Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Review: Flirting With Danger

Sounds like it's going to be a bad thriller right?  About a young investigative reporter who falls for the son of the mob boss or something?  But if you read the subtitle, it's actually a feminist work on how young women interpret domination, particularly sexual domination (I can see the spam from this one coming a mile away). 

Also, please do not misinterpret domination here - it's not referring to a specific sexual act or preference, it's a broad reference to how men interact with women in hetero relationships.  Basically, the book uses interviews with young women from a liberal arts college with an emphasis on women's studies to examine the contradictions in the way women think about their relationships with men.  For example, the idea that a rapist is a bad man, not someone you know and care about, and certainly not your boyfriend.  Or expressing the idea that women shouldn't be seen as sexual objects in the classroom, but appreciating cat calls and whistles on the street. 

The heart of the book focuses on how women will excuse a violent or sexual incident in their own lives, and refuse to label it as rape or abuse, when they would consider it rape or abuse if it happened to another woman.  It's about the ways women justify violent male dominance to themselves. 

A lot of it is sociological, feminist theory - and that's the audience it's intended for.  The author doesn't go into definitions when using terms like "fundamental attribution error" or "bias theory" so the reader needs to have a basic understanding of sociological research and group dynamics.  A basic background in feminist theory would help as well.  That said, the work is very accessible if the reader has that understanding or is willing to do some of his or her own research while reading.  Because so much of the book is made up of interviews, it is a personal and touching read.  The first hand accounts are interspersed with the analysis, so neither aspect of the research is overwhelming.  The author does a great job of citing sources and presenting both sides of the argument in most cases. 

One small (ok huge) annoyance that I have many times with feminist writers is the bias against Republicans and/or the "religious right".  I'm a Republican AND a part of the religious right AND a feminist.  It's possible.  I'm pro-life too.  Mind boggling, right?  I can understand it in a book on abortion, though, because being pro-life is such a huge part of the Republican/evangelical agenda.  But this book doesn't deal with that issue at all.  So I found it grating when the author would make the broad generalization that the "religious right" is opposed to legislation against domestic violence. 

If a researcher wants to give names and back up their statement with evidence, that's one thing.  But the blanket statement that evangelicals oppose domestic violence legislation is no more fair or accurate than saying Muslims hate America.  It doesn't apply to the group as a whole and it's not something that you can back up with documented evidence, so leave it out of your academic research, please.  That's an opinion, and it doesn't belong in a work of scholarly research.

As I've mentioned few times, this is a book based on scholarly research and is intended for an academic audience.  So it's not the same as reading a novel or even a work of popular non-fiction.  There's a lot of information about statistics and research methods that isn't going to appeal to some readers.  The stories the women share are fascinating and haunting, however.  If you're already interested in feminist theory, I definitely recommend it.  It explores some ideas that I hadn't considered and that I'm glad to learn more about.  If you aren't interested in academic writing, and you don't know much about feminism, I probably wouldn't recommend that you start with this one. 

One more small note: the book was published in 2000, so much of the research quoted by the author is dated to some degree.  One way that I think this would particularly impact the book is in the section describing the dichotomy between the "good man" and the "rapist".  The women interviewed were largely taught as children to beware of the scary old man waiting behind the bush to rape you (the bad guy), but were never warned about the dangers of "good men", such as fathers, uncles, schoolmates, or family friends.  However, research shows that these "good men" are the most likely to commit an act of sexual abuse.  I think that many schools and parents are now adopting less of a "stranger danger" mentality and putting the research that demonstrates the likelihood of acquaintance rape to use. 

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