Playing with gender borders: Flirting and alcohol consumption among young adults in Denmark

By Mie Birk Jensen, Ph.D. student at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University, Denmark.

From Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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When young adults drink alcohol, they often do so when going out with friends to party in bars and clubs. When they go out to these mainstream places, they enter venues where there are certain expectations to their behaviour that are rooted in gender norms, and which differ in relation to men and women’s behaviour. Among other things, this includes an expectation for them to engage in heterosexual interactions. Building on 140 interviews with young adults in Denmark between the ages of 18 to 25 (average age: 21.2), and of different genders (49% identified as women, 49% as men, and 2% as other), we explored how young adults narrate their personal experiences with flirting in such nightlife spaces, and how they navigate within gender norms when doing so.

Characterizing flirting as a subtle form of social interaction, which does not necessarily lead to sexual contact (i.e. a hook up, sex, kissing, etc.), we explored how they described their own personal experiences with flirting, and how they navigated the gender and sexual norms that operate when going out and flirting. This was made possible by our diverse sample of young alcohol users, which allowed us to study how these young adults conformed to, worked against, or tried to challenge the gender and sexual norms of the mainstream night-time economy when flirting.

In the study, we found that flirting was a very common and even expected activity for the vast majority of these young adults when going out to mainstream bars and clubs. However, they did not find flirting to be equally accessible or pleasurable. Whereas some participants found that flirting was an easy and enjoyable activity that emerged ‘naturally’ between women and men when going out, others found that the expectation to engage in a heteronormative type of flirting in most mainstream bars and clubs was actually restrictive. Furthermore, other young adults expressed how they saw an opportunity to play with gender and sexuality norms when flirting, for example, pretending to be straight or gay. The extent to which they expressed that there was room for such play depended, not on how they identified, but instead on whether or not they believed that engaging in such play could be done without negative consequences.

In conclusion, we argued that whether the gender and sexuality norms of the mainstream night-time economy were problematized by the young adults or not, was not merely a matter of gender or sexual identification. Thus, heterosexual and queer youths alike criticized how these norms may situationally restrict their behaviours when going out and flirting.  However, while young people of different genders and sexualities challenged these norms through flirting, this was not equally accessible to all. For example, particularly in relation to non-heterosexual flirting, some feared the risk of stigmatization, and others found that their attempts at flirting were not taken seriously. In the article, we argue that such insights contribute to the existing body of research on young adults’ intoxicated sexual practices, a research field which until recently has tended to focused solely on the possible health risks and consequences of such practices. We argue that depending on what practices researchers focus on, risks may become re-articulated from being a matter of health to a matter of whether or not there is room for youth to explore their gendered and sexual orientations and identities in comfortable ways.


Article details

Playing with gender borders: Flirting and alcohol consumption among young adults in Denmark

Mie Birk Jensen, Maria Dich Herold, Vibeke Asmussen Frank, Geoffrey Hunt

DOI: 10.1177/1455072518807794

Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

The authors received the following financial support for the research: funded by Research Fund Denmark: Social Sciences. ID number: DFF-4003-00035.


About

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Mie Birk Jensen is a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University, Denmark. The article is part of her dissertation, in which she explores gendered meanings in young Danes’ narratives on flirting, sexual pursuit and sex in the context of heavy alcohol use.