Talking Back to Sexual Pressure

By Bateman, Py | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Talking Back to Sexual Pressure

Bateman, Py, Violence and Victims

Talking Back to Sexual Pressure. Elizabeth Powell. CompCare Publishers, Minneapolis, MN, 1991. Soft cover: $12.95; 254 pages.

I have long argued that the anti-rape movement's contention that rape is violence, not sex, does not help us deal with the connections between socially acceptable sexual interaction styles and date rape. Thus I picked up sexuality educator Elizabeth Powell's book with great hopes that her perspective would add to my work in acquaintance/date rape prevention. Although it is clearly written and well illustrated with examples, undoubtedly from Powell's college courses on human sexuality, the book fails to present a realistic approach to sexual communication in the context of aggression.

An underlying theme in the first two sections, which deal with "sexual assertiveness," seems to be a belief in raging hormones that must be held in check by our "higher functions." On page 56 she writes, "Sex is the only appetite which we encourage one another to unleash." She follows that nearly 30 pages later with: "But the strong motive for sexual reproduction leaves us with nothing to protect us from disease except one thing: our brain's ability to plan ahead and project events that have not happened" (p. 83; italics in original).

According to Powell, we are all gatekeepers, males and females alike, now that disease and not pregnancy is the price we pay for sex. "From the sixties through the eighties, the pill, abortion, and other technological changes allowed people to have sex without paying a high price" (p. 54). She stresses the importance of words as tools that "can powerfully influence what people do." She continues, "your words come from the rational part of your brain that is not responsible for leading you into passion" (p. 87).

With that view of the power of words, one wonders that Powell didn't title her book with Joan Rivers' famous line, "Can we talk?" But in her reliance on communication or "sexual assertiveness," she fails to make the necessary distinctions between dealing with healthy sexual communication in a context of respect and caring, and the one-sided power moves of the sexual aggressor. Finding the right words and the will to articulate them is, indeed, an important skill in sexual communication. But more than clarity is needed for resisting sexual coercion.

In the third section of the book "How to Cope with Intrusion and Force," Powell presents her advice on dealing with sexual aggression. Despite disclaimers that victims are never to blame for having suffered sexual harassment or assault, Powell's attitude is evident early as she quotes Abraham Maslow on page 31: "Alleycats attract tomcats, and lionesses attract lions." In her chapter on "Resisting Sexual Harassment," Powell advises: "But workers and students need to learn a precise line between a pleasant attitude appropriate to their role and the kinds of friendliness that could imply sexual openness in a society like ours" (p. 116).

She does point out on the next page that "thousands of people distort the sexual meaning of other people's behavior." But the remedy she proposes is: "So you need to be cautious about your body language." Even though Talking Back is directed to an audience of both males and females, and even though Powell doesn't attribute distortion to only one gender, there is no advice in the book about not making assumptions about other people's sexual availability.

Despite her advocation of assertiveness and her belief in the power of words, Powell also prescribes the more subtle methods of communication that many maintain have failed women for generations. On page 119 she explains methods of "shaping" behavior: "Another way to stop a harasser cold as soon as the problem begins is to reward businesslike behavior but not respond to even mildly flirtatious or sexually related behavior" (italics in original).

It's too bad that Anita Hill didn't have this passage handy when asked why she responded the way she did to Clarence Thomas.

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