Orit Avishai and Kelsy Burke. “God’s Case for Sex.” Contexts 15(4): 30-35
The church conference in a small Midwestern town was called, “Intimacy in Marriage,” so Kelsy expected speakers and participants to talk about sex. A graduate student just beginning research on evangelicals and sexuality, she was not expecting the prayers for couples to experience “the deepest sexual pleasure in the name of Jesus Christ” or a raffle for a vibrating massager that sat on a table in the sanctuary. Her field notes were punctuated with exclamation points, like after the phrase, “There is a vibrator in a church!”
On the other side of the globe, in Israel, an Orthodox Jewish bridal counselor discussed with Orit the sexual education component of a twelve-session marriage preparation course. A stern looking woman in her fifties, she served as an example for brides-to-be of Jewish modesty codes—hair covered, she was dressed in a long skirt and shirt with long sleeves and high neckline. Yet she spoke enthusiastically and directly to the sexually uninitiated young women enrolled in the course, telling them to “Get the mood right. Tell him what you want.”
Were it not for the obvious markers of religion, these scenes might not be surprising in the 21st century. At least within western popular culture, “good sex” has seemingly won out over sexual shame and become a prerogative of modern adult life. From advice books like The Joy of Sex to TV shows like Sex in the City and popular podcasts like Savage Love, a fulfilling sex life is promoted as integral to happiness and personal fulfillment. But religious traditions are notorious for sexual rules and norms that seem to fly in the face of modern secular culture, with its emphasis on sexual expression, experimentation, and satisfaction. In fact, many observers associate the expansion of progressive sexual norms and practices with the decline of organized religion.
It is in this context that we examine how some religious followers live and love amid secular and religious messages about sex and sexuality. Kelsy observed, surveyed, and interviewed American evangelical Christians who used websites or attended workshops to discuss sexual pleasure in Christian marriages. Orit interviewed Orthodox Jewish women in Israel about the sexual education that is part of an elaborate marriage preparation. The believers, educators, and experts we interviewed and observed contradicted the stereotype that religiosity is incompatible with sexual pleasure. They self-identified as “traditional,” “conservative,” and “devout,” yet insisted that their religious traditions encouraged sexual pleasure and could even improve how they experienced sexuality. Our respondents learned to navigate the religiously prescribed boundaries surrounding sexuality and embrace “good,” religiously sanctioned sex.
I’ve long been a fan of Lyn Mikel Brown’s, professor of education and human development, author of six books about gender and girlhood, and cofounder of multiple grassroots organizations and projects, including Powered by Girl, an online media activism campaign for girls by girls. I’ve more recently become a fan of a sophomore in high school named Lilly Bond, whose middle-school activism you may have read about in Time, The Nation, Cosmo, and on feministing. (If not, I urge you to watch this video and learn about it! Lilly rocks.) I put the two of them together to discuss Lyn’s newest book, Powered by Girl: A Field Guide to Supporting Youth Activists. Here’s how their exchange went down. – Deborah
LILLY: My mother used to be a women’s studies professor at Columbia Chicago, as well as Northeastern, so I was raised in a very “girl power” household. I’ve got an older and a younger brother, and my dad’s a high school teacher. In middle school I went through a whole ordeal where the school banned leggings because they were “distracting” to male students. My mother and I did interviews with the news and were written about by several different news outlets including The Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post. I loved your book. So as I continue my own activism, I’m interested to know: what got you interested in writing it, or even more broadly, what got you into feminism?
LYN: I remember reading about your activism! My interest in feminism developed in high school. Like so many girls, I was frustrated at the way I was treated because of my gender, both at home (I had two brothers who lived much less protected lives) and at school (I was an athlete and the differences between the support and resources available to boys’ and girls’ teams at that time were startling). As I look back, I see I was also naming injustices that arose at the intersection of gender and social class–the ways my experiences were dismissed relative to other girls or times when I was not seen, heard, or taken seriously because I was a working-class girl.
I read a lot. I asked for a gift subscription to Ms. Magazine in high school. I read Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions in college. I took Women’s Studies classes, and was introduced to In a Different Voice, This Bridge Called My Back, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Reading Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice was an epiphany, an “a-ha” moment. I saw how the field of psychology was not all that different from my high school in the ways it privileged the experiences of boys and men. I applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to work with Carol and could not believe my luck when I was accepted and later asked to join her research team of graduate students and post docs. We became, collectively, the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. For years we interviewed girls and young women in schools and community organizations–our goal was to learn about girls by listening to girls. We saw girls as experts on their own diverse experiences. Our goal was to insist that psychology as a discipline do the same.
Powered By Girl has its roots in this early work at the Harvard Project. We were developing a way of listening, a way of being in relationship that centered girls. As I moved into my career, I explored more deeply girls’ lives at the intersections of gender, race, and class.
The book also has its roots in community and online activism. For me, it’s never been enough to write about these issues. I really wanted to work with girls to make the world a better, more just place. In 2000, I joined with community activists to create a local feminist nonprofit, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and then later with colleagues to create SPARK Movement. SPARK, especially, has become a platform for girl-fueled activism. The SPARKteam taught me so much about what girls need to effectively engage in youth organizing and develop social change campaigns.
So I wrote the book as a way to share what I have learned with more people, including my undergraduate students, and in celebration of girls and the power of intergenerational activism.
LILLY: I can definitely relate to the being-treated-differently-than-brothers thing; it’s frustrating to say the least. Your experience sounds a lot like mine. I’ll have to look up some of those books 🙂
I was also wondering, how would you suggest youth activists get involved and active, and be taken seriously? It can sometimes be hard for young girls to be listened to, as I’m sure you know.
LYN: I think it’s so important for youth activists to seek out allies, to find people and groups who share their passion about issues. I also think it’s important to read about the issues they most care about–to move beyond the surface and better understand the root causes of problems. Youth who have researched and explored issues and who can talk with some authority about why a cause matters are much more likely to be taken seriously. They’re also more likely to attract others who share their concerns. And because they see things more complexly, they are more likely to understand how their concerns intersect with others’, which means they recognize opportunities for coalition building.
I also think it’s important to seek out adults who respect youth as change-makers. They can offer perspective, as well as connections with others who have resources and connections. I know this is tricky–it’s an unusual adult who really listens and supports and doesn’t try to take over. So when you find such a person, take full advantage of what they can offer.
LILLY: I agree totally. Lastly, what do you think will change about feminism in the next few years? What new or old issues do you think will come up?
LYN: Given the presidential election and the rise in racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and the assault on reproductive rights and the environment, I think we will experience a new era of feminist activism. In recent years we’ve made progress on these fronts, but there’s clear indication that these gains can be taken away if we are not vigilant and prepared to fight.
We are facing wicked problems—problems that are widespread, complex, and interconnected—and finding solutions will require us to work across our differences and in coalition. It will require organization and participation on all fronts. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, activist Jamia Wilson writes, “history has shown us that power is taken, never given, so resistance is critical if we don’t want our freedom eroded.”
I think we are facing a real challenge to our basic rights as human beings and we will be tested.
Journalists’ fixation on objectivity resulted in an embarrassment of deceptive comparisons during the election. Reporters’ use of false equivalencies, oversimplifying one shared trait to compare issues, bears a remarkable resemblance to reporting practices that have impeded progress for women. For example, the myth that women abuse their partners at comparable rates as men is partly attributable to false equivalency reporting, distorting what people believe causes domestic violence and how they imagine solving it.
The parallels don’t stop there. Attempts to undermine mainstream news are emblematic of the ways men discredit women’s voices. Russian internet trolls spread propaganda during the election, using similar tactics as virtually organized “fathers’ rights” groups who denounce biased child custody cases—despite research showing alleged abusers are twice as likely to be awarded custody than protective parents. Pervasive faux controversies during the election distracted from policy debates, resembling the way the decades-long preoccupation with “mommy wars” delegitimized discussion of policies designed to help women meet work and family demands. The problems of both-sides reporting is akin to comparing ill-informed men’s opinions on reproductive health policy to health providers’ expert recommendations.
Amid the post-election disappointment that another glass ceiling would not be shattered, there is a silver lining in increased demands for better journalism. New research is asking why people believe lies. The commentary generated by a Teen Vogue article and the cancellation of the television show Good Girls Revolt spotlighted the importance of bringing underrepresented groups to the table. And there is hope that changing how news is reported can alter public opinion. After journalists began reporting climate change denial as misinformation, almost 10 percent more Americans acknowledged the seriousness of global warming than the previous year. Mainstream pleas for quality journalism offer an opportunity to improve reporting important to our democracy, and to women’s equality.
Joanna Rae Pepin (@CoffeeBaseball) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Her research examines the intersection of the transformation of families and progress towards gender equality. Her current projects investigate the mechanisms behind the way couples share money within their families, and how these in turn shape power dynamics within romantic relationships.
Today, the black woman has been sexualized and objectified in more ways than one. With the degradation of the black woman, the value and uniqueness of them has been ignored. The media offers a made-up truth about black women, and society has swallowed this stereotype. This means Hollywood has a narrow perspective of black women, and only represents a select few. In movies and TV, black women are either a struggling single mom or a successful strong business woman who can’t find love anywhere. Issa Rae, the creator of the hit HBO show Insecure, has come to not only change this narrow-minded portrayal of black women but to also show the many types of women within the black community alone. We are all different.
Insecure is a sequel of the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that follows Issa, played by Issa Rae. Issa is a 29-year-old “insecure” woman who struggles with everyone’s depiction of her. Although she tries to defy them, stereotypes seem to follow her and ignorant questions become the norm of her everyday life. Issa Rae’s content follows the different sides of women of color and how multidimensional Hollywood’s depiction SHOULD be. Insecure is just what we need in today’s Hollywood and so I looked for a TV fan who could offer some analysis. I found Janelle Jones, whose work I read as a student of inequality. Janelle Jones is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Her work focuses on unemployment, job quality, racial inequality, and economic development. She is an alum of Spelman College, where of which she received her BA in Math. She has an MA in Economics from Illinois State University.
Here’s my conversation with Janelle:
Q: Issa Rae believes that Hollywood’s representation of black women isn’t relatable. Do you think Issa Rae is achieving her goal to change that representation?
JJ: I think Hollywood representations of black women are incredibly narrow, and that makes them not relatable to so many. There are three common depictions that have even the slightest focus on black women: some kind of tragic tale about struggle and redemption, black women as the sassy best friend, or black women in the strict position of service. The thing I love the most about Issa Rae and Insecure is this complete human story that centers on a black woman. The HBO series is an extension of her popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (great title). The ability for black women to be silly and awkward is not something we get to see on mainstream television.
Q: What direction can we go in (what else needs to be done) for Hollywood moving forward?
JJ: Shows like Insecure (and Atlanta) are taking huge steps forward by showing complete stories centered on very normal aspects of black life. Another huge step would be more people of color behind the scenes, as directors, writers, producers, etc. Part of telling a genuine black experience on TV is making sure that story is in black hands throughout the process, from conception until it reaches the audience. This is particularly hard to do when only certain aspects of the production process are entirely white. The fact that four blacks, Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, and Larry Wilmore, are in charge of every part of Insecure is obvious, from the dialogue to the fashion to the soundtrack to the locations.
Q: As a Spelman alumna, you’ve probably met women of color from different walks of life. Do you agree with Issa Rae about Hollywood’s representation of black women?
JJ: The first and most lasting lesson I learned at Spelman is that black women are not a monolith. At times there feels a societal need to put us in very rigid boxes: strong, maternal, angry, loud, etc. To me, Issa is saying that black women are those things but also friends and lovers, and awkward, and ambitious, and flawed. And because Issa is the creative force behind the show, and not just the main actor, it feels very real. The experiences of black women filtered through the white gaze feel very different than Insecure. It’s that authenticity that I think black women specifically recognize, respect, and enjoy it.
My second favorite thing about the show is the representation of black female friendship. I can’t think of another show (other than Girlfriends) that illustrates only black women who are true friends. When asked about this aspect of the show in an interview a few months ago, I love Issa’s response: “It’s so important to show that black women do have friends,” Rae says with a sarcastic edge. “We’re not all just fighting and punching each other and cursing each other out and ending up on the Shade Room together.”
Eunice Owusu is a sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs intern.
Alexa Trumpy and Marissa Elliott on December 4, 2016
Is refusing to wear a corset really breaking news in 2016? As multiple news, fashion, and entertainment sites have discussed over the past week, Emma Watson, the actress playing Belle in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, will not be wearing a corset in the film. Articles covering this phenomenon state that Watson worked closely with costume designer Jacqueline Durran to recreate Belle’s iconic yellow gown to be “light” with a “lots of movement” because Belle is being reinterpreted as an “active princess.” The dress does hide a cage underneath layers of silk, satin, and organza, and Watson is wearing high-heels, but apparently these features of the dress will not impede the new Belle’s activity level.
Masking the absence of corsets as a major coup for gender equality is like hiding a wolf (or should we say beast?) in sheep’s clothing. It gives the illusions of progress, and generates praise and profits for Disney, without changing anything. Girl’s are already active; their participation in sports is at an all time high. Let’s keep encouraging female physicality. But we really need to stop insisting girls and women look hot while running, dancing, or or leading the free world.
Another major news story this week, at least according to our facebook feeds, is the “huge” decision Victoria’s Secret made regarding their 2016 fashion show. The models will be “embracing” their natural hair. Strangely, Victoria’s Secret’s vision of natural hair doesn’t actually involve letting hair remain natural. Models’ natural texture will be “enhanced” (read: styled) by professionals using a host of products and appliances. But in what is being reported as a major break from the past, every model’s hair will not look exactly the same.
It’s not that refusing corsets or presenting more than one hairstyle isn’t a step forward. But it’s ridiculous to call these decisions a momentous move toward a more inclusive beauty standard. If we’re going to cover this, let’s call it what it is: the teeniest, tiniest tip-toe toward progress.
Victoria’s Secret got the message that they shouldn’t dress white models in racially offensive costumes to sell bras. The lingerie corporation has been featuring more black and brown models in recent years. But skin color is the only way these women deviate from the standard lingerie model “look,” making Victoria’s Secret about as progressive as the Miss World pageant. At least at Miss World the contestants are permitted to talk and wear clothes.
Sustainable social change is often incremental. It doesn’t ever happen as quickly as the people demanding it want. It is partial and provokes backlash. But there’s incremental advancement and then there is recasting the most diminutive wobble toward progress as “making history.” Let’s not reward corporations for exchanging the pink bow on the same old narrowly restrictive beauty standards for a blue one.
Some might see looking to Disney or Victoria’s Secret to model a more inclusive gender or beauty ideal as a lost cause. Both are giant corporations, in the business of selling stuff and generating profits. Unless it leads to more money, they don’t have an incentive to challenge the status quo regarding gender stereotypes or cultural beauty standards.
But Disney and Victoria’s Secret are big business. The Beauty and the Beast trailer was viewed 127.6 million times in 1 day, making it the most watched trailer in a 24 hour period. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will be broadcast to 800 million viewers in 190 countries on December 5. On the off chance either wants to put their money where their mouth is and “embrace” some real diversity or approach any type of action that could semi-reasonably be referred to as “making history,” here are a few suggestions for Victoria’s Secret:
Use a range of models with a variety of body types that average out to the height and weight of the average US woman.
Put on a fashion show in which none of the models have had cosmetic surgery.
And for Disney:
Make a movie with Emma Watson (who has proved her feminist bona fides on numerous occasions) that isn’t called “Beauty and the Beast.”
Cast a Belle who isn’t white, thin, and perfectly in line with conventional beauty standards. Unlikely, we know, but in a world where candlesticks and teacups can talk anything is possible.
Clarify what it means for a princess to be “active” (hint: it should involve more than not being a passive damsel in distress). Then make sure this active role model isn’t half the size of her male counterparts.
Let’s stop spreading the pseudo-progressive message that girls can do anything they want as long as they stay thin, tiny, and beautiful while doing it. Until Disney, Victoria’s Secret, or other corporations are interested in making meaningful changes that lead to more inclusive gender and beauty ideals, let’s hold off on all the “celebrating” and “embracing.”
Alexa Trumpy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Norbert College. She studies gender and social movements. Marissa Elliott is an undergraduate student at St. Norbert College. She is double majoring in sociology and psychology and plans to attend graduate school.
Sex gets used a lot of ways–and a number of them are not about shared pleasure and connection. I have written about political sex scandals and the way generations of youth get shamed about their sexual norms. Though it may be facile, I find myself noting “the more things change, the more they remain the same” — the issues change a little bit but the use of sex as a tool of power and control, not so much.
This is sex as political football. Sometimes the games have the veneer of lightness, like a game you play after Thanksgiving dinner. Today, though, I was writing about the use of rape as tool of war.
In 1996 the International War Crimes Tribunal focused on rape in the Bosnian war, and prosecuted people involved. Discussion of one of those prosecutions was here, and this quotation gripped me:
In a reply to his accusers, Mr. Mejakic, who along with others under indictment remains safely in Serb territory, described Ms. Cigelj as being old and unattractive; he added that he wouldn’t have leaned his bicycle against her, much less raped her.
And then I looked at this, from 20 years later, last month:
Donald Trump on Thursday adamantly denied claims he forced himself on a People Magazine journalist more than a decade ago, responding to her accusation of sexual assault by saying, “Look at her … I don’t think so.”
That’s today’s brief reflection on normalization, 1996-2016.
My undergraduate students and I were recently considering the importance of trauma-informed theory for youth with past experiences of neglect and abuse. While discussing the effects of sexual assault on young women and men in contact with the juvenile justice system, one of my students reacted: “I don’t understand how boys can be raped by women. I mean, how would that even be possible?” I noticed some of the other students nodding their heads in agreement. I’ve had questions like these many times before, mostly from students in my sexual offenses course, when we address rape culture and myths of masculinity that boys, to varying degrees, are pressured to adhere to. This cultural “boy code” insists on invulnerability and dominance through the use of talk like “be a man,” “boys don’t cry,” or “don’t act like a wimp/sissy/fag.”
So I asked my students: “What is it about our culture that allows us to normalize sexual harassment and violence of women, but have such a difficult time understanding men as survivors of violence?” They chatted about socialization and hegemonic masculinity in a culture that so often encourages male power and aggression over women and other men. They offered Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” as an example of rape culture. A culture where, because “boys will be boys,” (some) men are not held accountable for aggressive, harassing, and criminal sexual conduct (Brock Turner and Owen Labrie). Other students shared that their younger siblings in local Milwaukee area high schools were amused by recent sexual assaults by teachers, claiming: “the boys were lucky” and “you know they loved it.”
This kind of talk is not harmless; it is toxic. The effects include normalization and acceptance of objectification, harassment, coercion, aggression, and violence against women. It affects boys’ and men’s relationships with one another as well. The boy code is evident among middle school boys and high school boys, and continues into college. And it impacts how boys and men make sense of sexual violence when they are survivors, rather than perpetrators.
My research on young men experiencing sexual assault demonstrates the grave effects that such cultural discourses can have when boys hear, and attempt to measure up to, expectations of toughness, bravery, invulnerability, and detachment. This false bravado is a barrier for boys when they are deciding whether or not to tell someone about their experience of sexual assault. Rather than risk exposure and scrutiny, many young men in my research chose to remain silent. They believed the abuse was their fault because they failed to defend themselves. Many, like 14-year-old Derek, felt that they should “fight or be strong enough” to have stopped their assault from happening. As 11-year-old Sam explained, real men cannot be victimized because they “hit, and punch in the face.” The boys in my study emphasized a perceived lack of masculinity coupled with their fear of being called gay. Being labeled a victim, especially of sexual assault, was shameful and stigmatizing for many young men because it went against real man talk. Being assaulted meant they did not live up to masculine ideals.
When young men were sexually assaulted by women, they worked to normalize their experience; they described their assault as inconsequential. They were supported by others who helped them understand their victimization to be at least partly reciprocal and certainly less harmful than abuse by a man. This talk reinforced codes of masculinity that men should always want to have sex with women, and are expected to demonstrate sexual dominance. 6-year-old Brent was told by his mother, “That’s what boys do with girls.” And just like my undergraduate student,14-year-old Ken asked, “Can boys be sexually abused?” This discourse of boys and men being perpetually ready for sex hurts these boys, too.
There is little room for young men’s experiences of sexual assault in cultural discourses because we rarely recognize boys’ vulnerability, or provide space for their emotional lives. Indeed, our “be a man talk” has influenced the rates of under-reporting of male sexual victimization across the globe. And this talk is dangerous in that boys must contend with relentless messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, objectify and degrade women, debase homosexuality, and resolve conflicts with violence. It perpetuates a rape culture in which many common forms of harassment and assault remain under-reported, unidentified, silenced, and shamed. These effects are serious, and they affect us all.
Heather Hlavka is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Her research focuses on sexual violence, gender, law, and social control.
During last night’s debate presidential candidate Donald Trump doubled down on his 2005 conversation with Billy Bush about “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” making moves on one woman “like a bitch,” and the apparent pride he takes in sexually assaulting women: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” Answering moderator Anderson Cooper’s question, Trump claimed, “It’s locker room talk – it’s one of those things.”
From 2003-2005, right around the same time Trump bragged about his skill at sexual assault, I was studying how teenage boys at a northern California high school, River High, talked about girls and sex. Indeed, much of what they said sounded just like the “locker room talk” Trump refers to. Here are some examples:
In talking about their plans for Winter Ball Josh told Reggie, “I’ll be fucking pissed if I don’t get some.” Reggie advised him “That’s why you take a girl whose gonna do something. I got Jack Daniels!” Josh countered, “I got a big bag of marijuana…the sooner I get her drunk the sooner I get laid.” Reggie triumphantly bragged, “I can get laid any time, anywhere.”
Jerome complained that he was not “gonna get laid at Winter Ball.” Josh admonished “That’s why you gotta go for the younger ones fool! Like 12 years old!” Josh then claimed he was “so good” at sex that he couldn’t “control the girl from thrashing around on the bed and hurting herself on the headboard.”
In weightlifting class, Pedro proceeded to act out his previous night’s sexual adventures, “Dude I had sex with my girlfriend last night. She tied me to the bed! I was like damn!” Josh chimed in, shaking his head knowingly, “never let a girl tie you up.” Pedro laughed and continued to say proudly “I did her so hard when I was done she was bleeding. I tore her walls!”
In autoshop Jay talked about a girl he thought was “hella ugly” but had “titties:” “She’s a bitch. I might take her out to the street races and leave her there so she can get raped.” All the other boys in auto-shop, as usual, responded in laughter.
While Trump framed this sort of sex talk as “just words,” as “things that people say,” this sort of talk undergirds what feminist scholars call “rape culture” in which symbolic violence, especially humorous symbolic violence, dehumanizes women, reducing them to sexual objects. It is precisely the joking quality of many of these instances that make them so hard to see as serious endorsements of violence against women. The line between talk and action, however, is much less clear than Trump claims. For instance, Jay, the boy who talked about raping the “hella ugly” girl who was a “bitch” but had “titties” regularly harassed the only girl in his autoshop class:
One afternoon Jay walked up to Tammy and stood behind her deeply inhaling, his nose not even an inch away from her hair. Clearly uncomfortable with this, she moved to the side. He asked her if she was planning to attend WyoTech (Wyoming Technical College, a mechanic school). She responded “yes.” He said “I’m going too! You and me. We’re gonna be in a room together.” He closed his eyes and started thrusting his hips back and forth and softly moaning as if to indicate that he was having sex.
Girls at River High suffered from this kind of physical sexual “joking” on a regular basis:
Walking between government and drama classes, Keith yelled “GET RAPED! GET RAPED!” as he rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick. She yelled at him to stop and tried to kick him in the crotch with her foot. He dodged and started yelling “CROTCH! CROTCH!”
Locker room talk is not “just words.” It is not funny. It is not harmless. And it is certainly not limited to the locker room. This kind of sex talk is a central part of normative masculinity in the global West. It is a way in which some men simultaneously endorse and dodge such endorsement of sexual assault. It is a way in which violence against women and women’s bodies are rendered “just jokes” or “guy talk.” In fact, the girls in my study were often used by young men as props in their competition for status and recognition from one another.
As feminist scholar Adrienne Rich powerfully argued, heterosexuality not only describes sexual desires, practices and orientations; it is also a “political institution.” The “enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic and emotional access” is a central component of gender inequality. The locker room talk examples of “mythic-story telling” in which boys and men tell humorous larger than life tales about their sexual adventures, their bodies, and girls’ bodies are an important way in which men maintain sexual dominance over women. And dominance is central to contemporary American masculinity – dominance over other men, dominance over other countries, dominance over one’s political opponent, and yes, dominance over women.
So, sure, let’s use Donald’s locker room metaphor. But let’s also remember that Donald was not actually in a locker room when he claimed to have participated in sexual violence and assault to barter for status with another man. He was on a tour bus. He could have just as easily been in a board room, the men’s restroom at a corporate law firm, a strip club, a fraternity, an internet forum, a workplace, a school, a family picnic. Having people claim that he “did not really mean” what he said, or that those comments are inconsistent with “the man they know” does not actually undo the power of the words. Trump’s “locker room talk” is more than locker room talk; it’s an interactional ritual in which boys and men participate. They do it to establish status amongst one another. And just like the high school boys I studied, women often play the “role” of prop in this dramatic performance.
So, yes, it may very well have been “just locker room talk.” But there’s actually a science of locker room talk, Mr. Trump. And it suggests that your “talk” is and was related to institutionalized forms of inequality that make life dangerous for girls and women (and, yes certain men). These “jokes” and “words” are not unique to one time or place and they are not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey on October 5, 2016
Men can now openly enjoy My Little Pony, and some now call other men out for rape-supporting attitudes. But as sociologists C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges astutely note, in these cases men often still cling to a notion of manhood that they have and that the outsider lacks. Not the right kind of Brony? Then a guy might hear, “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot!” Not the right kind of campus dating man? Then the message might be, “You’re a rapist, not a real man.” Pascoe and Bridges’ point is that toxic masculinity is about that act of denying a powerful social identity to others. Redefining the behavior that suits a”real man”doesn’t change the way men seek acceptance from other men as men.
Sensing or at least presuming that being a man is what’s important to guys, rape prevention advocates have tried to appeal to manhood to get guys to rethink their assumptions. As we explain elsewhere, the “My Strength” campaign offers aseries of posters that remind men to choose to use their (presumably natural and superior) strength to protect women, rather than to rape them.
The “real men don’t rape” strategy hopes to convey that manhood ought to be defined by morality, not muscle. But, as a photo from the campaign illustrates, it winds up essentializing male strength—as if that’s the one thing no one can challenge, that at the end of the day (or date), the man there is more physically powerful and ultimately dominant over the woman.
In the educational film designed to reconstruct gender for African American boys and men, My Masculinity Helps, many male allies are shown taking the problem of violence against women seriously. One woman in the film states, “Men have power. Now let’s talk about how to harness that power for good.” While we would all agree that we need those with privilege to embrace the social movement’s goals. But why does it have to be about their masculinity and how useful or helpful it is? The feminist movement has challenged gender ideology and, importantly, the centrality of demarcating manhood. Could we imagine, and would we accept, a film about stopping racism called My Whiteness Helps?
C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander argue, in a recent article published in Gender & Society, that campaigns attempting to mobilize men turns men’s not raping into a “chivalrous choice, a courtesy extended to a subordinate rather than the respect due to an equal.” These campaigns highlight women’s subordinate status and almost celebrate men’s putatively superior strength and power. They oppose rape “in ways that work to reinforce, rather than challenge, underlying gender inequalities.”
When men are enlisted as allies in ways that attempt to make them feel good about themselves as men, we are continuing the rape culture by privileging men’s feelings. That same privileging of men’s feelings and needs is exactly what men who abusively control their partner and sexually assault women expect: their feelings and desires to be prioritized. Moreover, in this movement men continue to be framed as the more powerful sex, and women continue to be framed as damsels in distress who “real men” help and not hurt. “Real men” are still dominant—they are just to use that power and dominance benevolently. This protectionist discourse actually works to reinforce some of the very beliefs that it appears to call into question.
The strategy behind “real men don’t rape” and “my strength” is meant to suggest that respecting women, rather than getting laid, is what makes you a man. Of course, this tactic turns the tables, given the assumption that men are so eager, even desperate, to have sex with women (even if the women aren’t willing), because it helps them see themselves as manly.
As a result, we are now told that rape is something committed only by weird, desperate, unmanly men. But, as we point out elsewhere, Prof. Michael A. Messner argues in his Gender & Society article that the effort to change rape culture by framing the problem as one of a few bad apples is a major break from the feminist movement that challenged rape to begin with. As Messner puts it, in the 1970s feminist women and pro-feminist men thought that
“. . . successfully ending violence against women would involve not simply removing a few bad apples from an otherwise fine basket of fruit. Rather, working to stop violence against women meant overturning the entire basket: challenging the institutional inequalities between women and men, raising boys differently, and transforming in more peaceful and egalitarian directions the normative definition of manhood. Stopping men’s violence against women, in other words, was now seen as part of a larger effort at revolutionizing gender relations.”
As Messner points out, the institutionalization and professionalization of anti-rape work since that time has led us to embrace a health model of rape prevention, which has medicalized the problem of sexual violence–and thereby, at least in some ways, de-politicized it. Once the overall problem of rape has been depoliticized, nobody cares that we’re kowtowing to some dude’s need for his manhood to be confirmed.
In those earlier days of the anti-rape movement, male feminist writer John Stoltenberg argued in his book Refusing to Be a Manthat, when a man is making out with a woman, he should be more worried about being the friend there than about being the man there. Stoltenberg’s point was far more radical than today’s tactic of simply reversing what counts as real manhood. Stoltenberg suggested that we just stop worrying about who’s a real man.
The current campaigns basically presume men are like the dog waiting for affirmation in the dog meme–you know the one in which the dog is saying, “What if I never find out who’s a good boy?”
Our message to guys would be: No, you’re never going to find out who’s a real man. Let’s move on and worry about what being a respectful human being actually looks and feels like. We really aren’t concerned about your masculinity, however you conceive it. Because your sense of manhood is not what this movement is about.
Jill Cermele is a professor of psychology and an affiliated faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Drew University. Her scholarship, teaching, and activism are focused on gender and resistance, outcomes and perceptions of self-defense training, and issues of gender in mental health. With Martha McCaughey, she was a guest editor for the March 2014 special issue of Violence Against Women on Self-Defense Against Sexual Assault. McCaughey and she also write the blog See Jane Fight Back, where they provide commentary and analysis on popular press coverage of self-defense and women’s resistance.
Martha McCaughey is a professor of sociology and an affiliated faculty member of the Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies Program at Appalachian State University. She is the author of Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense and The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science. With Jill Cermele, she guest edited the special issue of Violence Against Women on self-defense against sexual assault and blogs at See Jane Fight Back. www.seejanefightback.com
Deborah Siegel: It kills me all over again to read of studies that, as you document, “link the consumption of sexualized media with body dissatisfaction and negative body behaviors such as dieting for girls even down to the age of six.” Six! And we know things only get worse as little girls grow up. At the same time, in the six and a half years since I myself became a parent, I’ve gone from “Never Princess” to “a little bit seems ok” to “I let my daughter keep the disembodied Cinderella head our cousin gave her and am now jamming in the car with her to Taylor Swift.” Any advice for parents who feel beat down by the culture, and our own confusions and compromises, to help us keep the faith?
Jennifer Shewmaker: This is such a good question. As parents we do have to find the best fit for our own families. For example, when my daughters were young, they enjoyed Disney Princess movies and costumes. I let them engage with princesses, but we also talked about the messages. So, with Snow White, I would ask, “What do you think about Snow White falling in love with the Prince like she did? Could she really know him, or can he really know here? How do you think people fall in love?” Giving young children the chance to think through ideas like that as they watch media helps them build their skills in becoming critical consumers, and learn to look at stories with a critical, realistic eye.
DS: Ok, so maybe not all is lost over here. It was a proud moment when my daughter called out Anna, from Frozen, for “falling in love at first sight” with the dude who turned out to be a bad guy. As parents, it’s not like we can issue a princess media blackout–nor would we necessarily want to perhaps, since these shows, it seems, offer teachable moments about the culture we live in. Critiquing the “external blocking” paradigm, whereby parents try to control the media content their children consume, you call instead for a more “ecological approach”. Can you explain what you mean by that?
JS: Sure. An ecological approach just means that we’re going to think about the environment in which the child is growing up. That includes the family their in, the peers they’re close to, the school they attend, and so forth. We have to ask what kinds of supports, skills, and messages a child is getting within that context. Media is a part of a child’s ecology, or environment, but it’s not the only part, and definitely not the strongest component. When a child has a family around them that helps them build their confidence and competence in critiquing media, when they have a peer group in which they build caring community, when they’re learning from all of the important people and groups in their lives to understand where their value lies, that is going to give them the tools to thrive, even when they face challenges like sexualized media. It goes back to those 5 C’s of thriving, confidence, competence, character, caring, and connection.
DS: I love this photo of you on a TEDx stage, with the “5 C’s” on the screen behind you. But as writers, educators, and activists who also parent or take care of children, it’s not enough to be the sage from the stage–right? Often our best lessons and learnings, I find, are the ones that take us by surprise. So I love asking gender experts this question: What’s surprised you most about the way sexualized media consumption has played out in your own home?
JS: When I started researching sexualized media, it was because I felt so overwhelmed by the messages. I really did wonder if there was a healthy way to address it. Once I discovered the 5 C’s of thriving, and started connecting those with the things I was hearing from kids in the interviews and surveys that I had collected, I began to understand that we don’t have to be afraid of negative or unhealthy media messages, we just need to know how to help our kids process them and build their skills to respond effectively. Now that my daughters are 12, 15, and 17, I see them using those skills everyday, and that is so encouraging. I know that what I share with parents will work, because it has worked in my very own family.
DS: Your book is anchored around “four interpersonal mediating variables” that can change the way adults living and working with children respond to sexualized media. What’s new or different about the way you’re understanding these wider contexts in which media literacy (or lack thereof) evolves?
JS: So many times when people have looked at media and how it effects kids, it’s been done from only one perspective. My idea is that we have to take a broader view, and understand that a child lives and develops within a context that’s dependent upon those variables, such as their gender, their family environment, connection to the culture of celebrity, and the other communities that they’re a part of. When we understand that each child can build the five C’s of thriving within each of these contexts, that gives us a good place to start in helping them become critical consumers of all kinds of media.
DS: Let’s throw another “C” into the conversation: consent. How early do you feel should we start talking with children—boys and girls—about consent? What are some age-appropriate ways to inform and forewarn, without scaring them?
JS: In the book I share an exercise that you can do with young children, even preschoolers, to help them begin to understand the concept of consent. This activity is called, It’s just a hug, and it’s one that I’ve used with young children for years. I start by asking them a few questions:
–Do you always want to be hugged?
–How does it feel if someone hugs you when you don’t want to hug?
–When you want to hug a friend and they don’t want to hug, how do they feel if you hug them?
–What might you do instead of forcing a hug?
This activity gives you a chance to start building language around body ownership, that each person has the right to say what they do and don’t want done to their body, and the chance for everyone to think about asking for and obtaining consent, what to do when someone denies it, and how to refuse consent themselves. Once you’ve set up the idea of consent with this activity, you can talk about it in different ways as the child gets older.
DS: You write that sexualized media “presents a dilemma” for both boys and girls, and you note that many adults talk about that dilemma more openly with daughters than sons. Why is that, do you think? And how can we help adults feel more comfortable broaching these critiques with boys?
JS: I think that many adults think that “boys will be boys,” instead of understanding that our boys need and want guidance on how to develop healthy relationships and a healthy understanding of how to go about building those just as much as our girls do. For example, it’s really important for both boys and girls to understand the concept of consent from both the perspective of giving and obtaining consent. Both boys and girls can be sexually abused, assaulted, and manipulated, and we want all of our kids to understand both how to treat others with respect and how to ask for respect themselves.
I believe that open conversations about our bodies, good and bad touch, how to say no or yes to touch, and so forth are important for all kids. In the book I give some specific conversation starters to help us do that with all children. And, it’s vital that we have these conversations about consent and contraception with our boys as they get older. We don’t want our son to be the bystander who saw someone getting assaulted and didn’t step in, we want him to be the one who helped, who called an adult, who noticed something was going on and asked for help.
Girl w/ Pen, founded by Deborah Siegel, publicly and passionately dispels modern myths concerning gender, encouraging other feminist scholars, writers, and thinkers to do the same.
The views expressed in posts are those of the columnists and do not represent Girl w/ Pen at large.