Posts Tagged ‘Women’s studies’

Pick Your Topic Tuesday: Sexual Consent and Female Agency

August 4, 2011 4 comments
Sexual equality symbol

Image via Wikipedia

My thanks go out to The Arbourist, from the blog Dead Wild Roses for this week’s topic suggestion. If you haven’t checked out Dead Wild Roses yet please do. It is a voice of reason amongst the theocratic, radically conservative virus that is currently infecting North America. On any given day, you will be treated to posts that range from eviscerating the myth that is religion, to challenging the narrow minded political and social ideologies that are becoming pervasive in Canada and United States. It’s a great blog that never ceases to provide relevant discourse.

This week’s topic is as intriguing as it is volatile; it raises the question as to whether or not women’s sexual consent truly exists in our patriarchal society. In light of this topic, I thought that inviting a guest blogger who happens to be highly educated and vocal in the realm of Women’s Studies, Feminism, and Gender Roles, would be appropriate. I will be adding my two cents in the comments section, but from here on out, the bright light of this post will be shining directly on my partner, Michelle Beltano Curtis, from the blog Carving Out a Voice. Take it away Michelle!

Sexual Consent and Female Agency

In this blog by Jill at I Blame the Patriarchy, she posits that women are unable to give sexual consent:

… because in a patriarchy, agency is not conferred equally upon women and dudes. This untoward circumstance creates a contingency wherein the notion of consent is, for women, entirely non-substantive, a figment, a desperate fantasy invented to obscure the true nature of women’s status as the sex class.

The problem I have with this position is that she is virtually giving men in patriarchal societies cart blanche to do whatever they want, locks in the endless position of the existence of patriarchy and virtually forces women into the irrevocable role of the victim so long as any drop of patriarchy remains either institutionally or personally. She posits it in such a way as to render the entire situation not only hopeless, but something we shouldn’t try to alter short of the wholesale destruction of our culture rather than the careful and methodical one act, one person, one law at a time kind of change we have no other choice for it to be. I find both of these positions to be untenable, dangerous and lacking in the way that I’ve come to see the world through decades of personal experience, scholarship and critical thinking.

Jill’s argument assumes that the core of all patriarchy is sexual and personal and in doing so, she assumes the advances women have made to date to be pointless and completely ineffectual. It also feeds on the idea that women must still cower in fear at every turn and by doing so is only playing into the very hands of those men still so thoroughly entrenched in male privilege. Sure, this is still a patriarchal society and there are still a number of issues to be addressed including a one in six chance (and quite possibly higher) of women experiencing sexual assault sometime in their life and maybe we should all still be scared, but is this really a tenable solution for women? Is this really the attitude with which we should live our lives? Where is the assertion of female power in this? Where is the notion that we are indeed women and not girls and as such should begin to assert our own kind of authority in which we have a right to say no and the ability to do what we can to fight it? I cannot agree any less that having willing sex with a male partner is and can only be rape and is non-consensual because as many times as I have been in this position, I had to not only accept my own culpability as a cog in the patriarchal machine, I had to be willing to fight it, both internally and externally, but I did eventually arrive at a place where consent truly is mine to give. That is not to say that it’s the fault of the victim, nor would I ever, but there is also something to be said for victim mentality making women easier prey for perpetrators and that we not only have a responsibility to reduce the number of patriarchal hunters in this world, but also the availability of prey.

I feel this way because I was a victim of multiple instances of sexual and physical abuse, which kept recurring so long as I retained the very victim’s mentality of which I now speak. Since I have done the hard work of getting healthy and accepting myself as victim no more, I am no longer a victim, nor have I been for a very long time.

Furthermore, to say that equality between the sexes in a sexual or personal (romantic) relationship is impossible (which is what is being argued here ultimately) is not only overlooking the above mentioned, it’s also anathema to my own experience. Finding equality in an opposite-sex relationship can be difficult, but not impossible. I know this, because I have enjoyed an egalitarian, non-patriarchal relationship with a man for almost seven years. And it has nothing to do with “compulsory.” It’s a choice I made based on finding and falling in love with a man who is anything but patriarchal. I didn’t expect it, I wasn’t even looking for it, but I sure as hell knew what to do when I found it; hold on for dear life.

For some time I felt the way Jill does and chose as a bisexual woman not to date men any longer. As a scholar of women’s studies and self-identified lesbian, this theory, originally posited by Adrienne Rich in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” spoke to me as truth at the time and in many ways it still does, however this is a slight mutation of it; an inflexible one that’s partially taken out of context, not to mention more than thirty years old which obviously cannot take into account the changes we have experienced in this culture since, including the ability for women to assert their autonomy within more (not completely) equal standing as far as what they can bring into a marriage.

To a large degree what is missing, is women’s ability to assert their equal rights within a non-violent and mostly healthy relationship mostly because they still believe or feel like they are NOT on equal ground, that they deserve to be victims because they “chose” heterosexuality and are still raising their daughters (in some cases) and the daughters of others to be this way. Furthermore, we (as mothers and a society) are still instilling in male children that they have a certain amount of privilege over their female counterparts and this, THIS is what continues to sway the possible balance, quite possibly much more effectively than any law we can enact. This is what I see to be one of the biggest struggles for women and the crusade for equality over all, not to mention in opposite sex relationships and it certainly doesn’t make sense to see hiding from it in a gynocentric world as a solution.

In addressing this specific idea (especially without being rooted within the context of 1970’s female experience and the socio-historical context from which Rich was speaking) what I came to realize is that while it does indeed have socio-historical significance especially on the subject of lesbianism, it is nonetheless a cop out to assume that one can only escape patriarchy through same sex female love, and most especially that it is somehow the ultimate act of feminism. Hell, it’s barely tolerable complicity, feeding into the idea that with the participation and interaction of men that it’s positively unattainable. It’s divisive and only serves to create the same kind of patriarchal binarism many feminists are desperate to escape and it separates women in a movement that’s already too small and too fragile.

If you surround yourself in a gynocentric world, as I did for eight years, the problem is no longer “your problem.” It becomes “their problem;” you know, those “silly” women who actually still feel the need (either as a matter of sexual orientation or otherwise) to participate in a relationship with the opposite sex. Just for clarity, I’m being sarcastic here, because I think sexual orientation is both more and less complicated than we tend to make it. Natural attraction is at play here and to simply think one can throw off the shackles of oppression by no longer participating in heteronormative relationships also suggests that women should live an unnatural life as opposed to addressing the very real concerns created for women in this patriarchy.

It’s also too simplistic and assumes far too much. It not only allows for avoidance of the problem that patriarchy presents for the heterosexual/bisexual woman and which still inevitably effects queer women whether they participate in it or not via work, laws and exposure to violence and sexism virtually anywhere outside the home. Patriarchy effects all institutions within the culture which upholds it; everything from how we educate our children to the shaping of marriage as a patriarchal institution to the lack of true equal rights enforced by our government to the disparity of wage earning to the right to our own reproductive freedom to… you get my point.

What I’ve found more through personal experience than scholarship (this is also too simplistic as what we know and how we see the world informs our lives to the core) was that the lack of inequality in heterosexual relationships, indeed in any relationship, is a two way street and I not only had to find the right man (or woman for that matter, as we’re just as effected by the ideas of domination and disrespect for the individual) to have an equal relationship, I had to let go of my own sexist notions about both women and men. Yes, being thoroughly initiated in the world of patriarchy makes it very difficult for a woman to succeed in this, and perhaps even harder for men because they have to let go of all the assumed privilege, but it’s not impossible. What it takes is a long freaking search and honest work. What it takes is making the right choices and being unyielding in those choices. What it takes is accepting the truth of female power and maintaining constant vigilance over those learned ideas about the inequality of women and thus the self so they don’t come up and trip you flat on your face even for a second. It’s hard work, but it’s possible, and through doing so, you’re not only transforming your own relationship from patriarchal to egalitarian, but you’re also affecting every person around you who sees how you and your partner (male or female) live your life. Accepting that as a woman you’re a victim in your everyday life and so must run to the illusory safety of gynocentrism; that’s the antithesis.

Michelle Beltano Curtis holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Women’s Studies. She teaches college level writing and literature and writes poetry, fiction and some hybrid forms thereof. In her spare time, she blogs about her adventures in writing, her work at a domestic violence shelter, education and much more. To read more of her work, visit