Interview Methodology in the History of Sexuality

by Marine Gilis

My name is Marine Gilis, I am a PhD student at the University of Angers. I am working on the sexual liberation experience of women’s group activists in Brittany and Pays-de-la-Loire (the West of France). The women’s groups are part of the dynamic of the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF in French), which is a women-only movement where women come together and fight for access to contraception, the legalization of abortion, against rape, violence, for new relationships between men and women. In my research, I use the concept of sexual script and the main question I wonder is: according to which script(s) is the sexual liberation experience of women’s activists expressed? This article is about my experience of interview.

The notion of sexual script

            Sexual experiences are the result of social learnings, which arise from norms, more or less implicit rules and prohibitions. We acquire a savoir-faire, a savoir-faire of being and an ability to perceive states of the body and to recognize, even to produce, potentially sexual situations. These situations correspond to scripts[1].

            The analysis of scripts not only aims to describe and make explicit sexual activity, but also allows an implicit definition of sexuality to emerge, and thus the interrelation between practices, psychic/mental representations, social interactions and cultural contents.

            In the context of the post-68 years and the birth of the women’s liberation movement (MLF), the evolution of social and cultural norms accelerated, leading to new legislative provisions (right to abortion), the denunciation of violence against women and systemic inequalities, the development of new ways of living as a couple (outside marriage), and a certain visibility of homosexuality. 

            This evolution also translates into a liberation of the spoken word on sexuality and intimacy. Sexuality can be seen in the multiplication of sex shops, pornography and eroticized images. It also gives itself to be heard through studies and research, through written testimonies, as witnessed by Simone de Beauvoir’s correspondence, for example, and orally, with the success of Ménie Grégoire’s program, “Allô, Ménie” and “Responsabilité sexuelle”[2]. More and more autobiographers and diarists of the baby boom generation are talking about their intimate lives and even their sexual problems.

            This new form of writing liberates sexuality by exposing sexual scripts and practices that have been hidden until now, while at the same time setting standards.  The new problems linked to the redefinition of these norms are analyzed, defined and “cured” by psychoanalysis and sexology in full expansion. But these norms define gendered sexual scripts and do not operate in the same way for men and women. They also permeate the stories as well as the images, the ways of saying and telling.

The history of “sexual liberation” and the role of the private sector in the feminist and homosexual struggles of the 1970s is relatively well known in terms of ideas and theories, but my research put a history of actresses and their practices in the spotlight. 

The process of collecting testimonies 

            If I work on two regions, Brittany and Pays-de-la-Loire, I have, for the moment, only met activists from Brittany. My research is ongoing. Before starting my fieldwork, I looked to see if there were any books written about feminists or feminism in Brittany. I found a book by Lydie Porée and Patricia Godard[3]which deals with feminism in Rennes (the bigger city of Brittany) between 1965 and 1985. I contacted Lydie Porée to ask her how she had found people to testify and if she could put me in touch with her witnesses. For ethical reasons, I preferred her to contact the people so that they would authorize me to have their e-mail address. I then contacted them and several agreed to meet with me. I then organized a stay in Rennes of about ten days to collect their testimony. They all agreed to have part of the interview filmed. Two elements were decisive, it seems to me, to establish a bond of trust that would make this possible: the introduction by a person they already knew, whose publication they had seen and who is locally involved in an association for the history of feminism in Rennes; Exchanges by e-mail and telephone beforehand to make my approach and my status understood. 

            All these people have already been interviewed a few years before and are therefore familiar with the exercise. What was new was the relationship with the camera. The filmed part is open, the witness evokes what she wants about her life. I give some indications beforehand, such as the fact of starting by saying her name and surname in the first few seconds, to evoke as complete a journey as possible from childhood to recent commitments and activities. Some people have a fluid and uninterrupted speech during the hour that the interview lasts on average. Others need to be relaunched, leave on questions and take breaks by cutting off the recording. What struck me is that no matter how the person communicates, all my filmed recordings last between 45 and 60 minutes, with a recurrence of between 49 and 52 minutes. Witnesses seem to quickly forget about the camera, which I don’t put in front but slightly to the side. Rare are the people who look at it directly. The speech is more contained than at the time of the interview not filmed, but the speech remains fluid. 

            The filmed testimony is linked to a specific project, that of the constitution of a corpus of oral archives for a feminist association. So, there is a militant approach on my part, which is combined with a thesis work. These archives are then made available for on-site consultation in libraries and archive centers specializing in the history of women, gender and feminism in France. I therefore appear not only as a researcher, but as someone who is committed to reflecting on the ethics of interviewing and research. For these same reasons, with the association Archives du féminisme [link: https://www.archivesdufeminisme.fr/], a testimony contract has been set up and must be signed by the witness. This document sets out the terms and conditions for the use and dissemination of testimonies and thus protects both the witness and the association. After the filmed testimony, I have another agreement signed for the continuation of the interview, but this time for my research laboratory, which stipulates, among other things, that the interview is anonymous. These two moments of the testimony are therefore separated by the signing of two different testimony contracts and a change of equipment as well, since I switch from camera to voice recorder. This passage is an opportunity for a pause, a moment of decompression for the witness and a less formal relationship to the discourse.

            In the film Delphine and Carole, Insoumuses[4], Carole Roussopoulos[5]explains that in the 1970s, women took over the camera as a tool to make themselves heard and to carry the word of women. Indeed, she explains that when faced with a television image, the viewer is captured by the image and is silent. Where men occupy the space, cut off or prevent women from speaking, another discourse becomes possible because it is audible. It is a tool of power because through it, one can educate, denounce, make known, and this is what activists have done by broadcasting videos on abortion, by creating explanatory films on women’s bodies and health, and by keeping track of their struggles as well. The oral testimonies that I have collected are part of this legacy and question the gender of orality.

The semi-open interview and the passage towards intimacy

            The second part of the interview is therefore anonymous. But if some would have agreed to testify by displaying their identity, it was more relevant to anonymize all the testimonies and to ensure that they did not recognize each other. Indeed, some have been active in the same women’s groups and continue to spend time with each other. Anonymity prepares for the passage to intimacy, it establishes a different relationship to the spoken word. There is no longer any question of representation in some degree. Barriers may remain. I have identified three main barriers: the lack of time to go through what one would like/could say, the relationship with the interviewer, self-censorship.

            Lack of time is due to several factors. On the one hand, it may be due to the material constraints of thesis work, as it can be extremely long and discouraging to have to transcribe dozens of interviews lasting several hours. This problem of time arises especially when the witness goes his or her own way and brings things to light several months after the interview has taken place. Not everything comes out at once, even if the interviewer stays with the person for half a day or even a day. Without falling into a psychoanalytical approach, the process of recollection and reflection may take several “sessions”, which is not always realizable in a thesis. Next, the report to the investigator influences the witness’s posture. The question then arises as to what issues, if any, the witness is experiencing and who should question the researcher: What interest does he or she have in this research and why? Has the person testified for other projects? How does the witness relate to his or her past? etc. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions when I conduct interviews, but you must ask yourself these questions in order to get what you want to get out of them. Finally, the question of self-censorship must be asked. It can be perceptible from the analysis of the interviews. How can it be detected? Facial expressions, gestures, pauses, flashbacks, rephrasing, hesitations, tone of voice, blockages, answers next to the subject, silences, etc., can be detected. One of the factors that could encourage a form of self-censorship among my witnesses is the perception they may have of me as a feminist. Certain practices or thoughts could appear incompatible with feminism and potentially provoke a value judgment of mine. This appeared to me when I asked questions about the violence suffered, observed or possibly perpetrated, sexual practices and the relationship to the body.

            How did I write my interview grid? My interview grid is constructed in 10 thematic parts plus an assessment part. The themes are the following: career path, sociability, influences, puberty and sexual information, body, entry into sexuality, sexual life, conjugality-marriage, motherhood-abortion-contraception, violence. First, I ask the person’s background to situate him or her: education, schooling, militant commitments, politics, professions. The sociability part allows me to identify the person’s friendly, parental and loving models, especially during childhood and adolescence. I then ask questions about the person’s influences in terms of readings, movies and events. This information is often reassuring for the witness because it can lead to a report of advice to the interviewer, of sharing positive elements. The events related were not always experienced as positive, but by relating them, the person is able to evoke experiences of resilience. I then introduce intimacy through questions that involve information and events that correspond to the pre-adult stage. I then move on to puberty and sexual information. The interview then follows a chronological thread that can help the witness to do a progressive recollection work. Thus, logically, after puberty and sexual information, comes the entry into sexuality and then sexual life. This is the moment that, for me, induces the most confidence on the part of the witness. This confidence is gradually built as the questions are asked and the witness begins to give himself/herself up more easily. This moment when the person is giving increasingly intimate information generally becomes more complex for me, because my own modesty, or even a feeling of unease, comes into play. I then relieve some of the pressure by moving on to questions about conjugality, which allows the witness to bounce back on social trends and issues. I then go back to contraception and make the link with the discovery of sexuality, but this time, I’m interested in the evolution of the contraceptive methods chosen by the person. Contraception allows me to address the issue of abortion, which can be difficult for the person to deal with, especially if the person has resorted to an abortion before it was legalized (abortion became legal in 1975 in France). Then motherhood generally allows one to rebound from positive experiences. Even in cases of difficult pregnancies, activists then talk about how they overcame the difficulties and denounced the power of doctors. The last part is about violence. This is one of the most difficult parts for me, because I am afraid to bring out traumatic experiences. I am not trained to react to reactions of distress and anxiety. It’s also difficult for me to ask the person if they’ve been abused. I get around the difficulty by starting by asking if they have witnessed violence or if feminists have taken action to denounce violence, particularly domestic violence or rape. I have noticed that, spontaneously, some people talk about it. Perhaps some activists did not tell me about violence they had experienced. I cannot pretend, in my research, to know the extent of what is said and hidden. Some people made me feel more confident that I could ask them straightforwardly. It is more difficult for me when the person gives short answers and shows a lot of hesitation. It also raises the question of the taboos I transfer to my witnesses. I found an interesting article that will allow you to go further on this issue of the knowledge production process and how the researcher’s subjectivity impacts on her framework of understanding, it is Naomi Van Stapele’s article “Intersubjectivity, self-reflexivity and agency: Narrating about “self” and “other” in feminist research”[6].

A short memento on conducting an interview

After my first experience of collecting testimonies, I put together a small guide to remind myself of the good practices identified from this experience. I will share it with you if it can be useful.

Getting in touch

  • Have a phone conversation before meeting the person.
  • Ensure a wide time slot for the interview (I have an interview that lasted 6 hours, on average it lasted 4h30)
  • Plan that on D-Day the person could donate or loan something (donation of documents, photos, loan of a book…).

Before leaving for the interview 

  • Check that all equipment is operational (storage space, battery charging, complete equipment) 
  • Preparing testimonial contracts 
  • Provide shelter for equipment in case of rain during transport.

Before ringing the bell at the person’s home 

  • Some breathing exercises to relax
  • Turning your phone off or on to airplane mode

Before the interview 

  • Introduce yourself and recall the objectives of the interview. Make sure the place is quiet (no people passing by, no landline telephone, door closed if possible).
  • Explain the main points of the testimony contract, give the contract and encourage people to read it quietly. In the meantime, look for a suitable place to set up the camera and start assembling the equipment. Set up next to the camera so that you can see the screen during the interview.
  • Discuss Article 5 (use and distribution) and orient towards free and immediate communication.
  • While the person finishes filling out the copies, do not forget to sign them yourself, check that everything is completed and give one exemplar to the witness. 
  • Ask the person if he/she has turned off his/her telephone. 
  • Make sure for yourself and for the witness that there is no desire to drink, to go to the toilet… It seems obvious, but when one or the other is under stress, events are rushed and we sometimes forget the basic needs that are recalled at the wrong time or that put us in an uncomfortable situation. Of course, a pause is possible.
  • Install the person (location, placement of the lapel microphone, light test) and do not hesitate to move the person around.
  • Make sure that the lapel microphone is switched on.
  • If necessary, remind the interviewer of the interview method and ask a few questions before recording. It is essential to remind the person to say his or her first and last name at the beginning of the recording. 
  • Before starting to record, make sure the person is comfortable and ask them to wave to start the recording.

During the interview

  • Give the person time to think about it, ask a question if necessary.
  • Have an expressive face: show signs to encourage the person to continue, to develop, to go backwards
  • Make sure during recording that there are no problems with the battery and framing. 
  • It may be helpful to zoom in and out slightly so that the playback is less monotonous afterwards. It is essential to have the camera to hand while remaining seated, because if you stand up for checks, it disturbs the witness who is watching you and you risk getting your feet caught in the tripod. 

After the interview

  • Make sure that the recording worked by viewing a clip on the camera. Sometimes the person asks to see, it’s time to take a breather and talk about the experience of being filmed.

[1]I recommend you to read two books that were the starting point for my reflection: Gagnon John, Les scripts de la sexualité. Essais sur les origines culturelles du désir, Payot, 2008 and by BOZON Michel, Sociologie de la sexualité, 3rd edition, Armand Colin, 2013.

[2]Ménie Grégoire was the host of a radio program on sexuality from 1967 to 1981

[3]Godard Patricia, Porée Lydie, Les femmes s’en vont en lutte! : histoire et mémoire du féminisme à Rennes (1965-1985), Rennes, France, Éditions Goater, 2014.

[4]Callisto Mc Nulty, Delphine et Carole, Insoumuses, movie produced in 2019, France.

[5]Carole Roussopoulos is a feminist, video pioneer and director of more than 120 documentaries, both French and Swiss; Delphine Seyrig is a French actress and feminist filmmaker.

[6]Naomi Van Stapele “Intersubjectivity, self-reflexivity and agency : Narrating about « self » and « other » in feminist research” Women’s Studies International Forum 43 (2014) 13–21.

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