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.

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