Beyond “Empowerment”? Sexuality in a Sexist World
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- Gavey, N. Sex Roles (2012) 66: 718. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0069-3
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The subject of girls’ sexual empowerment is a fertile area for feminist debate. While most feminists are committed to the promotion of diverse and egalitarian sexual possibilities for girls (and women), we differ in our views on how to hold an aspirational vision alongside paying attention to real world constraints on its unfolding. A specific instance of this tension is posed in considering how relevant claims to individual empowerment are within a broader context that remains broadly sexist and limiting as well as saturated with racist and other forms of discrimination and inequality. In this paper, I join the dialogue opened by Lamb and Peterson (2011) to explore some of these questions. I argue that the concept of sexual empowerment, as taken up in these debates, might be too flexible to do the work we require of it. In particular, I suggest that it is unhelpful to fix our lens on claims of individual empowerment, if and where this involves eliding the broader sociocultural conditions of possibility for “intimate justice” (McClelland 2010) for girls and women; and, where it leads us to over-ride the psychosocial complexity of all individuals in ways that distract us from attending to ambivalence and understanding the “cruel attachments” that can bind us to injustice. Rather than seeking to offer an “‘expert’ view of empowerment,” I argue for the value of reflexive, empathic, and respectful feminist critique of the cultural conditions of possibility for such a thing.