Okay, let’s do a little experiment. If someone asks you to picture a loverboy, which image do you have in your mind? And what about a single teenage mother? And what’s your mental image when you read about a gang rape in a basement storage room? According to Samira van Bohemen, there’s a strong likelihood of specific cultural and ethnic stereotypes popping up.
In the feature section Cowboys in Science, Geert Maarse talks with researchers who take things a bit further than most of their colleagues. Samira van Bohemen works as a cultural sociologist at the Faculty of Social Sciences, where she performs research into subcultures and human behaviour. She previously explored the world of the Red Hat Society. For her present study, which focuses on good sex, Van Bohemen is observing and interviewing young people in nightlife.
In a sense, Van Bohemen actually wants to use this project to dispel such stereotypes. And not necessarily because they’re unfounded – because they could well have some basis in truth. But because they put too much emphasis on problems. “Of course,” says Van Bohemen, “a lot of things go wrong. But that’s never anyone’s intention. What we wanted to know was: what is young people’s idea of good sex?”
You’re attending all sorts of parties in connection with your research. Why?
“Our nightlife is one of the premier environments where sexuality plays a major role in a broad sense. We don’t just see sex as ‘two people doing it’ – it’s a wide range of activities. It’s about dressing up, fantasising about what could happen, and whom you could run into. About seduction, eroticism, dancing. These elements can all be found at a party.”
So are you prowling around, notebook in hand?
“No, I would stand out too much. And you don’t want that. As far as possible, I want the party to follow its own course. And I want to participate as far as possible without losing sight of the fact that I’m there to observe.”
What sort of things do you focus on?
“What people are wearing; what kind of music is playing; how people move through the room. But also: how does the party develop over time? Can you see completely different things happening by the end of the evening than at the start? Another interesting aspect is where the different activities take place. People hardly approach each other on the dance floor, while in the smoker’s section you can see all sorts of attempts to make contact. In addition, part of this process is auto-ethnographic. How you relate as a researcher to other people. This already starts when you’re deciding which party to go to. And how you prepare yourself. Before heading out, I have to decide what to wear: will I fit in?”
As in: not too slutty, but not too prissy either?
“Exactly. One time, when I was going to a salsa party, I had no idea what to wear. But fortunately, they had a dress code because it was Valentine’s Day. And occasionally, you hit the wrong note. One of my students – they’re also handling a share of the research – wore trainers to a party, since she reckoned they were comfy for dancing. But everyone else there was all dolled up and wearing stiletto heels. And then the next party – which you expect to be similar – is precisely the other way round.”
‘In studies like this, it matters whether I experience a specific situation as pleasant, unpleasant, surprising or weird.’
Why is this research auto-ethnographic? I would think you’re primarily interested in the other party?
“Yes, but the researcher is emphatically a party him- or herself as well. Your perspectives count too. It’s about whether you experience a specific situation as pleasant, unpleasant, surprising or weird. At which point, your personal ideas about good sex also matter. For example, one time I was at a queer party where there was a lot of experimentation going on. People were kissing with each other without being introduced first, for example. And I was also approached there, by both men and women. They would be like: why don’t you come along with me.”
And do you oblige?
Are you in a relationship?
“Yes. For over a year. And the fact that I don’t have anything on the side says something about the scene I’m in personally. About my idea of good sex.”
How would you describe your idea of good sex?
“I think that it’s basically this kind of middle-class concept of sexuality being something you share with a single partner. Not this hedonistic approach where you say: it’s about pleasure and it doesn’t matter who you do it with. I’m not that open-minded about it. And I noticed that I have fairly clear ideas about my own orientation. While previously, I hadn’t really felt it that consciously. I remember thinking: I’m basically very straight. This says something about what I do and don’t enjoy, and what my actual boundaries are. These are also culturally determined.”
What’s the best party you went to so far?
“That was the salsa party. It was a week day, in the centre of Rotterdam, in a club where as a woman, you actually have quite a chance of being hassled on an average Friday night. That’s quite an issue as it is, by the way. Nightlife remains an environment where you sometimes have to deal with stuff that you actually aren’t in the mood for. And it’s almost universal, according to my students. Other people don’t see you as a researcher, but as a woman. Or in some cases, mainly a piece of ass, apparently. That really ticks me off. At an Asian Party too, I had this hand stroking my bum at a certain point. But in the case of salsa – which most people would associate with seduction, sensuality – it’s not even an issue. Absolutely everyone is only interested in dancing. It’s a really friendly atmosphere.”
‘With salsa, drugs and alcohol hardly play a role – instead, dance serves as medium for people’s sexual transformation.’
Which results can we expect to come out of this study?
“Right now, I’m working with the concept of technologies of the sexual self. Every scene turns to a different ‘technology’. At a techno event, 90 percent of the partygoers are on MDMA or XTC, with a few coke users thrown in. In addition, it’s about a certain style of dress, dance moves and almost everyone is white – but let’s stick to the drugs for the moment. This is a lot less pronounced at student parties, where they tend to drink a great deal. In addition, there’s a pick-up culture: at the end of the evening, you’re expected to have picked someone up to take home with you. With salsa, drugs and alcohol hardly play a role – instead, dance serves as a kind of medium. And at a Shisha Lounge, none of this is going on – instead, everyone is taking snapchat selfies all the time. All these things – dancing, MDMA, alcohol, social media – do something with your body. They help you to achieve a sexual transformation. I’m presently examining whether these different technologies also lead to different ideas about sexuality. And whether this can subsequently be linked to someone’s ethnic background or subculture.”
Why is this important in scholarly terms?
“Because our knowledge about what young people see as good sex is very limited. While meanwhile, the problematic aspects of this theme – STDs, teenage pregnancies, abuse – keep getting reproduced. Including in medical research that focuses on risks within different ethnic groups. But this only sheds light on a very limited part of young people’s sexual experience.”
How diverse is the group of students you are working with?
“We have a girl from Suriname and a Chinese guy. And one student has a Turkish girlfriend. My students have a more diverse circle of friends than I do, but they themselves are mostly white.”
Have you managed to include every subculture in your research?
“When we started on this project, we planned to visit all sorts of ethnic parties. But the thing is: they’re hardly around anymore. To a certain extent, we want this study to reflect society in all its diversity. So right now, we’re mainly focusing on where specific groups go to. We would really like to attend a Turkish wedding. For many Turkish-Dutch youth, a wedding like that – with 1,500 guests in a party centre – is one of the main events of the year.”
When most of your researchers are white – and when you send them to parties of all places – aren’t the results far too one-dimensional?
“You have a point. But the ethnographic research that we conduct at parties is only one part of our project. We’re also holding in-depth interviews with young people. In addition, we have six WhatsApp groups, in which we invite young people to post everything they come across in their daily lives that has to do with sex – photos, videos, stories – and then discuss it. And one of my research master students has researched which music young people think works well with sex. Some of them turn out to have compiled entire playlists, with a crescendo and everything. Like a fitness tape.”
‘We’ve met Moroccan girls who encourage each other to remain a virgin. That’s a completely different story compared to student associations.’
I gather you don’t have a playlist like that.
Smiling: “No. I wasn’t aware that music plays such an important role in people’s sex lives.”
Imagine the study reveals that people’s concept of good sex is more or less universal. Would that mean your project is a failure?
“No, the parallels are just as interesting. However, we are already noticing that there are significant differences. We’ve met Moroccan girls who encourage each other to remain a virgin. That’s a completely different story to student associations, where everyone is encouraged to experiment. But only to a point, because otherwise you’re a slut, or desperate. While people who go to queer parties tend to find restrictive standards like that rather parochial.”
For your doctoral research, you immersed yourself in the world of the Red Hat Society. What do you find so fascinating about subcultures like this?
“As a social scientist, I want to know what really motivates people to do certain things. Quantitative research reduces the entire world to numbers and variables. People are left out of the picture. I want to see them again – literally. How colourful they are; how crazy; how different. And I translate my findings into my research and the articles I write.”