The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, winner of the 2021 PROSE Award in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology, is Jane Ward’s third book. In it, she explores what is wrong with heterosexuality in the 21st century and what straight people can do to fix it. She compares straight to queer relationships, pointing out where straight couple could learn from queer culture, takes a look at the self-help industry (and how it’s not helping at all) and ultimately wonders how straight women (and to a lesser extent men) have survived the tragedy of heterosexuality. Ward offers us a map of the complex and shifting landscape of heterosexual desire in the era of #MeToo, sexual harassment, and Title IX.Continue reading “Book Review: *The Tragedy of Heterosexuality*”
Every day, every single interaction, whether conscious or unconscious, shapes our identity and perception of the world. From the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are taking in information, processing it, and shifting our awareness of society based on the viewpoints we perceive. This impact of interactions and social cues has evolved over time into the hegemonic countercultures in different places around the globe. In her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn N. Phillips explores the ideology of power and choice within hetero-relationships formed by Western Culture through an in-depth analysis of the personal stories from young women.
Lynn N. Phillips coined the phrase “flirting with danger” in order to summarize women’s approach toward hetero-relations as established by previous interactions and media influence. In common situations of hetero-relations, the boundaries between “seduction and domination, pleasure and danger, responsibility and exploitation, agency and objectification, and consent and coercion” often become variable and murky (Phillips 3). However, women interpret this risky behavior as a “part of the ‘normal’ experience of their daily hetero-relational lives” (Phillips 3). Through her research and analysis of women’s personal reflections of their relational experiences, Phillips successfully explores how women’s view of hetero-relations has evolved into the “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).
Lynn N. Phillips draws on previous literature from feminist theorists in order to analyze her qualitative data. In doing so, she successfully creates a framework to guide our understanding of how society has shaped the subjectivity of power, choice, and desire within hetero-relations. In writing this book, Phillips aims to stimulate discourse regarding aspects of hetero-relations that are often excluded from feminist and social science literature. She specifically highlights the absence of conversation promoting “male accountability” and “female pleasure without penalties” (Phillips 77). While women do have the same sexual desires as men, “structural, ideological, and interpersonal barriers” created by Western Culture often prevent women from expressing these desires (Phillips 77). Further, she hopes to gain a greater understanding of how women’s judgments, specifically regarding the meanings of male domination and sexualized power in their lives, have been shaped by personal experiences and outside influences. These subjectivities, formed from popular media and past hetero-relational experiences, are exemplified through four common themes of discourse: (1) “how to be a ‘good woman’,” (2) “what constitutes ‘normal’ male behavior,” (3) “what counts as ‘real victimization’,” and (4) “what should be expected from men and hetero-relationships” (Phillips 38, 52, 61, 69). Through her comprehensive investigation of power and desire from personal narratives about hetero-sexual relations, Phillips successfully sets up a foundation for institutional change and further research surrounding “how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relations” (Phillips 205).
Lynn M. Phillips consults with organizations on issues of sexuality, education, and victimization. As a Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School University, she has experience in teaching and working with young adults. She has also written several other books on the topic of gender, sexuality, and relationships. For example, she was commissioned by the National Council for Research on Women to write The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, and she is the author of Planned Parenthood’s Unequal Partners: Exploring Power and Consent in Adult-Teen Relationships. Her research in the field of gender and sexuality studies has sparked further inquiry surrounding the formation of the beliefs and messages guiding hetero-relations.
Phillips wrote Flirting with Danger in order to investigate her three central research questions: (1) How do “young women conceptualize the distinctions between good relationships and bad ones, between consent and coercion, and between agency and victimization?”, (2) How do “young women make sense of the violence and manipulation that all too often invade their hetero-relationships?”, (3) What do young women “tolerate,…resist,…or perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ in their own and other women’s hetero-relational encounters?” (Phillips 5). In addition to using previous literature from feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Butler, Bartky, Collins, and more, Phillips conducted her own research study by interviewing young women from a small, progressive liberal arts college in the northeastern United States (Phillips 6). She placed letters in the campus mailboxes of all female students, inviting them to be interviewed about “power and intimacy in various relationships” (Phillips 6). She had in-depth conversations with the thirty young women who responded regarding their own personal experiences within hetero-relations as well as the hetero-relations of those around them. Surprisingly, of the thirty young women that responded, twenty-seven of them “described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment” but “only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience” (Phillips 7). Though Phillips does not discuss the official legal reporting of rape, battering, or harassment, this fact demonstrates the challenges of under-reporting. Many women are aware of what constitutes sexual assault and abuse, but refuse to consider themselves a victim when placed in the exact context. When in this situation of victimization, women have a “tendency to downplay the severity of their experience and blame themselves for their own abuse” (Phillips 157). However, Phillips uses this fact alone as well as the contexts in which these young women’s hetero-relational subjectivities were constructed to understand young women’s personal perceptions, decisions, and attributions within hetero-relations. By placing these perspectives within cultural contexts, Phillips is able to identify common themes which contributed to their formation.
Through exploring prevailing themes within popular discourse relating to hetero-relations, Phillips creates a structure for the contexts, formulation, and application of “flirting with danger.” She specifically outlines four dominant themes of discourse with two conflicting discourses within each. For example, one dominant theme throughout her discussions was “how to be a ‘good woman’,” which broke down into “the pleasing woman discourse” and “the together woman discourse” (Phillips 38-39, 47). The “pleasing woman” encompasses “the desire and ability to be pleasant, feminine, and subordinate to men,” stressing “morality, sexual ‘purity,’ and service to men and children” (Phillips 39). The “together woman” is “free, sexually sophisticated, and entitled to accept nothing less than full equality and satisfaction in her sexual encounters and romantic relationships” (Phillips 47). As exemplified though “how to be a ‘good woman’ discourse,” the two discourses within each dominant theme are viewed as mutually exclusive, thus creating the need to “flirt with danger” in order to obtain a “normal” hetero-relational experience (Phillips 38). As Phillips discusses, however, these two discourses should be seen as a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive, as hetero-relations will vary within each discourse based on the situation. Through exploring, establishing, and breaking down the social constructions of these dominant discourses, Phillips hopes to stimulate discussion surrounding the promotion of young women as sexual subjects who can find pleasure and safety within their hetero-relations with the final goal being a society without a “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).
Within feminist literature, Phillips specifically draws from bell hooks’s Feminist Theory from Margin to Center in order to build off of previous theories regarding sexuality. In a passage referenced by Phillips, bell hooks describes “naming and criticizing the negative aspects of sexuality” as a “simple task for women” (Phillips 190). Further, bell hooks discusses difficulty of changing the norms of sexuality for women due to cultural constraints. Though Phillips agrees with the difficult task of creating new sexual ideals, especially in the present culture, she argues that naming is not such as simple a task as bell hooks portrays. Referencing the stories of the young women she interviewed, Phillips argues that women have difficulty making “straightforward claims about their own victimization” (Phillips 190). Women were able to speak against male sexual aggression in general, but unable to identify male sexual domination as victimizing within their own experiences. Similar to the views of bell hooks, Phillips contributes the inability to identify personal experiences as victimizing and the failure to establish new sexual paradigms to the cultural constraints of society today. By analyzing and critiquing the work of bell hooks in the context of her research, Phillips contributes to the conversation regarding feminist literature, enabling further research in this field.
One of the strengths of Phillips’s book is that it is relatable to a wider audience, concerning race, socio-economic status, and religion, as she draws on stories from all of the women in order to form her analysis. She uses specific examples of situations women found themselves in or brought upon themselves through poor decisions or risky behavior as evidence for all of her claims, further aiding her argument. This detailed investigation, however, is limited only to heterosexual relations; though some of these women identify as bisexual or questioning, she limits her research to only their hetero-relational experiences, excluding all other relations since she believes that “all women regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity, are engaged in hetero-relations of some sort” (Phillips XI). Phillips did not take into account that these women’s same-sex relations could have made an impact on the formation of their ideas surrounding hetero-relations. Therefore, in order to expand upon her study, Phillips suggests researchers should “explore how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relationships as well,” building off of her framework and findings (Phillips 205).
Overall, in her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn M. Phillips successfully analyzes the hetero-relational experiences of thirty young women in order to create a structure for the formation of the beliefs behind their actions. Other feminist theorists as well as young women and men should read Phillips’s book in order to stimulate discourse and change the culture constructing these views and beliefs surrounding power, desire, and choice within hetero-relations.
Phillips, Lynn M. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and
Domination. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.