A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Defining Consent Online Symposium (.pdf).
Writing in 1962, the editor and author Helen Gurley Brown controversially admonished her readers to think again about the aphorism that “nice girls don’t.” “Get it straight in your head,” Brown wrote in Sex and the Single Girl, “that anyone who wants to kiss you or sleep with you isn’t handing you a mortal insult but paying you a compliment.” Working women should make themselves as physically attractive to men as possible, she explained, the better to lure sexual partners and advance their careers. Brown praised “a dandy game called ‘Scuttle,’” in which male employees “select a secretary or file girl, chase her up and down the halls…catch her and take her panties off.” Thanks to the game, more single women now wore “their prettiest panties” to the office; “nothing wicked ever happened,” she insisted. This confusing message, giving women permission to enjoy sex but portraying heterosexuality as a game of male force and female submission, was a 20th century twist on earlier messages about gender and sexuality.
Lusty to pure and back again
Brown challenged an older view of heterosexuality that assumed that women had few sexual desires and that indulging them would lead to their “ruin.” That older view took shape in the era of the American Revolution, when stereotypes of women as “lusty” temptresses and fertile mothers gave way to ideals of white female purity and a sensibility of sexual decorum. Men, on the other hand, were thought to have little sexual self-control. The Founder’s generation argued that male citizens needed virtuous women to motivate them to control their otherwise ungovernable impulses toward sexual license.
The assumption that men had to struggle with innate and immensely powerful sex drives inspired reform movements in the 19th century, but it also offered a justification for men’s aggression under certain circumstances, especially against women who did not or could not conform to the white, middle-class definition of “true womanhood.” On the one hand, advice manuals warned husbands as well as wives to practice “marital continence,” which meant sexual intercourse no more than once a month, lest their health deteriorate. On the other hand, a married woman had no legal right to refuse sex with her husband. For men whose sexual passions exceeded the marital bed, there were “other” women—white working-class women, servants, and free and enslaved African American women. None of these women benefited from the presumptions of sexual purity that surrounded white middle- and upper-class women.
White middle-class women were expected to act as if they had no sexual knowledge or inclinations even as 19th-century Americans participated in a growing urban culture of commercial sex, in which thousands of working-class women found temporary or longer-term employment. Health reformer Sylvester Graham originally marketed his bland crackers as a digestive aid that would dull otherwise overly-excitable carnal urges. Reformers gradually admitted, however, that women needed to eat Graham Crackers as much as men did.
In the 20th century, popular culture and sexual advice authorities began to encourage sexual intimacy within marriage and to acknowledge women’s sexual needs, but women continued to be seen as responsible for men’s behavior. The result was a mass of contradictory messages that recognized women’s erotic impulses but blamed their rapes on women’s inability to hide those impulses. In 1914, for example, a Ladies Home Journal advice columnist claimed that “girls are largely responsible” when boys cross the line. Or as a Senior Scholastic columnist put it in 1946, “a man is only as bad as the woman he is with.”
And those subconscious urges. This was an actual theory.
Popular advice echoed these professional opinions. A 1960 Cosmopolitan magazine answered the question of its title, “Do Women Provoke Sex Attack?” with a resounding “yes.” Reflecting widely-held Freudian theories of sexual desire, the author blamed women’s “subconscious urges” for provoking the “different but equally neurotic” fantasies of their attackers. Women learned that they should scrupulously monitor their own behavior, lest they arouse a man “past the point of no return” after which, “when the girl resists, he seeks gratification by force.” The threat of violence pervaded these descriptions of heterosexual sex. But it was women’s own desires and responses that supposedly unleashed this violence. Even advice that celebrated women’s sexual desire, like Helen Gurley Brown’s advice in Sex and the Single Girl, urged women to be coy about showing it. Men needed sex more than women did, she explained, and knowing that gave women power.
If women were supposed to act like they didn’t want sex, even when they did, how were they supposed to convey consent? More to the point, how were their partners supposed to tell the difference? Men learned to view dating as a process of wearing down a woman’s resistance. Dr. Albert Ellis, a widely regarded psychologist and the author of the 1963 best-seller, Sex and the Single Man, described foreplay as a man’s opportunity to make it impossible for a woman to say no. Once partially disrobed, Ellis explained, a woman feels “that she has been sort of unmasked,” and is much less likely to try to reverse course. Above all, he advised, the man must assert dominance: “Show her that you are determined to have her as nude as possible, even though you are not going literally to rip the clothes off her back and begin to rape her.”
Still with us: Incoherent representations of women’s and men’s desires
Representations of women’s sexuality in American popular culture over the last several decades continue to perpetuate these incoherent representations of women’s sexuality. From horror films that portray the brutal murders of unmarried young women who had enthusiastic sex a few scenes before, to dating guides like The Rules that implore women to see sexual refusal as seductive, to popular songs about “blurred lines” of consent, American youth continue to receive mixed messages about the differences between desire, consent, and predation.
That confusion is inextricably intertwined with definitions of sex as a masculine prerogative. Privileging men’s sexual needs extends men’s political and economic power, giving them rights over women’s bodies. It also justifies abuses of that power, rationalizing assault as an inevitable consequence of the “natural” differences between men and women. The 20th century celebration of women’s right to sexual pleasure failed to displace older ideas about men’s entitlement to sexual gratification. For decades, Americans learned that men needed sex and that it was women’s responsibility to help men control themselves. This logic treated rape as a failure of a man’s self-control, a failure for which his female partner bore significant responsibility. Recent attempts to redefine consent around ideas of mutual pleasure, forthright communication, and egalitarian expectations for erotic self-expression thus represent something fundamentally new—and long overdue.
Rebecca L. Davis is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Delaware, www.rebeccaldavis.com. Professor Davis is author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss (Harvard) and the forthcoming Sex in America (Liveright).