experiences and 
relevant to the topic. This shift does not mean, however, that the interviewer can be lax 
about his or her role. Indeed, facilitating stories can be as difficult as satisfying the 
traditional interviewing mandate to not interfere, and it requires a more deliberate 
engagement in the interview process. In hindsight, two pressing methodological issues 
emerge from this project and both implicate the role of the active interviewer. 
Limits to Storytelling 

Given that I had originally planned this project as a study of stories, a 
methodological question that begs for attention is why the stories these guys told were, 
by and large, quite limited in length, depth, and importance to the meaning-making that 
occurred during the interviews. By raising this question, I do not mean to suggest that the 
limitations of the stories represent a failure. On the contrary, I think it forced me to look 
closer at other ways that individuals construct meaning in narrative and as a result 
develop a new appreciation of the nonstoried aspects of discursive practice. Still, 
narrative analysts frequently note the centrality of stories to people's appreciation and 
sharing of experience, so the fact that stories did not assume a prominent role in most of 
my interviews warrants consideration. 

It seems to me that there are two fundamental factors that could have contributed 
to this seemingly aberrant result. One deals with me, the interviewer; the other shifts the 
focus to the guys I interviewed. For my part, it is possible that aspects of my 
interviewing technique, demeanor, and efforts to establish rapport with the guys inhibited 
them from telling more elaborate, specific, and meaningful stories. With respect to 


technique, experts in qualitative research interviewing stress the importance of being 
prepared, asking open-ended questions, and being willing to relinquish the role of the 
interviewer so as to empower the participant (Eder & Fingerson 2002). Indeed, this last 
imperative is at the heart of the conception of the interview as active (Holstein & 
Gubrium 1995). As I reflect on the interviews I conducted, I am confident that I was 
responsive to each of these basic elements. 

At a more esoteric level, however, there may have been shortcomings in my 
technique that could have inhibited guys' storytelling. First, in their examination of 
methodological concerns particular to interviewing men, Schwalbe and Wolkomoir 
(2002) indicate that some men assert control of potentially threatening interview 
situations by becoming "minimizers." That is, they provide terse, uninformative answers 
to questions and resist requests for elaboration. Schwalbe and Wolkomir suggest that this 
behavior can be common among male interview participants because men may seek to 
"protect a masculine self by maintaining control or revealing no vulnerabilities or 
uncertainties" (p. 209). 

It is difficult to say whether (or which of) the reticent boys I encountered should 
be categorized as minimizers, since the term references motivations that are ultimately 
unknowable. Still, many of my questions were directed specifically at the boys' 
masculinity, at a time in the boys' lives when they themselves were likely to be unsure of 
the "quality" of their presentation of that aspect of self. These conditions suggest that 
gender may well have been at the heart of some boys' reticence. To the extent that this is 
true, it represents a failure on my part on two fronts. First, I should have recognized that 
the boys' hesitancy might be part of their masculine self-presentation, and, therefore, was 


important as data. Second, during the interview I should have implemented some of the 
strategies for reducing the masculinity-related anxiety of minimizers identified by 
Schwalbe and Wolkomir. By circling back through earlier parts of the interview, 
drawing on what other boys had said, and relinguishing signs of my status as interviewers 
(e.g., tape recorder, notepad), I might have made some of the minimizers feel more 
comfortable, more in control, and more like they were in a position to teach me. In this 
way, their need to assert their masculinity would become an asset to the interview. The 
result might have been fuller answers and, perhaps, more stories. 

An essay by Susan Chase (1995b) about interviewing for narrative analyses 
reveals another possible limitation in my interview technique. Chase distinguishes 
between stories and reports. Stories are what interviewers are after, and she says they 
happen when narrators take responsibility for making the relevance of life events clear to 
the interviewer. When this occurs, the result is detailed, often impassioned, stories of 
actual past events. By contrast, if interviewers fail to get participants to "take 
responsibility for the meaning of their talk" (p. 3), the result is often an impersonal 
chronicle of events that can degenerate into generalities. Chase argues that well-meaning 
interviewers elicit reports instead of stories when they ask questions that orient more 
toward their scholarly, sociological interests than toward the experiences of the 
participant. In my interviews for this study, I was careful to word my questions in 
everyday speech, urge guys to tell stories, and encourage them to ask questions or request 
clarification during the interview. In some cases, however, I think my pursuit of a 
preestablished notion of what sexual decisions entail (e.g., dating experiences, a 
perception of girls, a degree of concern about virginity status) intimated to the guys that 


my interest in their stories was secondary to my desire to get this information, and they 
jettisoned storytelling and lapsed dutifully into reporting mode. 

When it is phrased in terms of deficiencies in my interviewing technique, the 
limits of the stories the guys told do seem like a product of failure, even if I ultimately 
transformed it into an asset for the project. It is possible, however, that some or all of this 
situation was due not to a problem on my part, but to limitations in these young men's 
competencies with language. As I raise this issue, I want to be clear that I am not 
suggesting that these guys were somehow cognitively impaired. I did not screen 
participants for cognitive deficits or test for intelligence quotient, so I can only give my 
impressions. But based on my own casual observations, I would say that the guys I 
interviewed displayed a range of intelligence that is likely consistent with the variation 
among normal adolescents. The issue is not mental capacity or intelligence, but what I 
would call narrative sophistication. Some people are simply more articulate than others. 
Their superior abilities with language translate into narratives that are more coherent, 
involve more adept use of narrative strategies, and perhaps include more elaborate 
meaning-making through stories. There were certainly varying degrees of narrative 
sophistication exhibited in the narratives I collected for this study, and this variation is to 
be expected. What makes the issue more than a question of individual competencies, 
however, is that the narratives of a majority of the guys were relatively unsophisticated, 
with a limited use of stories. Given this fact, it makes sense to at least raise the 
possibility that for whatever reason— be it development or social— most adolescent males 
are not sufficiently adept at using the most complex narrative strategies, such as 
storytelling, to articulate their sexual decision making and their sexual selves. 


The notion of narrative sophistication opens up all sorts of questions about child 
development, language learning, the acquisition of rhetorical skill, and how that skill may 
vary by subject and the context of narrative production. I do not pretend to have the 
answers to these questions, but they are certainly ones that should interest narrative 
researchers. At the same time that we celebrate and base research agendas on people's 
seemingly inherent status as narrators (Plummer 1995), we should recognize that not all 
narrators are created equal, and the capacity to narrate may be subject to social 
stratification. In the case of this study, that recognition means that the limited nature of 
these guys use of stories is attributable as much to the lack of narrative sophistication 
adolescent males bring to this topic as to any deficiencies in my interviewing technique. 

All that being said, I think it behooves interviewers to assume that the people they 
interview have the highest levels of linguistic competency and to focus on developing 
their abilities at eliciting stories, rather than blaming participants for narratives that lack 
sophistication. Taking this tact strikes me as the best way to ensure that participants 
reach their potential in terms of narrative sophistication and the only way that systematic 
differences in sophistication, if they exist, will come to light. 
Power Dynamics 

Another methodological issue that deserves comment is the impact of my 
presence as the interviewer, particularly in terms of the power dynamic that is involved 
when an adult interviews youths. Much of my interaction with each guy before the 
interview began "officially" was designed to equalize that dynamic. I tried to talk 
informally with each guy about what was going on with them and find out about their 
interests. When I prepared them for the interview, I told them what types of questions to 


expect, emphasized the informal nature of our discussion, told them there were no right 
or wrong answers, and even gave them an opportunity to look over my interview outline. 
Donna Eder and Laura Fingerson (2002), who write specifically about interviewing 
children and adolescents, point to these sorts of efforts as ways of encouraging what they 
call "reciprocity," which helps to minimize the power differential between adult 
interviewers and young participants. 

They suggest that there is more that I could have done, however. Other strategies 
that they recommend for building reciprocity are conducting action-oriented research that 
includes youth in improving their own lives, using multiple methods, and interviewing in 
groups. Reformulating this project as action-oriented research would be a particularly 
challenging endeavor that I suspect would encounter huge obstacles. First, I wonder how 
young guys could be convinced that talking frankly about their strategies of sexual 
decision making would improve their everyday lives. Second, including some sort of 
real-life "intervention" into a project that focuses on adolescent male sexuality would 
likely make the already difficult task of recruiting participants more so. Still, the notion 
that guys might be involved in thinking reflectively about their own sense of manhood 
and how it relates to their sexuality is intriguing. Marsiglio (1998) has suggested using a 
phenomenological approach to encourage men to develop their procreative 
consciousness, which includes an awareness of the links between sex, birth control, and 
paternity. I used a similar strategy in these interviews when I asked guys to imagine 
remaining virgin past their adolescence, but linking that kind of active interviewing to 
guys' real life situations— of taunting those perceived as gay, for example— might be a 
step toward the promise of greater reciprocity offered by action-oriented research. 


Conducting group interviews and using multiple methods — the other reciprocity- 
building strategies suggested by Eder and Fingerson — are excellent ideas that I could 
implement in future projects easily. Although interviewing in groups would likely inhibit 
guys from telling more personal, potentially embarrassing stories, that loss might well be 
offset by potential increases in participants' level of comfort and candor on less personal 
topics, like girls, sex talk, and masculinity. Plus, if participants were recruited from 
guys' preexisting friendship groups, the group interview might provide visible, 
analyzable examples of guys' interactions within male fraternities. 

Whether the interviews are in groups or one-on-one, complementing them with 
other methods has enormous potential, I think, and it is something that I would pursue in 
any subsequent work on this topic. In particular, I am eager to find a way to combine 
interviews with participant observation, so that I can examine narrative practice in guys' 
everyday interactions, not just their conversations with me. The enormous importance 
accorded the male fraternity by many of the guys in this study suggests that these all- 
male social groups are fertile grounds for field work. A study of an all-male club or 
sports team, for example, could focus on "locker room talk," which might involve 
informal discussions of sexual decision making. 

There is, however, one aspect of group interviews or participant observation that 
gives me pause. Several times in the previous chapters I have noted research that 
suggests that guys construct and display masculinities primarily for the benefit of other 
guys. That proposition has been substantiated in this study, I think, by the ways some 
guys reported altering their sexual or social behavior to satisfy the expectations of their 
male fraternity. This dynamic means that when we conduct group interviews or observe 


male social groups, we only have access to the masculine display, never to an 
individual's sense of self in the absence of pressures to "perform" masculinity. The 
narratives that we collect in this context are no less valid than ones generated in one-on- 
one interviews, but we must be aware that they are qualitatively different. For this 
reason, a method that combines group interviews or observation with individual 
interviews might be the most fruitful avenue for expansions of this project. 

Final Thoughts 

The multiple, interrelated stories that comprise this study can each teach us 
something. The story of discourse and narrative demonstrates the interplay between 
discourses that are seemingly in competition, and it forces us to rethink our understanding 
of how life course transitions transpire. The story of men and masculinities offers an 
appreciation of how the hierarchy of masculinities plays out at the level of narrative and a 
glimpse at the struggles of those who align with subjugated masculinities. The story of 
adolescent males' sexual decision making demonstrates the value of analyzing narratives 
on the topic. It also provides us knowledge we can use to try to foster more inclusive, 
humane approaches to sexuality among future generations of young men. Finally, the 
story of interviewing encourages us to reflect on the limitations of what I have 
accomplished here and offers some ideas on how future studies can be more successful at 
developing rapport with guys and soliciting stories from them. 

I anticipate that all of these lessons will be helpful to me as I continue to pursue a 
research agenda that emphasizes masculinities, sexualities, and qualitative methods. In 
particular, this study suggests that in future projects I might (1) explore the questions of 
narrative sophistication and recollections of virginity loss experiences by examining the 


sexual decision-making narratives of men in their early twenties; (2) study the link 
between homophobia and developing masculinities by analyzing the narratives of high 
school life told by gay men; or (3) conduct a comparative, ethnographic study of the 
leisure activities of several groups of young, single adult men to examine the enactment 
of masculinities in a "natural" setting and see what part sex talk plays in it. Whatever 
direction I choose, I hope that other researchers will find the lessons I have learned here 
relevant and bring them to bear on their research as well. 


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Mark David Cohan was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in Ormond 
Beach, Florida. In 1989 he graduated with high honors from the University of Florida 
with a degree in English. For the next several years, he worked as a medical editor at the 
Anesthesiology Department of the Health Science Center at the University of Florida 
before beginning graduate work in the University of Florida Department of Sociology in 
1993. He received his master's degree in 1995, and his master's thesis was subsequently 
published in The Sociological Quarterly under the title, "Political Identities and Political 
Landscapes: Men's Narrative Work in Relation to Women's Issues." Since the 
publication of his thesis, he has co-authored numerous articles on fatherhood and 
qualitative methods with William Marsiglio and presented on various aspects of active 
interviewing and interpretive sociology at regional sociological meetings. He currently 
lives in Seattle, Washington, with his fiancee, Dr. Randi Lincoln, where he is a part-time 
instructor for Western Washington University. 


I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

Gubrium, Chairperson 
Professor of Sociology 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

William Marsigli 
Professor of Sociology 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy S/ 



;rnan Vera 
Professor of Sociology 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 


ssor of Sociology 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 


Rodman B. Webb 

Professor of Educational Psychology 

This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Department of 
Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate School and 
was accepted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of 

August 2002 

Dean, Graduate School 

20 M 



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