The radical feminist perspective on power and control in relationships

Last Updated on October 3, 2023 by Karl Thompson

The Radical Feminist viewpoint is that relationships are the primary means through which men control women and maintain their power over them in society.

Probably the most shocking evidence which supports this view is the continued prevalence of domestic violence. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales (2022) 7.9% of women were victims of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2022. This compared to only 3.5% of men.

Graph showing that women are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than men. England and Wales 2006 to 2022.

The radical Feminist explanation for Domestic Violence is that it is an inevitable feature of a patriarchal society. It is part of a wider system that helps maintain male power over women, the key division in society.

Just to demonstrate that this Radical Feminist views didn’t disappear in the 1980s. Here is a recent Radical Feminist view on domestic violence…

“Domestic violence against women by men is “caused” by the misuse of power and control within a context of male privilege. Male privilege operates on an individual and societal level to maintain a situation of male dominance, where men have power over women and children. Domestic violence by men against women can be seen as a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners.”

(Women’s AID Domestic Violence Fact Sheet, 2009).

Criticisms of the Radical Feminist view on Domestic Violence

1. Wilkinson criticises Feminists by arguing that it is not so much Patriarchy, but poverty that causes stress which leads to DV, so this is much less common in more equal, middle class households.

2. Men are also victims of Domestic Violence with some statistics suggesting that men are the victims in as many as 40% of cases of abuse.

3. There is a historical trends towards women having more freedom and control over their sexuality, especially compared to traditional tribal societies, a point elaborated on below.

Women have more sexual freedom today…

In many traditional tribal societies, there is little notion that women should gain any satisfaction out of sex. As one British witness to sexuality amongst the Himba of Namibia put it ‘when the husband wants sex, the woman just opens her legs, he gets on with it. When he’s finished, he just roles over and goes to sleep. There’s no sense of pleasure in it for the woman’.

Moreover, in some societies, especially in East Africa, women’s sexuality is tightly controlled. In extreme cases through Female Genital Mutilation, which removes much of the pleasure associated with sex, and sex remains very much about reproduction only.

The above example stands in stark contrast to modern notions of female sexuality. Since the heyday of Feminism and the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and helped by modern contraception, we now live in the age of what Anthony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’. This is where sex is primarily about pleasure for both sexes rather than just being about reproduction.

Today, women increasingly demand sexual satisfaction as an ordinary part of their relationships, and cultural products such as the recent best-selling novel – ‘50 Shades of grey’ and programmes such as ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’ certainly suggest there is much more open and honest discussion about sex between partners in relationships.

Female sexuality is discussed more today. One 2016 TED talk on the topic by Sarah Barmark has over 40M views.

screenshot of Sarah Barmark's blog about female sexuality and gender.

Further evidence that suggests modern relationships are equal and that women are more empowered lies in the proliferation of advice and discussion sites about relationships. Advice magazines such as suggest girls are more empowered in their relationships than they used to be. Such magazines even have quizzes so girls can assess whether their boyfriend’s up to scratch.

Blogs such as the good men project suggest that men are more prepared to discuss ‘what it means to be a man’ and ‘modern relationships’. This further suggests more equality between the sexes where intimate relations are concerned.

Domestic finances are more equal today

Pahl and Volger (1993) found that ‘pooling’ of household income is on the increase. Pooling is where both partners have equal access of income and joint responsibility for expenditure.

50% of couples pooled their income compared to only 19% of their parents, showing a movement away from ‘allowance systems’ in household expenditure’

Evidence against the view that there is equality in sexual relations

  • women are more likely to be harassed than men.
  • women experience less sexual satisfaction.
  • the mainstream media don’t advertise vibrators.
  • Decision making between men and women may not be equal.

Women are more likely to be sexually harassed than men

According to a 2020 UK government survey women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than men. 84% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime compared to 60% of men.

bar chart comparing male and female victims of sexual harassment 2020, England and Wales.

Women experience less sexual satisfaction than men….

Indiana University’s survey found that 91% of men had an org**m the last time they had sex, but only 64% of women did. These numbers roughly reflect the percentage of men and women who say they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit”. 66% of women and 83% of men. Only 58% of women in their ’20s had an org**m during their latest sexual encounter.

30-40% percent of women report difficulty climaxing and 33% of women under 35 often feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex, while 10% frequently feel sad after intercourse.”

The mainstream media refuses to advertise vibrators

According to one Feminist blog…“Vibrators still are such a big taboo. The media and films (ie. American Pie) glamourise women’s sexuality. However, they refuses to run ads for vibrators which are very useful tools for helping women understand their sexuality. Yet Viagra ads run on all of these platforms with no problem.

  • All of this serves to reinforce ‘heteronormativity’, or the idea that women need men to give them sexual satisfaction. The problem with this is that the evidence suggests that men are failing to provide satisfaction. Many women report a lack of satisfaction in the bedroom.”

Feminist criticisms that decision making is becoming more equal

While some decisions concerning money are made jointly, these tend to be less important ones – such as what clothes to buy. Men still tend to have the final say in more important decisions such as changing jobs or moving house.

Signposting and Related Posts

This material is relevant to the families and households topic within A-level sociology.

This post covers the difficult topic of Domestic Abuse in more depth.

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Fun Fact: Google regards ‘org**m as ‘objectionable content’ hence the **!

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