3.1. It Started with a Trailer
The field worker’s interaction in the field—who she meets and what areas she gains access to—will affect what she sees and her interpretations of what is going on. During fieldwork, the researcher will be assigned different types of roles and the roles will decide where the field worker can go, what she can do, who to cooperate with, what she can ask, what she can see, and what information she can be provided with [20
] (p. 29). At the Christian festivals, it was important for me to acquire roles that also gave me the ability to observe backstage behavior [9
“The fieldworker is always a marginal person, an outsider who, if he is successful, is permitted relatively free access to the backstage area of the local scene” [21
] (p. 248).
I realized early on that being relatively young gave me an advantage. I was able to blend in with at least some of the oldest of the participants. In addition, being female in this context seemed to be an asset. Many of the male leaders and participants were very helpful in showing me around, and they also invited me to different types of arrangements within the festival. I was also offered all manner of practical assistance. Someone offered to help me park my car (implying that women cannot) and to put up the tent for me (implying that women cannot do practical work). In these cases, I politely rejected their offers, but it made me aware of how being a female researcher opened some doors and closed others.
(…) small, female researchers are likely to appear to the subjects of their research as in need of assistance and instruction. They thus have different experience of fieldwork from that of the older, male, professorial “expert” who does not appear to be in need of being taught [22
] (p. 65).
All the festivals attract many young people. After some time, I observed that many of the participants were not attending any of the Christian meetings or activities. I was interested in finding out what these groups of youths were doing all day, and I spent some time outside the meeting area. One important activity for these participants was, as they put it themselves, flirting. How does the researcher gain access to the flirting arena?
At one of the festivals, I coincidentally discovered something that opened my eyes to the flirting arena. I arrived at the festival in my car. Since I was going to stay for some time, I had a lot of luggage and therefore brought a small trailer. The first thing to happen was that I was pulled aside by a security guide and a police officer at the entrance point of the festival. I asked if I had done something wrong, but they just laughed without answering my question. Instead, the police officer jumped up onto the trailer, sat down, and winked at me. He and the security guard had great fun with the trailer, asking me jokingly if I needed help parking. In their opinion, they had to keep me at the gate for a while since they doubted my ability to park the trailer on my own. After a while I understood from their tone that this was a way of flirting with me. First, I was rather offended. I had told them about my research. Then I decided to play along. I smiled and told the police officer he was probably right, but that I thought he should give me a chance to park. The police officer and the security guard had a conversation while they looked at me. The police officer told me to wait and then uncoupled the trailer from the car, sat down inside it and ate his lunch. The security guard was circling around and then he too jumped up onto the trailer. Finally, they decided to give me a chance to try my hand at parking and let me go. I saw the security guard talking in his walkie-talkie and then waved me through.
The story with the trailer does not end here, but the interaction between the involved parties needs to be reflected upon. First, I interpret the interaction between the two men as a contest of displaying hegemonic masculinity [18
]. They literally show their “muscles” to me, the female researcher, and they also use their power as both security guard and police officer to hold me back. Secondly, all those activities are done with a great deal of humor and charm. They play out their part of their erotic capital using social skills, liveliness, and social presentation in this flirtation scenario [8
]. My response—by laughing and playing along—allows them to go on and not lose their face. I could have stopped the scene by, for instance, becoming angry, but I chose not to because I was interested in observing the interplay between the two men. At the same time, I felt powerless. They took my trailer and they were also the gatekeepers, so my entry to the festival was in their hands.
When I was finally able to drive into the festival area, I was stopped by two male parking stewards. They wanted to help me park the car. I told them I could manage this myself. Just as I was about to park, the trailer was suddenly gone. In my rear-view mirror I saw the two young stewards running away with it. It looked like a competition between them, both trying to run as fast as possible, clinging on to the trailer. When they were finally exhausted, they brought it back in the parking space and sat on it. It became clear to me that the trailer was functioning as a symbol of manliness, and as an opportunity to play out a certain type of masculinity.
By bringing this symbol with me as a female researcher, it clearly triggered some young men to show their “masculine selves.” I became the audience for this male competition, and I was expected to applaud their masculine performances. The story of the trailer also shows how a masculine symbol is put into contest. When leaving the festival, I had to bring the trailer with me. A group of young boys offered their assistance both in carrying and packing my luggage. I was simply supposed to sit and wait for them to fix everything. Again, I was put in the role of a helpless or vulnerable woman who needed men to fix things for her.
The story of the trailer made me reflect upon how this incident would have affected me if I was an ordinary female participant rather than a researcher. At all of the festivals, it was easy for me to get in touch with the abovementioned type of young men with a clear flirting agenda, but I also tried to get in touch with more female participants to get a better understanding of how they were adapting to and experienced the flirting game.
3.3. Strategies for Adapting to the Flirting Arena
During my fieldwork at the different festivals, I realized that the participants had different strategies in adapting to the flirting arena. At the same time, they also had to adjust to the festivals’ religious views regarding, for instance, sexuality. Not everyone does, and some of the festivals have security guards to make sure that boys and girls do not sleep in the same tents. Some always manage to sneak out and break the rules. Every year a few young participants get expelled from the festivals for breaking of the “tent rules,” for drinking alcohol or other kinds of violations. To be able to participate in the flirting game, the participants have to play their cards right. They need to behave in a “suitable” way, so they do not get expelled from the festival arena. At the same time, many of the young boys and girls tell me that one of the reasons that they travel to these festivals, in addition to the religious focus of the festivals, is to find themselves a boyfriend or girlfriend. While talking to different young girls and boys, I understood that the way the flirting game was constructed at these festivals created both “winners” and “losers.” Further, the same kinds of flirting strategies seemed to be found across the different festivals. Other studies of flirting and sexuality point to the same. There is a certain male and female mode that is being repeated: the boys’ focus on the thrill and the idea of a romantic relationship is just one of many
different forms of expressing male sexuality. For women, the romantic relationship and intimacy is the (almost) only way of framing actions of sexuality [1
]. In the following, I will outline three different ways the boys and the girls tried interacting in the flirting game. These are “typical” strategies that I observed during my fieldwork. I am aware that, by bringing in these strategies, I am not embracing all the different ways flirtation can take place, but I will argue that the strategies sum up similar interactions between boys and girls at all of the festivals.
Interviewee: My friends and I aren’t the kind of girls who flirt with guys: we get flirted with.
Researcher: What do you do to get flirted with, then?
Interviewee: Well, we walk around smiling and stuff.
A lot of the girls I met at the festivals are concerned with the importance of not being seen as the one to “start the flirtation.” They get flirted with. They are innocent, kind, and rather shy, and it is the guys who address them. In the flirting game, their role is in the first instance to be the passive ones, and to be “discovered.” In order to be discovered, it is important to look good, and that can be hugely challenging when you are on a camping trip. The ladies’ room is always full. However, the men’s room is rarely crowded. The girls go to a lot of trouble. They have to put on make-up, but not too much; dress cool, but not too cool; look, but not stare. It is not so easy to attract the attention you desire. At some festivals, girls are in the majority and some of them work extra hard to gain attention:
The preaching session has started. The preacher is on stage talking. Suddenly there is a lot of noise at the back of the meeting hall. A gang of teenage girls comes giggling through the hall. They are wearing a lot of make-up, mini-skirts, and crop-tops. They stop in the middle of the room. Soon they have all the boys’ attention. They look around. A group of boys wave and whistle at them and signal for them to come and join them. The girls look at each other. They accept the boys’ offer. One of the girls sits on a boy’s lap. Another one shares a chair with a boy. By the time the worship songs start, all of the girls are making out with the boys (field note).
These girls have spent a long time getting themselves ready. They clearly want to be seen, and they manage this by showing up too late for the meeting and making their entrance with clothes, make-up, and looks in a way that attracts the attention of the young boys in the hall. After that, it is up to the boys to make their move, to open the flirtation game. The girls take the boys’ offer into consideration, then sit down and allow the boys to touch and kiss them. These girls openly demonstrate their availability to the boys. At the same time, they follow quite traditional gender patterns. They wait for the boys to make the first move. The flirtation game has a gendered “division of work” where the boys are expected to take the initiative [1
The partly shy, beautiful girls get a lot of attention. They are pushed, nudged, and flirted with, and they know the codes, they play ball, and know very well how to react. For the really shy girls, things can be more difficult. One girl says:
Me and my friends have always been, you know, very shy. We weren’t the kind of people who would easily get in touch with guys. Then there was the cool-girl group, who went together as a group with the cool guys that we also liked. They were like, I don’t know, I would feel really cool if one of them would talk to me.”
The same girl goes on to tell how she did not understand the “codes”:
I started pretty early as a leader. I was about 16–17, so I was kind of the same age as the other participants. There were a lot of male leaders that were a lot older than me. You would look up to them, the ones that were older. At some point I became aware that I’ve always loved dressing up a bit—or rather to wear mini-skirts. Without ever making much of it. I just liked it. And I did this at the camps as well. And then I got some comments from the male leaders. Like, the kind of on-the-edge comments, which no one would really say.
Researcher: How did you react to that?
Well, I remember getting this, kind of weird feeling. Kind of… But I didn’t stop wearing mini-skirts because of that. I found that out myself later. I was probably very much outside of those things. I didn’t understand how men reacted to such things. How they looked at me. I never noticed. But I’ve understood it now [laughs].
At this festival, the mini-skirt became a symbol for the male leaders, which they used to sexually harass the female leader. The mini-skirt can be interpreted as a feminine symbol, quite in contrast to i.e., the trailer, as mentioned before. In both cases, the male leaders used their hegemonic position to suppress women. The Canadian sociologist Sonya Sharma did a study of young Christian women and their views on sexuality. One of her findings was that the women “experienced shame and guilt when they did not experience themselves as being a ‘good Christian girl,’ someone who follows the ‘rules,’ who remains sexually ‘abstinent’” [27
] (p. 75). In the case of the mini-skirt, it is the male leaders who characterize the young female leader due to her clothing. Their harassment strategies can also be seen as a way of disciplining sexuality and “(…) especially women’s sexuality, keeping it under patriarchal control” [27
] (p. 75).
At the festivals, girls are supposed to be rather innocent and shy, but not too much. They have to know what is going on, to join in the “game” with the active boys. But what happens when both are shy? How are the shy boys looked upon?
A girl participant says:
I was so in love with Per. We went together to the same group, and I had been in love with him so for long. I didn’t dare say anything to him, I was very shy and afraid to ruin our friendship. So, I learned about this festival, I really wanted to go. I mentioned it to the rest of the gang, but no one really wanted to go, except Per. It was fantastic. We went to the festival together. I was so in love that I nearly died. We were going to stay together at the festival as well. It was kind of the cheapest alternative. I didn’t get much out of the meetings, I just sat there and thought about him all the time. I hoped he was going to say something to me, touch me, anything. But nothing happened. My thoughts were so consumed with thinking about him that I went on to praying to God that something would happen several times. I can’t understand how he couldn’t realize that I was in love with him, but he didn’t mention it, and I couldn’t say anything. It was so hard…
This girl feels that it is the boy’s responsibility to take the initiative. The boy does nothing and therefore nothing happens. The initiative to opening the flirting game is up to him. Some of the female participants refers to shy boys as “sissies” and as not very interesting; if guys will not dare to get closer, even while the girls’ strategies have opened the door for it, they are regarded as not being potential contestants in the flirting arena. The shy and passive boys enter into a role that is reserved for the girls and become, in a sense, the losers in this ritual game.
“At the gender-market some people climb all the way to the top in success; some fall down; and some never even come close” [26
] (p. 98). Those who never get evaluated at the flirting arena do have other opportunities at the festivals. They can “resign” and instead seek a spiritual career. Even though they may not get the attention they want from the opposite sex, some might choose this direction—there is, after all, the idea of a loving god, one who loves them no matter what and wants to be near them. There can, of course, be many different reasons why someone would resign from the flirting game. However, a lot of those I would call spiritual still take part in flirting, but in a more covert way. The flirting is dressed up in many different euphemisms: it becomes spiritual. It is no longer about flirting; it is about God’s intervention. It is God who will let you meet that person, and he will give clear signs for it. One of the boys tells the story of how he met his girlfriend:
I fought a lot with myself there. I was very minded that I wasn’t going to get together with the wrong person. And I can remember this one time, I actually prayed that if I was meant to be with her, than she would have to call me or send me an SMS before a certain time, or the time I had prayed about, and it was very unlikely she was going to do so. It was only a few minutes notice (to God). So, I kind of thought it to be rather special, and in the exact moment the clock turned to that time, a message popped up on my cell phone. And I had two of these things happen to me. And the other one was, if she would pick something up, it was really funny, but it was a thing that couldn’t really happen anyway, but it did, and I interpreted that as a sign that she was the one [laughs].
Another girl tells me about a guy she had “something going on with... But it never evolved into anything, because he wanted to be 100 per cent sure that it was God’s will... He figured out these crazy ideas, almost as though if the lightning didn’t strike it wasn’t God’s intention,” she explains. It never turned into a relationship and she stopped thinking about it. The same mode as in the other flirting strategies is also present here. Even though God’s will was involved, it is the boy who gets the message. The girls are supposed to wait until the signal is clear.
The third strategy in flirting game is being the active one. This is almost exclusively a male strategy. The girls can play along or reject the guys. In my research, I met a lot of boys employing this strategy. Some of the boys told me that they only attend Christian festivals in order to flirt with girls. They don’t attend any meetings.
The boys at the festivals are quite creative in their attempts to flirt with the girls. Some have watchmen standing duty outside their tents to bring in girls; some have giant speakers and placards urging girls to visit their tents. Outside one of the tents some of the boys had set up a “tripwire” across the road. Every time a potential girl walked past the guys would pull the rope, and they would fall over. This way they made contact with many girls.
Some of the boys I have talked to also refer to girls who are active participants in opening the flirting game. Some girls break with the standard “rules” for flirting. “Last year there was this girl who was in all the boy-tents,” one of the boys tells me. He and his friends are not attracted to girls like that. “It’s just wrong if you’re only here to date.” If the girls become too active, many of the boys will back off. The girls are referred to as “not good” and their behavior is considered to be wrong. These girls may also be referred to as wrongly dressed, “cheap” and “not good Christians.” It is interesting that, in some cases, the mini-skirt or crop-top t-shirt can represent erotic capital, but, in other cases, are considered “cheap” or even “slutty.” How the clothes are interpreted as erotic capital deeply depends upon how the girls manage to follow the gendered rules of the flirting game.