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South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

The feminist approach

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The many limitations of previous approaches meant that considerable reinterpretation of the causes for sexual assault was needed. With the emergence of the women's movement in the 1960's and '70's, people began to tell of their experiences of sexual assault and so a more accurate identification of the problem became possible. This victim centred awareness prompted research and investigation in an attempt to address the key issues of sexual assault. In particular,

  • Why is it men who rape?
  • Why is it women and children who are primarily the victims of sexually abusive behaviours?

The feminist approach is a sociological analysis which over the past three decades has focused on two important and previously largely ignored aspects of sexual assault.

  • the unequal power relationships between men and women and adults and children;
  • the abusers responsibility for initiating and/or maintaining sexual assault.

In examining differential power relationships within society and the family this approach argues that the most adequate explanation of the motivation for, and incidence of, sexual assault is found in the complex interplay between existing social structures, conventional attitudes and socialisation, in particular, the differential gender socialisation of males and females in patriarchal society. A fundamental contribution offered by the feminist approach is that it does not focus exclusively on incestuous abuse within the family. In interpreting sexual abuse as a sexual power relationship rooted in differential gender socialisation and male power in patriarchal society, it is able to broaden its focus to include the dynamics of extra-familial as well as intra-familial sexual and incestuous abuse, all of which rely on males exerting their sexual power over women.

The research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that sexual abuse is not a problem of individual pathology occurring between 'pathological men and 'seductive women and children'. Instead it shows that sexual assault is an extension of the current legal, social, economic and political systems in which we live which manifest and reinforce male dominance over women and children. The manifestation of male power relationships are well documented. In the areas of education, employment, health, income security, law and decision making, women and children come out second best. Unequal power relationships between men, women and children are embedded in social organisations like the family where they become internalised by individuals. Masculine dominance over females is further linked to the patriarchal nature of heterosexual relationships. In a culture were men are socialised to view women as a means of satisfying their emotional, sexual and daily needs, a similar objectification of children is only a step away. The messages that females receive through such power structures and female socialisation serve to emphasise women's powerlessness, passivity and their role as victim. When internalised these messages generate submissive, compliant and self-effacing behaviours which offer little or no protection against sexual abuse.

Examinations of male power within the family show that abusers tend to see their wives and children as property which they can exploit in any way they wish, including sexually. Incest is thus seen as a just one expression of 'normal' male/female relations in a patriarchal society. Analysis of reported findings of perceived masculine inadequacy and social isolation of incestuous fathers have led to speculations that this prompts abusers to enforce patriarchal rule within the family where it is 'socially acceptable' for them to be in charge. Within the family the abuser is able to reconstruct traditional patriarchal domination in which, by means of threat, physical violence or coercion, he is not only obeyed but serviced by his wife and children.

Differential gender socialisation, in particular male sexual socialisation, is manifested and reinforced through the media, school curricula, sex stereo-typed expectations and role definitions, and gender specific child rearing practices. Male sexual socialisation is a major factor in abusive behaviour, particularly child abuse. Sexuality contains culturally moulded components which include values, feelings and attitudes, as well as biological drives, which account for stereo-typical gender roles in the expression of sexuality. Finkelhor argues there are four distinct features of masculine sexual socialisation that predispose men toward sexually abusing women and children.

  1. Firstly, men are socialised to express their dependency or intimacy needs through sex, and have not always been encouraged to act as nurturers.
  2. Secondly, men tend to have sex as a form of reconfirmation when their ego has encountered any kind of rebuff.
  3. Thirdly, many men experience sexual arousal outside of the context of a relationship but are more specifically aroused and stimulated by the genitals of their preferred sexual object. Whether these belong to an adult or a child may become largely irrelevant.
  4. Finally, men are socialised to desire sexual partners who are younger and smaller than themselves.

Impaired nurturing and diminished capacity for affection, along with putative masculine identity, restricts the forming of genuine relationships while encouraging sexual contact only with compliant submissive women who have inferior status. In addition, as male gender identity is more dependent on sexual success the sexually inadequate male may prefer a child as a sexual partner to bolster an inadequate adult ego. Such socialisation makes male sexual exploitative behaviour towards women and children increasingly comprehensible.

Included in this approach is the analysis of the role of pornography in perpetuating and legitimising sexual abuse and in particular child sexual abuse. The virulence of child pornography and the increase of child sex rings demonstrate that not only do men exert their sexual power over children, more fundamentally they find them erotically desirable. Such analysis provides powerful evidence against the notion that child sexual abuse is a problem of parenting. It is instead a function of masculine socialisation.

It is this social context which both creates and is reinforced by sexual assault and abuse and in which sexual abuse plays an important role in maintaining the status quo. In this view, rape is seen as a SOCIAL rather than a NATURAL fact. It is produced by a certain kind of society and not by immutable human nature and it is argued that the attempt to treat rape and sexual abuse as a natural and inevitable part of human behaviour, through defining psychological structures or developing elaborate theories, is a way to avoid having to do anything about it. But if we view it as a social fact, it can be eliminated through social change.


The feminist approach to sexual abuse comes closer than any other approach to providing explanations for and suggesting responses to the range of abusive behaviours. It has several advantages not least of which is it takes account of the social structure of society and differential gender socialisation. It also attributes responsibility to the abuser rather than the mother or the victim. Nevertheless, the feminist perspective does have limitations. Although feminist theory acknowledges and validates the survivors' feelings about the abuse with concomitant psychological impacts, it is essentially a sociological approach which tends to focus on social structure and socialisation. As such it minimises psychological factors and motivations that contribute to abuse although these are assumed as a result of socialisation.

Furthermore, in emphasising that all females are vulnerable to sexual abuse, feminist analysis can be construed as dismissive of a survivors' individual experiencing. Some survivors are unable to identify with other women and this presents another barrier for healing.

Associated with this is the assumption that all females are vulnerable, socialised to be compliant and paralysed to offer any resistance. While this is true for many women and children, it is not true for all and investigating the ways in which resistance has been achieved may enhance our understanding of how sexual abuse can be prevented or diminished. The assumption that all women and children are passive and compliant merely serves to reinforce negative messages which contribute to powerlessness and may increase survivors' existential anxiety.

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