Monday, August 29, 2011

Female Sexual Autonomy Under Siege (Part 3)

Masculinity and rape culture

It is important to consider that these messages do not only affect girls. The socialization of boys is just as critical to the reproduction of rape culture as the socialization of girls. From a very early age, boys learn to associate strength with dominance and gentleness with weakness and femininity (or homosexuality) (Kilbourne 2010, Newton 2007). Later on in life as adolescents, boys learn to view themselves as entitled to women’s bodies and to avoid or mask their emotional vulnerability (Kimmel 2000). These learned behaviors and attitudes are part of a discourse (the socially embedded ‘rules’ in language that influence what people understand as truth or common sense – see Foucault 1972) that contributes to rape culture. The discourse tells us that men are sexually active and women are sexually passive, that “boys will be boys”, and that as women and girls we need to protect ourselves from men’s unchecked sexuality (Kilbourne 2010). This assumption that men are more sexual than women, and that men cannot control their own sexuality, unfairly places the onus on women and girls to put safety before pleasure and to prevent rape (Tolman 2002, Friedman 2008).

Not all men are equally privileged through this patriarchal discourse. Heterosexual men, particularly those who enjoy other forms of social and economic privilege, are at the top of a hierarchy of masculinity that devalues and dehumanizes all others (Newton 2007, Taylor 2011). These men are the ‘subjects’ of the discourse, and subjectivity is dependent on to what extent one measures up to normative masculinity. Because of this, gay and bisexual men (or men who are perceived as such) are feminized and dehumanized, and therefore are also vulnerable to violence. Women and girls are – not surprisingly – very low on this hierarchy, as are lesbian and bisexual women, transfolk, women of color, working-class women, disabled women, and Aboriginal women. We all suffer from not being heterosexual males, which is considered the norm and the ultimate expression of humanity (Connell 2005, Taylor 2011).

Female sexual autonomy and consent
How does this affect women’s and girls’ lives and the way we experience our sexuality? According to Tolman (2002), what’s missing from the dominant, male-centric discourse of sexuality is the idea of female sexual autonomy or “sexual subjectivity”, which is the capacity to be agents of our own sexuality. Hypersexualization undermines female sexual autonomy because it sends the message that women and girls are sexual objects without a right to pleasure or safety. Heterosexuality as it is experienced through our culture is centered on male pleasure, and because female sexual desire threatens to destabilize this patriarchal value system it is often depicted as dirty, dangerous or sinful (Filipovic 2008, Tolman 2002).

Indeed, women and girls are subject to what many refer to as the “Madonna/whore dichotomy”  (Tolman 1994): our culture tells us to be chaste, gentle and faithful to heterosexual partners, yet we are also expected to be skinny, waxed, big-breasted (through surgery if need be), and heterosexually promiscuous. The problem is that neither archetype allows any room for female sexual autonomy or for acknowledgement of women’s wholeness as human beings. If we are well-behaved women, we are praised and celebrated but still expected to fulfill our role as homemakers and reproducers. If we perform the latter role, we are labeled as whores and sometimes even accused of ‘asking for rape’ (see Sidebar B).
So how do women consent to sex when our sexual subjectivity is so limited in our culture? We know from sexual assault awareness and prevention campaigns that “no means no”, but what does “yes” mean? It is easy to assume that “yes” means “yes”, but consent does not always entail a positive sexual experience for both partners. On university campuses in particular, the prevalence of (legally) consensual but regrettable sexual experiences has led to discussions around an issue that is hardly new, but only recently has been named as “unwanted consensual sex” (Cole 2010). According to Yale student and journalist Jessica Cole (2010):

“Unwanted consensual sex” is... a decidedly gray area. Unlike rape or sexual assault, it is not a disciplinary or criminal offense. At its core, the phrase refers to sex that may, for one reason or another, be regretted.

Understanding the issue of unwanted consensual sex requires looking “beyond yes and no” and viewing “consent as sexual process” (Kramer Bussel 2008). This means examining the context of sex, including how each person is feeling, what the power dynamic is, and the ways in which men learn to “manufacture consent” through various forms of manipulation (Atherton-Zeman 2006). It also requires an examination of the broader culture, including hypersexualization and the many ways in which women and girls are pressured to engage in sexual activities that they do not enjoy (Pipher 1992, Tolman 2002).

There is a danger, however, in the idea of “gray rape” or that it is hard to define rape when so many factors (such as culture, relational dynamics and alcohol consumption) are involved (Jervis 2008). The patriarchal backlash against anti-rape activism has taken the form of this argument, and feminists continue to struggle for the creation and maintenance of laws that hold rapists criminally responsible for their actions (Hakvåg 2010). Hedda Hakvåg (2010) argues that while backlash thinkers are correct in noting the difficulty in distinguishing between rape and sexual coercion, the “gray rape” discourse supports an anti-woman agenda because it suggests that rape is an arbitrary category and is thus impossible to criminalize. She calls for a feminist examination of “sexual coercion in normative heterosexuality”, meaning that we need to look critically at male power in heterosexual relationships, the ways in which violence against women is naturalized in our culture, and the internalization of misogyny that makes sexual consent difficult, if not (and this is a major debate among feminists) impossible within the current social order. 


CBC News. (2011). Judge's sex-assault remarks under review. Retrieved 03/17, 2011, from

Cole, J. (2010, November 17). "Yes" means "no"?: A workshop on unwanted conensual sex. Broad Recognition: A Feminist Magazine at Yale, Retrieved 03/30, 2011, from

Filipovic, J. (2008). Offensive feminism: The conservative gender norms that perpetuate rape culture, and how feminists can fight back. In J. Friedman, & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape (pp. 13-27). Berkeley, California: Seal Press.

Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge (A. M. Sheridan Smith Trans.). New York: Pantheon.

Friedman, J. (2008). In defense of going wild or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love pleasure (and how you can, too). In J. Friedman, & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. Berkeley, California: Seal Press.

Hakvåg, H. (2010). Does yes mean yes? exploring sexual coercion in normative heterosexuality. Canadian Woman Studies, 28(1)

Jervis, L. (2008). An old enemy in a new outfit: How date rape became gray rape and why it matters. In J. Friedman, & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes! Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. Berkeley: Seal Press.

Kilbourne, J. (Director), Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising's image of women. (2010). [Video/DVD]

Kimmel, M. (2000). The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kramer Bussel, R. (2008). Beyond Yes or No: Consent as sexual process. In J. Friedman, & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes means yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. Berkeley, California: Seal Press.

Newton, S. (Director), Sexism, Strength and Dominance: Masculinity in Disney films. (2007). [Video/DVD]

Pipher, M. (1994 and 1992). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. USA: Ballantine Books, Mass Market Edition.

Taylor, E. (2011). Erasing the Feminine: The construction of masculinity in initiation rites. (Unpublished.) St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, NS.

Tolman, D. L. (1994). Doing desire: Adolescent girls' struggles for/with sexuality. Gender and Society, 8(3), 324-342.

Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. USA: First Harvard University Press.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Female Sexual Autonomy Under Siege (Part 2)

Hypersexualization in the 21st century

American feminist Jean Kilbourne has created a series of films called Killing Us Softly, which documents and examines the images of women that appear in advertising. There have been four installments of the film, the first released in 1979 and the latest released in 2010, and in each version Kilbourne delivers the same speech about the objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies in advertising, but accompanied by a set of current images. At the beginning of Killing Us Softly 4 (2010) Kilbourne says:

Sometimes people say to me, ‘You’ve been talking about this for 40 years. Have things gotten any better?’ And actually I have to say, really they’ve gotten worse.

Indeed, things have gotten worse. Since 1979 we have witnessed the rise of neoliberal globalization marked by a series of transformations in the direction of smaller governments, social program cutbacks, increasing poverty and inequality, and the religious fervor of ‘free-market’ ideology. Emerging from this period of transition was a backlash against feminism, the mainstreaming of pornography (Dines 2010) and the emergence of post-feminism. A product of this post-feminist and consumeristic environment was Girl Power, which began as a culture of young female empowerment but quickly became a vehicle for the depoliticization of gender issues, the commodification and co-optation of feminism, and the hypersexualization of women and girls (Gonick 2006).      

Since the 1990s there has arguably been an increase in the pervasiveness and intensity of cultural representations that have hypersexualizing effects on women and girls. The term ‘hypersexualization’ refers to the process through which images and messages that sexually objectify women and girls are circulated, experienced and internalized by members of society. In today’s hypersexualized culture, women and girls are pressured to conform to these images and invest an incredible amount of time, energy and money into our appearances. These images objectify and dehumanize women and girls, represent us as consumable bodies rather than as whole human beings, and normalize and eroticize male violence against women. They are often racist, heterosexist, and based on an unattainable standard of beauty. Corporations use these images not only to sell products, but as Kilbourne (2010) explains, to sell values, attitudes and ideas of what is ‘normal’.

(The hypersexualization of women and girls in the media often has a racist dimension. In Killing Us Softly (2010), Jean Kilbourne explains how Black women are frequently depicted in ads as animals, which serves to dehumanize them. We also see images that portray Aboriginal women as sexual objects and cultural ‘others’.)

Yeah, but we’re too smart for that, right? Hypersexualization as a cultural process with real effects on women and girls

It’s tempting to think that these images don’t affect us, or that their influence is merely superficial. Studies have shown, however, that hypersexualization has a very real impact on women and girls – and it’s not good. The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls released a report (2007) that explains the psychological impact of hypersexualization on women and girls including cognitive difficulties, negative emotions, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, poor sexual health, negative sense of one's sexuality, and the internalization of misogynistic (woman-hating) attitudes. The report also identifies a number of societal effects of hypersexualization including sexism, the limiting of opportunities for girls and young women, increasing sexual harassment, sexual violence, and the prevalence of child pornography.

How does this all happen? According to Jill Filipovic (2008), we live in a “rape culture” that normalizes violence against women through a patriarchal ideology that teaches men they are entitled to women’s bodies, and seeks to deny women the right to bodily autonomy and economic and social equality. This ideology, which is circulated by social conservatives including the religious right, helps maintain the patriarchal status quo which is threatened by anti-rape laws and the idea that men are responsible for preventing rape. Also threatening is the possibility of women claiming the freedom to make decisions about their bodies, families, work, finances and education – in other words, women enjoying the same human rights as men. Therefore, patriarchal society uses rape (or fear of rape) as a means of controlling women’s lives and maintaining male power and privilege.

Hypersexualization is part of this rape culture, and while cultural images and messages do not directly cause violence against women and girls, they certainly encourage and enable it through the dehumanization of women and objectification of our bodies (Kilbourne 2010). By making women feel perpetually inadequate about our appearance and sexual attractiveness, corporations profit from women and girls’ insecurity and contribute to a vicious cycle of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm. Moreover, the internalization of misogyny carries through into our careers and all other aspects of lives, making all women (in some way) survivors of hypersexualization. Kilbourne (2010) rightly names this issue as a “public health problem”.

Mary Pipher explores the effect of this problem on adolescent girls in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994). She argues that children are socialized into a “girl-poisoning culture” that makes it nearly impossible for girls to develop good self-esteem, positive body image and healthy sexuality. The book states that girls “are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture” and need to be equipped with better tools for navigating this culture (Pipher 1994: 12). While Reviving Ophelia made a significant contribution to understanding the dangers of growing up female in an increasingly misogynistic world, it has been criticized for portraying girls as passive victims and failing to situate their experiences within broader social, economic and political contexts (Gonick 2006).  

A different approach to understanding girls’ experiences is found in Deborah L. Tolman’s Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality (2002). Tolman’s research involved asking adolescent girls to speak about their desire, a question that girls are not usually asked since we live in a society that fears, seeks to control and therefore renders taboo female sexuality. She framed her study with the understanding that:     

Girls live and grow up in bodies that are capable of strong sexual feelings, bodies that are connected to minds and hearts that hold meanings through which they make sense of and perceive their bodies. I consider the possibility that teenage girls’ sexual desire is important and life sustaining; that girls’ desire provides crucial information about the relational world in which they live; that the societal obstacles to girls’ and women’s ability to feel and act on their own desire should come under scrutiny rather than simply be feared; that girls and women are entitled to have sexual subjectivity, rather than simply to be sexual objects. (Tolman 2002: 19)

The stories of the adolescent girls Tolman interviewed revealed that girls do indeed experience desire, but in order to express this desire they must navigate a complicated world in which their pleasure and safety do not always coincide. While Tolman identifies many of the same risk factors (such as violence and sexual coercion) that Pipher does, she also emphasizes the positive experiences girls have with desire and pleasure, all within an analysis that considers the socially constructed nature of gender relations. Perhaps most significantly, Tolman’s book involves adolescent girls telling their own stories in their own voices, generating knowledge that gives readers a deeper understanding of their multifaceted experiences.

While adolescence is a particularly challenging time for girls and their struggle with hypersexualization, the messages and images that shape our sexuality and sense of self are introduced at a very early age. (Case in point: the Tinker Bell lunch bag.) We observe hypersexualization in way the girls are taught to enjoy dolls and dressing up while boys are sent outside to play. While boys learn that it’s important to be strong and active, girls learn to be passive and that their looks are what matters the most (Kilbourne 2010). Indeed, young girls are groomed for a future of sexual servitude through a “princess culture” (Orenstein 2010) that is as consumeristic as it is misogynistic, and is a precondition for the rape culture in which adolescent girls and women struggle to survive. The basis of princess culture is a simple narrative with which most of us are quite familiar: strive to be nice and pretty, and someday you will find a strong handsome man who will sweep you off your feet and you will live happily ever after.
For girls growing up today, however, the narrative is not so simple. In the past two decades, the messages that influence gender socialization have become increasingly sexualized and pornographized. The film Sexy Inc.: Our Children Under Influence (Bissonnette 2007) shows how corporations are invading the space of childhood by encouraging young girls and boys to consume images that sexually objectify women and promote dominant male behavior. Girls learn to value their appearance over other qualities, and they are compelled to mimic the latest adult fashion trends that include tight, revealing clothing, heavy makeup and sexy lingerie. This phenomenon, which would have been met with public outrage only a few years ago, is normalized through advertisements that both infantilize adult women and portray children in adult and even pornographic situations. As one speaker in the film summarizes this disturbing reality, “we are stealing childhood away from children” (Bissonnette 2007).     

(An image from Bratz, a company that markets dolls, fashions, toys and games to young girls.)


APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls: Executive summary. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved 03/30, 2011, from

Bissonnette, S. (Director), Sexy Inc.: Our children under influence. (2007). [Video/DVD]

Dines, G. (2010). Pornland: How porn has hijacked our sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press.

Filipovic, J. (2008). Offensive feminism: The conservative gender norms that perpetuate rape culture, and how feminists can fight back. In J. Friedman, & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape (pp. 13-27). Berkeley, California: Seal Press.

Gonick, M. (2006). Between "Girl Power" and "Reviving Ophelia": Constituting the neoliberal girl subject. NWSA Journal, 18(2)

Kilbourne, J. (Director), Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising's image of women. (2010). [Video/DVD]

Orenstein, P. (2010). Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture. New York: HarperCollins.

Pipher, M. (1994 and 1992). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. USA: Ballantine Books, Mass Market Edition.

Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. USA: First Harvard University Press.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Female Sexual Autonomy Under Siege (Part 1)

Hi folks! This is the first of a series of posts on the issue of hypersexualization that I plan to share over the next few weeks. They are part of a literature review I conducted this past spring through my work with the Resisting Violence project at the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre & Sexual Assault Services Association. Read on...


Not long ago I spent a weekend in a small university town with my cousin, who lives in a communal house with friends who are artists and activists. The house is characterized by wood floors and walls, colorful carpets, hip posters, musical instruments and organic food. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was in the kitchen having a glass of water and noticed a hot pink lunch bag sitting on a nearby counter. Upon further inspection, I discovered that it was a Disney “Tinker Bell and Fairies” lunch bag (see image below), and its front displayed an image of four attractive women – or were they girls? I soon came to the alarming realization that these characters were indeed supposed to be girls, but they had unusually womanish features and were arranged in sexually inviting yet childishly innocent poses. Irritated, I thought: “Why are we exposing girls to such awful images, and what is this lunch bag doing in a hippy house?”

<><> <><>
(The culprit: A typical accessory marketed by Disney to young girls.)

The second question I will leave for a later conversation with my cousin and her housemates. The first question, though, demands some immediate attention. As a society, are we fully aware of the impact of such images on our daughters and sons? As women, do we know how these images have affected and continue to affect our body image, self-esteem and sexuality?

I decided to investigate the story of this lunch bag a little further, and I discovered that there is a whole range of paraphernalia containing images of Tinker Bell and her fairy friends that can be purchased online, including fairy costumes, toys, home décor products, collectibles and accessories. I then did a Google image search of Tinker Bell and fairies, and it generated an assortment of images that confirmed my suspicion that this stuff is far from innocent. Two words quickly came to mind: child pornography.

I will not indulge in a full critical analysis of this image – the presence of the male gaze, the (only somewhat) subtle racism, and the downright pornographization of children – but the point of this story is merely to highlight that this stuff is everywhere. Even in the places where we least expect to find it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Taking Root promo vid!

Registration for "Taking Root", a creative peacebuilding workshop for youth, has been extended to Wednesday, August 17. Online registration is at . Check out our rad promo vid!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Taking Root" creative peacebuilding workshop


“Taking Root” workshop to engage youth in social justice leadership

Antigonish, NS, August 11, 2011— This summer youth will gather in Antigonish to explore creative ways of engaging with social justice issues. Presented through the Resisting Violence project of the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, “Taking Root” will happen on August 19-20 at People’s Place Library.

Through a series of hands-on learning activities, participants in this creative peacebuilding workshop will develop skills in facilitation, feminist analysis of oppression, and nonviolent action.

A call for participation has been issued to youth age 16-22 in Antigonish and Guysborough counties and the Strait area. The workshop will be facilitated by a group of young persons including AWRC staff and members of the Antigonish community.

On Friday, August 19 there will be a coffeehouse to open the workshop and introduce its themes to participants and the broader community. It will be held at the StFX Art Gallery and will feature singer-songwriter Jan MacKay and a variety of local talent.

Saturday, August 20 will involve a full day of skill-building and learning. Participants will discover new ways of expressing their voice through activities such as radical cheerleading, zine-making and active citizenship practices.  

“I believe that creative expression is one of the best responses to violence”, says workshop co-organizer and Resisting Violence project coordinator Betsy MacDonald. “By rooting ourselves in an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, we can cultivate peaceful ways of being in the world.”

The full schedule and online registration for “Taking Root” can be found at . Registration is open until Monday, August 15.

The Resisting Violence project is funded by Status of Women Canada.


Contact: Jillian Hennick
Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre & Sexual Assault Services Association
(902) 863-6221