Unfortunately, there’s never a bad time to screen a film addressing violence against women, as it’s such a pervasive problem. But the timing of the premier of the Media Education Foundation’s new documentary, Flirting with Danger: Power and Choice in Heterosexual Relationships, seemed particularly apt, if accidental. The producers showed the film to a full house at Amherst Cinema on Oct. 21; four days earlier, Amherst College’s student newspaper had published a first-person account by a student who’d been raped on campus in the spring of 2011 and had received an inadequate response – to say the least – from college officials when she reported the sexual assault. On Oct. 22, according to Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette, four young men from Pittsfield were arraigned in Eastern Hampshire District Court after being accused of gang-raping a first-year student in her dorm room at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the night of Oct. 13.
Although these crimes are horrendous, they’re not unusual, which is one of the points made in Flirting with Danger. In the documentary, UMass professor and social and developmental psychologist Lynn Phillips discusses the research interviews she’s done with young women about their sexual “hookups” and relationships, the women’s attitudes toward these experiences, and how their views reflect the Catch-22 situation into which U.S. culture forces them – the old “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Although the Madonna/ whore dichotomy is nothing new, I was shocked to hear Phillips say that the first study of the topic she conducted, which included interviews with 30 women, revealed that 90% had been in relationships or situations that fit the legal definition of sexual harassment, battering, or rape.
Yet almost none of the interviewees chose to label their experiences in that way, and in the talking-head sequences, Phillips discusses why – as MEF’s capsule description puts it, “the film examines how the wider culture’s frequently contradictory messages about pleasure, danger, agency, and victimization enter into women’s most intimate relationships with men. The result is a refreshingly candid, and nuanced, look at how young women are forced to grapple with deeply ambivalent cultural attitudes about female sexuality.”
It was clear that none of the young women (in the documentary they’re played by local actors, including some Smith College students) wanted to be labeled a “victim.” Although I found their self-blame heartbreaking and anger-inducing (why the hell are women still blaming themselves for male violence in the 21st century?) it was also clearly born of a desire to maintain some power and control in their lives, to feel as if they had choices about what they’d done and what had happened to them – to feel some sense of agency.
Some of my shock at Phillips’ statistics is borne of the hope I’ve had for decades that feminism would change conditions for women, men, and those at other points on the gender spectrum. I’ve been a feminist for roughly 37 years (yes, I identified that way at a very young age, much to my family’s chagrin), and although I’ve watched certain conditions change for the better, mainstream media has grown more and more misogynist, violent, and sexually explicit. I wouldn’t have a problem with the latter if the media were depicting healthy sexual relationships, but of course it isn’t. Women and men are portrayed as stupid hunks of beef – insatiable morons who just want to stick it into some chick, and Barbies with fake boobs who are supposed to be, as one of the MEF clips says, “ladies in the streets and freaks in the sheets.”
On the other hand, I do see some evidence of change on the front pages of the local newspapers: the administrations of Amherst College and UMass seem to be responding immediately, and there’s been no suggestion that either of the students who was raped did anything to “encourage” the accused rapists. I’m sure those accusations will come later, from the defense lawyers in the case of the gang rapists. But the Amherst and Northampton print media has done a good job of reporting that the UMass student not only cried and said “No” to her attackers, but also wasn’t even conscious during at least part of the time they were raping her. Not too many years ago, women who were violated in any way were condemned by the media and in court for “asking for it,” and plenty of people believed that women were responsible for men’s violent behavior.
Kudos not only to Media Education Foundation, but also to the Amherst Student and to the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I highly recommend Flirting with Danger to those who teach high school and college students.
The film (the web page includes a 6-minute trailer):
The book that inspired the film: