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Compulsive Heterosexuality And Rape Culture

January 13, 2010

Yesterday I reviewed Dr. C.J. Pascoe’s book Dude, You’re A Fag. One thing I said I might do is deal at greater length with the public exhibition of symbolic heterosexuality among boys, and how it relates to rape culture. So, this post is that.

Pascoe notes a lot of distrurbing, invasive, violent sexual harassment by boys against girls in her year in a California high school. This behavior formed the material for the third chapter of the book, and she concluded with this observation:

As a feminist researcher I was saddened and quite frankly surprised to discover the extent to which this type of sexual harassment constituted an average high school day for youth at River High. Though much of the media and many cultural critics repeatedly claim that we have entered a postfeminist age, these scenes at River High indicate that this age has not yet arrived. In fact gender practices at the school – boys’ control of girls’ bodies, almost constant sexual harassment, and continual derogatory remarks about girls – show a desperate need for some sort of sexual harassment education and policy enforcement in schools.

P. 114.

Pascoe has some observations of how this culture of constant, low-level assault on girls’ autonomy relates to rape culture, though that is an aside to her book. I have been thinking about closely related issues lately so I have some thoughts of my own. In particular, I want to examine how these behaviors and norms relate to what we know about rapists in the population, particularly from the work of Lesak and McWhorter; see here and here.

The kinds of interactions she witnesses were somewhat shocking. To appreciate the flavor of it, I’ll quote several passages at length here:

On Halloween, Heath arrived at school dressed as an elf carrying a sprig of mistletoe and engaged in a fairly typical ritual of getting girls. He told anyone who would listen that an elf costume was a brilliant idea for Halloween because “it’s the wrong holiday!” … [Heath] lifted the mistletoe above his head and, moving from behind the table, walked up to a group of girls. They looked at him with a bit of trepidation and tried to ignore his presence. Finally one acquiesced, giving him a peck on the cheek. Her friend followed suit. Heath strutted back to the table and victoriously shook hands with all the boys. …

While the boys laughed and celebrated Heath’s triumph of will, the girls may not have had the same reaction to his forced kisses. In a study of teenagers and sexual harassment, Jean Hand and Laura Sanchez (2000) … girls overwhelmingly indicated that being kissed against their will was the worst form of sexual harassment …

Of course it is unlikely that boys, or girls, would recognize these sorts of daily rituals as sexual harassment; they are more likely seen as normal, if perhaps a bit aggressive, instances of heterosexual flirtation and as part of normal adolescence (N. Stein 2005).

Pp. 93-4.

Shane grabbed her neck with on hand and forehead with the other, shoving her head backward and forward. Cathy squealed, “You’re messing up my hair!” As he continued to yank her head around, Cathy tried to do her work, her pen jerking across the page. While this sort of interaction regularly disrupted Cathy’s work and looked exceedingly painful, she never seriously tried to stop it. When I asked Cathy why they interacted like this, she answered, “He has always been like that with me …He just beats on me.” Her response echoed Karin Martin’s (1996) finding that adolescent girls, especially working-class girls, don’t have a strong sense that they control their own bodies. While some girls, such as Shawna, were able to assert subjectivity and deny the primacy of boys’ desire … not all girls felt entitled to or expressed alternative definitions of gender. … Cathy’s affectively flat response to my question revealed that she simply didn’t have access to or couldn’t express her own bodily needs, desires, and rights.

P. 99.

“[I hate] When mixed girls date white guys! Mixed girls are for me!” Shawna attempted to interrupt his rant, saying, “What if the girl doesn’t want to date you? Girls have a say too.” Darnell responded, not in as much jest as one might hope, “No they don’t. White boys can date white girls, There’s plenty of ‘em. They can even date black girls. But mixed girls are for me.” Darnell’s frustration reflects a way in which racialized, gendered and sexual identities intersect. While he felt that he had a claim on “getting girls,” as a “mixed” guy he saw his options as somewhat limited. Girls and girls’ bodies were constructed as a limited resource for which he had to compete with other (white) guys.

P. 96.

Pascoe calls this out for what it is: a chest-beating display of dominance that has little to do with sexual orientation or desire and everything to do with a gender performance that positions the boys in relation to other boys. The boys themselves seem to know this:

The way boys talked about heterosexual practices and orientations in their interviews reveals that their public sexuality was as much about securing masculine social position as it was about expressions of desire or emotion. David explicitly talked about this “image” problem as one of “peer pressure,” saying, “If you haven’t scored with someone, then you are not adequate to anyone else, you know?”

P. 89, emphasis supplied.

The boys felt pressure to be sexually active, and to be reported to be sexually active. One boy said, “If a guy wasn’t having sex, ‘he’s no one. He’s nobody.'” P. 88. Their ostentatious displays of “heterosexuality” are designed to repudiate the spectre of the “fag” identity, a failed gender identity in the Judith Butler sense, that is a major part of what Pascoe identifies as the way gender performance among high school boys is policed. The boys’ own relationships incorporate challenges to perform in this way:

The ritual of “getting girls” played out in this homecoming skit illustrates one of the ways compulsive heterosexuality becomes part of boys’ friendships and interactional styles. “Rock” and “Jackson,” like boys at River High, jokingly challenged each other to dominate – or, in their words, to “get” a girl. In these rituals girls’ bodies functioned as a symbol of male heterosexuality and tangible evidence of repudiation of same sex desire (Butler 1999).


Pascoe coins a term for this, playing off Rich’s term “compulsory heterosexuality.” Pascoe calls these displays to ward off gender policing “Compulsive Heterosexuality.”

So … how does compulsive heterosexuality relate to rape culture? I can identify several ways. As a threshhold matter, much of this behavior is itself sexual assault. Just because it is short of rape doesn’t make it acceptable. Pascoe in places calls it sexual harassment; but the physically invasive acts are not just harassment. They are assault.

Next, what Pascoe describes relates to rape culture in a very direct causal way. These boys are under pressure to “get girls” or “have sex”, not for intimacy with a partner or even for self-gratification, but to meet the obligations of their peer community’s gender norms. For that purpose, girls’ autonomy is an irrelevancy or even a hindrance. One student basically admits to rape, while trying to distance himself from what he perceives as real rape:

“The majority of the girls in eighth and ninth grade were just stupid. We already knew what we were doing. They didn’t know what they were doing, you know?” When I asked him to explain this, he continued, “Like say, comin’ over to our house like past 12:00. What else do you do past 12:00? Say we had a bottle of alcohol or something. I’m not saying we forced it upon them. I’m sayin’ …” He trailed off here as he tried to explain that he didn’t need to actually rape girls, though his friends did[.]

P. 88.

This account matches exactly what Lisak tells us to expect. This boy thinks real rape involves overt force, but he has a practiced technique — which he developed very early — of using isolation and alcohol to inhibit or defeat girls’ resistance to sexual conduct that they did not want. So, he’s a rapist, but he does not identify what he does as rape. (Notably, Pascoe does not, either. That may have been a choice driven by a desire to stay focused on her larger points.)

Another way that this behavior relates to rape culture is that it normalizes violent interactions where boys impose their desires on female bodies as a display of dominance. Pascoe applies this analysis:

What really undergirded all of these interactions is what some feminists call a “rape paradigm,” in which masculinity is predicated on overcoming women’s bodily desire and control. A dramatic example of this “rape paradigm” happened between classes during passing period. Walking between government and drama classes, Keith yelled, “GET RAPED! GET RAPED” as he rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick. She yelled at him to stop and tried to kick him in the crotch with her foot. He dodged and started yelling, “CROTCH! CROTCH!” Indeed, the threat of rape was what seemed to underlie many of these interactions where boys repeatedly showed in cross-gender touching that they were more physically powerful than girls.

Pp. 99-100, emphasis supplied.

As Pascoe noted in the passage about Cathy, above, girls are routinely hurt and physically manipulated by boys in this environment, but often have no access to tools to stop it. They are being taught that they quite literally cannot stop a boy from doing what he wants with their bodies, while the boys are being taught that doing what they want with a girl’s body even when she says no increases their status among other boys. A clearer recipe for rape I can’t imagine.

In fact, the dynamic is so clearly one that negates girls’ autonomy that it’s a wonder our culture doesn’t teach all high school boys to rape. And yet, most don’t. Lisak’s and McWhorter’s samples show that the overwhelming majority of boys are not growing up to be rapists, and that the serial rapists are a single-digit percentage of the population. And even those are not using force. In high school, force and complaint are obviously taken very lightly; so why are those boys who do grow up to be rapists not completing the progression, and using overt physical force to rape?

Actually, I think this is where decades of “no means no” has been effective. At some point, these boys seem to understand that the use of force against girls’ bodies stops being something acceptable and becomes something they could get in trouble for. Even the rapist understood that.

I’ve argued before, in the linked posts on Lisak’s work, that rapists do what they do because it is effective. I’ve argued that it is effective because rapists can rape outside the recognized narrative of rape, and when they do so they will have ready-made defenses.

To my mind, the most powerful way in which the dynamics Pascoe recorded feeds rape culture, is also the most insidious. This behavior is the tall grass in which the predators hide. Pascoe noted that teachers never intervened to stop this behavior. p. 99. It was so normalized as to be part of the wallpaper. This is a culture where:
– boys’ physical abuse of girls who shut down and barely complain is normal;
– boys’ pursuit of sexual activity that girls do not want is normal;
– boys’ sense of entitlement to date women of their choice is normal;
– girls’ assertion and determined defense of bodily boundaries is not normal.

That is to say, the wallpaper of daily life is so close to what rapists actually do that it is trivially easy for them to operate without drawing suspicion. That’s what it means to have a social license to operate. This culture creates the climate in which they can do what they do without seeming aberrant.

There is a cure for this disease. The cure is an environment where girls’ bodily autonomy and agency are the norm, and invasions against it are the aberration. But to get there, we have to have a culture where girls can identify and vindicate their own desires: only subjects have autonomy, and a girl who can’t say “yes” has no space to say “no.” We have to, as a culture, want — yes, I said want — girls to know what they want, and to go about getting it; in order that they may also know what they don’t want, and understand clearly that they are entitled to reject that. And our boys — for some of us, our sons — must be made to understand that, as Shawna said in the quoted passage above, “girls have a say.” In fact, girls have an equal say, and if she’s not having fun, you have to stop.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Jamie permalink
    January 13, 2010 4:02 pm

    I think part of the solution, though, isn’t just focusing on a girl’s bodily rights. Not only do we need our girls to learn to honor their bodies and use their voices, we also need boys who grow into men that will respect that. I was molested as a child by a peer who was acting out because of the pressure put on him by our society. He was abused by a society telling him — a young, confused homosexual — to be a Manly and Dominant Heterosexual. The result? The abuse gets passed on.

    It’s not enough to teach our girls, we also need to help our boys.

    • January 13, 2010 4:52 pm

      I completely agree.

      We start, first, with a presumption that boys all want partnered sex. That’s wrong. Asexuals exist. It’s not a disease. It’s an orientation. We shouldn’t be pressuring boys to jump through hoops of sexual experience. We should be giving them a model to determine their own needs and then seek to get them met in socially beneficial, safe, consensual ways.

  2. January 14, 2010 3:56 pm

    This seriously just brings up so many similar memories of junior high and high school and sometimes it amazes me to look back at these things and understand how I learned the things about sex/gender/roles/etc that I learned (and later had to unlearn) through things like this.

    I think there’s also some interesting comments to be made on this ‘compulsive heterosexuality’ for women, too — girls getting pushed into feminine/passive heterosexuality through the same sort of taunting, though I don’t think it’s as severe/similar, since the routes of enforcing it aren’t usually a threat of being seen as homosexual as much as the threat of being seen either as “prude” or “slut” or, worse, both at the same time. Since you know, obviously no other positions exist.

    fun irrelevant side story, I was miserably taunted all through junior high school for cutting my hair off (“ugly dyke!” “Can I call you Leslie? Like short for LESBIAN?”) by one particularly nasty little girl and her crew of minions. and now she is QUEER AS FUCK (not that i’m not. but, you know. redemption.)

  3. bumerry permalink
    January 16, 2010 1:12 pm

    It’s no more right by our overarching culture to pressure those labeled male into compulsory sexuality through bullying than to force those labeled female into it through implicit legalization of rape. Our culture doesn’t really acknowledge the rape of males, transgendered people and kids for the most part. However, the outright violence against Ricky showed that compulsive heterosexuality isn’t entirely about sex.

    When I read _Dude_ it seemed crystal clear that Pascoe WAS quite explicitly addressing the fact that the interviewed rapist was raping girls with this sentence:

    “He trailed off here as he tried to explain that he didn’t need to actually rape girls, though his friends did[.]

    Maybe a regional language difference though? I would never use the expression “tried to explain that zie didn’t/wasn’t” to mean anything but I was calling the person a liar and hypocrite. 🙂 So to me it reads as pretty damned explicit, but I can absolutely see reading it as implicit as you did, Thomas, and I’m way to grateful for your thoughtful blog entries to complain.

  4. January 16, 2010 10:03 pm

    This blog reminded me of a couple documentaries from Media Education Foundation that I watched in school last semester. Both are available online for free, more or less.

    The first one, Dreamworlds 3, talks about how music videos create and reinforce a dreamworld of male entitlement to women’s bodies.

    And the second, Tough Guise, talks about the way we indoctrinate boys towards violence.

    I’m not sure which one has the video images of the men throwing bologna and water and stuff on women both in video and then copied out in public, but I think it’s the first one, and it’s a fucking chilling example of monkey see monkey do.

    Together, they do a fantastic job of showing the media contribution to normalizing this issue.

  5. Dawn. permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:33 pm

    This was an excellent analysis. I’m definitely reading that book now. Compulsive heterosexuality is a major part of our rape culture, and I think that’s something people don’t address nearly enough. So thank you. 🙂

  6. Dominique Millette permalink
    July 11, 2010 8:51 pm

    This was (frighteningly) illuminating and I believe the same culture holds in every type of detail in Canada. I remember at age 11 I was jumped by three guys who sexually assaulted me by fondling my still-budding breasts. They did it to mock me. I felt no one would stop them or come to help me. No one did. This was at a Catholic school, 33 years ago. The cruelty continues, I see.

    • July 12, 2010 6:38 am

      DOminique, because it should never go unsaid, what they did to you was wrong and I’m sorry it happened, and happens, so often in so many places.

  7. Claire permalink
    October 23, 2010 10:51 pm

    This reminds me of elementary and middle school. There was a boy in 5th grade who would try to hug and grab me while his friends laughed. This usually happened in the cafeteria, in front of several adults who did nothing. I told my teacher about what was happening and how I didn’t like it and her face lit up. ‘He likes you!” she exclaimed, “that’s so cute!”.
    It wasn’t until recently that I began figuring out exactly how not cute it was.

  8. Tamara permalink
    December 27, 2010 4:47 pm

    Adrienne Rich coined the term Compulsory Heterosexuality; it was in relation to lesbians, partly naming male violence against women as part of what keeps women in our place. Read that article and source feminist theory properly please.

    Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” Blood, Bread, and Poetry. Norton Paperback: New York 1994.

    • December 28, 2010 7:47 am

      Yes. If you’ve read Pascoe, it’s clear she’s well versed in theory and knows Rich, and her terminology sort of assumes familiarity. At least the way Pascoe talks about compulsive heterosexuality will make much more sense to someone who has read all or part of “Compulsory Heterosexuality …”


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