Sexual assault in a sexualized culture

I’ve never had sex on a desk. Or in an airplane. When I told my grandchildren this, they shouted “Nana!” in embarrassment. I wanted them to know that loving sex between partners who respect each other is not a rip-her-clothes-off/push-her-against-the-wall norm.

Where would they get the idea otherwise? Everywhere.

Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Al Franken, members of Congress and their staffs, etc.etc. As of October 24, “Twitter confirmed to CBS News that over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo,” with 85 countries that had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets” (

Yes, women are speaking out. They’re disclosing the psychological injury of sexual assault. As a result, commentators are already claiming a “Cultural shift.” Now that powerful men are being confronted, either out of conscience or fear of getting caught, they’ll stop their abusive behavior.

I doubt it. The end of sexual violence against women would require a volcanic shift in media, where women exist for the benefit of men.

Like many Americans, males and females of all ages (my grandchildren included), I watch TV and movies. I like a good story. Readers who know me might be shocked at the kinds of movies I see. I’m sometimes shocked myself. Man meets woman; man desires woman; man f—s woman. Along the way a mystery is solved, a wrong is made right, love wins.

Let’s face it: we live in a highly sexualized society. Sex sells. Advertisers and the entertainment industry know that. It sells cars; it sells pharmaceuticals. Sex is on prime-time TV. Explicit sex. Aggressive sex.

Where do such messages lead? All men, not just men with political or social power, are led to believe they have a right to touch a woman’s breast, stick their tongue in her mouth, or do more.

I often wonder how young women are influenced by so much sex in the media. Have they been persuaded that male acceptance requires submission? I worry that my granddaughters, based on what they see in the media, will think they must give in to sexual advances.

Not that women don’t have hormones and needs of our own. In the 1960s we claimed our own sexuality and desires. But I’d wager that most want a sexual relationship with someone they know and care about.

Americans’ wishes are full of contradictions. We want services without paying taxes. We want cheap goods, yet they should be manufactured in the U.S.

We want men to respect women as equals in the work place. Yet everything men watch on their computers and TV screens shouts that women exist for male pleasure.

Can women, by speaking truthfully of our experiences, bring about a cultural shift? Only if the media quits portraying sex as an expectation of every encounter between a man and a woman.

And media, currently controlled by men, will never do that.


Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

5 thoughts on “Sexual assault in a sexualized culture

  1. And you can add the fashion industry to the forces issuing invitations to men to sexually abuse girls and women.
    (Interesting that when I clicked to comment on your blog, fashion ads came up at the end of your blog and before the space for comments. I tried to get rid of them and couldn’t.

    • Verna, you and Barry (whose comment follows yours) deal with the same issue in a way: clothing and costumes that accentuate a girl’s/woman’s sexuality. That’s a tough conversation for me to navigate. I don’t want to say that a woman’s choice of clothes makes her responsible for male responses. Yet I see women whose choice of clothes draws attention to their body in a seductive way . We’ve all (OK, MOST of us) bought in to the capitalist system that must constantly come up with new products/fashions. If the trend is to wear something more revealing, we follow the trend.

  2. I’m directing my church’s Christmas pageant this year and was looking online for an appropriate costume for a young woman in high school who will play a certain sci-if related role in the pageant. I’m not a costume person, so don’t ever look for male costumes much less female ones. I was surprised how sexualized all the female costumes are! (And I’ve spent my career in advertising.) I recently saw an interesting video post by blogger Glennon Doyle about helping our children and grandchildren realize how women (and men) are portrayed in our culture. She calls the process “revelation”. Pointing out examples and asking young folks: How does that image portray women? Is that accurate? Is that portrayal limiting or harmful? It’s a place to start with youngsters.

    • Barry, your and Verna’s remarks seem related. (See my response to her.) Helping our children and grandchildren ask important questions about how images portray masculinity or femininity sounds like a way to approach the subject. One barrier: drawing their attention from their cellphones.

      So did you create a suitable costume?

      • I found one that wasn’t too risqué and let the young woman and her mother make the final decision. They agreed it was OK!

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