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Raunch culture and sexual violence

Anastasia PowellAnastasia Powell
Email: a.powell@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt de Neef:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast Series. I’m your host, Matt de Neef and today I’m speaking with Dr. Anastasia Powell, a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences here at La Trobe University. Dr. Powell, thanks for joining me today.

Anastasia Powell:

Thanks, Matt.

Matt de Neef:

So, we hear often about ways in society being described as a ‘raunch culture’. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means and has it always been that way?

Anastasia Powell:

I think we do often talk about the sexualization of culture. So the idea that within greater sexualized images, particularly of women and girls, and that’s certainly being of some concern in public debate and media recently. And I think it is in some ways something a little bit new. I think that post 1970s sort of new sexual revolution; we’ve certainly seen some changes in relation to sexuality and sort of sexual attitudes and values. And of course some of those have quite positive. You know, they’re associated with greater access to information for example, but on the other hand we are seeing this kind of sexualization particularly of women and girls.

Matt de Neef:

So with raunch culture, is our role being damaging to our children, and if so, how?

Anastasia Powell:

I think the issue is far more complex than a simple damaging or not. In some ways what raunch culture has done is presented us with this image of the empowered liberated young woman who can negotiate sex on her own terms. And in some ways, that’s a positive message. But I think what is problematic is that it’s really presenting only one way that women can experience empowerment or experience sexual power for instance.

And the reality is that a lot of young women especially just aren’t experiencing that level of control over their own sexuality and their ability to negotiate a sexual encounter, and they still experiencing a lot of pressure and unwanted sex as well as sexual violence.

Matt de Neef:

So the idea of sexual liberation itself is a bit of misnomer. There’s not as much sexual liberation, but there’s more being pigeon hole into a certain way of thinking about the world. Is that the way it so?

Anastasia Powell:

Absolutely. I think it’s a very narrow form of sexuality that we’re seeing in the mainstream culture. And unfortunately what it does is that it actually closes the options down for both women and men rather than actually opening the map and allowing them to negotiate sex on their own terms.

Matt de Neef:

So how does raunch culture today differ from the psycho and sexual liberation of the ’60s?

Anastasia Powell:

I think that raunch culture presents us with ease, a very narrow view of sexuality and certainly the idea of the 1960s, 1970s and certainly a lot feminist activism as being about opening up sexual options. It’s being about trying to encourage women to have greater control over their sexuality to be able to negotiate consensual and pleasurable sex for example. And unfortunately I think what raunch culture has become is a sexuality that is modelled very much on the sex and pornography industries, which in a bit itself might not be a problem. But when it’s presented as the only sexuality that young women can aspire to, I think that’s really limiting.

Matt de Neef:

So, you’ve got a book coming out later this month called ‘Sex, Power and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules’ and as part of that I believe you did a series of interviews with 117 young people, I believe you interviewed. What are the some common themes that emerged with regards to young people’s ideas of sex in love and relationships?

Anastasia Powell:

Well, a key focus of that research was really to talk to young people about the pressures in their relationships. So I started talking to young people in interviews about what they see as the pressures that affect their sexual relationships. And overwhelmingly young women would say time and time again, it’s about pressure to have sex.

The young women would talk about the ways that they feel they couldn’t say no to sex that they didn’t want. But I think more importantly they just felt like they couldn’t negotiate sex in terms of what practices I might go and engage in, what circumstances, am I happy to engage in a sexual encounter. And likewise I think there are also pressures on young men that they talk about which are really about that pressure to be scoring with women or to be saying as somehow sexually successful in a game, structured around a very narrow version of sexuality for both men and women.

Matt de Neef:

So these ideas of like you’re saying in scoring and all of these sort of stuff, is that a symptom of raunch culture?

Anastasia Powell:

No. I think what I find most striking about these experiences that young people talk about is that in fact these experiences aren’t new. Feminists have been talking for over 30 years about the pressures that young women in particular experience around sex the idea that our certain understandings about men’s and women’s roles in relationship create pressures. And they can create a situation where women particularly feel they have to comply to sex that they don’t want. So these aren’t new issues. But I think what has happened in relation to raunch culture is that young women are feeling less able to identify problems with that. They’re felling less able to able to say, "Well, I don’t what it to be that way." Because the whole culture is telling them you should be enjoying this, you should be engaging in this version of sexuality.

Matt de Neef:

We’re seeing now that traditional values and attitudes towards sex and love don’t have as much influence as they might once have. For example, we know now it’s rare for people to go into a marriage not having had sex. Where are Generation Y kids to use a popular phrase getting their sexual queues from now?

Anastasia Powell:

Yeah, well I did ask young people in my interviews about where they get their ideas about their sexual relationships. And you know unsurprisingly they get them from a range of sources. They do talk about popular culture, TV shows, music for instance, movies as one source of information about what goes on in a relationship, what do men and women do in relationships, how did they interact.

They also talk a lot about their family role models, their parent’s relationship for example, what was that like, their brothers and sisters, other relatives that they look up to as having good or bad way of negotiating relationships. And they do of course talk about sexuality education. But it seems to be a rather small part of the puzzle in terms of the information that young people are engaging with.

Matt de Neef:

So with people having sex younger and younger these days, how will our parents to sexualize of their teenagers?

Anastasia Powell:

One thing that young people constantly say, and this is reflected across a range of research as well my own interviews, is that firstly they don’t feel very comfortably taking to their parents about their sexual lives and their sexual encounters

And also they don’t necessarily feel as though their parents want to have that conversation either or that they feel particularly equip to talk about it. And so often young people would prefer to talk to people their own age, you know their friends, their peers, a brother or sister, about their sexual relationships. I think that parents do though need to find ways of talking to young people about their relationships, perhaps not you know in an comfortable way but certainly at least in a way that encourages young people to feel that they can identify when there might be an issues going on and they can seek assistance or help or advice about that.

Matt de Neef:

Is it more important for the parents now than ever before to be involved in this sort of issues of education with regards to sexual relationships?

Anastasia Powell:

I don’t know whether that it’s more important but certainly I think it is an important issue. And I think that often parents do say thought that you know it shouldn’t be just be us. I mean, it should be that as a society, we should decide whether or not some of this sexual content is appropriate for mainstream culture or not. But nonetheless, I think there is a need for parents to sort of engage in those discussions with young people as well.

Matt de Neef:

So in terms of the future, how far do you think raunch culture will go, are we likely to see a reaction towards more conservative values that we sort and is there a reaction to sexual revolution or we heading more in a direction where raunch culture are going to get worse sort to speak.

Anastasia Powell:

Well, I think to me one of the concerning aspects of certainly the debate about raunch culture at the moment, is that it does seem to be going down a path of you know that we should be further restricting sexual content for instance or that we should be further restricting information of the sexual nature. And I think that’s not the right path to take. I think the problem is not the fact that this sexual information there.

I think it is of a narrow form. And that if we can open those discussions with young people about what it means to negotiate consensual sex for example, what it means to negotiate safe sex, then having those discussions opened is actually going to be far more valuable than trying to control or close down sexual content in popular culture.

Matt de Neef:

What about in terms of teen pregnancies? Are we seeing a rise as a result of raunch culture?

Anastasia Powell:

No. To date, we’re not actually seeing any rise in issues around teen pregnancy, for example. In fact, if anything as a result of other changes in relation to feminist activism, we’re seeing women far more likely to delay child birth at a later point. And that in fact, the latest data around safe sex practices for example finds that most teen pregnancies are actually as a result of contraceptive method failure rather than not using contraceptive.

So that is that, the pill or condom for instance just failed rather than young people weren’t actually engaging in safe sex practices. And I think research like that is actually really promising that young people when they provided with the opportunity and the information, they do have the capacity to negotiate sex in safe ways. And I think that’s really important to hold on to.

Matt de Neef:

So another worrying statistics to have come out at the Australian Institute of Criminology recently is that around a third of women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Anastasia Powell:

Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a game reflex I think that is not a new problem. In fact, we’ve identified for over 40 years that women in particular experienced high levels of sexual violence that they most likely to experience that violence at the hands of a known man such boyfriend, partner, acquaintance for instance. And also that it’s young woman in particular aged 16 to 24 that are most likely to experience sexual violence.

And certainly in my own research and discussions with young people and with young women in particular are found that really are concern to them in something that they really struggle in responding to. But also that even though some young men clearly do deliberately engage in acts of sexual violence, the other aspect to this issue is that sometimes young men just struggle to find ways to negotiate consent to have a awareness of consent in a sexual encounter. And this can create a situation where pressured or unwanted sex and sexual violence can occur even though that may not have been the delivered intention in the situation.

Matt de Neef:

So is there’s a difference between sexual violence in what you call unwanted sex?

Anastasia Powell:

The way that I talk about it certainly in the book and in my research is a long continuum of sexual violence and this is taken from feminist researcher, Liz Kelly’s model, where she talks about certainly at one end of the scale these acts of asexual assault that might be likely defined as right for instance, that are a very clearly non-consensual.

And along that continuum, there are instances of sexual harassment or that form of sexual pressures where someone might engage in threats for instance to try and go in someone into sex. But also this subtle area of sexual pressure where it might not be that someone has overtly try to threaten or cohere someone, but nonetheless the situation is one in which ordinarily the woman feels as though she’s unable to refuse that encounter or unable to negotiate sex on her own terms.

Matt de Neef:

I believe the statistics found by the Australian Institute of Criminology are pretty consistent with the statistics around the world. What can we do to address this alarming rate of unwanted sex?

Anastasia Powell:

Yeah, well there’s a number of things that we do as a society that need to take action on in. Certainly, over the past few decades we’ve really paid attention to legal reform changing the law to provide more clarity around what consent means, and that’s an important aspect of the issue. But I think what I found in my research is that young people really want the opportunity to talk about these issues.

They want the opportunity to talk about what consent means, how do you negotiate that with the partner, if you’re unsure how do you ask them about consent, what can you physically say or do to negotiate that in a sexual encounter. And so I think there really is a role for sexuality education and for information campaigns more generally to engage in a discussion about what it means to negotiate ethical sex.

Matt de Neef:

So the people that are interested in learning more about the research you’ve done, your book, ‘Sex, Power and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules" is now available. And I believe that’s available through Cambridge University Press. Is that right?

Anastasia Powell:

Yes, that’s right.

Matt de Neef:

And there’s an official book launch happening on July 30. Dr. Anastasia Powell, thanks so much for joining me today.

Anastasia Powell:

Thanks a lot.

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