During my visit at a large conference in my field this week, I was able to attend the screening of the documentary “Flirting with danger. Power and choice in heterosexual relationships”. This film shows the reenactments of interviews that social and developmental psychologist and author Lynn Phillips has held with hundreds of young American women. It deals with young women’s struggle with power and choice in heterosexual relationships and how this is complicated by messages young girls receive from the media.
It seems that when young women experience pressure and coercion in their sexual relationships and hook ups, they can only interpret these situations in terms of consensual sex or victimization. There seems to be little room for interpretation in between. As a result, girls often choose to interpret coercive sexual situations as consensual sex, as this gives them at least some idea of control. As one girl put it: It is better to say “yes” than to have a guy force you after you say “no”. And even when the latter has occurred, girls are afraid to admit that they may have been victims of sexual abuse, because to them this means admitting they were naïve, stupid, and that they brought it unto themselves.
It is better to say “yes” than to have a guy force you after you say “no”
How did these girls get such ideas? According to Phillips, this is largely the result of contradictory messages in the media. Girls are exposed to hyper-sexualized women in the media, and told that being sexual is the way to gain power for women. They are told that looking hot, in order to attract a guy, is the ultimate goal, and that the only type of activity they should be concerned with is sexual activity. At the same time, girls receive messages from the media that they are sluts if they have too much sex, or that having sex is dangerous. Even the popular Twilight movies seem to convey the message to girls that “sex can kill them”.
The documentary also shows that previous generations of women were brought up with the message that women needed to be sweet and pleasing towards men. Girls these days get the same message, but they have to be sexy as well. The only thing that has remained the same is that men’s pleasure is placed above that of women. This is not to say that boys do not receive contradictory messages (a similar study on boys’ struggles in sexual relationships is said to follow): they have to be the strong and dependable male, and a bad boy or a rebel at the same time. Boys are expected to be aggressive and always up for sex, and girls are expected to find this attractive.
What this has led to is that boys, either consciously or subconsciously, think it is ok to be forceful in sexual situations. Girls do not only accept this, they even defend guys (“He’s actually a great guy”, “He’s just letting out some frustrations”), and place the blame on themselves. One of the girls mentioned that she hoped the guy would stop when he would see her cry.
According to her, the fact that she wasn’t more assertive, that her ‘no’ probably wasn’t ‘no enough’ made her to blame for the situation. Girls rather sacrifice their own pleasure and endure physical pain or discomfort, to make sure a guy experiences pleasure or does not get ‘pissed off’. In some situations, girls force themselves to get sexually aroused, even if they did not want to have sex with a guy in the first place, just to make the sexual situation ‘consensual’ instead of uncomfortable.
Society seems to tell girls that you either got it ‘all together’, or you are a victim. And the latter is less accepted. This leaves little room for girls to speak up when they feel they have been abused. Of course, and fortunately, there are many girls who have not experienced sexual abuse, and there are many guys who do know how to respect girls’ wishes when it comes to sex. Still, the fact that there are girls who are going through such struggles is reason enough to spread these stories.
For more information about the documentary, go to the website of the Media Education Foundation
effects of media on girls,debate on girls education, empowering girls through education