Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Contextualising Sex

Eloisa James has recently stated that
sex -- its practices, its customs and conventions, and prevailing attitudes toward it -- is a function of the historical, cultural and social conditions of a given time and place.
Similarly A. Dana Ménard and Christine Cabrera, in their article which I discussed last week, note that:
It has been well established that the attitudes and behaviours of consumers are affected by exposure to sexual content in the media (e.g. lifestyle magazines, television, movies) (Bielay and Herold 1995; Kim and Ward 2004; Ward 2002, 2003). However, in many cases, the specific messages about sexuality and sexual behaviours that are being promoted have not been studied. There has been a distinct lack of research on romance novels (Clawson 2005; Phillips 2006) and, in particular, on portrayals of sex and sexuality in these books, despite the widespread readership of these novels and their experimentally demonstrated power to influence readers’ attitudes and beliefs (e.g. feelings about condom use) (Diekman et al. 2000).
I discussed Diekman et al's study here at TMT last year, and quoted the abstract of their paper:
According to the sexual script portrayed in romance novels, true love is demonstrated by being “swept away” in passion. To the extent that this traditional romance script influences romance readers' own sexual scripts, readers may express greater reluctance to engage in precautionary sexual health behaviors, such as using condoms. We explored the relationship between women's reading of romance novels and their attitudes toward condom use, reports of past condom use, and intention to use condoms in the future. A systematic content analysis of modern romance novels documented the extremely low incidence of portrayals of condom use in initial sexual encounters. Study 1 demonstrated that high levels of romance reading were associated with negative attitudes toward condoms and reduced intent to use condoms in the future; Study 2 showed experimentally that including safe sex elements in romance stories increased positive attitudes toward condoms and marginally increased intent to use condoms in the future.
Condom use doesn't seem to be a particularly controversial and recurring topic of discussion in the romance community, but rape/"forced seduction" is. Just recently there have been a couple of posts about it at Dear Author. Today at Dear Author Janet is attempting to answer the question "Is there Such a Thing as Feminist Sex?" It's an interesting article and I'd encourage you to read it in its entirety but I'd like to pick out just one of the questions Janet raises:
If we had no inequality between men and women, we would not see sexual submission or dominance as symbolic of that inequity. But because we do have so much inequity, it’s easy to see sexual behavior and sexual desire through that same lens. However, isn’t it possible that these two things are completely separate? That we can enjoy equity in the boardroom and power plays in the bedroom?
Accepting that this is the case might require people to negotiate with each other and discuss their sexual preferences, and perhaps some people are reluctant to negotiate "in the bedroom." After all, Diekman et al found that in "the sexual script portrayed in romance novels, true love is demonstrated by being “swept away” in passion"; it seems likely that for some people negotiation would seem as lacking in passion and spontaneity as condom-use.

However, much as Diekman et al found that it is possible for romances to incorporate condom-use (and, indeed, Ménard and Cabrera found that in the romances they sampled, "books from 2000 to 2009 included contraception usage in 57.9% of scenes"), there are certainly ways to incorporate explicit consent into a range of sexual fantasies in romance novels. In the following scene from Jules Jones and Alex Woolgrave's The Syndicate, for example, the protagonists discuss whether or not to have sex and they then begin to set the scene for their rape fantasy:
"Now," murmured Vaughan a moment later, pulling a straw out of his mouth, "I've dragged you into this haystack completely against your will, Allard, and I'm going to have my wicked way with you whether you like it or not." [...]

"You're not going to make a sound as I ravish you," said Vaughan, "because there are loads of people a few feet away from this haystack, and you don't want them to know what's happening to your maidenly virtue."

Allard did his best to remember when he'd had maidenly virtue (about twenty years ago) and decided that being quietly ravished had distinct possibilities.
It seems to me that some of those who find rape/"forced seduction" troubling in the romance genre may do so not because we believe "rape fantasies" or BDSM sex are inherently wrong or anti-feminist, but because they have so often appeared in scenes which, unlike that in Jones and Woolgrave's novel, have little or no consensual context.

Jessica at RRR recently linked to a post by Thomas MacAulay Millar in which he paraphrases Violet Blue:
She said the rise of rough sex and sort of BDSM-by-any-other-name in gonzo porn wasn’t a good thing: that it brought with it the physical and psychological aspects of BDSM (I’m paraphrasing here) and popularized them with a mainstream audience, but didn’t normalize all the ethical tools of negotiation and communication that should always go with that stuff.
Similarly, when a romance hero rapes or "forcibly seduces" his heroine, this is generally not separated out from their other interactions and marked as a "power play in the bedroom." Although Janet has suggested in another of her posts that it is possible to read rape/"forced seduction" scenes as sexual fantasy, a sort of unmarked BDSM scene in which all the negotiation and consent issues are negotiated in the reader's head, it seems clear that not all romance readers read the scenes this way. These readers therefore find themselves in a situation similar to the one MacAulay Millar and Blue discuss: situations in which they are watching/reading sexual activity which is not explicitly placed in the context of negotiation and consent. Blue writes that when she watches porn and finds "sex acts, or acts in sex, that are typically practiced consensually in BDSM" "in every DVD, without context, as part of a senseless formula" she finds this "creepy." The creepiness arises not from the acts themselves but from the lack of a consensual context which would clearly mark the scenes as safely negotiated acts of sexual play/fantasy.

This lack of context may be particularly important if it shapes viewers/readers' "sexual scripts." In romance novels protagonists who engage in unsafe sex rarely if ever contract diseases. Nonetheless, this fictional behaviour is not unproblematic if, as Diekman et al found, it encourages "negative attitudes toward condoms and reduced intent to use condoms in the future." Is it possible that heroes who override a heroine's lack of consent may also shape readers' behaviours? Could they be reinforcing a sexual script which discourages negotiation and "enthusiastic consent"?

That sexual script certainly exists, and Jaclyn Friedman has a few things to say about it:
many folks raised female have been taught that we ought not to have sexual desires, and certainly if we have them we shouldn’t talk about them, lest anyone think we’re slutty or something (and we all know what happens to sluts.) And lots of male-type folks are taught that they’re supposed to know what their partner wants without even having to ask, or else they’re not “real men.” So there’s stuff to overcome here, for sure. But I’m here to testify: it’s super-worth overcoming it. Because when you become able to talk about sex while you’re having it, not only do ensure that nobody’s raping anybody, but you have way, way better sex. You know more about what you’re partner wants in the moment, and your partner knows more about what you want, and, well, everybody gets more of what they want.
It seems, then, that as Lena Chen has stated,
Feminist sex doesn't have to be vanilla or very PC. But what differentiates it from your run-of-the-mill sexual encounter is that it recognizes the importance of satisfying everyone's needs. [...] And of course, feminist sex also means that we keep in mind how fluid sexual identity and experience can be. There isn't only one way to have sex, nor is there a "best" way.


  1. Very good analysis. I was reading the comments from the Dear Author article, and followed you here. I've always been a feminist, and I write strong heroines. Some alpha heroes, some beta heroes, usually a combination of both. But my characters always deal with birth control issues because I think it's important to show that they respect each other enough to have that discussion. That's why I write contemporary. My m/f couples always have a happy ending, and maybe that's my only nod to "traditional", because I'm happily-married. But they deal with each other as adults along the way, not as macho-he-man versus the little woman.
    Thanks for all of the references and the very thorough job on this topic.

  2. Foucault wrote, in short, that deviant sexuality was created as an opposite of what was authorized as "normal" sexuality. When normal sex became conceptualized as heterosexual with the male dominating, then everything else now fit on a spectrum of kinky to perverse, depending on how far the act transgressed the norm of both sexuality and the hegemonic patriarchal ideals. Within this context, is 'feminist' sex an ideology or a fetish?

  3. Thanks, Fiona. I'm glad you liked it.

    "When normal sex became conceptualized as heterosexual with the male dominating, then everything else now fit on a spectrum of kinky to perverse, depending on how far the act transgressed the norm of both sexuality and the hegemonic patriarchal ideals. Within this context, is 'feminist' sex an ideology or a fetish?"

    Kyra, I suppose that, in the context you describe, "feminist sex" as defined by Lena Chen would be considered an ideology and a woman who desires anyone other than a dominant male would, presumably, be considered a bit kinky/deviant/perverse or simply in denial about her true desires and brainwashed by feminist ideology.

    That idea that "normal sex" is "heterosexual with the male dominating" seems to be upheld by the authors of the piece at Psychology Today, who state that "The fact of the matter is that most heterosexual women are wired to find sexual submission arousing," by Angela Knight, who believes that "women like bad boys" and by "SN," who comments that "men are never found sexually attractive when they take on feminine qualities." Lots of people commenting on Janet's post are pushing back against those comments, though.

  4. We are very transgressive, us feminists with our autonomy and sexual agency. We are clearly dangerous and perverse.

  5. I don't find bad boys attractive...for me that ended when I became a mature woman who was seeking a life-mate, not just a bed-partner for the night. Women who marry guys like that do so at their own peril, and that of any kids they might have. I prefer men who can talk about their feelings and communicate on a personal level that goes beyond punching someone in the arm and growling, "How about them Bears?" Macho guys might be fun as eye-candy, but they don't make good husbands or fathers.

  6. Is the allure of the "bad boy" based on the attraction of the forbidden, or is it also due to the fact that some women think they may be able to tame him? I'm not sure.

    Re the idea that "normal sex became conceptualized as heterosexual with the male dominating" I just came across one of my own posts from a while back about a romance from 1961 in which

    female dominance and male submission are depicted as reversing gender roles in an unnatural (not "ordinary") manner that seems repellent and "terrible" to "ordinary" people. The submissive man is described as less than a real man: he is a "boy". The submissive woman and dominant male, on the other hand, are considered to be the norm.

    The heroine invokes religion to demonstrate the rightness of male dominance and female submission:

    The words of the stately old prayer book came to her mind. "To love and to cherish." That was the man's promise. "Wilt thou obey and serve him, love, honor and keep him?" That was the woman.
    Those old churchmen knew human nature through and through. They understood it long before psychology was thought of. They knew a man in love would want to cherish, that a woman in love needed to obey.

  7. Fascinating article Laura! Jaclyn Friedman also just came out with a new book entitled "What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety". It takes the Yes Means Yes model of sexuality and teaches young women the necessary skills for empowered sexual decision-making. I think you'd really like it!

  8. There isn't only one way to have sex, nor is there a "best" way.

    I get so irritated by the concept of "psychological norms" being tied to gender -- and the idea that somehow gender and sex aren't imprinted by the dominant culture. Freud's a good example of Sturgeon's law, but he's been taken as gospel by far too many. It's only relatively recently that the official bodies of psychologists and psychiatrists in this country stopped considering homosexuality a mental disorder.

  9. Thanks, Lena!

    "I get so irritated by the concept of "psychological norms" being tied to gender -- and the idea that somehow gender and sex aren't imprinted by the dominant culture"

    So do I, and I find it particularly odd when people cheerfully comment that a particular woman thinks or behaves "like a man" without pausing to consider that if someone they'd classify as a woman is thinking or behaving "like a man" that might suggest that the boundaries between the two genders aren't as clear-cut as the phrase implies. According to Deborah Cameron this type of oversight is unfortunately rather common:

    Psychologists have found in experimental studies that when interpreting situations people typically pay most attention to things that match their expectations, and often fail to register counter-examples. [...] If their attention is drawn specifically to someone's non-stereotypical behaviour, they often explain it by suggesting that the individual concerned is an exceptional case. (15)

    Cameron, Deborah. The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.