Ask any feminist if men have power because they are bigger and stronger than women and you’ll get an answer that things are far more complex than this, gender is socially constructed and institutionally maintained, and that sex inequality determines how we see our biology rather than our biology being the cause of the inequality.
And yet, when we start talking about training women to fight off sexual assailants, feminists are often the first to object. We have witnessed multiple instances of this objection and we have offered multiple possible explanations for it. Here’s one more, rooted in a style of handling power.
The feminist literature is full of discussions of power as dominating or controlling another person. A subset of the feminist literature discusses power as a form of empowerment (eg., finding your power, empowering yourself to exert more control over yourself or your circumstances). This view frames power positively as competence. For instance, ecofeminist Starhawk frames power as a positive energy that “emerges from within.”
Those with institutional authority and privilege can exert their will using power as a physical or economic force. This is primary power. This is the power women talk about seeing/feeling/fearing when a man pulls his pants off. There’s a thinly veiled threat that rape or murder could be next. There are other ways to exert one’s will, of course. Nietzsche calls this secondary power. This is the power that someone lower on the food chain has to exert their will in certain circumstances, such as when a woman student comes on to a male professor with the office door closed only to say he harassed her, knowing that his untenured butt would get fired.
If women are more comfortable using secondary power, then our advocacy of physical and verbal resistance just smacks too much of primary power for feminists’ taste. These same feminists often prove themselves to be very comfortable with secondary power plays– for example, encouraging women to file Title IX complaints, investigating people, etc, etc. These are all ways feminists are completely comfortable seeing men go down. If I were a man, I’d much prefer to have had the temporary pain of my testicles twisted than to have lost my job or chance to finish my education.
If we take the claim, made by many in the gay rights and feminist movements over the years, that sexuality ought to be democratized, then we must rethink some of the popular positions on issues like dating, hooking up, and resistance to sexual assault. We must demand not simply respectability but responsibility. As R.W. Connell noted in an essay back in 1995, while the AIDS epidemic spawned a kind of collective responsibility in sexual practice in the gay community, this project of responsibility was not adopted in the heterosexual community. As a way to illustrate how conventional, hegemonic heterosexuality can absorb some aspects of feminist radicalism without really changing the power structure, Connell points out the 1975 best selling book, The Total Woman, by Evangelical Christian Marabel Morgan. Morgan advised women to employ the pro-sex ethos of the time–for example, by wearing make-up and sexy outfits–to please husbands under whose total authority they lived. As Connell put it, “The wife becomes an erotic doormat.”
If we want to democratize heterosexual relations, it will take more than just pole dancing at parties and being willing to hookup in one-night stands, often while drinking and drugging. It will take a willingness to set boundaries, deciding what you are OK and not OK with, and fighting back–in the moment–when/if you have to. Otherwise, college women on the hookup scene today are a contemporary version of the Total Woman–using eroticism to reinforce men’s power and control rather than to contest it.