The radical feminist perspective on power and control in relationships

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 BCS (2007) this accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men.

The radical Feminist explanation for DV is that it is an inevitable feature of a patriarchal society and it is part of a wider system that helps maintain male power over women, they 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 DV with some statistics suggesting that men are the victims in as many as 2/5 cases of DV.

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, and 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’ – 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 that there is much more open and honest discussion about sex between partners in relationships.

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 seventeen.com certainly suggest that women, and even 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.

Also, 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’, further suggesting more equality between the sexes where intimate relations are concerned.

Evidence against the view that there is equality in sexual relations

Women experience less sexual satisfaction than men….

Indiana University’s comprehensive survey found that while 91% of men had an orgasm 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 orgasm 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) glamourize women’s sexuality, but then 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 this…. many women report a lack of satisfaction in the bedroom.” Thirdly, there is evidence that men and women are becoming more equal where decision making is concerned in relationships

Pahl and Volger (1993) found that ‘pooling’ of household income is on the increase – 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’

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 while, some recent research suggests that men still tend to have the final say in more important decisions such as changing jobs or moving house.

Related Posts

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

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Explaining the Changing Patterns of Marriage

The main trend in marriage in the UK is that of long term decline. This post examines some of the reasons behind this, such as changing gender roles, the increasing cost of living and individualisation

Sociological explanations for the long term decline in marriage include changing gender roles, the impact of feminism and female empowerment, economic factors such as the increasing cost of living and the individualisation associated with postmodernism.

This post has been written for the families and household topic within A-level sociology. .

Overview of the trends in marriage in the UK

Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales 2018

There has been a long term decline in the number of marriages in England and Wales.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were over 400 00 marriages a year, by 2017 there were just under 250 000 marriages a year.

Although the decline seems to have slowed recently, ad even increased since 2008.

The above graph only shows the long term overall decline in marriage. Other trends include:

  • People are more likely to cohabit (although in most cases this is a step before marriage)
  • People are marrying later
  • The number of remarriages has increased.
  • Couples are less likely to marry in church
  • There is a greater diversity of marriages (greater ethnic diversity and civil partnerships)
  • There has been a very recent increase in the marriage rate.

Evaluation Point – Even though it’s declining, marriage is still an important institution because….

  • Most households are still headed by a married couple
  • Couples may cohabit, but this is normally before getting married – they just get married later
  • Most people still think marriage is the ideal type of relationship
  • The fact that remarriages have increased show that people still value the institution of marriage.

Explaining the long term decrease in marriage

You may need to click on the image below to see it properly

Explaining the changing patterns of Marriage in the UK

Economic Factors – The increasing cost of living and the increasing cost of weddings.

Increasing property prices in recent years may be one of the factors why couples choose to get married later in life. The average deposit on a first time home is now over £30 000, with the average cost of a wedding being around £18 000. So for most couples it is literally a choice between getting married in their 20s and then renting/ living with parents, or buying a house first and then getting married in their 30s. The second option is obviously the more financially rational.

Changing gender roles

Liberal Feminists point to changing gender roles as one of the main reasons why couples get married later. More than half of the workforce is now female which means that most women do not have to get married in order to be financially secure. In fact, according to the theory of the genderquake, the opposite is happening – now that most jobs are in the service sector, economic power is shifting to women meaning that marriage seems like a poor option for women in a female economy.

The New Right

Blame the decline of marriage on moral decline – part of the broader breakdown of social institutions and due to too much acceptance of diversity. This results in the inability of people to commit to each other, and they see this as bad for society and the socialisation of the next generation.

Postmodernisation

Postmodernists explain the decline in marriage as a result of the move to postmodern consumer society characterised by greater individual choice and freedom. We are used to being consumers and picking and choosing, and so marriage is now a matter of individual choice.

Another process associated with Postmodernisation is the decline of tradition and religion (secularisation) – as a result there is less social stigma attached to cohabiting or remarrying after a divorce.

Late Modernism

Associated with the ideas of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck – argues that the decline in marriage is not as simple as people simply having more freedom – People are less likely to get married because of structural changes making life more uncertain. People may want to get married, but living in a late-modern world means marriage doesn’t seem like a sensible option.

Ulrich Beck argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.

Beck also talks about indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.

Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.

Evaluation Points

  • The decline of marriage is not as simple as it just being about individual choice
  • There are general social changes which lie behind its decline
  • We should not exaggerate the decline of marriage (see details above)

Related Posts 

Trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation UK

For a more ‘human explanation’ check out this video – sociological perspectives on the decline in marriage

Explaining the Long Term Increase in Divorce – Essay Plan

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