Lisa Wade And Consensual Narratives

Everywhere we go, we’re constantly receiving narratives around sexuality, sexual communication, and consent – in movies, through music, on television, amongst friends, privately with our partners, and just about anywhere one can think of. Unfortunately, not every one of these narratives we receive on sexuality is positive or even valuable. Oftentimes we have to endure depictions that are not only entirely unhelpful – they’re extremely damaging. Essential to anyone’s outlook on sexuality is the ability to recognize what are and aren’t healthy descriptions of sexual behavior.  A key element in that process is the ability to look at a story and determine what is and isn’t valuable.  In 2007 Lisa Wade started a blog to do just that – Sociological Images. The focus isn’t just sexuality, it’s all aspects of life, sexuality included.  Through images does Sociological Images consistently produce a robust analysis on the world around us and today I’m beyond thrilled to have its founder Lisa Wade discuss sexuality and consent.


The Consensual Project: Where have you gone to find messages about sexuality that have personally resonated with you?

Lisa Wade: As a sociologist, my job is to “deconstruct” things.  That is, to question the degree to which the social routines and expectations that we learn are inevitable or cultural.  Messages about sexuality, just like messages about what we’re supposed to eat for breakfast and gender roles in marriage, can be deconstructed.  Usually they fall apart pretty easily.  Once you recognize that the rules passed on by these messages are invented, it’s much easier to reject them.

So, instead of looking for messages that I like, I try to push back against all the messages and gain perspective on every corner of our culture.  It’s a very “Foucauldian” thing to do.  Michel Foucault was a philosopher who attacked the idea that being able to talk about sexuality is liberating.  He argued that talking about sexuality is, instead, incredibly repressive.  This is because virtually all talk about sexuality has a way of drawing lines between acceptable/unacceptable, normal/abnormal, moral/immoral, etc.  Even the most sterile of scientific facts – e.g., the average time till ejaculation is four minutes or the average person masturbates three times a week – creates conditions under which we may be compelled to compare ourselves or our partners in positive or negative ways.

Foucault thought that a great way to try to get in touch with a more personal sexuality is to have less talk about sexuality.  There are some obvious problems with this (we need to pass on information about preventing pregnancy and STIs and the importance of sexual consent, of course), but there is something really interesting here too.  If a person had never been told who is sexy (a message we receive hundreds of times a day in our society), who would they think is sexy?   Whoever they thought was sexy, I guess.  If two people, sexually attracted to each other, got in bed for the first time, but had never been exposed to the sexual script (first you kiss, then you grope, then you grope with clothes off, then you dry hump, then she goes down on him, then they have intercourse, etc), how would they be sexual together?  They would be sexual however they felt like and, more, they’d have to talk about it.

TCP: In terms of creating healthy courtship rituals on campuses, what would they be?

LW: One thing I would like to see is a greater diversity of models for what healthy sexual engagement looks like.  Right now, on most college campuses, there is significant peer pressure to “hook up.”  Essentially, hooking up – by which I mean having casual sexual contact of various kinds without any premise of future sexual or romantic engagement – is the only game in town.  Students form relationships, but only through hooking up. If a student wants a relationship, they have to be willing to have casual sex.  And students who don’t like casual sex, tend to feel bad, as if there’s something wrong with them.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hookups per se.  I collected narratives from 11 men and 33 women, three of whom identified as bisexual.  Some of the students in my research – both male and female – were enthusiastic about hooking up.  Lots of my students weren’t quite sure how they felt about hooking up, but they knew that doing so had taught them a lot about themselves.  It’s good that students have the opportunity to have casual sex if they want, and it’s good that it’s (somewhat) destigmatized.

The problem isn’t hooking up, it’s that hooking up is the only way of being sexual that my students see as an option.  There were no counter-messages.  Students who are deeply religious feel entirely unsupported in their desire to remain virgins till marriage.  Students who want relationships, but not casual sex, are seen as fuddy duddies: old fashioned and possibly repressed.  Students who are interested in polyamory, love-based sexual relationships with more than one person, are seen as simply weird.  A feminist perspective on sex is essentially invisible, especially any real discussion of women’s pleasure.  And hookup culture is decidedly heterocentrist; there is no room for same-sex exploration, unless it was women faking it to attract men.  Meanwhile, interest in having sex is essentially compulsory for my students.  They had hookup culture and hookup culture only.

It’s my opinion that if there were support for a wide variety of ways of being sexual – instead of one, overbearing, compulsory model – then more people would learn more about themselves more comfortably.  And they’d be able to do it in a safer way.  For one, as with the scenario in which there is no sexual script, if there are many competing sexual scripts on campus, then you have to talk to each other to figure out what you’re going to do. Second, if there are competing sexual scripts, they may be offering critical perspectives on each other, and so you may be better armed to recognize something dangerous or unhealthy when you see it.  Finally, if there is an option for you that you feel comfortable with, then you won’t feel compelled to do things you don’t want to do, just because you want to do something.  Many college students are consenting to sex they don’t want, just because they think it’s their only option.

TCP: Social media can be powerful educational tool. Have there been any videos, images, or sound bites that have provided you with valuable sexual health information?

LW: There is one video I saw, when I was about 21, that stands out in my mind even today.  I was told that it was a project by an NYU student.  The filmmaker asked about 40 women to stand naked, side-by-side, on the edge of a stage.  The camera captured the appearance of their bodies from about the neck to the knees, no faces, just bodies. (I don’t know if it was ever publicly available, but if anyone can send it to me, I’d be thrilled.)

Think about how rarely you actually see a new (near-)naked body that is not a model or the equivalent (actress etc).  With new sexual partners, perhaps.  And if you’re straight, this is (probably mostly) going to be the body of the other sex.  At the gym perhaps?  But you’re not supposed to look, so you probably don’t look closely.  I realized when I saw this video (it probably lasted all of two minutes), that I had never really seen women’s bodies outside of the mass media. I didn’t know what women’s bodies looked like.  And I had been comparing my body to that of actresses and models.  I realized that day that things about my body that I thought were horrible deformities were completely normal.  Even though the bodies in that video were all different, they were also very similar, and my body looked just like theirs in some cumulative way.  From that point on, I knew I wasn’t gross.  A simple less.  And so important, but a really hard one to encounter in a powerful way.

TCP: Of the tools outlined on the website, which have been valuable for you personally?

LW: Pacing.  The anticipation of exploring things with a new sexual partner is one of the most fabulous things in life.

TCP: What motivated your most recent research?

LW: My most recent research involved learning about the sexual experiences of first-year college students.  I asked them to write detailed narratives about their sexual feelings, attitudes, and experiences, talking (and not talking) about anything they wanted.  I collected narratives between the first and second semester of their first-year at college, and again at the end of that year.  (A paper summarizing my findings, called “Hooking Up and Opting Out,” can be found here).

I was motivated to do this research out of a long-standing practice of studying sexuality (before I got my MS and PhD in Sociology, I earned an MA in Human Sexuality) and my experience talking to truly brilliant and insightful students, who I knew would be able to capture their experiences in moving and informative ways.

TCP: What keeps you dedicated and passionate about your work?

LW: Writing Sociological Images is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s the most accessible writing I do, reaching about 20,000 people a day.  I’m proud when I can, for example, expose ads that stigmatize working-class people, defend Serena Williams, ask questions about what makes a body obscene, help people think more critically about phrases like “sex sells”, or contribute to change, like we did when we drew attention to the Abercrombie Kids “push-up” bikini, which they eventually took down.

And the response from Readers is tremendous.  They tell me that they come to the blog because it helps them fight their eating disorder, that the blog has finally convinced their husband to identify as a feminist, that they can’t watch tv or see ads anymore without a flurry of sociological commentary in their own brain, that they are so relieved to find out that they aren’t the only ones who notice “these things” in the world.

I am so very lucky to have the opportunity to teach, expose social injustice, and offer tools with which people can wrest some autonomy from culture. How could I not be dedicated and passionate?

TCP: Are there any images of sexual communication that you would like to either deconstruct or share with our readers?

LW: Yes, here’s an image I’ve deconstructed:

And here’s an image I’ve left for viewers, including you, to deconstruct:

TCP: Thank you so much for your time and thoughts Lisa!

For more from Lisa Wade:

Please watch her newest speech!

Please visit her personal website!

Please visit Sociological Images!

Written by Ben Privot on June 27, 2011