For women who led the feminist revolutions of the past decades and conquered liberation from laws that culturally erased women’s sexuality and their right to choose for themselves, the idea that younger generations are now expressing a desire for boundaries in order not to be sexualized by men might look like regress, a sort of reinforcement of their sexual repression.
However, what has happened and is happening in these decades is not that straightforward. As Van Badham writes on The Guardian, "sexual freedom has become another sphere of women’s life for patriarchy to conquer. In other words, sexual liberation is perceived of as sexual availability for men. There is just as much sexist prevarication in hypersexualized and explicit images of women than there was in censored sexuality."
The problem with consent, that seems so easy yet so difficult, is that cultural patriarchal production seems to entitle to and legitimize sex with women. Male and female stereotypes are reinforced, with the heterosexual male being active and dominating, and the female passive and submissive. This is just another subtle way to manipulate feminist conquests and deny female self-affirmation. There is no need to say how deleterious it can be.
To make things worse, there seems to be confusion on what consent really is and how to recognize it. This is fundamental when legally determining if someone is guilty of sexual offence and rape. Indeed, its definition in our society is so gendered that the issue has become hugely problematic. We agree it is “the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question” (UK Sexual Offenses Act of 2003) but we could assume the victim was denied the freedom to choose whether to consent or not, or did not have the capacity to do so.
Moreover, while ‘no’ always means ‘no, ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes’. It could be said under coercion. In the same way, the absence of ‘no’ does not mean ‘yes’. The victim could be sending non-verbal signals of discomfort, could be unconscious or not in a state to give affirmative consent. This is where the ambiguity of victim blaming steps in. ‘She was drunk’, ‘she was asleep’, ‘she was wearing provocative clothes’ do not exculpate sexual assault. Men too get drunk and are free to choose whatever to wear, and neither is an invitation to rape. Why should it be when it comes to women? Victim blaming cannot be a way of normalizing male sexual assault; however, it has been largely used both legally and socially to denigrate accusations, justify assailants and discredit victims.
The result of cultural production, social attitude and inefficient legal solutions is what is sociologically called ‘rape culture’, due to women too often being denied the freedom to exercise their own autonomy in the sexual sphere. In order to finally revolutionize such oppression, men, society and laws must recognize that women have the right to choose, and that deciding for one’s own body without having to undergo aggression, denigration and abuse is a women’s right and a human right.
In such a stormy and discussed issue, feminist female photographers are playing a fundamental role. They are creating art to fight gender violence and are promoting self-affirmation through their visual work. Self-acceptance, self-recognition and self-respect are fundamental in reclaiming justice and freedom over one’s own body and mind. Women should be able to set margins of power and authority for themselves, and society must comply with them, remembering that there is just one simple essential truth that is:
Her body, her rules.
Photos by Olivia Doyle