The current moment, framed largely by Covid-19 and its many (necessary) restrictions, poses many difficulties for undergrad and Masters’ students who might have been thinking about conducting empirical fieldwork as part of their dissertations and are now left wondering what they might want to explore instead. In this blog I want to introduce a newly available digital archive of qualitative interviews, conducted with young women in London and Manchester in the late 1980s and to suggest that this might be a valuable resource for research students looking to carry out original feminist research. Now completely anonymised and easily accessed through our digital archive, these interviews, conducted as part of the Women, Risk and AIDS Project, have been relinquished from attics and floppy disks and are waiting to be revisited, reimagined and reanalysed through contemporary thought.
My own PhD project utilizes the WRAP data to (in a nutshell) interrogate how meanings of virginity have changed for young women and what this might be able to tell us about gendered sexual social change. ‘Virginity’ was the thing that really pulled me into the archive –the thing that ‘glowed’ (see Maggie MacLure’s work on The Wonder of Data for more on this). My own narrative of ‘virginity loss’ was a defining moment in my first foray into feminist thinking about gender and power (though I didn’t realise that that’s what it was at that time) and there was something really powerful about seeing some of myself in the archive, within the folds and contradictions of these young women’s stories. What was really interesting was that it felt like it could have been me and my friends discussing our own sordid tales of virginity loss as teenagers in the late ‘noughties’ (it had to be before we turned 16) – nothing seemed to have changed much in the interim. Of course, taking place over 15 years earlier, the experiences of WRAP interviewees were totally different. The interviews needed to be situated in the particular time and place that they were conducted to get a sense of what sexual stories could be told in 1989 and what aspects of these might ‘stick’ across generations.
While traditionally framed through marriage and religion, the 1980s replaced traditional understandings of ‘virginity’ with new meanings of sexual knowledge, experience and pleasure. Brought into conversation with teen girl magazine problem pages from the late 80s, the WRAP interviews help provide a glimpse into the everyday of this new sexual culture and what it might have meant to grow up in a time more usually defined by Thatcherism, the AIDS crisis and widespread youth unemployment (Brooke, 2014). One particular quote from an interview with Danielle (aged 18-19, Caribbean, lower middle class, no religion), living in London, really captures how things were changing for some young women:
“‘I called him a chauvinist, I said, “you’re a chauvinist; you believe that when women have children they should give up work to look after them”. I said oh, I said, why can’t the man do that? I said, why can’t you have an equal partnership where you both go out to work’… ‘Marriage is a piece of paper. I don’t wanna have kids till I’m about thirty-five. When you’re mature you can actually enjoy them a lot better rather than having them young.”Danielle (LSFS32)
And on ‘virginity loss’ specifically:
“Q. Yeah. Cos sometimes, I mean like you were saying about that first relationship where … that you had when you were very young, that it included everything but not sex. You must have made some decisions there that it wasn’t going to include …Justine (LJH17)
A. Yeah, I think we both did to a certain extent because we were both quite young schoolkids. It was just sort of an unspoken rule – you don’t go all the way.
While Justine (LJH17) doesn’t mention penetrative sex here – what we might typically think of as virginity loss – her acquisition of sexual experience without ‘going all the way’ points to new understandings of ‘what counts’ and what is allowed to be talked about, in comparison to earlier generations of women.
Through secondary analysis of the WRAP archive I aim to find out more about how these young women are able to talk about ‘virginity loss’. To locate these findings in their wider context, I’ve first gone back in time to the earlier part of the 20th century to understand how the changing relationship between love, sex and marriage allowed for the slightly more permissive society and sexual politics of the 80s. Teen girl magazines from 1989 are also undergoing some secondary analysis – the problem pages I’ve read so far, in Jackie, J17 and Mizz, don’t seem to have any qualms with their readers having sex – so long as it’s within the confines of a steady, stable relationship and framed by love, trust and good communication. At some point this new look at old materials will be used to form participatory virtual workshops with young people today to try and gain a further sense of what ‘virginity loss’ might mean now, eventually (hopefully) culminating in some sort of online open access resource on using the WRAP interviews as a pedagogic tool.
While my research focuses primarily on themes of desire, respectability, femininity and social change, there are loads of ways into the archive and so many different questions you can ask it.I read each interview at least twice when preparing the dataset for digital publication and I’m sure if I read them all again now, I’d find something new to think about!
Exploring the relationship between location and sexuality would be a great place to start – there are striking differences between the stories told by WRAP interviewees in London and in Manchester, despite the diversity of young women that were interviewed in each place. Many in Manchester had totally different, more traditional aspirations than those living in the capital. This is highlighted even more by WRAP London interviewees who had moved to the city from somewhere more rural or Northern and reflect on their experiences of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle.
This word cloud shows you just *some* of the keywords that you can search in Figshare to pull up different interviews that might pique your interest:
You could, for instance, look at the different forms of contraception that young women were (or not) using and their experiences of these. There were many health-related fears around the contraceptive pill at this time, for example, and many WRAP interviewees used birth control to regulate their periods rather than to protect against pregnancy. Some accessed contraception through family planning clinics while others visit their GP. Sex education is another key feature of the interviews – how was it different to now, and where did these young women find alternative means of sex education outside of formal schooling? How did young women from typically othered cultural or religious backgrounds, usually here as second-generation migrants, navigate their own sexual subjectivity in late 1980’s UK? What were some of the cultural tensions and contradictions they were facing, and are these the same or different today?
Another way into the archive would be to strip back the interviews even further and think about where the WRAP study sits within a historiography of feminist sexualities research or girlhood studies. While the original project was a response to the AIDS/HIV crisis and widespread anxiety around the sexual health and safety of young people, there was other feminist work on ‘desire’ happening at the same time. Where does WRAP fit in with this? What methods were able to be used and which questions were able to be asked? ‘The Male in the Head’, a publication from the original WRAP research team that came out of the project, offers a way of thinking about how youth sexuality and identity was constructed at this time, and would be high up on my list of recommended reading for anyone interested in the study.
The Reanimating Data Project offers both tools and inspiration for using the interviews in participatory group work with young people, which could be easily adapted. You can go big, like Ester did with the Women’s Theatre Society at the University of Manchester, where she facilitated workshops using data from three of the WRAP interviews that resulted in an incredible, intergenerational performance. Emphasis in these workshops was to be messy with the data to see what might happen – from re-asking each other questions from these original interviews and using the data to write songs and powerful personal moments (for more on these methods check out Ester’s blog here. Niamh’s work with Sapphormation and subsequent work by Ali Ronan with a youth group at the Proud Trust demonstrate how generative just small chunks of interview can be. You can read Ali’s blog about this here.
With previous experience of both youth work and conducting creative, participatory research on youth sexualities and sex education with young people, I’m a big fan of using these sorts of ideas to engage young people in critical thinking and discussions. There is a real sense of how useful these activities are, or could be, in helping to create the right sort of space for this research. And they might not work with your own group of young people – which, of course, provides useful and reflexive insight in itself.
I hope what I’ve managed to convey through this post is that there are a number of ways of using the WRAP interviews outside of the more traditional archival sense and I hope that others – from sociologists, to social historians to youth practitioners, and everyone in between – can utilise the value in these young women’s now-historical accounts. There are so many fascinating ways into the archive and so many interesting discussions that can come out of it. I was lucky enough to find my thing that ‘glows’ fairly early on, and I hope that someone else might find their own wonderous lightbulb moment in the WRAP archive, too. Let us know what you find and feel free to get in touch with any questions. You can follow us on Twitter at @ReanimatingData