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From the Library: Bad Girls/Good Girls

July 8, 2009

“Bad Girls/Good Girls”: Women, Sex and Power in the Nineties is an anthology edited by Nan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry. While I haven’t read the entire thing, if the article “How Being a Good Girl Can Be Bad for Girls” by Deborah L. Tolman and Tracy E. Higgins, is indicative of the quality of the purchase, it will be well worth it.  This article uses examples from the media, law, and the words of young women speaking about their experiences to explore the Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy and how it negatively affects young women. “Bad Girls” are active, desiring sexual agents; “Good Girls” are those passively victimized by boy’s raging hormones. Basically, I have never read a more thorough and accurate analysis of cultural norms around female sexuality and how it creates a culture of sexual violence permissibility. I want to make everyone I know read this. 

I remember trying to explain to a male friend of mine what makes sexual violence a different form of violence towards the body. I struggled to describe it, but I knew the place to begin was to explain a young woman’s experience with her own sexuality. I explained the two confusing, if not conflicting things I was taught about myself as a sexual being: (1) that my body as an object was subject to male gaze, desire, and violence and I must protect myself and (2) that females don’t or shouldn’t have sexual desires. (I wrote about some of this experience earlier) But I’m pretty sure I  lost him a bit in trying to translate how this treatment of female sexuality contributes to a culture of sexual violence permissibility and mediates the experience of sexual violence. But Tolman and Higgins both speak directly to my experience and bring it together in a comprehensive view of how adolescent female sexuality relates to sexual violence.

They begin with a description of the cultural story told about male and female sexuality:

Defined as natural, urgent, and aggressive, male sexuality is bounded, both in law and in culture, by the limits of women’s consent. Women who wish to be avoid the consequences of being labeled “bad” are expected to define the boundaries of sexual behavior, outlined by men’s desire, and to ignore or deny their own sexual desire as a guide to their choices.

This cultural story that men’s desire is natural and it’s a woman’s responsibility to regulate it. They give some examples of media treatments of teen sexuality, similar to the offensive article “Oral Sex is the New Goodnight Kiss”, but I thought a particularly compelling argument was about how rape was treated in the legal justice system.

Here they attack the consent/nonconsent framework that governs rape trials because  any expression of female desire undermines the survivor’s credibility. Often the model is “to want anything is to consent to everything”, a very dangerous notion of consent which shames female sexual desire.

At trial, the issue of consent may be indistinguishable from the question of whether the woman experienced pleasure. Thus, within rape law, a woman’s behavior is subject shifts power to the aggressor, thereby maintaining the power hierarchy of the traditional story of male aggression and female submission

The consent/nonconsent framework is not just a negative treatment of female sexuality, but rather is indicative of the larger cultural story of male aggression and female passivity and the Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy. While I wish there was a more comprehensive discussion of how race interacts with this framework, they do explain how the cultural story of African American promiscuity makes black women “unrapable” under these laws, and white women involved with black men inherently victims. They also found ableism interacting with the consent/nonconsent framework, when a mentally disabled girl, although not sexually inexperienced was portrayed by lawyers as asexual and “incapable of knowing or expressing her sexuality”, in order to render her innocent of sexual desire and allowing sexual violence.

They end with three interviews with adolescent girls describing their experiences, and interpreting how they live with the Good Girl/Bad Girl dynamic. I found this section especially valuable to me, because it allowed me to understand my own methods of coping within this framework. 

Lastly, their conclusion is absolutely perfect:

The task for feminists, then, is to help adolescent girls and women to analyze the complexity of living in women’s bodies within a culture that divides girls and women within themselves and against each other. It is true that the threat of sexual violence against girls and women, as well as social isolation, is real and constant, effectively keeping girls and women’s bodies and psyches filled with fear, rendering sexual desire difficult and dangerous. Yet it is also true that girls and women at this moment in history can feel profound pleasure and desire and should be entitled to rely on their own feelings as an important aspect of sexual cultures. By holding the contradiction of pleasure and danger, girls and women can expose and loosen the tight weave seamlessly worked by the good girl/bag girl dynamic in society and in their individual lives.

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