This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 39, Summer 1999.
Is it true that young women are becoming more sexually assertive and that heterosexual relations are becoming more egalitarian? Are radical feminists misguided in insisting that heterosexuality is a site of male domination? Research on young women’s experience of heterosexual sex suggests not. The Male in the Head by Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and Rachel Thomson reveals that young women’s sexual lives are still constrained by heterosexual practices which deny them the status of sexual subjects. Here Stevi Jackson explores their findings.
I have been waiting for this book for some time, having long admired the work of the Women Risk and AIDS (WRAP) team, who have produced the most comprehensive British research yet on the workings of male power in heterosexual relations. Much of this is already in print in the form of articles, book chapters and working papers, but The Male in the Head draws their ideas and findings together into a compelling critique of heterosexuality. This is not a dry academic research report: it is informed by, and speaks to, central feminist concerns. The voices of the young people interviewed are taken seriously, but not at face value. What is not said — and what cannot be said within the confines of a male dominated language of sexuality — is also noted, as are the tensions, contradictions and ambivalences in the young people’s accounts of their experiences.
For those T&S readers who are not already familiar with the WRAP team’s research, some background might be useful. As the title of the project suggests, the original impetus behind the research was the need for a feminist perspective on AIDS, and especially heterosexual transmission of the HIV virus. In the late 1980s there was widespread public concern about the possible spread of AIDS to the heterosexual population and a felt need for public health education. The advice provided, however, was grossly insensitive to the fact that safety in heterosexual relations has always been problematic for women, ignored the power relations between women and men and failed to challenge dominant definitions of what sex is. However, the health education agenda did provide funding opportunities which the WRAP team took up. Rather than looking at sexual risk in isolation they placed it firmly in the wider context of heterosexuality as an institution and practice. The original WRAP team, Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe, Sue Scott and Rachel Thomson began interviewing young women in London and Manchester in 1989. In all they interviewed 148 women aged 16-21 from a range of ethnic and class backgrounds. Later the WRAP team (minus Sue Scott and plus Tim Rhodes) carried out a smaller comparative study of 46 young men. Their research generated an enormous amount of data on heterosexuality, giving us far deeper insight into what goes on in heterosexual relations than any other single project.
What they learned from both the women and the men they talked to flatly refutes optimistic ideas which some, including feminists, have peddled about the sexual assertiveness of today’s young women (usually based on media representations and observations of goings on within the metropolitan club scene). What has always struck me about the WRAP data is how little has changed since I conducted a much more modest piece of research on young women’s sexuality in the early 1970s. Young women may have access to more sexual information than any generation in the past, are probably more sexually experienced and are more likely to espouse sexually egalitarian ideals, but the vast majority are still trapped within the confines of heterosexual relations which privilege men’s desires and pleasures at their expense. While some are finding ways to resist, this resistance has done little to dislodge the power of ‘the male in the head’ referred to in the book’s title.
Why ‘The Male in the Head’?
Some women I have spoken to find the title of this book perplexing. What do they mean by ‘the male in the head’? The term is intended to capture the ubiquity and pervasiveness of male power within heterosexual relations and the ways in which that power governs every aspect of young women’s and men’s sexual desires and practices. Many of the ideas behind this conceptualisation of male power will be familiar. Feminists have long been aware of the ways in which heterosexual practices are structured in terms of men’s desires and are predicated on the assumption of an active male subject and a passive female object — indeed on an male-centred definition of what sex is. These ideas go back at least as far as Anne Koedt’s Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm and the emergence of lesbian feminist critiques of heterosexuality in the 1970s. Moreover, we are also well aware of sexual violence and coercion as well as more subtle manifestations of male power within heterosexual relations. We have also been alert to the ways in which our own desires have been shaped by the patriarchal and heterosexist culture within which our sexualities are formed.
The idea of the male in the head, however, takes this further. It is not just that heterosexuality is male defined and male dominated; it doesn’t just privilege masculinity, it is masculinity. Usually the contrast between the understandings of sexuality expressed by young men and women are understood as two separate masculine and feminine worlds of meaning which collide when a heterosexual couple meet. This, indeed, is how the WRAP team at first saw their findings. However, they became increasingly aware that rather than there being two contrasting masculine and feminine versions of heterosexuality, young men and women were taking up different locations within the same institution and were actively ‘constituting and reproducing male dominance.’ (p.11). Both men and women were simultaneously creating and being regulated by ‘the surveillance power of this male dominated and institutionalised heterosexuality’. The phrase ‘the male in the head’ is intended to capture this internalised power of surveillance, the way in which male dominated heterosexuality affects not only sexual practices, but the minds and desires of women as well as men. There is no alternative feminine or feminist conceptualisation of heterosexuality; furthermore, while young women may at times resist and some may actively challenge or seek to disrupt the masculinity of ‘normal’ heterosexuality these ‘strategies of resistance … seem elusive and unstable’ (p.171). Such resistance is contained by the male in the head:
Heterosexuality is not, as it appears to be, masculinity-and-femininity in opposition: it is masculinity. Within this masculine heterosexuality, women’s desires and the possibility of female resistance are potentially unruly forces to be disciplined and controlled, if necessary by violence. (p.11)
The WRAP team are not saying that resistance is impossible or that young women are passive dupes. Rather they are suggesting that the power of the male in the head is such that even as active participants in heterosexuality young women contribute to its recreation as a male dominated institution.
What is power?
There is a curious tendency in some recent feminist writing to psychologise power, to argue that if men don’t feel powerful, or experience vulnerability in sexual relations then male power in heterosex is unstable (this, for example is an argument pursued by Lynne Segal in Straight Sex). Alternatively, adopting a perspective on power derived from Foucault, power is seen as dispersed, not capable of being held by any individual or social group, not linked to any form of structural inequality. Hence power is ripped from its social roots. Those versed in social theory might have noticed a little Foucauldian terminology creeping into the account of the male in the head, especially in the notion of an internalised surveillance. However, while the WRAP team borrow some Foucauldian concepts where they find them useful, they see male power as thoroughly institutionalised at all levels of society.
The persistence of male dominance in the face of wider social change, its immense impact on women’s lives, requires that we understand the many, complex and interrelated levels or layers at which and through which it operates. The WRAP team identify five of these:
1. Language, ideas, beliefs, norms, values and their effects, through which particular truths about and meanings of sexuality, masculinity and femininity are produced, sustained or resisted.
2. Agency and action: what happens in heterosexual encounters, how people produce their relationships, the extent to which young men and women resist or collude in particular constructions of sexuality.
3. Structured, institutionalised power relations between sexual partners: how heterosexuality is constructed as hierarchical, how it is organised, how it is sustained by the family, law economy and the state.
4. Embodied practices, sexual experiences and their meanings: how sexuality is lived, what happens when two people ‘have sex’, not just in terms of what they do, but the meanings these practices have for them.
5. As historically specific and subject to change — and therefore open to challenge.
These different levels or layers of male power are manifested in every aspect of young people’s heterosexual encounters.
Calls for the practice of ‘safe sex’ have always had a hollow ring for feminists since heterosexual sex has never been particularly safe for women. Quite apart from the threat of sexual coercion and violence, and the risk of pregnancy, for young women sexual activity has always provoked fears about gaining a ‘reputation’. The spread of HIV provoked unprecedented public discussion of sexual practices and led to a series of public health campaigns around ‘safe sex’. In an ideal world this might have been expected to raise questions about the privileging of vaginal penetration, but in the context of heterosexuality most of the advice given boiled down to a single admonition — use a condom — a solution which offered the least threat to male-defined sexuality. Moreover, the promotion of condom use assumed a rational process of decision-making within egalitarian relationships, thus neglecting the complex gendered and emotional meanings of sex and the difficulties of managing ‘safer sex’ within fundamentally unequal partnerships.
The WRAP research reveals the difficulties which young women face in attempting to practice safer sex. While there was considerable diversity in young women’s experiences, the constraints of gendered sexual relations were ever-present. Only a very small minority questioned the dominant definition of sex as sexual intercourse and even fewer were able to redefine sex within heterosexual relationships. Most of the young people, men and women, were aware of sexual risks and of the protection which condoms could offer them, and some could negotiate their use successfully. For many, however, knowledge was not enough. Putting knowledge into practice meant dealing with the cultural meanings of condoms within a society which privileges male sexual needs.
One of the most obvious problems young men and women face in using condoms is simple embarrassment. One young woman, in an ironic comment on the government’s ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign said: ‘If I don’t die of ignorance I will die of embarrassment instead’ (p.33). Embarrassment is a gendered phenomenon since buying and carrying condoms implies a readiness for sex which is still not entirely respectable in a young woman and can still mark her as a ‘slag’. For a young man carrying condoms can enhance his masculine status; indeed he can use or refuse condoms without his masculinity being called into question. For him the only source of embarrassment is revealing inexperience or sexual inadequacy. These gendered patterns of course reflect dominant definitions of sex as penetration and sexual intercourse as something enacted by men on women.
Underlying this idea of sex is the assumption that men are possessed of an uncontrollable sexual drive which should not be prevented from reaching its goal — and this view was widely accepted by the young people regardless of gender, class or ethnicity. Hence young women who might prefer alternatives to penetrative sex may feel they have no right to demand it. As one put it ‘if you’re with a guy and you are going to do everything but, it’s obviously a big tease’ (p.36). Women are conventionally expected to control ‘how far’ sex should go and to take responsibility for safety, but they’re not supposed to interrupt a man’s progression to orgasm. Insisting on condom use does just that. Some young women. however, are willing to flout these conventions and ‘make him wear one’. Most found the easiest way to accomplish this was to assert fear of pregnancy. However, this can lead to further problems as the relationship becomes more established, when it is widely expected that a woman will go ‘on the pill’. ‘Trust’ is supposed to make condom use easier, but in fact it has the opposite effect in that sex in a ‘steady’ relationship is assumed to carry no risks apart from pregnancy. Women also fear continued insistence on condom use may jeopardise the relationship. The other side of this gendered coin is that young men are more likely to use condoms with women they deem untrustworthy — ‘slags’ who are potential carriers of disease or women who they think might be lying about being on the pill. ‘Trust’ and ‘love’ it seems are not consonant with condom use.
Some women felt unwilling to pressure a man into wearing a condom because it might diminish his pleasure. Sometimes they themselves expressed distaste for condoms couched in a language of male sexuality. Using a condom was likened to ‘washing your feet with your socks on’ or ‘chewing a toffee with the wrapper on’ (pp. 40-41). While these perceptions were not presented as male, they were often voiced in contexts which made it clear that it was his pleasure rather than hers which was at stake and that they did not wish to displease their partners. Young women did not seem able to discuss how condoms affected their pleasure except insofar as his orgasm marked the end of sex whether or not they had experienced orgasm themselves. The majority of young men, on the other hand, had no idea whether condom use affected their partners’ pleasure — usually because they had never asked.
Patterns of condom use reveal that young people are not totally constrained by convention and not totally lacking in agency, but are actively producing male power. This occurs not only through men’s conformity to heterosexual masculinity, but also on ‘young women’s active involvement in enabling male power through their own pursuit of femininity’ (p.55).
The masculinity of sexual knowledge
The gendered identities and assumptions about what counts as sex which are evident in young people’s accounts of condom use are reflected in the construction of and access to sexual knowledge. Learning about sex generally entails ‘learning one’s position in the power relations of heterosexuality’ (p. 56). The ways in which the young people in this study had learnt about sex were diverse and patchy. School sex education varied in quality and quantity, parents were more or less forthcoming but the messages received from adults were generally couched within a ‘protective discourse’ in which men were positioned as active agents and women as potential victims of both physical and moral danger. Informal sources of information — friends and the media — were valued more highly, but indicated ‘the surveillance of the male peer group which … plays a pivotal role in inducting young people into the hidden power relations of heterosexuality’ (p.56).
Most of the young women were highly critical of school sex-education, although those ethnic minority women for whom it was their first source of sexual information were more positive about it. Most young women reported that it had come too late to tell them anything new, that it focused exclusively on reproductive processes and that little or nothing was said about non-reproductive sex, desire, pleasure or relationships. Many also reported that the clitoris remains absent from diagrams of female genitalia. Sex, as represented in school sex education, is exclusively heterosexual and reproductive, reinforcing a passive view of the female body. A very small minority reported positive experiences of teachers who talked openly about pleasure and did not focus exclusively on heterosexuality. Young men received even less formal sex education, but were more inclined to report that they ‘just knew’ about it.
Within the home it is mothers and other female relatives who are the main sources of information for girls. Fathers play little part, but effectively contribute ‘through their silence; by a shared understanding of what can be mentioned in front of them’ (p. 61). Information which girls receive from mothers is often accompanied by warnings and cautionary tales. The ‘protective discourse’ while underpinned by real fears for girls’ welfare in the face of predatory male sexuality also serves, once again, to confirm the normality of passive, reproductive heterosexuality. Parents also exercise considerable surveillance over their daughters’ sexuality. This is the case even for more permissive parents whose surveillance strategies are more likely to focus on ensuring their daughters have access to contraception rather than trying to restrict their opportunities for sexual activity.
Boys sometimes talk about sex with their fathers, who often manifest ‘complicity in their sons’ notions of sexual prowess and male knowledge’ (p. 61). Even so, mothers were more often a source of information and advice than fathers. Surveillance is much less evident in young men’s accounts of sex education in the home. Where parents expressed concern, it was more often about emotional entanglements. Mothers had sometimes warned their sons about getting someone pregnant, and some encouraged them to respect women. In so doing they also implicitly accepted that their sons would be sexually active. Interaction with fathers about sexuality is often similar to talk within the male peer group. One young man made this explicit when he said that ‘mothers tell you to “be careful”, but with Dads it is “boys being boys”’ (p.67).
For most of the young people, friends were important sources of information, but there was an awareness, especially among the young men, that peers were not always a reliable source of sexual knowledge. Informal talk among friends also serves to reinforce the masculinity of heterosexuality. The dominance of male sexual discourse circumscribes girls’ talk. Girls’ generally distance themselves from the ways in which boys talk about sex, but are then left without a language of their own. Their talk tends to focus on relationships rather than sex per se, and even when sexual knowledge is shared it is often piece-meal and shrouded with innuendo. What girls learn from their friends is not so much about sexuality as ‘about the boundaries of feminine identity and the social mechanism of sexual reputation’ (p.68). Within adolescent culture it is boys who dominate ‘the definition of the sexually explicit and of the female anatomy’ (p.70).
The power to define
Male control of explicit sexual language is, of course, one of the means by which men can control and humiliate women. Occasionally a confident young woman can play them at their own game and win. One told how, when she was in the third year, a group of boys on the school bus had been harassing the girls by asking each in turn: ‘Do you masturbate?’ Their victims reacted with predictable embarrassment, but this young woman refused to be cowed. When they put the question to her:
I stood up and said ‘yes I do, what about it!’ The lads sat down and they didn’t say a single word until the end of term. They were horrified, they were very embarrassed. (p.70)
Few young women, however, are assertive enough to engage in this sort of defiance. To do so entails flouting the norms of femininity and challenging masculinity. For the most part, explicitly sexual talk is monopolised by the male peer group.
Predictably, the main form of communication among young men was the telling of ‘performance stories’. Many felt that they had little choice but to take part in this activity, but whether they did or not, the male peer group’s understanding of sex had an impact on their lives. Here ignorance cannot be admitted and boys prove their masculinity through displaying their knowledge and experience in the stories they tell. While boys know that some of these stories are invented or exaggerated, talk within the male peer group remains ‘a critical site for inducting young men into what it is to be a man.’ Even those who do not conform to the norms of dominant masculinity ‘are still complicit in the collective construction of the male peer group and subject to its power’ (p. 71). So important is this talk that it is one of the reasons young men badly want to gain sexual experience. As one nineteen year old succinctly put it: ‘Sex means I’ve got something to tell my mates’ (p.86).
It comes as no surprise, either, to learn that pornography constitutes an important element of male ‘sex-education’. About half of the young men mentioned pornography — without being asked directly about it. Not all saw it as educational — though some did — and many saw pornography as something they no longer ‘needed’ once they began having sexual access to women. This in itself suggests a ‘conflation of the imagery of pornography and the practices of actual relationships’ (p.78). Even if young men seem to retain a critical distance from the pornographic imagery they consume, it nonetheless informs their ideas of what sex is about. Moreover collective consumption of pornography, like the male peer group itself, is part of the construction of masculine identity.
While young men are consuming pornography, young women are also turning to books, magazines and films to fill the gaps in their sexual knowledge. These sources are often the only ones from which young women can learn about sexual pleasure, yet they often ‘find it difficult to access embodied accounts of sexuality’ — that is accounts which tell them anything about the physical realisation of pleasure in their own bodies. Much of what these young women read and watched was in the form of romantic narratives, which offer them little help in articulating their own desires. Once again, in these narratives, women’s pleasure appears to be a passive response to men’s performance. Their first experience of sex often fails to live up to these romantic expectations. Even if they do learn about pleasure through experience this often renders them dependant on a particular man, in a particular relationship: a form of sexual mentoring which once again leaves them relatively powerless. Whereas young women were often ambivalent about their first sexual experiences, young men were far more positive.
Love and sex
Tensions between love and sex are evident both in talk within single-sex peer groups and in the negotiation of heterosexual relationships. The instrumental language of the male peer group makes girls the object of performance stories and gives young men the power ‘to dominate sexual language as well as to construct reputations’ (p.86). Young women are well aware of this and in the interviews frequently expressed concern about becoming the subject of men’s stories. Girls are critical of the immaturity of male sex talk and the exploitative sentiments associated with it, but often themselves collude with it, particularly in the construction of sexual reputations. They themselves often damn as ‘slags’ girls who are seen as too easy. This, of course, is a means of protecting their own reputations.
The main form of resistance to the male language of sex is an alternative female language of love. For young women ‘love’ is a means of making sense of and legitimating sexual desire. It is also, however, a means by which they seek ‘to temper the disempowerment of femininity’ (p.100). In a world where men make all the moves from chatting up through to initiating sex, and where women who challenge this are readily labelled ‘slags’, women are left without agency: they can only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (although they may employ a variety of tactics to bend the gendered rules of the game). To be loved is to have some power over a man and to feel safe in expressing desire. This, however, has its dangers since it can lead to being used or gaining a ‘reputation’. Young men know that the language of love may be a route to sexual access and may therefore use it cynically — a possibility which young women are well aware of.
Young men’s attitudes to love are far more ambivalent. On the one hand love is seen within the male peer group as a threat to freedom and not something to be readily admitted. In relationships with women, and in the interviews, some young men are far more willing to endorse romantic ideals. This, however, helps to maintain the distinction between a public, male dominated language of sex and a private language of love — and does nothing to undermine the power of the former. Moreover, for young men schooled in instrumental sexuality, the distinction between ‘having sex’ and ‘making love’ becomes yet another way of enforcing double standards on women. Young men could articulate egalitarian ideas about love and sex when questioned by an interviewer, but would then often retreat into the distinction between ‘good women’ (those with whom it was acceptable to fall in love) and ‘bad’ women (those to be used for sex). One young man, for example, insisted that both men and women could want love and sex equally. Yet later, when discussing a woman who had claimed to love him but who had agreed to sex on the first date said:
You can’t go to bed with someone the first time you get off with them and then expect them to give you respect and love. If you want sex you can have sex. If you want them to love you, you better sort it out and not go to bed with them immediately…I’m quite happy getting my end away from time to time, with someone I only see from time to time (p.99).
This comment (and others like it) should serve to warn us against taking men’s endorsements of egalitarian ideals at face value.
His pleasure and her compliance
This sexual climate is hardly one conducive to autonomous female sexuality. Young women may now be more sexually active than in earlier generations, but most are still constrained by the-male-in-the head. The WRAP interviewers asked detailed questions about sexual desires, acts, pleasures and relationships yet the young women barely talked about sensual pleasure at all. They discussed their bodies in oblique and disconnected language and hence gave an account of female sexuality as disembodied. They tend also to think of the body as a set of fragments, parts which can be eroticised, but there is no sense of a fully embodied sexual agency. Their bodies are of concern to them primarily in terms of surface display: the sexually attractive body, the object of desire. It is this self-presentation which is often misread (by young men as well as cultural studies scholars) as a sexually knowing body. Young men may express some anxieties about appearance, but on the whole their bodily anxieties are performance related, reflecting the construction of masculine sexuality as active and embodied and as ‘knowing what to do’.
Both men and women referred to their first experience of heterosexual intercourse as losing their virginity — but this had very different meanings for them. What young men lose is their negative status as inexperienced. Sex validates them as men, it makes a boy a man. However nervous a young man might be, however anxious about his performance, he comes through it having accomplished a status passage into manhood, one that confirms his manhood in his own eyes and those of his friends. Moreover the accounts the young men gave of their first sex were embodied; they clearly saw their bodies as active (whether performing well or barely adequately) and talked of pleasure. Women’s accounts of loss of virginity on the other hand were disembodied and they said little about pleasure or performance. Often they saw their virginity as a gift to be bestowed on a loved man: ‘I’d give him anything … I’d give him something I could never give anyone else, something special, and that’s why I did it’ (p. 185). First sex has little to do with confirming femininity, rather it is about managing femininity, protecting one’s own body and reputation. Hence women make sense of first sex not in terms of a language of achievement, but in the context of a discourse of romance.
There were tiny minority of women in the WRAP sample who did actively assert their own desires within sexual encounters — and some of these also challenged the conventional equation of sex with penetration. For most, however, heterosexual sex was about pleasing their man accommodating to his desires — and for many this was reported as the most pleasurable aspect of sex. A few reported curbing their passion because men found it disturbing if they appeared to desire sex too much. More commonly, however, they pretended more pleasure than they felt, the most obvious manifestation of which was faking orgasms. Many enjoyed non-penetrative sex, but deferred to the male-defined view of such practices as ‘foreplay’, a prelude to the real thing. Often sex is valued more in terms of the closeness and intimacy it produces rather than sensual pleasure. In all these respects men are empowered in sexual encounters whether or not they actively seek to be so.
Male power becomes more explicit when they resort to coercion or violence. While the young women were not explicitly questioned about sexual violence or coercion, about a quarter of them talked about experiences of sexual violence or being pressured into unwanted sex. The young men were explicitly asked about violence and most claimed to abhor it — although many told stories about other men’s violence towards women. Some did, however, admit to applying other from of pressure or ‘persuasion’, carrying on a war of attrition until their girlfriend ‘consented’. Moreover, women can feel pressured simply by virtue of the dominant construction of male desire as a driving need; many men and women saw women as responsible for a man’s arousal and hence under an obligation to satisfy him.
The authors of the book, however, are not portraying all young women as passively acceding to unpleasurable sex. Some young women do try to assert their right to sexual pleasure, do resist male demands and male definitions of what sex is about and attempt to take active control over their own sexual safety. Resistance, however, is constrained by a largely unquestioned norm of heterosexuality and the power of the ‘male in the head’.
One chapter of the book directly addresses women’s empowerment in negotiating safer sexual encounters and its limitations. When the WRAP team looked for examples of women ‘who were able to exercise power and regulate safety in their sexual relationships’ they found ‘very few’. Instead they ‘found women seeking to be powerful — employing a range of different and often contradictory strategies to gain some control over the meanings and practices of their sexual relationships’ (p. 129). They found widespread inconsistencies between young women wanting to be powerful and their accounts of their practices. Reflecting on these accounts they conceptualised empowerment as a process; it is ‘never simply or permanently achieved, but has to be struggled for constantly’ (p.130).
There is a difference, too, between intellectual empowerment — a matter of expectations and intentions — and experiential empowerment ‘the ability to manage their embodied sexual practice pleasurably and safely’ (p.131). The latter was rare, and often ‘context-specific’ — a woman might achieve empowerment in a specific relationship, after a great deal of emotional labour, but it would not be ‘hers’ to take on to the next encounter. She would need to begin again, from the beginning. Young women’s attempts to empower themselves did not necessarily challenge the conventions of masculinity and femininity. For example, some tried to use femininity as a source of power. This, however, is largely limited to refusing sex through a discourse of virginity as something precious to be preserved, or through subterfuge — for example pretending not to be on the pill in order to persuade their partners to use condoms. These young women remained within the confines of femininity (and often defined themselves as anti-feminist) and offered little challenge to masculinity.
Those young women who were relatively empowered compared with the rest of the sample reported more experience of sexual coercion and violence than average. Despite the disempowering effects of violence these young women had learnt from their experiences and, in particular, developed a critical perspective which enabled them to redefine these experiences in terms of power. They thus came to question masculinity and the gendered inequality of heterosexuality. Yet this is ‘a hard path to knowledge and one that can make female empowerment extremely fragile’ (p.133).
Four possible strategies for empowerment are discussed through the stories of four young women — but only one of these offers any real challenge to conventional male-defined heterosexuality. One possibility is to adopt the male model of sexuality as one’s own, to demand an equal right to pleasure and to seek personal gratification and empowerment through sex. This may challenge conventional notions of passive female sexuality, but it leaves the masculinity of heterosexuality unchallenged. Moreover, in practice the young woman using these tactics may well find that, in practice, she is still deferring to male needs. Here intellectual empowerment is not matched by experiential empowerment. Another possibility is the careful negotiation of mutuality within a monogamous relationship. Within this one relationship she may feel experientially empowered, but it is she who puts the effort into achieving this and it lasts only as long as the particular relationship. It may also be possible to achieve a fragile integration of intellectual and experiential empowerment through critical reflection on past negative sexual experiences and to try to carry this into new relationships, but how much control this may give a young woman is uncertain.
The only way in which it is possible to begin to achieve an integration of intellectual and experiential empowerment is to challenge the conventions of both femininity and masculinity and to redefine heterosexual sex. Very few young women achieved this. The one used to illustrate this strategy had ‘a shrewd understanding of practical sexual politics’, evinced a willingness to challenge men’s ideas about their own sexual ‘needs’ and the assertiveness to educate them into alternatives to penetrative sex (although, of course, she was still doing the educating). She also had experience of ‘non-heterosexual’ practices and cultures and only an ambivalent investment in a heterosexual identity. This empowerment, achieved through hard work within heterosexual encounters did at least ‘travel with her’ (p.144). This, however, is rare. For most young women their attempts to empower themselves offer only a very partial resistance to male dominated heterosexuality.
Facing the facts
Of course this book is based on qualitative research and therefore carries all the usual caveats about not necessarily being generalisable to the population as a whole. However, in terms of qualitative research the sample is large and probably as representative as you can get — and far more so than wild speculations based on such sources as teenage girls’ magazines or what is currently chic among self-styled sexual outlaws. Moreover, this may be the largest study of its kind, but it is not unique.
Those who want to preserve the illusion that young women today are empowered to enjoy their sexuality and are exploring the opportunities offered by ‘ambiguous’ sexualities, do not want to believe what research such as this reveals. Lynne Segal, for example, accuses the WRAP team of simply finding what they set out to look for having decided in advance that women could not enjoy heterosex and that men held all the power. Quite apart from the insult this represents to a team of researchers who have been so thorough and meticulous in the analysis of their data, it simply is not true. The WRAP team started with a more optimistic view than they concluded with. They expected to find young women influenced by feminist ideas who were developing more autonomous styles of sexuality. They coded for sexual pleasure, but found little to place in that category. Of course they did find women who resisted, who sought more egalitarian relationships, but the scope of such resistance was limited. Far from male power being unstable, as Segal would have us believe, instability is more characteristic of women’s strategies for resistance. Male power in heterosexuality remains firmly entrenched.