By Marjo Kolehmainen
Introduction: Behind the scenes of the Nordic ideals
Finland is one of the Nordic welfare states which rank highly in international equality measures. Finland is often considered to be exceptionally democratic and a trailblazer in gender equality and sexual rights. Still, it has proved challenging even here to tackle gender inequality in intimate relationships. While equality may be supported in general, people can still oppose having more equal personal relationships. One way this may be seen is that they insist that relationship conflicts are caused only by individual differences between partners and ignore cultural norms regarding gender or sexuality.
Relationship and sex counseling seminars are a place that can influence intimate practices. To learn more about how relationship counseling reinforces or challenges popularized beliefs about gender and sexuality, I attended relationship enhancement seminars in Finland. As might be expected, both professional therapists and counselors as well as lay experts at these event all supported gender equality and sexual rights. Yet there was no consensus regarding what a good relationship actually looks like. These seminars are instead a site where what gender equality in practice means is contested. Diverse views on gender and sexuality mesh, and sometimes clash.
My research suggests these seminars are full of ambivalence about gender equality. The showcasing of support for gender equality or sexual rights actually shows very little about how counseling practices advance equality, or not. In my article, published in Gender & Society, I identify several contradictory patterns. First, some experts believe that equality has gone too far. Second, many experts critique inequality verbally yet remain invested in depoliticizing views about gender in relationships. Third, some experts embrace diversity and expand everyday understandings of gender and sexuality. My findings complicate the belief that Nordic countries are always supportive of gender equality in personal relationships.
Findings: Contradictory patterns
The first pattern is when gender equality is framed not only as having been achieved but also as having “gone too far.” Equality is not seen as a goal to strive toward, but is rather located in the past. Women are claimed to be the new dominant gender. For instance, the experts claim “men have become too nice” or “men have no balls anymore,” or they “should man up.” Here, men are portrayed as victims or an oppressed group. These claims conceal contemporary gender inequality and belittle women’s experiences of gendered injustices.
The second pattern involves token critiques of inequality that seem to support gender equality and LGBTIQ+ rights, but do not challenge the status quo. The ideal of equality becomes clearly visible when experts demonstrate that they are aware of the dangers of making generalizations from heterosexual experiences. They justify their exclusive focus on intimate relationships between a man and a woman because it is “familiar” to them. Or they acknowledge same-sex but such statements remain tokenistic since that they do not addressthe obstacles and discrimination same-sex couples still face.
The third pattern contains acts of resistance. There were events in which diversity is welcomed and experts resist prevailing notions about gender and sexuality. While it is fairly typical for speakers to mention rainbow couples in passing, these events provide occasions for acknowledging “different options, for instance, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous” or for hoping that gendered norms “would not narrow one’s understanding of oneself or other people.” In other words, here, equality is understood more broadly than as gender equality between women and men or basic LGBTIQ+ rights. Moreover, equality is not rendered as something already achieved but as something to fight for.
Concluding remarks: A postfeminist sensibility
In my research, I conclude that these three different approaches to gender equality constitute a postfeminist sensibility. While the term postfeminism is often used to suggest a backlash against feminism, I define the simultaneous coexistence of feminist and anti-feminist elements as postfeminist. These three patterns together illustrate a postfeminist sensibility in which contrary positions toward feminism coexist. My findings complicate the idea that Nordic countries are straightforwardly progressive.
Marjo Kolehmainen is a postdoctoral researcher in gender studies at Tampere University, Finland. Her current work concerns digital intimacies, especially the diverse practices of teletherapy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find her on Twitter, @MarjoKolehmain.