Remembering My Hat

24th April 2011

Currents in a metaphorical and literal stream

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 16:30
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Back in 2002, when I was writing up my PhD thesis, I came up with an image that helped me think through a sticky patch in some of my theorising. It was of a stream of water, where the general flow is in one direction but local currents and eddies may mean that at some points water is flowing in different directions, including contrary to the main flow.

Today I managed to film a perfect example of this:

You can (I hope, dodgy camera work notwithstanding) see the general flow of the stream from the stick floating downstream. But the polystyrene block has got stuck in a local circular eddy which means it keeps being pushed up against the weir again. I watched if for about 10 minutes and it never moved downstream.

In my thesis, I was imagining the water in the stream to be ‘narratives about later life sex’ and arguing that there was a general flow of what people were able to treat as unproblematic and straightforward when talking about this topic. This was that older people are broadly asexual and less-and-less interested in sex. However, in my own data, and increasingly in the media at the time (and much more so since) there was evidence of a contrary flow, asserting that of course older people remain interested in sex and sexually active. (There were other sorts of contrary flows too, but those were by far the commonest two).

I was interested in the ways that different types of narratives about older people and sex were treated as canonical or not in different contexts. So, for example, I found that, in the context of my research interviews, the idea that some older people are still happily sexually active could be treated as entirely unproblematic and not requiring elaboration or justification. People talked as if they were not aware that the general current of the stream was running in the opposite direction from what they were claiming. I was interested in how they were able to do this (having established to my own satisfaction that my diagnosis as to the general direction of the stream was correct). The metaphor of a somewhat turbulent stream was my idea for how this works.

I argued that some parts of my research interviews were parts of the stream where the current was flowing in the opposite direction from the general flow of the stream. My metaphor of a stream helped me to deal theoretically with the issue, common to the critical discursive psychology I was doing at the time, of reconciling a fine-grained kind of analysis looking at the immediate orientations of participants with a wider interest in general societal trends which may not be visible in the immediate data.

I argued then that some streams were more turbulent than others and it certainly seems to me to be the case now that the ‘older people and sexuality’ stream has got more turbulent in the 10 years since I was doing this research, with features about sexy grandmothers a seemingly regular feature on Channel 4.

I’ve just reused this metaphor of a stream in a paper coming out in the Journal of Bisexuality this month, this time to think about normativity. I argued that there is a general direction or flow as to what gets treated as normative kinds of life course features, but that particular contexts can be parts of the stream where the flows run contrary to the mainstream. In this case, that’s BiCon and I argued that the contrary flow of the stream of normativity at BiCon helps to account for the wackiness (technical term) of the accounts that participants in my research produced.

There must be journals that accept YouTube clips as part of an article, but I don’t know of any in my field. So, in lieu, I will post it here and hope that some people find the elaboration helpful.



  1. There was a Radio 4 programme on last night about aging in prison, what it’s like and how the prisoners cope. I was particularly interested in the comments about older sex offenders and how some people retain their libido so they’re still sexually predatory well into old age, and how this is viewed as an intrinsic part of the perversity that’s caused them to offend. Seems to me an extreme version of the surprise people feel that older people are having sex at all.

    Comment by Kriss — 16th January 2012 @ 10:23 | Reply

    • I heard some of that programme, but not that bit, bother! Older men’s sexuality does seem to be viewed as even more problematic than older women’s. It’s almost impossible to talk about older men and sex without someone invoking the idea of the ‘dirty old man’.

      Comment by rememberingmyhat — 18th January 2012 @ 12:25 | Reply

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