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Socio-Sexual Health in Finland, Iceland, United States - Essay summary
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This is a summary of David Megathlin's article Socio-Sexual Health: Critical Essay on the Cultural Systems of Three Western Countries: Finland-Iceland-United States. Complete article available here.
Through my formal investigation on the social relationships of sexual minority men (a term that includes men who are gay, bisexual, queer, closeted, and otherwise) in Finland and Iceland, I look to create a better understanding of the often-neglected concept of socio-sexual health. Socio-sexual health is defined here as the dynamic balance of interacting physical, psychological, emotional, and social factors between an individual and the surrounding cultural system within which that person is embedded. Discussion of the socio-sexual climate in Scandinavia holds importance primarily because these 5 countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) are often deemed the most socially progressive and sexually healthy countries in the world. By unpacking and exploring these highly developed social cultures, we can create a model by which other societies can construct their own rapidly transforming cultural identities.
I first moved to Scandinavia in 1999 on a United States Fulbright Scholarship. My travels have allowed me to explore sexual identities embedded in entirely different social systems. More importantly, my mobility has provided me with a self-reflective understanding of my own sexual identity in constant interaction with each surrounding socio-sexual system. The socio-sexual systems of the United States, Iceland and Finland each contain overlapping yet distinct sexual cultures. And as with all human behavior, these models of sexual behavior and conduct are laden within a surrounding social culture and these models therefore have a direct effect on the emergence, construction, enactment, and reproduction of sexuality within the people of that culture (Hostetler, 1998).
Saying that you are either heterosexual or a sexual minority (being gay, bisexual, or otherwise) hold completely different meanings that are dependent on the socio-sexual culture in which you live (i.e. the United States, Finland, Iceland, etc.). My thesis research focuses on the social relationships and friendships of sexual minority men in Finland and Iceland, examining their definition of friendships, the people they hang out with on a regular basis, and how the boundaries between their friendships and family relationships differ. As I continue to analyze my data, I find overarching patterns of liberalism within Scandinavia, which includes the contrast of a liberal ambition in Finland that continues to develop amidst the roots of a conservative groundwork. I have also found a radically progressive Icelandic culture that is incomparable to any socio-sexual cultural landscape I have ever seen.
As has surfaced in my thesis interviews, rare were the occurrences in Iceland of extreme family rejection upon the disclosure of same-sex desires. As compared to American adolescents, three main factors were absent in the development of the Icelandic youth who experiences same-sex desires: 1) fear of rejection from the family, 2) fear of exclusion and rejection from society-at-large and 3) an immediate social and mental link between being gay and contracting HIV. The absence of such stressors on the developing adolescent is of great significance and need to be explored in detail through further socio-sexual research.
American perspectives on sexuality
The American perspective on the fight for human rights has made huge strides in cultural development, yet through methods that must be reshaped in order to continue cultural growth. As an analogy, if we see diverse American society contained within one room, the gay community has, in effect, run to the other side of the room, turned around, and demanded equal rights. Of course they have come quite far in the past decades, but they have created a self-constructed glass ceiling through social division. There is still a large proportion of American society that has never understood, befriended, or even interacted with a sexual minority. I noticed that in Finland, I felt the presence of a sexual divide that did not seem to take over every facet of life. In Iceland, there was not such an extreme division of sexual culture. Keeping in mind that Reykjavik is a fairly small city, a strong cultural divide is nearly impossible. The social world is simply too small. Yet being such a small population does not negate the importance of such a culture nor the ability for such integration to occur in larger societies.
The development of sexual identity extends beyond the individual. Sexual identity formation is driven by a myriad of interacting factors, including personal experience, social interaction, societal regulations, and social norms. The collective experiences and the sexual identities of individuals embedded within a culture manifest themselves as a shared sexuality.
Sexual identity is culturally variant. It is a dynamic process that utilizes influences from both the outside socio-sexual culture as well as from personal levels of self-reflection and understanding. The balance between outside factors and personal influences is greatly dependant on cultural context.
Extremely strong influences from the outside socio-sexual culture on sexual identity are present in the United States and Finland. In contrast, Iceland seems to hold a more self-reflective sexual identity construction mechanism, where the individual is granted more access and power to the formation and understanding of their sexual identity.
Scandinavian construct of sexuality and culture
Reactionary prejudice against heterosexuals today is outdated, unnecessary, and works to further perpetuate the societal marginalization of sexual minorities. Scandinavia does not seem to provide such an extreme cultural divide. On the whole, Northern Europe does not follow such a pattern of exclusionary diversity in a socio-sexual context, where sexual minorities actively work to carve out a world apart from heterosexual culture. On the other hand, America often follows patterns of exclusionary diversity on many sexual, ethnic, cultural, and socio- economic fronts. America’s extremely heterogeneous culture repeatedly emphasizes and celebrates individual differences. In contrast, European culture emphasizes and celebrates regional/country-specific similarity, in language, nationality and cultural tradition.
Scandinavia is commonly deemed one of the most socially progressive and sexually healthy corners of the world. As before, I define socio-sexual health as the dynamic, balanced of physical, psychological, emotional, and social factors that interact between an individual and the surrounding cultural system. Considering an individual as “healthy” in such a dynamic sense is questionable if they live in an environment that does not accept the understanding, expression, and fulfillment of their sexual desires. People must be able to fully and honestly understand such desires within themselves. If sexual minorities cannot develop and maintain friendships with people who do not fully accept them as sexual beings without prejudice and judgment, and they are deemed a threat to the fabric of the local culture, how can people create social relationships that fulfill their own desires (and not culturally mandated desires) throughout their lifetime and develop fully as social individuals. Most people, no matter what country they reside in, (unfortunately) have to monitor what they say, do, and share in so many social, professional, familial interactions on a variety of topics. Yet when such vigilance includes ANY discussion of sexual minority identification (in an extreme, limiting, shameful manner), and in turn any social activities, social relationships, and intimate relationships that might reveal that identity, undue (and unjust) stress is put on the individual. Punishment for lack of adherence to the social norm and placing the blame on the sexual minority for their lack of social adherence is all too prevalent.
In order to explore and understand the health of sexual minorities in a global context, research must not only focus on STD and HIV prevalence and drug use amongst sexual minorities, especially gay men, and subsequent problematic health outcomes.
Levels to which people are marginalized, and the manner in which these people are marginalized, directly effect the intricate connection between public health information disbursement, help-seeking behavior, and the course of disease transmission.
Amidst this complex combination of influences comes a social culture that affords many of the accepting values that Scandinavia has to offer (including elevated rights of sexual minorities and women, and a low occurrence of HIV as compared to the rest of the world), while at the same time adhering to a strong, sometimes stoic gender and social role tradition. In contrast to these stoic traditions, my research in Iceland afforded quite a different perspective. Emerging thematic differences in my data and fieldwork observations displayed an overall integrated social culture amongst the younger Icelandic generation, with little distinct dividing lines between gay and straight culture/venues in downtown Reykjavik. With this lack of separation (and with that little impending societal marginalization), I saw a more tangible acceptance of differences in sexuality. So much can be learned from each culture in terms of their advanced levels of sexual health, social status of gender and sexual minorities, and their overall social integration. And with a better understanding of the status of sexual minorities throughout Scandinavia, nations such as the United States can better enhance their own social policy and progress, as well as better their own cultural influence on other nations throughout the world.