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

the long term trend in marriage, england and wales

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)

Signposting and Related Posts 

This topic is part of the families and households module and related posts include:

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

Test Yourself 

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The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

Functionlists focus on the positive functions performed by the nuclear family such as primary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Also includes criticisms from other perspectives!

Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities. 

This brief post is designed to help you revise the Functionalist Perspective on the Family, relevant to the AS Sociology Families and Households Module. It summarises the work of George Murdoch and Talcott Parsons and then offers some general criticisms .

The Functionalist View of Society

Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions each perform specific functions within a society to keep that society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.

Functionalists see the family as a particularly important institution as they see it as the ‘basic building block’ of society which performs the crucial functions of socialising the young and meeting the emotional needs of its members. Stable families underpin social order and economic stability.

Before you go any further you might like to read this more in depth post ‘Introduction to Functionalism‘ post which covers the key ideas of Functionalism.

George Peter Murdock – The four essential functions of the nuclear family

George Murdock was an American Anthropologist who looked at 200 different societies and argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. In other words, the nuclear family is in all societies!

nuclear-family-uk
Is the nuclear family universal?

Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the nuclear family:

1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogamous relationships, which prevents sexual jealousy.
2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue.
3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and values
4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.

Criticisms of Murdock

  1. Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
  2. It is feasible that other institutions could perform the functions above.
  3. Anthropological research has shown that there are some cultures which don’t appear to have ‘families’ – the Nayar for example.

Talcott Parsons –  Functional Fit Theory

Parsons has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His functional fit theory is that as society changes, the type of family that ‘fits’ that society, and the functions it performs change. Over the last 200 years, society has moved from pre-industrial to industrial – and the main family type has changed from the extended family to the nuclear family. The nuclear family fits the more complex industrial society better, but it performs a reduced number of functions.

The extended family consisted of parents, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles living under one roof, or in a collection of houses very close to eachother. Such a large family unit ‘fitted’ pre-industrial society as the family was entirely responsible for the education of children, producing food and caring for the sick – basically it did everything for all its members.

In contrast to pre-industrial society, in industrial society (from the 1800s in the UK) the isolated “nuclear family” consisting of only parents and children becomees the norm. This type of family ‘fits’ industrial societies because it required a mobile workforce. The extended family was too difficult to move when families needed to move to find work to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing and growing economy. Furthermore, there was also less need for the extended family as more and more functions, such as health and education, gradually came to be carried out by the state.

I really like this brief explanation of Parson’s Functional Fit Theory:

Criticisms of Parson’s Theory of Functional Fit

  • It’s too ‘neat’ – social change doesn’t happen in such an orderly manner:
  • Laslett found that church records show only 10% of households contained extended kin before the industrial revolution. This suggests the family was already nuclear before industrialisation.
  • Young and Wilmott found that Extended Kin networks were still strong in East London as late as the 1970s.

Parsons – The two essential or irreducible functions of the family

According to Parsons, although the nuclear family performs reduced functions, it is still the only institution that can perform two core functions in society – Primary Socialisation and the Stabilisation of Adult Personalities.

1. Primary Socialisation – The nuclear family is still responsible for teaching children the norms and values of society known as Primary Socialisation.

An important part of socialisation according to Functionalists is ‘gender role socialisation. If primary socialisation is done correctly then boys learn to adopt the ‘instrumental role’ (also known as the ‘breadwinner role) – they go on to go out to work and earns money. Girls learn to adopt the ‘expressive role’ – doing all the ‘caring work’, housework and bringing up the children.

gender-role-socialisation
Toys can form an important part of gender socialisation

2. The stabilisation of adult personalities refers to the emotional security which is achieved within a marital relationship between two adults. According to Parsons working life in Industrial society is stressful and the family is a place where the working man can return and be ‘de-stressed’ by his wife, which reduces conflict in society. This is also known as the ‘warm bath theory’

The Positive Functions of the Family: A summary

Functionalists identify a number of positive functions of the nuclear family, below is a summary of some of these and a few more.

  1. The reproduction of the next generation – Functionalists see the nuclear family as the ‘fundamental unit of society’ responsible for carrying that society on by biological reproduction
  2. Related to the above point one of the main functions is primary socialisation – teaching children the basic norms and values of society.
  3. This kind of overlaps with the above, but even during secondary socialisation, the family is expected to help educated children alongside the school.
  4. The family provides psychological security and security, especially for men one might say (as with the ‘warm bath theory’.)
  5. A further positive function is elderly care, with many families still taking on this responsibility.
  6. Murdock argued that monogamous relationships provide for a stable satisfaction of the sex drive – most people today still see committed sexual relationships as best.

General criticisms of the Functionalist perspective on the family

It is really important to be able to criticise the perspectives. Evaluation is worth around half of the marks in the exam!

1. Downplaying Conflict

Both Murdock and Parsons paint a very rosy picture of family life, presenting it as a harmonious and integrated institution. However, they downplay conflict in the family, particularly the ‘darker side’ of family life, such as violence against women and child abuse.

2. Being out of Date

Parson’s view of the instrumental and expressive roles of men and women is very old-fashioned. It may have held some truth in the 1950s but today, with the majority of women in paid work, and the blurring of gender roles, it seems that both partners are more likely to take on both expressive and instrumental roles

3. Ignoring the exploitation of women

Functionalists tend to ignore the way women suffer from the sexual division of labour in the family. Even today, women still end up being the primary child carers in 90% of families, and suffer the burden of extra work that this responsibility carries compared to their male partners. Gender roles are socially constructed and usually involve the oppression of women. There are no biological reasons for the functionalist’s view of separation of roles into male breadwinner & female homemaker. These roles lead to the disadvantages being experienced by women.

4. Functionalism is too deterministic

This means it ignores the fact that children actively create their own personalities. An individual’s personality isn’t pre-determined at birth or something they have no control in. Functionalism incorrectly assumes an almost robotic adoption of society’s values via our parents; clearly there are many examples where this isn’t the case.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

Families Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

Sources used to derive this information include:

Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479

Chapman et al (2015) A Level Sociology Student Book One, Including AS Level [Fourth Edition], Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479

Robb Webb et al (2015) AQA A Level Sociology Book 1, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007913

Related Posts

The Functionalist perspective on the family is usually the very first topic taught within the the families and households module.

It is usually followed and critiqued by the Marxist perspective on the family and Feminist Perspectives on the family.

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