From sexual consent to intimacy

Rachel Levi Herz | 02.02.2022 | Photo: Unsplash

Thoughts about gender based sex education

In 2017, the British singer Dua Lipa released her clip New Rules, in which the singer and a group of young women perform an intimate dance together. The new rules which Dua Lipa sings about describe strong relationships between young women that help them fend off young men who might be a source of harm. In one line of the song, Lipa sings: “If you're under him, you ain't gettin' over him,” thereby declaring that the power structures are clear and familiar to young women. The desire "to get over"  young men shows a wish to reverse the power positions and thus change the accepted gender role surrounding courtship and sexuality.

Watching the clip raises the question of whether Dua Lipa, like other cultural representations of women's empowerment, is really presenting new rules for young women to realize their sexual freedom. The study of young women's sexual expression in relation to social practices of courtship, which I conducted as part of my PhD research under the supervision of Dr. Miri Rozmarin, found that in many cases these new rules remain imaginary, and in fact young women continue to experience intensified vulnerability when they are sexually active.


Social judgment of young women's sexuality

Demonstrations such as those of “girl power” reflect different cultural and educational discourses, which shape girls’ and young women’s sexuality and provide representations of women's leadership and empowerment. However, despite those images, the bodies of young women continue to be the object of numerous cultural and social practices and they are still required to practice social behavior that conforms with strict social judgment based on personal responsibility and clear cultural expectations. One example is “Watch your glass,” a campaign by Timeout Israel launched in 2014 ahead of the New Year, to raise young women‘s awareness of the danger of the rape drug at parties. The campaign was widely criticized for putting the emphasis on personal responsibility and potentially leading to victim-blaming in the case that a young woman failed to protect herself.

In many cases, social judgment includes the slander of young women who choose to be sexually active (slut shaming). On the other hand, while the possibility of more diverse presentations of masculinity is emerging (a new masculinity that features sensitivity, equality and empathy), boys and young men are still expected to be the almost exclusive initiators and leaders of sexual interactions and relationships. At the same time, numerous cultural and social practices continue to constitute aggressiveness, militancy and even violence surrounding the expected social behavior of boys and young men. These many differences in social expectations make it difficult to establish a common language of intimacy between young men and women. Therefore it is important to understand what changes are needed concerning educational processes to promote gender based sex education.

The Tel Aviv SlutWalk, 2017. Photo: Avidavid
The Tel Aviv SlutWalk, 2017. Photo: Avidavid

The conflict between different kinds of discourse that promote sexual empowerment and choice, and socio-cultural expectations and constructions that preserve gender inequality, is critical for the examination of concepts that shape sex education. That duality raises the question of how to integrate different power structures with a discourse of sexual empowerment and a discourse of sexual consent. The legal discourse about sexual consent is one of the main areas that presently shape sex education. Legislative revolutions led to changes in cultural concepts and the development of pedagogies that place the concept of sexual consent and the conditions that affect it at the center. Without detracting from the importance of this, it is important to ask whether focusing on sexual choice and consent is sufficient to facilitate healthy relationships between young men and women. How do the different conflictual types of discourse constitute the sexuality of young men and women today?


Beyond consent

The study findings indicate that sexual consent takes on diverse socio-cultural significances that must be addressed. First of all, young women move in social spaces where their sexual and social vulnerability is enhanced, which often undermines their sense of autonomy and control when they express their sexuality. Secondly, young women are still required, in different social spaces, to repeatedly say "no" to clarify their lack of consent for sexual acts. The vague interpretation of young women's sexual consent is also reflected by the social expectations from those who choose to be sexually active. The latter are expected to desire sexual interaction all the time, only because they publicly expressed their sexual desires in the social sphere.

Present social expectations and normalization of violent social practices create the illusion of full sexual liberty, when actually young women are required to constantly manage their vulnerability. Sexual consent is therefore an organized way to enter relationships and to face differensocial and cultural forces. Therefore, we ought to treat sexual consent as a transformative and instable process. Even when young women agree to enter the socio-cultural space they are required to process different emotions, experiences, social practices and self-perceptions. That experience is dynamic and changing and can lead to supposedly-given consent no longer being relevant. That dynamic illustrates the need to examine how to accommodate different kinds of educational discourse in childhood and adolescence to the high complexity that surrounds these issues and how to manufacture a language that would facilitate relationships based on respect, mutuality, equality and intimacy.

As part of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute research group A "Toolbox" for Feminist Political Subjectivities, researchers from different disciplines are together exploring how girls and women navigate between conflictual discourse. As part of the research group, a panel was held examining such questions in relation to issues in the areas of formal and informal education. The event, Beyond Short Pants: a Feminist Backpack for the School Year, was held at the beginning of the school year and presented the study findings. The lecture focused on meanings of sexual consent and on what young women call the “intimacy crisis,” expressed by a sense of lack of intimate, empathetic and mutual communication between young men and women. Expanding the educational discourse beyond sexual consent, on the basis of research findings such as these, can offer a focus on developing intimate communication skills that would allow young men and women to treat each other empathetically and to strive for sexual interactions based on mutuality and respect.


Written by Rachel Levi Herz, Gender Studies Program, Bar Ilan University
Coordinator of the research group “A "Toolbox" for Feminist Political Subjectivities,” The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

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