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The Agency Line: A Neoliberal Metric for Appraising Young Women’s Sexuality

Abstract

Young women’s sexuality traditionally has been marked along a gendered moralist continuum of sexual activity, ranging from virtuous (virgins) to licentious (sluts). However, this one-dimensional model cannot easily accommodate substantive changes in the norms that influence girls’ sexualities. Contemporary scholarship generated across the Anglophone West includes many signs that such a shift has occurred, ushered in by the cultural and ideological suffusion of neoliberalism. I enlist interdisciplinary and international evidence of neoliberalism’s influence on constructions of girls’ sexuality to argue that in the U.S., girls are now judged on their adherence not only to gendered moralist norms, but also to a neoliberal script of sexual agency. In addition to reviewing conceptual and empirical grounds for this claim, I consider the multidimensional normative field created by the intersection of this Agency Line with the long-standing Virgin-Slut Continuum. The primacy of agency within neoliberal discourse seems to legitimize women’s sexual autonomy and its subjective nature may permit them some control over their position above the Agency Line. But upon critical inspection it becomes clear that young women remain confined to a prescribed normative space that divides them from one another, compels self-blame, and predicates their worth on cultural appraisals of their sexuality.

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Acknowledgments

This work has been presented at: the University at Buffalo’s Buffalo Center for Social Research (March, 2014); the Society for Research on Adolescence Biennial Meeting in Austin, TX (March, 2014); and the University of Pittsburgh Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies Program (November, 2014). I thank J. Dennis Fortenberry and anonymous reviewers for their careful feedback on preliminary drafts.

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Bay-Cheng, L.Y. The Agency Line: A Neoliberal Metric for Appraising Young Women’s Sexuality. Sex Roles 73, 279–291 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0452-6

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Keywords

  • Young women
  • Adolescent female sexuality
  • Sexual agency
  • Neoliberalism