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The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality.

THE TROUBLE WITH NORMAL: POSTWAR YOUTH AND THE MAKING OF HETEROSEXUALITY. (1997). Mary Louise Adams. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN: 0-8020-8057-X.

Reviewed by: Bob Tremble, Social Worker, Sex Educator and Consultant, Toronto, ON.

The book's title is from a Bruce Cockburn song and the line in its entirety is, "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse". Nothing could better describe Adam's view of "normal" in English Canada as she illuminates the constricting boundaries of heterosexuality which emerged in the early 1950s.

Following the social upheaval of World War II, Canadians sought a return to stability. Men had left home for the war. Women had left home for the workplace and still had to be both mother and father to their children. Children were considered to be growing up with less than their fair share of attention. The re-establishment of nuclear families through a focus on adolescence became a means of social stabilization. Women would return home from the labour force to be good mothers, and men would provide good homes and incomes so youth could flourish.

Youth operated as a metaphor for the development of the society as a whole. An untroubled youth meant an untroubled society. Losing control of youth became a metaphor for losing control of everything. Youth were perceived to be adults in process. They were malleable, and thus vulnerable to corrupting influences that could turn them from the generation that would stabilize society to the generation that would change it.

Heterosexuality also operated as a metaphor. It was equated with strong individuals, in sound relationships with functioning families. Therefore, the heterosexual development of youth along prescribed lines ensured that society, its values, and its institutions would unfold as they should. It was critical, therefore, that youth develop as heterosexuals. Any deviation from this view had the potential to undermine the returned stability that North American society so desperately sought. Consequently, heterosexuality was constructed as normal and socially desirable. Mary Louise Adams is concerned with how that social construction took place in postwar English Canada.

Many factors constituted normality in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On the political front, the cold war era started and nationalistic, anti-communist fervour was the norm. People of colour, working-class people and immigrants were all deemed to be justifiably suspect. At the same time, the world seemed to become much smaller. People and places that had held only vague meaning for many Canadians became all too real. Men returned from war with stories to tell. Technologically sophisticated communications media brought exotic sights and sounds vividly into the foreground. These things were not only a threat to the normalcy people craved, but were also a threat to national interest and security.

On a social level, being normal was about being on the inside of the social body. The implicit social norm was whiteness, gender appropriateness, and membership in the Christian middle-class. Normality was equated with naturalness. What was normal and natural was also deemed to be moral. This formed the basis for both conservative caution and moral censorship. Deviance from the norm now became both immoral and un-Canadian.

Delinquency constituted the main form of deviance for youth -- sexual delinquency being its most pernicious form. Divorce, promiscuity, venereal disease, and sex crimes, including homosexuality, were all perceived to be interconnected. Thus, the link between social deviance and crime was forged. For youth, normal became more than something you desired to be: it became something you could be compelled to be.

Youth were sexually regulated through the dissemination or suppression of information, and the organization of youth culture. Postwar Canadians believed that the family should be the vehicle for instilling cultural values as well as emotions that would minimize promiscuity and maximize monogamous marriage. Therefore, in order to regulate morality and encourage adherence to prevailing cultural norms, sex education was dominated by the concept of "family living". Obscenity charges and censorship were directed at any media that threatened to expose young people to unregulated sexual information.

Dating became a site for the regulation of heterosexuality. Dating was a measure of normalcy; it provided practice for marriage, and training for heterosexuality as a desired mode of expression. It was a forum for expressing sexuality, but in a regulated way. Youth-oriented, supervised public spaces, such as church dances and teen clubs, were created for this purpose, while laws such as curfews curbed opportunities for young people to find their way to unregulated space.

In contrast to this concerted effort to instil heterosexuality, there was and still is very little material which examines heterosexuality as a social institution. In The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (Dynes, 1990), an entry under heterosexuality notes that there are few considered explorations or defences of heterosexuality. Neither libraries nor bookstores contain sections on heterosexuality, an absence which speaks to the degree to which heterosexuality is taken for granted. Even when heterosexuality is examined, it is in the context of an examination of other social structures such as patriarchy, homosexuality, or feminism. Mary Louise Adams takes a different approach by examining heterosexuality as a phenomenon in its own right. This very readable contribution delivers a clearly documented account of how modern heterosexuality developed in the postwar years in white, Anglo, mainstream Canada. It effectively lays out the mechanics of defining, establishing, and maintaining heterosexuality as foundational to social regulation.

As Adams herself points out, she is describing a process which is based on the white, middle-class experience. What of the new Canadians who were a significant feature of the postwar years? These groups were isolated by their differences. Many did not speak English. The norms which were being established were the product of English-speaking, well educated people with the ear of the media that would bring their views to popular or mass attention. This dominant group imposed the definitions of normal, natural, and heterosexual, and sent them down a one way street to becoming marginalized Canadians.

Is a predominantly white middle class still in control of the process? The fact that second and third generations of these immigrant families make up a substantial segment of the population, and in some areas, have come to outnumber the traditional white, middle class is the basis for a shift in the construction of heterosexuality according to Adams. These Canadians are now participants in the construction of normality. How is their contribution incorporated and how is it disseminated? Can Adams' model take this new input into account with just a little fine tuning? Have technological advances in access to information and the evolution of the family changed the social landscape too much for the model to still hold true? It would be an important sequel to this work to consider how well the postwar process stands up as a model for the maintenance of heterosexuality today. In addition, as Adams, herself, points out, a further step is to consider why so much effort is expended on regulating sexuality. One might well ask what would be the social, political, and economic consequences of unregulated sexuality? A journey into fantasy, of course, but perhaps a productive one.


Dynes, W. (1990). Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York: Garland.
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Author:Tremble, Bob
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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