Nicola GAVEY


Technologies and Effects of Heterosexual Coercion


From Wilkinson, S. & Kitzinger, C. (1993) Heterosexuality: A feminism and Psychology Reader, London: Sage., pp 93-119.




I am concerned here with explicating some of the ways in which sexual coercion, including ‘unwanted sex', takes place within heterosexual relationships.  It is suggested that dominant discourses on heterosexuality position women as relatively passive subjects who are encouraged to comply with sex with men, irrespective of their own sexual desire. Through the operation of disciplinary power, male dominance can be maintained in heterosexual practice often in the absence of direct force or violence.  The discursive processes that maintain these sets of power relationships can be thought of as 'technologies of heterosexual coercion'.  Extracts from women's accounts of their experiences of unwanted and coerced sex with men are presented to show the operations and effects of these technologies of heterosexual coercion.




To say that women often engage in unwanted sex with men is paradoxically both to state the obvious and to speak the unspeakable.  While this assertion will not come as a surprise to many women, it embodies a subjugated knowledge which usually remains private and hidden.  Unwanted and coerced sex are thus an aspect of some women's experiences of oppression which have remained to a large extent unrecognised, yet implicitly condoned, and even encouraged.


In this study I want to show how language and discourses on sexuality have the power to effect the material practice of heterosexuality in ways that subordinate women.  Dominant discourses on sexuality provide subject positions for women which are relatively passive, and which prescribe compliance with or submission to male initiatives or demands.  This compliance can be seen to be an effect of 'technologies of heterosexual coercion', which reproduce relations of power and dominance in the domain of heterosexual sex such that men's interests take precedence.  My specific focus in this study is an exploration of women's experiences of unwanted and coerced sex within heterosexual relationships.  It has been shown that rape and sexual aggression are relatively prevalent within heterosexual relationships (e.g. Gavey, 1991a, 1991b; Russell, 1982).  Feminists have suggested, however, that recognised forms of sexual violence are only the extreme manifestation of a more pervasive coercive heterosexuality (see Gavey, 1990, for a fuller discussion).  Women can be coerced into having sex with men in many more subtle ways than through physical force, or violence, or the threat of violence (e.g. Finkelhor and Yllo, 1983, 1985; Gavey, 1989, 1990; Muehlenhard and Schrag, 1991).  In this study, I was particularly interested in how to account for those operations of power that do not involve direct force or violence, and/or which appear to involve the woman's consent or, at least, lack of obvious resistance.  Later, I present excerpts from some women's accounts of their experiences of, and their feelings and beliefs about, coercive heterosexual sex.  Some of the instances I discuss involved subtle coercion, while others involved quite obvious coercion or force but were somehow unable to be conceptualised as 'rape' or sometimes even as 'forced', by the woman at the time.  The sorts of dynamics that I look at relate primarily to heterosexual women, but some of the less subtle mechanisms of male sexual coercion will apply more generally to all women.  I do not address the possibility of how some forms of sexual coercion may also operate in similar ways within lesbian sexual relations.





At this point, I very briefly outline a general theory of discourse that provides a framework for the analyses in this study.  From a poststructuralist perspective, language is always located in discourse.  Discourse refers to an interrelated ,system of statements which cohere around common meanings and values ... [that] are a product of social factors, of powers and practices, rather than an individual's set of ideas' (Hollway, 1983: 231).  It is a broad concept referring to ways of constituting meaning which are specific to particular groups, cultures and historical periods.  Discourse both constitutes, and is reproduced in, social institutions, modes of thought and individual subjectivities.  Within any discourse subject positions are available to the individual, but these are not coterminous with the individual (Henriques et al., 1984).  Subject positions offer us ways of being and behaving, and of understanding ourselves and events in our world.  Because of the relationship between discourse, power and subjectivity, most women are likely to be positioned within dominant, prevailing discourses - although these positionings will always be to some extent partial, as they are contested and interrupted by other discursive possibilities.  Indeed, subjectivity is fragmentary and any individual's subjectivity would never be entirely consistent with a unitary subject position from any one discourse.  Rather, subjectivity is a process which is likely to be the transient, always changing, product of a discursive battle (Weedon, 1987) - hence the contradictions and ambiguities in women's experiences.




It is by now widely accepted that what we think of as 'sexuality' is not a natural and pre-existent entity, but rather a social construction.  Thus, sex is not a seething mass of natural drives and urges that our society has repressed, but rather, sexual practices, desires, subjectivities, forms of identity and so on, have been produced and continue to be produced through the 'deployment of sexuality' (Foucault, 1981).  According to Foucault (1980, 1981), sexuality has been 'deployed' in relatively recent times as a domain of regulation and social control.  This theorisation of sexuality allows an understanding of how the positions available to women (and men) in dominant discourses on sexuality are not natural and fixed, and nor are they neutral - sexuality is deployed in ways that are directly related to relations of power.





The analyses presented in this study also rely on some of Michel Foucault's ideas about power.  Central to a Foucauldian analysis of power is the recognition that power is not a unitary force that is independent of us and operates only from the top down, through repression and denial.  Rather, Foucault has argued that over time traditional sovereign forms of power have been intersected with (but not replaced by) what he has called 'disciplinary power' (Diamond and Quinby, 1988).  'Discipline' regulates human life, imposing particular forms of behaviour and 'assuring the ordering of human multiplicities' (Foucault, 1979: 218).  It produces subjected and practised bodies, "docile" bodies' (Foucault, 1979: 138).  In this sense, power is 'positive'.  That is, it is productive and constitutive - it produces meanings, desires, behaviours, practices and so on.  Discipline is infused in multiple and diffuse ways throughout the whole 'social body', and disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility (Foucault, 1979).  Disciplinary power thus works through 'subtle coercion' (Foucault, 1979: 209), making the exercise of power more effective.


The concept of disciplinary power promises fruitful openings for exploring sexual coercion (particularly subtle forms) within heterosexual relationships.  However, the differential, gendered, operations of power through the deployment of sex for men and women must be highlighted (e.g. de Lauretis, 1987; Bartky, 1988).  Disciplinary power may produce 'docile bodies', but there are profound gender differences in the forms this takes with regard to heterosexuality.


Apparent Complicity in Heterosexual Coercion


The concept of disciplinary power allows an understanding of how women may be persuaded into apparent complicity in the process of our own subjugation, through the regulation and normalisation of our subjectivities and behaviours.  The panoptic schema, which Foucault (1979) referred to for illustrating how disciplinary power functions, provides an interesting model for understanding how subjects are enlisted into the service of regulating their own behaviour, thus becoming their own jailers (Bartky, 1988).  The Panopticon is an architectural model (designed by Jeremy Bentham) for a prison, which consists of a central watchtower surrounded by a circular building divided into cells.  Each cell extends the width of the building and has a window on both the outside and inside walls, thus creating an effect of backlighting which makes the cell occupant visible from the central tower.  Furthermore, the central tower is designed so that the observer is not visible to the prisoners in their cells.  This arrangement ensures 'that the surveillance is permanent in its effects' (Foucault, 1979: 201), without needing to be continuous in its action (that is, the supervisor need not always be present).  In this model, power is both visible and unverifiable.  That is, the inmates are constantly aware of the central tower from which they are observed, but they never know if they are being looked at at any one particular time.  Thus, the Panopticon induces 'a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power' (Foucault, 1979: 201).  This model illustrates how subjects can be regulated and normalised through the operation of disciplinary power.


Sandra Lee Bartky (1988: 81), in a feminist Foucauldian analysis of 'femininity', has argued the following:

The woman who checks her makeup half a dozen times a day to see if her foundation has caked or her mascara has run, who worries that the wind or the rain may spoil her hairdo, who looks frequently to see if her stockings have bagged at the ankle or who, feeling fat, monitors everything she eats, has become, just as surely as the inmate of the Panopticon, a self-policing subject, a self committed to a relentless self-surveillance.  This self-surveillance is a form of obedience to patriarchy.  It is also the reflection in the woman's consciousness of the fact that she is under surveillance in ways that he is not, that whatever else she may become, she is importantly a body designed to please or excite.  There has been induced in many women, then, in Foucault's words, a 'state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.


'In contemporary patriarchal culture', Bartky suggested, 'a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women' (Bartky, 1988: 72).  Many parallels can be drawn between Bartky's incisive analysis of the vigilance of some women over their feminine appearance and the 'obedience' of some women in our sexual relations with men.  Women involved in heterosexual encounters are also engaged in self-surveillance, and are encouraged to become self-policing subjects who comply with the normative heterosexual narrative scripts which demand our consent and participation irrespective of our sexual desire.  Thus, while women may not engage in conscious and deliberate submission, disciplinary power nevertheless produces what can be seen as a form of obedience.  While the individual male's behaviour in the interaction is not insignificant, the operations of power involved may transcend his particular actions.




In Foucault's use of the metaphor 'technologies of power', it is suggested that just as we understand technology as a set of applied knowledges and practices that develop and construct material objects in our physical world, which structure that world and mediate our relationship to it and its meaning, so too do social 'technologies' construct and reproduce practices in, and experiences and meanings of, our personal and social worlds.  Teresa de Lauretis (1987: 28) uses the technology metaphor to discuss 'the techniques and discursive strategies by which gender is constructed'.  Thus, gender 'is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalised discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life' (de Lauretis, 1987: 2). Similarly, this metaphor can be extended to understand the ways in which the gender-specific deployment of sexuality enables, if not actually encourages, heterosexual practice which contains much invisible coercion.  That is, the normalising social technologies of sex produce a material practice of heterosexuality in which women are produced as subjects who are encouraged to regulate our own behaviour in ways which comply with androcentric versions of sexuality (see Jackson, 1984, for a discussion of androcentric and heterosexist sexuality).  In these versions of sexuality, heterosexuality is assumed as a given and is 'compulsory' (Rich, 1980), women's sexual desire is relatively neglected and, concomitantly, women often lack power to determine our involvement in heterosexual relations - both in general, and in specific forms of sex.  The practices, knowledges and strategies that reproduce this state of affairs can be thought of as 'technologies of heterosexual coercion'.


The discursive fields in which these power relations are prescribed, enacted and reproduced as social technologies are many and varied.  They would include women's and men's accounts and representations of their heterosexual sexuality and relationships; representations of sexuality and heterosexual relations in popular women’s magazines, film, television, romance and other fiction, pornography and sex manuals; sexology and the practice of sex therapy; practices of contraception; sexual humour; church prescriptions on sexuality; sex education in schools; legislation on sexuality and sexual violence; sociobiological explanations for sexual violence, and so on.  Exploration of the representations of sexuality and heterosexual relations and practice in any one of these areas would also lead to some understanding of the technologies and effects of heterosexual coercion.  In this study, I focus on women's accounts of their sexual experiences with men as one discursive field through which technologies of heterosexual coercion operate.  Women's personal accounts provide direct access to the discourses available to these women, the subject positions offered by these discourses and the ways in which power operates through these discourses, and in relation to specific discursive positionings.


To say that there exist technologies of heterosexual coercion is not to say that it is not possible for women to be positioned in ways in which we do have power and agency in sexual relations with men, and in which our desire is articulated and acted upon (e.g. Hollway, 1984; and see Gavey, 1991c, for a discussion of the missing discourse of desire as it relates to understandings of sexual violence).  There are certainly discourses (e.g. feminisms) that impinge on heterosexuality which do allow such power and desire, although such discourses are not available as yet to all women.  Furthermore, it would be naive to believe that an individual woman will achieve 'liberation' by positioning herself in a feminist discourse on sexuality in an otherwise misogynist material context.  It is important to remember that the continued existence of more brutal forms of male (sexual and non-sexual) violence against women acts as an important signification and reminder of the lack of ultimate control and power that many women have in our sexual and/or other relations with men.  To forget this material condition of women's lives is, perhaps, to move onto the slippery slope of victim-blaming.  There are also other conditions of women's lives, such as economic and social disadvantages, which contribute to what may be seen as women's complicity in our sexual coercion.  These conditions can frame or contextualise the prospect of engaging in unwanted sex in a way that makes it seem like the best of all possible options to the woman involved.


Next, I describe some of the experiences that women have recounted to me, and show, by reference to their discursive framing of the experience, some of the operations and effects of technologies of heterosexual coercion.





The descriptions and analyses that follow are based primarily on interviews with six women, but are also informed by several earlier interviews and, to a certain extent, my own experiences and informal conversations with women over many years.  All of the six women could be described as articulate, educated, middle class, heterosexual, Pakeha[1].' They included friends, acquaintances and friends of friends.  The process through which they became involved in the research was initiated either at their suggestion, my suggestion or the suggestion of a third party in the context of discussions about my research topic.  They were chosen because they were interested in participating in the research, and not because they had identified themselves as having had any particular sorts of experiences - in fact, several expressed the reservation that their experiences of sex with men had been very ordinary, and that they might not have anything to say that would be of interest to me.


Informed consent was obtained from all the women and utmost care has been taken to protect their anonymity and confidentiality.  Four of the women were interviewed in their own homes, one in my home and one in her workplace office.  I was interested in talking with the women ~ some of their experiences of unwanted and/or coerced sex within heterosexual relationships or at least potentially appropriate heterosexual encounters.  The interviews were not formally structured by adherence to a schedule of questions.  Most of the interviews began with me asking the woman to describe her ideas about what an ideal sexual relationship between a woman and a man would be like.  I then asked her how typical she thought her description would be for most of her relationships, or for most women's heterosexual relationships.  I then facilitated a discussion, using her answer as a starting point, which moved onto her experiences of unwanted or coerced sex with men.  It was usually productive to trace in detail some particular experiences or relationships.  The interviews were taped and then fully transcribed.  All of the six women were consulted about the way I had written their accounts into my first draft, and they all agreed that what I had written was acceptable to them.


From such limited sampling of almost exclusively Pakeha women, I obviously do not intend to make statements which are universally applicable to 'Women'.  I do assume, however, that these women, whose experiences I represent and whose accounts I reproduce in part, are not unusual or idiosyncratic in any notable way.  I regard their accounts not so much as individual constructions, but rather as personalised versions of a limited number of available culturally and historically specific shared interpretive repertoires (Potter and Wetherell, 1987).  Even so, I acknowledge that it is not possible adequately to represent the diversity of experiences, both within and between, women.  Differences in women's experiences according to culture, race, age, class, religion and sexual orientation, for example, may occur in ways I cannot imagine (e.g. see Fine, 1988, for a discussion concerning black and Latina young women from predominantly low-income families in New York City).  Thus, I offer these descriptions and analyses as a partial account which may or may not resonate for individual women readers and for particular groups of women.


I now go on to discuss a number of overlapping themes under which I have organised aspects of the data of women's accounts.  These themes were chosen from my reading of the interview transcripts, although some of them have also arisen in looking at other data (e.g. Gavey, 1989, 1990), and have developed in conjunction with a broader background of reading, thinking and talking about these issues.





Through the normalising discourses of heterosexuality a tyranny of inferred ,normality' appears to be one of the mechanisms that operate to regulate the heterosexual behaviour of women.  In many instances women have recounted experiences in which their knowledge (and lack of knowledge) about what was ‘normal' - in terms of what to expect and what to do - in relation to sex with men, determined their sexual practice.  It seems that there exists a powerful cultural narrative that structures and constitutes actual heterosexual encounters.  Sometimes the regulating and normalising characteristics of this hegemonic narrative can be seen to work by precluding knowledge of acceptable alternatives, and sometimes it appears to be manifest in a subtly different form whereby participants have an active desire to be normal.  The desire to be normal, and the concomitant fear of being abnormal (which I will discuss later as a somewhat different dynamic), seem to act as powerful determinants of sexual behaviour for women, in some instances.


One obvious area where dominant discourses on heterosexuality regulate practice is by governing the frequency of sexual interaction for heterosexual couples.  This was explicitly articulated by one woman:


MARILYN: But I do think to myself, 'How long ago was it, um, and, and so how long can we sort of acceptedly put it off for?'

NICOLA: And what do you think is a- you know, what's your answer about that? What's acceptable?

MARILYN: Well, well, my, my answer, is um, (pause) at the moment, I, I sort of think to myself that once a month is alright, I'm doing okay, . . . but I mean, that's like, really changed.  Beforehand I would have - a, a year ago - would have been like, if I could- I couldn't have sex twice a week, you know, I felt guilty, I felt bad about it.  I'd, I would make myself sort of want to do it, or, or no I wouldn't want to but, you know, I would feel bad if it didn't happen twice a week.


The standard heterosexual narrative seems to dictate the situations in which sex is required as well as the form it will take.  For example, we are all familiar with the dominant assumption that heterosexual intercourse (coitus) is synonymous with 'real' sex.  For instance:


CHLOE: I'd say just about every time that we had any sort of sexual contact it was culminated in sexual intercourse.

LEE: ... sex, which was- which in our case meant coitus.


So, as Bland (1981: 67) has said, 'the displacement of the sex act as penetration from the centre of the sexual stage remains a task still facing us today'.  Situations where there is the possibility for this standard narrative, including a 'coital imperative' (Jackson, 1984: 44), to be exaggerated include relationships where sexual interaction is not possible at the home of either partner (e.g. young women and men who are living at home with their parents) and situations when women are having 'affairs' with men.  Elaborate steps may be required for the two to get to spend time together, or the time together may be so limited that the inevitability of sex (usually sexual intercourse) taking place becomes predictable, and consequently the option for the woman to not engage in sex if she doesn't feel like it may be curtailed.  For example:


LEE: ... sometimes we'd, we'd prearrange.  We'd say okay, we're going to meet at such and such a time in such and such a place, and, I mean sometimes that might be a motel room, sometimes that might be, um, on a beach, when nobody else was around.  And I suppose the implicit understanding was that we would have sex, which was- which in our case meant coitus. (pause) Um, so there were those times, I mean- and having, having prearranged those (pause) those meetings, I mean, I, I suppose I had a sense of- I'd always hoped that it would - I’d be really turned on, it would be wonderful and all that sort of stuff, but if I wasn't, um, I'd feel really silly if I, if I then said 'sorry I've dragged you out here but-'

NICOLA: Because it's such a um effort to make the time to see each other?

LEE: Yeah.  So there was that pressure given that we'd simply arrange to meet, in the understanding was that we would have sex.  I mean, you'd hardly get in, book into a motel room, I mean (laughter) go to a huge amount of effort to get rid of my child, to get, for him to be able to um put his work on hold and all those sorts of things and, living in a small town to sort of creep around the back streets and make sure no one had seen you.  Then to have done all that and then say, 'I'm sorry, actually, I just wanted a cuddle and a cup of tea' (laughter).


This woman had been in an ongoing relationship with that man, on and off, over a period of several years, and, with the exception of their first sexual encounter, it had never really been sexually exciting.  Nevertheless, the discursive framing, which includes the material practice, of these encounters made the possibility of an ending without heterosexual intercourse seem 'silly' (Lee).  Another woman, who had been having a relationship with a married man over a 14-year period, described a similar phenomenon:


PAT: If we went away to the beach he would drink quite a bit and I'd, I detest being made love to when somebody's been drinking.  I absolutely detest it, I think it's, it's revolting and they stink and I- they're not all there, and, um, that was when he was at his most insistent, and that was when he took ages to actually have an orgasm because he'd drunk too much and I used to detest it.  And, um (pause) because we hardly- because we didn't have many weekends together I used to go along with it.


This dynamic rendered her a passive object of the sexual interaction:


PAT: And I mean (pause, sighs), because we never had many weekends together I just used to sort of let him get on with it.  But I (laughing) can't say that I was (pause), you know, a, a full participant.


The same narrative can be seen to govern the behaviour of young women who are relatively new to heterosexual relationships with men.  One woman (Ann) described a series of 'one-night stands' when she was around 14 to 16 years of age:


ANN: Yeah, it wouldn't have occurred to me to have said no. (long pause) And also that feeling of, 'well, I've led them on', you know, 'I've led them on this far, I've, I've done these things, I've gotten a bit drunk, I've danced a certain way, I've got in the car, we've come to the park'.  And there is still, remember, very much that feeling where, you know, I mean, if you led boys on then that's what you did.  Whereas, when I think about it, I think, well, did I, when I was sort of leading them on, did I want to have it to end in penetrative sex?  I don't think I did really.  I think it was just more the enjoying of the flirting, I mean I was definitely quite flirtatious and enjoying of the attention that that got me, um- but then sort of the getting in the car, it was like, well, it was like, you just had to pay your dues really, for the other three hours of flirting, you know.


This narrative also seems to operate in situations which are not so obviously constrained by limited opportunities for time together:


CHLOE: Like he always, when I used to stay the night a couple of times a week, he'd always wanted to have sexual intercourse in the morning and that was just, that was just how it was.  Like, you know, you had a fuck then you got up and you had a cup of tea then you had your breakfast. (laughs) And I never really enjoyed sex.  And I mean I just thought, you know, like I didn't even question it. There was nothing- There was so much taking the cue from the guy.  There was, I don't know how, I guess I just wasn't tuned into my own feelings or that, or I couldn't have gone through with it.  Because, you know, that person wanted me, and I was in a relationship, we were going out together and, isn't this what everybody does?  And, you know, all that sort of stuff.  Most unpleasant.





Not only do women sometimes engage in unwanted sex with men because it does not occur to us to question it, but also, sometimes, we do not have the language to be able to say no.  For example, one woman spoke of the pressure on girls when she was younger to be 'promiscuous':


NICOLA: Where was that pressure coming from?

ANN: (Gap) . . . it's partly having the language to say no.  Like, this sort of amorphous feeling of, 'Ooh, I'm not sure about this', but having the language to say it, and, and, and also I guess, feeling that if you said it, it would have any effect.  Because there is always that fear that you could say no and it would carry on anyway, and, and being physically less, and then you'd be raped sort of thing, and then it would be terrible.


This woman said that she had been recently talking to her friend about these experiences they'd had together as teenagers, and had reconceptualised them as sort-of-rape:


ANN: I was saying to my friend, Kelly, the other day, it was amazing how . . .we weren't raped as teenagers, you know, like the things we used to do.  And then I thought, well we were sort of raped, really, when you think we were driven off in cars and we would end up in the park somewhere and we would have sort of boys having sexual experiences with us that we didn't- We often like it was quite disgusting, like 'wasn't he revolting, his body was so awful', mmm and a sense of, um, being isolated too, like not knowing, you know, you are by yourself with this boy and there is always that physical difference in strength, you know ...


Another woman described how, once intercourse had started, she had a feeling of total lack of control over the process:


CHLOE: I just realise the total lack of my belief in any right to say to somebody. Like if someone was standing on my foot I'd fucking tell her- Someone's got their penis in my vagina and they're grinding away and I don't feel able to ask them to stop.  It's just ridiculous!  Honestly, it's just the pits.  I mean there's a hell of a lot of powerful stuff going on-


Another woman said:


PAT: There've been times in my life when I have really felt like . 'What the hell did I go to bed with that man for?  Why am I doing this, I must be mad.  Why can't I say no?', you know.  It's it's (pause) it's very hard, I find it- I have in the past found it very difficult to say no to a guy who wants to go to bed with me.  Very difficult.  Practically impossible, in fact.  Not to someone I've just met, but to someone that I'm, I've known a while, and been to bed with.  If you've been to bed with them once, then there's no reason why, that you shouldn't go to bed with them again in their heads.  And of course (pause), I mean, you can see that point of view (laughing).


This difficulty, or near impossibility, of saying no can render women almost unrapeable'.  As Ann noted, in the extract quoted, part of her difficulty in having the language to say no was related to her fear that it may have no effect.  So, instead of risking being raped, she did not say no, therefore not signalling her non-consent prevented whatever followed from being construed as rape.  Similarly, Pat noted incidents - one with a relative stranger and one within the context of her ongoing relationship - in which she did not signal her nonconsent, thus rendering herself unrapeable.  In the incident with the relative stranger, she had gone to his home and he had used 'emotional blackmail' (Pat) to coerce her to have sex with him:


PAT: He actually said, you know, 'you've come over here and, if you didn't want to make love, why did you come?' and, a lot of stuff like that.  That actually probably stunned me a bit because it was really the first time anyone's put it on to me in such a heavy way in words.


They ended up having sex (Pat: 'and he said all these things, and he, you know, started undressing me and I just, you know, gave up, I suppose'), in which he was physically rough (Pat: 'He bit my thighs and he bit my breasts and [pause] um [pause] I had fingermarks on me as well and, and my legs and, and breasts were terribly bruised for two or three weeks ... I was terrified.  I was really quite scared, because he was quite violent.') Nevertheless, she did not consider this event to be rape:


NICOLA: So when you look back on that do you consider that to be sexual assault,

PAT: Oh yeah,

NICOLA: Yeah, or rape?

PAT: Well I wasn't raped, raped, because I did- I- See, I've actually never been raped, but I mean really it's a fine line, isn't it, between saying yes, whether you want to or not, to somebody like that, that I didn't really want to go to bed with.  Ah, I've, I mean I suppose I've been (pause, sighing) sort of pushed around (pause) but, but not hurt.  Just (pause) manhandled (long pause) but not (pause) violently. (Gap)

He, he didn't rape me, because I really more or less consented.

NICOLA: And how did you consent?

PAT: I (pause) acquiesced, in my actions, but not my words.  I didn't say 'oh, okay', I just let him get on with it.

NICOLA: So what would have been, what would have made that rape in your


PAT: Well, if I'd sort of- a- If I had tried to keep my clothes on (pause), and he'd taken them off, or if he'd simply forced his way into me without even bothering to take my clothes off. (pause) I, I can remember the odd occasion when, (pause) when, I've been forced into having intercourse, (pause) but (pause, sighs) I've never really felt as though I was raped.  I mean I didn't even really feel I was- I didn't feel as though I was raped then.  I'm- my (pause) um, my feelings on that occasion, were (pause) I'd had a very narrow squeak.  Because I really- (pause) he (pause) I was, (pause), I, I do think, I remember feeling I had actually overreacted, because probably he wasn't going to do any more than he did.


This woman also described occasions of having been forced to have sexual intercourse by her lover (who was married to someone else, but was her primary sexual partner).  These instances occurred during periods in their long relationship when they had decided either to 'just be friends' (Pat) or to not see each other any more.  Her lover was never violent but, in fact, he did not need to be in order to exercise control over the situation.


PAT: Anyway (pause) he'd come in and he'd kiss me.  Well that's fine, but kiss, there are kisses and kisses and our kisses are always reasonably sexual kisses.  So, you know, I would only let those go on for, sort of 30 seconds or so and then I'd back off, you see.  Well, if he was feeling like being difficult about this he wouldn't let me back off and he would keep on kissing me, and he would keep on touching me and he would manoeuvre me into the bedroom.

NICOLA: And so it- would you still be trying to back off during this time?

PAT: Well, I probably wouldn't be trying that hard or, maybe I- but I mean, I, I, I mean I wouldn't- I mean if I really got absolutely angry and furious and got into a physical struggle with him, he would simply never have persisted.


So (pause) while I say, he'd, he'd (pause) he'd made love to me by force, if I had really yelled and screamed or even raised my voice or, or, or hit him, or - which I would never have done - he would have stopped.  So, really, it's probably, it's- they're just games we played.


... when I think about it, um, I know perfectly well (pause) because of the sort of person he is that if I really said 'absolutely no, no, no, not on any cir...under any circumstances', then he wouldn't have persisted, but then, you see, the other thing to that is, that maybe I wouldn't actually say 'absolutely no, no, no, not under any circumstances', in case he never came back again.


So, although this woman believed that her lover would have stopped forcing her to have sex if she had clearly and unambiguously resisted him, this man would never have had to entertain the possibility of using violence to exercise power or control in this relationship, because of the high improbability of her ever resisting him.  These seem to be clear examples of the effects of disciplinary power efficiently operating to regulate a woman's behaviour so that force and violence are not necessary to maintain relations of power which favour a man's sexual interests.





In some instances, women do not perceive that consent or non-consent represent distinct choices.  For example, '[when I was younger] I don't think I was aware of (pause) what it meant not to [have sex], or to say no' (Ann).  This is not surprising when we notice that both consent and non-consent are different options available to a woman in response to something that is being done to her (Garnier Barshis, 1983).  When dominant discourses on women's sexuality are structured around consent, and they neglect more active notions such as desire, it is little wonder that women often don't really understand the concept of consent in a way that is meaningful to us.  As Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby (1988: 200) have noted, 'given the current mechanisms of power in our society, sexual consent is often a function of disciplinary power'.  One woman told me of her teenage sexual experiences with her boyfriend, in which she performed the role of sexual partner which she assumed was demanded by her chosen position as a girlfriend. (As someone who did extremely well at schoolwork, in a school where academic achievement was not positively valued among her peers, the status of being a particular sort of boy's girlfriend was desired by her as a part of her quest for social acceptability among female friends, rather than for any intrinsic rewards of the relationship.) She was 14 when the relationship with her first boyfriend began.  It was a relationship in which she perceived that it was necessary for her to have sex with him in order for her to have the relationship with him:


MARILYN: Oh yeah, yeah, definitely.  It was the- you know, that was like what, well that was all it was really.  I mean, he would never- we'd never have talked about anything.  We would've gone out, but as part of a group, and um then it was just accepted that whenever we went out we would end up having sex in his car or something, afterwards.


The actual sexual experiences were undesired and totally unsatisfying for this woman.  Her boyfriend was 'not a skilled lover', and 'he made no attempt to, um (pause) be affectionate' (Marilyn).  Furthermore, the actual details of the scene of sexual intercourse were far from ideal: 'we'd gone to a carpark, and he had a, sort of horrible old, um car, and then- and he propped the, the um front seats up with paint cans, and made me lie in the back with my legs out the window' (Marilyn).  Sexual intercourse itself was seemingly totally unconnected to her sexual desire:


MARILYN: I didn't really like having it, but, I pushed that away and I could do it without thinking about it.  I never enjoyed it, I never had an orgasm or anything like that, but I mean, and I never got any feeling from it at all, but-

NICOLA: Any feeling, um physical feeling?

MARILYN: Any physical feeling, any (pause), no I don't even think I got any

emotional feeling really.  I didn't really feel that I needed to be loved by him and this was how he showed me that he loved me or anything like that.


However, 'the worst thing about having sex really was the contraception thing' (Marilyn).  Her boyfriend refused to use condoms responsibly, and so she was regularly having unprotected sexual intercourse:


MARILYN: It was a terrible stress you know, I mean I really, it dominated how I thought about things all the time.  I felt, I was worried about it all the time : ' 1, I worried.  Probably, probably for about um two years I would have been just hysterical with worry.


MARILYN: I was really frightened of getting pregnant all the time, every, every month I would just lie in bed petrified with fear about what I was going to do.  I used to think if I got pregnant I would commit suicide, and I knew how to do it.  I used to write, I actually wrote a letter to the New Zealand Women's Weekly pretending to be a young mother worried about my children eating poison, around the house, and said 'which ones should be locked up?', so I could find out what would kill you.  And that was what I would do, that is what I thought I would do.


Despite the sexual experiences with her boyfriend being, at best, what could be described as only tolerable, and despite extreme anxiety about pregnancy, to the extent of potentially fatal consequences, she said, 'I never would have ever, ever thought of saying no or yes, you know, until I was, until a few years ago' (Marilyn).  It is difficult, therefore, to understand these experiences in neutral terms, merely as a young woman having been persuaded (definitely not even 'seduced') to have sexual intercourse with a young man.  Her own appraisal of the situation, based on her knowledge of supposedly 'normal' behaviour between men and women, meant that sex was required and compulsory.  There was no room for her own sexual desire.  Her behaviour (or her body, if you like) became inscribed through this technology of heterosexual coercion, so that she complied with and submitted to unwanted sexual intercourse.  No direct male force was necessary to 'encourage' or make her enact this subservient sexual role, in which her body was subjugated to a man's sexual wants.  She was, thus, under self-surveillance and acted as a self-policing subject, to use the language of disciplinary power.  Furthermore, the 'architecture' of the situation - an old car parked in a carpark at night, would have probably mitigated against both her desire and her control.





The fear of being 'abnormal' is not an unrealistic fear, as the women I spoke with recounted various ways in which they were unfavourably positioned by male partners or rapists, or by themselves or others, for being sexually unwilling or unresponsive.  This ranged from the subtle to the extreme, and the price to pay can be high for women who resist, or whose experiences do not conform to, the implicit common-sense scripts for normal sexual behaviour for women.  I think that this dynamic, in which women are aware of specific consequences for not behaving in a certain way, is different from the dynamic discussed earlier, in which a woman's behaviour is regulated by implicit and explicit norms, in the absence of particular insights into the effects of transgressing these norms.


One woman told me about having been raped when she was 19 (10 years previously) by her 30-year-old flatmate (with whom there had been no prior sexual contact, or even 'flirtatiousness' [Ann]).


ANN: ... he was in the bed with me, and I was being woken up with him sort of groping me, as it were, and I was quite disorientated, and thinking God, it's Ralph, you know, he's in bed with me ... (gap) I mean it all happened quite quickly really, but I remember thinking quite clearly, 'Well if I don't- If I try and get out of bed, perhaps if I run away or something ... he might rape me (pause) so I had better just...

NICOLA: If you try and run away you mean?

ANN: If I tried it, if I'd resisted, then he might rape me, you know.  So he did anyway, sort of thing, really, when you think about it, when I look back.


Although she did not conceptualise the experience as rape at the time, he had been rough, and had left her bleeding and, later, frightened, 'confused', 'nervous within the house' (Ann) and hypervigilant about making sure she was never asleep before he'd gone to bed.  However, it was not just the direct consequences of the rape that she had to contend with.  Ralph asked her on subsequent nights if she wanted to 'come and sleep with me tonight?' (Ann), to which she refused.  In the aftermath, she was constructed and positioned, by Ralph, the man who raped her, as well as her other male flatmate, as 'sexually uptight' (Ann):


ANN: And then what happened after that was that I got this image of being this uptight (pause) bitch and this, uptight little pain.  You know, I got the image of being quite- I got the reputation within the flat with him and David because it had- I think it had been a bit of a joke between them, that I was a sort of uptight, I was pretty uptight.  And I did get quite uptight, I did get quite uptight. (Gap)

NICOLA: Do you remember, um, you know, you said the next morning you felt like you- couldn't, it's not something you wanted to talk about.  Do you have a sense of why that was, you know, what was about it?

ANN: I remember thinking it was me.  Like (pause), 'cause this guy, Ralph, used to have lots of women around and used to sleep with lots of women, and I always knew that, and so did David, the other flatmate, and I remember thinking 'it's me not understanding how things work in Melbourne or how things work with older people, or how I should be if I wasn't uptight'.


ANN: But our relationship, like I say, changed.  I became quite, um (pause), he used to call me, they used to say 'Miss Prissy', 'Here's Miss Prissy', 'Here she comes in', and you know, 'Here's Miss Prissy', and it's like, 'Oh for God's sake, it was just a, just a bit of nothing'.  And I didn't ever confront him about it.


This positioning may have had lasting effects for this woman:

NICOLA: Do you think that that was significant in terms of like the way you saw yourself and the way you felt about yourself?

ANN: Yeah I do.  It's funny that, I've never thought about that before.  But I still have that feeling sometimes that it's me, it's my fault if I don't want sex or I'm being uptight, or um (pause) If there's, ah maybe, another relationship since then if there has been things I haven't wanted to do I've often felt like (pause) I shouldn't be uptight, you know, I should be more- I think that thing of me being a bit uptight.  That was the big thing, the big word that was labelled on me, that was exactly how I was seen after that...


One woman, who was violently sexually assaulted in her first marriage (approximately 30 years previously), at the time couldn't understand why she not only didn't enjoy sex with her husband, but found it physically painful.  She wasn't aware that what was happening, behind closed doors, in her new marriage, was unusual: 'And I suppose I just really didn't know, I thought that was normal' (Rosemary).  Her husband was having sex with her 'seven or eight or ten times a night, and through the day, and I was pregnant' (Rosemary).  She went to her doctor, because of the severe pain she was suffering:


ROSEMARY: And I went to the doctor about it and he just told me that I was, um, psychologically (pause) you know, undone, . . . I mean he virtually actually said to me that I was insane.  And then my husband, just used to jump up and down on the bed every night, you know, telling me the same thing.  And um, and I used to wake up in the morning and he'd be penetrating me before I was even awake, and when I was pregnant, I mm, it was just so painful, I just couldn't bear it.


Eventually, she came to believe that she might be schizophrenic:


ROSEMARY: Well I thought there was, definitely thought there was something wrong with me and, more particularly, because I think at that same stage I found out that my father's father was schizophrenic.  And so, and so I definitely made the link, and thought, well, you know, there's a chance that I am as well.  And so I thought that I had these problems and, and, and couldn't, and just couldn't understand why I couldn't, um (pause), you, you know, couldn't get any pleasure out of being with him, and why it was so painful.  You know, why people talked about it as being so wonderful, and why, for me, it was just absolute agony.


Other women report experiences which are perhaps more subtle than this, but nevertheless involve a form of violence.  One woman spoke of arguments over sex in a long-term relationship of about four years:


CHLOE: And, um, really getting, like getting into major arguments because I didn't want to have sex.  Like, that- not actually being forced to have sex, but sometimes saying yes when I didn't really want to-

NICOLA: To avoid the argument?

CHLOE: Yeah.  And the argument standing out as the most unpleasant thing.  Things like actually being called a fucking bitch and having the door slammed.  And trying always to explain that it didn't mean that I didn't care because I didn't want to have sex, but never ever succeeding.


One woman discussed her problem of having no sexual desire for her husband (whom she said she loved and, otherwise, had a good relationship with), and disliking having sex with him, yet feeling sexually attracted to a man she did not want a long-term relationship with.  She told me about how she had gone to see a counsellor to seek some clarification about this 'ambivalence' and 'dilemma' (Marilyn).  The counsellor seemed to avoid addressing this woman's problem, which left her frustrated and worried.


MARILYN: And so I thought to myself, well God, maybe it's such a terrible problem that, you know, she just can't believe it, or she's really shocked by it, or never heard it before.


Another woman talked about her feelings of inadequacy about not feeling like having sex with her boyfriend who had taken her with him on an overseas trip he had won:


CHLOE: I remember sitting on the bed and him sort of making some suggestion that we made love or something and just not wanting to, just knowing that I didn't want to and just absolute- this feeling of absolute gloom sinking over and feeling really bad about myself too, because I didn't want to, and knowing that I wasn't actually prepared to, or able to, override it this time or any more, or whatever.  And being there for ten days and going to this- oh, that made it really hard again because, this fantastic island, and fruit for breakfast, and sort of staying at the most expensive hotel. . . (Gap)

Feeling like I'd come on this holiday with him and that somehow I wasn't doing my bit. . . . Um, that I was spoiling it for him.  Yeah, just somehow that I wasn't doing what I should be doing.  And just, yeah, just feeling like, even when I talk about it now, I sort of feel like I've got concrete in my legs.  It's that sort of feeling of, um, (pause) it is, it- like it's a choice, sure, I'm saying I don't want to have sex, but it isn't a choice because I didn't have anywhere to go from there.


Another woman described her guilt around not feeling like having sex with her current partner, despite not feeling directly pressured by him:


ANN: I feel perfectly able to say no.  I mean, I'm never pressured into it, but there is sometimes that feeling of guilt that, oh maybe I should, because, you know, it is, he is a lovely man, does these things, but you know, um.  And I don't know why I have that, 'maybe I should'.  It's me more than him, you know, but there is that slight feeling of guilt.


Other women have noted the restraints of such positionings, and how this has affected their behaviour in heterosexual encounters.  For example: 'I'd still feel like I was being a bit prudish by saying "no"' (Lee), 'if we were still in contact now, I'd also feel, still feel um, prudish, and frigid and a bit unfair if I didn't, um, if I wasn't sexually responsible to him' (Lee).  These sorts of negative positionings - which contribute to the constitution of a woman's identity, feelings and behaviour - are clear examples of some of the more obviously negative effects of technologies of heterosexual coercion.






In the face of a strong imperative for women to have sex with male partners irrespective of their sexual desire, some women act according to the dictates of nurturance or pragmatism, so that they are able to 'go along with sex' in the absence of sexual desire.  This is a sense in which, as Diamond and Quinby (1988:201) noted, 'discourse within the technology of sexuality manufactures and conceals disciplinary power'.  For, as Foucault (1981:86) noted, 'power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself'.  Such instances of women deciding to have sex with a man because he appears so 'needy' or 'pathetic', or she wants to give him something, or take care of him, or not hurt his feelings, can be seen to arise out of discourses on male sexual needs and female nurturance.  Women discussed the operation of this dynamic in relation to their 'acquiescing' or 'consenting' to sexual intercourse with a male partner, but also in relation to not confronting or reporting a man who had committed acquaintance rape.  The act of choosing to give sex may or may not be unpleasant and, indeed, it would be unnecessary to imagine that all nurturant 'giving of sex' reflects an act of submission in the face of relations of dominance.  As one woman summed it up:


ANN: Sometimes there is giving of, of your own accord and sometimes there is giving because you feel you have to.

NICOLA: Yeah, so that's a distinction you'd make, too, between the giving thing.

ANN: Mm, giving spontaneously and giving begrudgingly.


One woman talked about her long-term 'affair with a married man', in which she had been consistently sexually 'available', because 'sex is always frightfully, frightfully important to him', 'he can't live without it' (Pat):


PAT: Now (pause) the sex was a, actually has been quite an important part of that.  But, I have often gone to bed with him when I haven't really wanted to, when I haven't felt that I wanted to.  And I've (pause) what you do is, you simply, um, suppress your own needs, because what he wants is to go to bed with you and you tell yourself it really doesn't matter much either way.


This woman was in somewhat of a bind, because her sexual 'availability' and responsiveness were probably perceived by her as central to her relationship.  As she noted:


PAT: Oh, I've said no to him occasionally, but hardly ever, hardly ever.  And ,cause, you see, he- That was absolutely wonderful to him.  The fact that I never ever turned him down.  I mean, it was of major importance in his life, that I never said no.


Another woman described vividly how her partner's neediness, which was unappealing to her, nevertheless made it difficult for her not to have sex with him:


LEE: ... it wasn't that he was unkind, though.  And I suppose that made it even worse.  I mean if he had been, um, despicable, and power hungry and all those other sort of macho type things, then, 1, I'd have no problems really in sort of metaphorically kicking him in the balls (laughing).  But because he wasn't like that.  He was actually quite cute, and, and pathetic- Ahh, that's what it is, and that's what used to turn me off as well.  It was pathetic.

NICOLA:     The way that he-

LEE: Pleaded.  And wanted to have sex with me.  And so I'd land up feeling sorry for him.  I'd certainly land up feeling turned off.


It was me feeling sorry for him.  Him, he had these big sort of puppy dog eyes and (laughs).  You just imagine little sort of tears running out of them, 'Oh, please, mummy'.


Women have often mentioned that it is easier to 'let sex happen', than to keep resisting when they don't want it.  Thus, pragmatic ends, such as getting some sleep, can also enter into the decision.  For example, one woman described a situation in which she'd allowed a lover to stay the night when he was in town on business.  She'd said to him, "I don't want to make love, but come and stay", and he said, "Oh, okay, that'll be fine, I, I promise I won't touch" sort of thing' (Lee), but once he was there:


LEE: ... he kept saying, just, just, let me do this or just let me do that and that will be all.  And, and, I mean this could go on for an hour, sort of thing, and, I, I mean I just wanted to go to sleep really (amused) when I had a busy day the next day (both laughing).  So, in the end, in order to do that, in order to both go to sleep and for him to um, to finally relax, I mean he, he seems to be an amazingly sexual person, and I can just feel that sexual sort of energy there and he, he's no sooner going to go to sleep than fly to the moon.  So, so after maybe an hour of, um, saying, me saying, 'no', and him saying 'Oh come on, come on' (pause) um I'd finally think 'Oh my, God, I mean, (laugh) for a few, for a few hours rest I may as- Peace and quiet, I may as well'. (pause) Um, I mean I'm not quite sure how I'd translated all those sorts of messages, but I suppose, I suppose he knew when I was saying okay (laughing), we may as well.  So we made love, if you can call it that.


As may be expected, consenting to sex for nurturant or pragmatic reasons is not always neutral in its effect on the woman concerned.  One woman who had discussed a relationship that was characterised by what she came to redefine as sexual coercion, commented on some of the emotional costs of her involvement in this.


NICOLA: Do you think, um, there were emotional costs from that, sort of, directly related to that, sort of sexual, what you're calling sexual coercion?

LEE: Um, yeah, I think, I think there was.  I think, I think there was for our friendship. (Gap) ... I didn't respect myself 1, I guess in, in my relationship with him ... 1, I gave, yeah, no, I gave away, I gave away some of my power I guess.  I allowed him to exert some power over me.


When sex is engaged in for pragmatic reasons, it can take on specific meaning as something which is mundane, an ordinary physical activity (see also Gavey, 1989).  One woman described some of the things she would be saying to herself under the pressure of a lover trying to get her to have sex with him:


LEE: One was that, um, oh, why don't you just say 'yes', I mean it's, it's a nothing- it's like, having sex is like getting up and having breakfast... (Gap)

I think in a way that, um, I was going to say, that was a way of making it, making the ordinariness of it okay.  I think it was just ordinary, it is just like having a cup of tea.

NICOLA: It's a way of making the ordinariness of it okay?

LEE: Mmm, so rather than it being really special and exciting. . .


Perhaps the ultimate pragmatic reason for apparently 'consenting' to (i.e. not resisting) sex, is to avoid being 'raped'.  Examples of this are discussed in the section on women not having the language to say no to sex.


Not only may nurturance lead to women's compliance with unwanted sex, but it may also he implicated in actions which, following rape, protect a man from negative consequences.  For example, Ann said in relation to her experience of being raped by her flatmate:


ANN: We just make it easier, it's like- and he doesn't have to think of it as rape.  It's just what he does to women that he wants to sleep with, you know, he wants to fuck with, I mean, you know, but- He doesn't ever have to confront his behaviour, or the effects of it, um, and because, you sort of protect them from it. You know.  And you internalise the distressing effects of it as well so that they don't - as the victim or whatever - have to see you as the victim or whatever, so they don't even have to see the distressing effects.


I remember thinking, oh well, maybe I wore my nightie around the house a bit too often, or maybe I encouraged him in some way or, you know, he was just being friendly, he was drunk and, you know.  I really did think about it in such a way as to not blame him although I acted, my behaviour towards him and my attitudes certainly conveyed that, that I was pissed off.  And I remember thinking I shouldn't be so uptight, I must be nicer to them, but it was like I just couldn't stop myself, I just couldn't, my body just couldn't bring itself to be-


She described how she would react differently now, in a way that would clarify it as rape, if the same thing happened:


ANN: If it happened now, if he got into my, if somebody got into my bed like that, a flatmate, and I said- I would be a lot stronger for a start.  I wouldn't say 'What are you doing Ralph, you are in the wrong bed, I think maybe you should go back to your own bed', or whatever, I would say 'Fuck off'.  And um, 1, I think I'd really- it's funny, I don't know if, 1, I mean I can imagine I could get raped now, but I would really fight it, I'd just fight it every, every- I mean I'd physically fight it much harder.  I mean I really would.  I wouldn't just go rigid and say nothing and- . . . if that happened 1, I would have done anything, pinched him, bitten him, scratched him, scraped him, anything.  And if it still had have happened, I would have pressed charges, you know, I would have, yeah.  And I guess part of that in a way, by resisting so strongly it would have built it up to the point which 1, then made it easier to conceptualise as rape.




The very fact that the women I spoke with related experiences which they recognised as undesired, unwanted and not enjoyed - despite often being within socially acceptable parameters - represents the necessary preconditions for resistance.  That is, these women's positionings as subjugated heterosexual subjects was not complete and uncontested.  Their experiences of dissatisfaction, and perceived coercion and abuse, highlight that the production of women as compliant subjects in the heterosexual script is not always completely successful.  Some of the women I spoke with had come to a new point in their lives, whereby in positioning themselves within a feminist discourse on sexuality, they were able to access the power to resist those traditional injunctions to have sex irrespective of their desire.  For example:


ANN: I'm not prepared to have sex just for the sake of having sex as it were because I feel I should.


Some women were beginning to engage in the redefinition and redeployment of a new form of heterosexuality.  One woman talked about how her current heterosexual relationship was special and positive in a way that previous ones had not been:


NICOLA: How's it special now?

LEE: (laughs) Um, I think, I think that that's really complex, um, and (pause) it's complex because of my relationship with Michael, and um (pause).  But it's yeah, I mean there's lots of things there about (pause) being in love and, um thinking the person's wonderful in every respect. . . . but also there's a change in what it is that we do, um physically.  Um (pause), and, and I guess, and that's really personal I suppose.


It's not ordinary now, because there's a feeling of being creative about what it is that we do.  Um, (pause), yeah, there's a, there's a feeling that together we have, um, worked out our own (pause) wonderful and ever changing- I hope I'm not idealising this, I don't think I am (both laughing).  I'm pretty sure, oh, I'm not in fact.  Um, we've worked out these wonderful and ever changing ways of sexually relating.  So, so in that sense it's not ordinary because it's never, it's never the same.  And I think I think it's like that because we've allowed, um (pause) we've allowed ourselves to do unordinary things.  We've allowed ourselves to sort of move beyond, um, common-sense notions about what it is that people do in their bedrooms.


Suggestive, however, of the dominance of common-sense understandings of heterosexuality, movements of resistance and redefinition are not always easy or complete.  For example, one woman who was attracted to celibacy within her marriage did not see this as a validated choice:


MARILYN: I think there's a thing in, um, Our Bodies Ourselves, or something, you know, about celibacy.  It's seen as being something that you do when you're single.  You don't be in a relationship and be celibate.  And 1, and I sort of believe that, you know, I do.  I kind of (pause) I mean maybe I shouldn't.  I've never, I haven't actually thought that before, that maybe that's, that is viable.  But, but (pause) but I'm not convinced or something (laughs).


Although she had read a newspaper article about a (married) woman who had written a book recommending celibacy, she was acutely aware of the negative positioning of this 'choice' within dominant discourses on heterosexuality:


MARILYN: I felt that she was painted as quite a, um, sort of (pause) um, ballbreaking feminist, you know, like denying her husband sex.  And he, he was sort of portrayed as quite a, um (pause) a, a sort of ineffectual, wimpish, little man to let this horrible woman do this to him.  And when I read, when I saw it, it was at a time when, um, I really didn't want anybody to touch me or come near me and I thought, 'God, I could be just like that', um, um, and maybe, maybe I am.


Thus, the perceived negative value socially ascribed to the possibility of being celibate within a marriage made this option seem not viable for this woman.  This can be seen as an example of how 'the power of all forms of subjectivity relies on the marginalisation and repression of historically specific alternatives' (Weedon, 1987: 91).  Another example of this sort of process is the guilt described by Ann when she didn't feel like having sex in her current relationship despite believing that it is her right to not have sex when she doesn't want it, and not feeling directly pressured by her partner.


I think such resistance and ongoing redefinition is extremely important, both in its own right and as it relates to a continuum of sexual violence.  A feminist political agenda which is concerned with both sexual violence and female desire is, in articulating women as active, desiring subjects who are interested in a range of practices and identities, more likely to deconstruct the phenomenon of compulsory heterosexuality and the highly prescriptive (and sometimes coercive) norms for heterosexual practice.




In this study I have discussed some of the ways in which the deployment of sex through technologies of heterosexual coercion constitutes possibilities for the domination of women through heterosexual practice, even in the absence of overt physical force or violence.  By examining discourses on heterosexuality through women's accounts of their experiences (which, of course, do not exist in isolation from other discursive fields and material practices), we can see how 'language functions to create us as subjects' (Diamond and Quinby, 1988: 201), who are sometimes solicited into the processes of our own subjugation.  In sampling from the data of six women's accounts of some of their experiences of coercive heterosexuality, including unwanted and forced sex with men, I have highlighted some of the ways in which this happens.


One way heterosexual coercion occurs is through the discursive framing of heterosexual encounters within a narrative in which (past a certain point in the encounter and/or relationship) certain forms of sex are prescribed, and sexual intercourse is required.  Anything else is not easily accommodated.  It may just seem 'silly', or it may lead to a woman being positioned as 'uptight', or it may, from her perspective, be regarded as an alternative to rape.  Being positioned as 'uptight', as in Ann's case, may even occur when a woman is not gracious about having been raped by a man she knows.  Or, as in Rosemary's case, a woman may be regarded as 'psychologically undone' because she cannot physically tolerate repeated violent sexual intercourse (rape), carried out on her by her husband.


Another important factor in this constitution of women as passive, compliant heterosexual subjects, seems to be the relative silence in articulating positions for women as active, desiring subjects (Gavey, 1991c).  When, as Catharine MacKinnon (1983: 650) has observed, 'sex is normally something men do to women', consent can be a very passive action.  Women are thus sometimes not aware of consent and non-consent as distinct choices (given certain, acceptable, parameters of the relationship).  This is not surprising given the power of normative prescriptions for heterosexual practice - and given that women's sexual desire is often invisible, unspoken.  When desire is absent in discourses on female sexuality, 'this constriction of what is called sexuality allows girls [and women] one primary decision - to say yes or no - to a question not necessarily their own' (Fine, 1988: 34).  This silence allows the unwitting perpetuation of a form of (compulsory) heterosexuality in which women's agency and resistance exist only to the degree to which we can limit and control male sexual access (women's traditional imperative within heterosexuality). (We must remember, however, that sexual desire itself is not essential or unproblematic, but that it, too, is constructed and produced through the deployment of sexuality, and is itself inscribed by gender/power relations.)


I have also discussed actions arising from nurturance and pragmatism as examples of how the mechanisms of disciplinary power function in ways which conceal the operation of such power.  By appealing to these nurturant or pragmatic reasons for having sex, women are 'disciplined' - our behaviour is regulated in ways in which the gender-specific operation of power is disguised.  This invisible operation of power is extremely efficient because it obviates the need for overt force and violence.


The political implications of this analysis differ from some traditional analyses.  Traditional feminist analyses have often relied on the notion of a simple top-down domination of women by patriarchal power, which is exercised by individual men and from which (all) men directly or indirectly benefit.  This traditional understanding of domination, and its expression in the language of control, 'presumes a centering of power that may no longer exist in contemporary society: we are asked to seize power when power is no longer held by a clearly identifiable and coherent group' (Diamond and Quinby 1988: 195).  An analysis which focuses on the regulating and normalising functions of disciplinary power, however, does not rely on the presumption of unitary and centralised sources of power.  It is, therefore, particularly useful for explaining women's compliance with unwanted sex and those forms of heterosexual coercion which do not involve overt force or violence.


One of the aims of this research was to interrogate, contest and disturb dominant conceptualisations of heterosexual sex.  The deconstructive impulse of this research is not neutral, however.  Women I have talked with about heterosexual coercion have sometimes told me that they have come to see their experiences in a different light as a result of talking or thinking about such experiences in the context of this research.  To the extent that these new ways of making sense of their experiences create space for new discursive positionings which are more positive and open up possibilities for both resistance to coercion and the active pursuit of pleasure, then this is a positive, political implication of the research.  We cannot avoid technologies of sex but, by understanding some of the ways in which they work, we can hopefully resist, challenge and contest technologies of heterosexual coercion.





I am very grateful to the six women who talked so openly with me about their experiences and allowed me to tape our conversations and quote them here.  I am also grateful to the many other women I have talked with over the years about the sorts of questions posed in this research, both informally and more formally in the process of the research.  I would like to thank Karen Newton for stimulating my interest in Michel Foucault’s work on power, and Chris Atmore, Lise Bird, Sylvia Blood, Russell Gray, Tim McCreanor, Kathryn McPhillips, Karen Newton, Fred Seymour and Margaret Wetherell for careful and helpful comments and/or encouragement on an earlier draft.  I would also like to thank Sue Wilkinson, Celia Kitzinger, Rachel Perkins, Susan Kippax and Corinne Squire who as editors and reviewers offered many helpful suggestions for revisions.

The research reported in this study was partially funded by a grant from the University of Auckland Research Fund and a University Grants Committee Postgraduate Scholarship to the author.  An earlier version of these findings appeared in Gavey (1990).





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Nicola GAVEY is based in the Department of Psychology, University of

Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.



[1] Pakeha refers to New Zealanders of European descent.  The women's ages at the time they were interviewed were: Ann, 29 years; Chloe, 31 years; Lee, 33 years; Marilyn, 28 years; Pat, 52 years; Rosemary 50 years. (Names have been changed to protect anonymity.)