Tolman, D.L., S.M. Anderson and K. Belmonte. 2015. “Mobilizing Metaphor: Considering Complexities, Contradictions, and Contexts in Adolescent Girls’ and Young Women’s Sexual Agency.”

Tolman, Deborah L., Stephanie M. Anderson, and Kimberly Belmonte. 2015. “Mobilizing Metaphor: Considering Complexities, Contradictions, and Contexts in Adolescent Girls’ and Young Women’s Sexual Agency.” Sex Roles 73:298-310.

“Neoliberal sexual agency is a much-needed rendering of the rearticulated social and discursive landscape within which girls and young women navigate sexuality” (298) — moving from Bay-Cheng (2015)’s definitions of neoliberalism as “yielding a depoliticized, individualized ideology of unfettered choice, control, and attribution of blame, freedom, and responsibility only to and for girls themselves, obfuscating systems of oppression that impinge upon or deny access to their own sexuality, and producing antagonism among girls” (298).

Claims to sexual agency as neoliberal enactments — through using “technologies of sexiness” (Evans et al 2010, pg 114 here 299 – see also Evans and Riley 2014) – to upend slut/virgin dichotomies — however, these neoliberal “choices” isolate and obscure the systems of how women evaluate themselves and others.

“[…] neoliberal sexual agency […] positions girls’ sexuality as individualized choices that they make knowingly, over which they can and should exert control and thus for which they are held individually responsible […]” (301).

Bay-Cheng (2015)’s claims:

  • Slut/virgin dichotomy no longer represents the full continuum of gender norms, codes, and language that women use to describe their (and others’) sexuality — now more spectrumatic, extending now beyond traditional good/bad girls dichotomies (complicating sexual double standard)
  • Constructing new behaviors such as “sexy abstinence” (Candies Foundation Campaign, cited in Bay-Cheng 2015) – that accommodate social demands for sexiness (to be popular, or even generally accepted)
  • This neoliberalist influence on young women’s sexuality actually heightens (not lessens) the surveillance put on young women — furthering the notion that male power is maintained/produced by a “prescribed normative space that divides them [women] from one another, compels self-blame, and predicates their worth on cultural appraisals of their sexuality” (Rich 1981: 28, here 299) —- kx^ as women are able to “claim agency,” they are also held responsible/blameworthy for the full manangement of it – its execution AND interpretation? Compresses acceptable forms of sexuality (?) – assuming that all women have the same access/distance to sexuality
  • NLSA characteristic: “showcase female sexual power and appetite: women commanding sexual attention, demanding sexual pleasure, and pursuing sexual fun, all without apology” (Bay-Cheng 2015 – PAGE NUMBER?) – despite still miniscule proportion of girls who expect pleasure or empowered from/by sexual experiences (Maxwell and Aggleton 2010; Tolman 2002).


Tolman et al (HERE) see this process as “girls’ commodification of their own sexual agency that they use to gain social capital or currency, a kind of ostensible sexual agency that may or may not be neoliberal” (301) — offering impression of sexual knowledge, and using sexuality to achieve other goals (Tanenbaum 2015) – though this may appear to be evidence of sexual subjecthood, it is focused more on “the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure” (Levy 2006: 30).  Use of alcohol to aid performance of sexual prowess/proactivity — but not to generate feelings of entitlement to sexual power/pleasure — kx^ still “looking” the part, but refraining from exhibiting “real” sexual desire (see also Holland et al 1998/2004; Lamb 2010; Tolman 2002; Bay-Cheng 2015), distinguishing “good sluts” from “bad” ones (Tanenbaum 2015) by being “sexy enough,” and demonstrating sexual knowledge/prowess, but remaining in control — too much agency (Tolman 2002), “authentic or embodied sexual agency” (304, see also Maxwell and Aggleton 2010), or sexual excess (Fine and McClelland 2006) tips the scales to badness.

Persistence of slut labeling as a means to organize/control women, as well as their sexuality (Attwood 2007, Renold 2005, Tanenbaum 1999/2015, White 2002). Despite usurpation of the slut title through reclamation projects (a la SlutWalk) — the terms “re-inscribe even as they reject the power of slut” (302, see also Gill 2009). Salience of “slut” depends on peer group norms (Lyons et al 2011), but is not exclusively heterosexualized, as lesbian girls still endure slut discourse (Payne 2010)

Previous forms of sexual agency were based in sexual subjectivity – “a sense of oneself as a sexual being, as well as making decisions or simply acting in ways that included or considered one’s own embodied sexual feelings, including choosing not to act on those feelings” (304, see also Fine 1988; Horne and Zimmer-Gembeck 2005; McClelland 2010; Phillips 2000; Tolman 2002) – recognizing the many conditions/contexts that endanger/prevent women’s expression of this (or ability to discern it).   Thus, “[…] performance of embodiment that is not embodied matters” — “where girls and young women authorize themselves as embodied and entitled to have control over their own bodies rather than how other people perceive them or their reputations or conceding to a mandate of control […]” (all 305).

*** Currently, sexual subjectivity is contextual and temporal — that is, it happens within specific times/space where regular rules of surveillance may change, alcohol use may lower inhibitions, etc. (see also Levy 2006) – rather than something that is honored throughout time/context.



Attwood, F. 2007. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.” Journal of Gender Studies 16(X): 233-247.

Bay-Cheng, L.Y. 2015. “The Agency Line: A Neoliberal Metric for Appraising Young Women’s Sexuality.” Sex Roles 73: 279-291.

Evans, A. and S. Riley. 2014. Technologies of Sexiness: Sex, Identity, and Consumer Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Evans, A., S. Riley, and A. Shankar. 2010. “Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the Sexualization of Culture.” Feminism and Psychology 20 (x): 114-131.

Fine, M. 1988. “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire.” Harvard Educational Review 58(1): 29-54.

Fine, M. and S.I. McClelland. 2006. “Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing After All These Years.” Harvard Educational Review 76(x): 297-338.

Gill, R. 2009. “Beyond the ‘Sexualization of Culture’ Thesis: An Intersectional Analysis of ‘Sixpacks’, ‘Midriffs’, and ‘Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising.” Sexualities 12(x): 137-160.

Holland, J., C. Ramazanoglu, S. Sharpe, and R. Thomson. 2004. The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power (2nd edition). London: Tufnell Press.

Horne, S. and M.J. Zimmer-Gembeck. 2005. “Female Sexual Subjectivity and Well-Being: Comparing Late Adolescents with Different Sexual Experiences.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 2(3):25-40.

Lamb, S. 2010. “Feminist Ideals for Healthy Female Adolescent Sexuality: A Critique.” Sex Roles 62(x): 294-306.

Levy, A. 2006. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lyons, H., P.C. Giordano, W.D. Manning, and M.A. Longmore. 2011. “Identity, Peer Relationships, and Adolescent Girls’ Sexual Behavior: An Exploration of the Contemporary Double Standard.” Journal of Sex Research 48(x): 437-449.

Maxwell, C. and P. Aggleton. 2010. “Agency in Action – Young Women and their Sexual Relationships in a Private School.” Gender and Education 22(x): 327-343.

McClelland, S.I. 2010. “Intimate Justice: A Critical Analysis of Sexual Satisfaction.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4(x): 663-680.

Payne, E. 2010. “Sluts: Heteronormative Policing in the Stories of Lesbian Youth.” Educational Studies 46(x): 317-336.

Phillips, L. 2000. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination. New York: New York University Press.

Renold, E. 2005. Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children’s Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. New York: Psychology Press.

Rich, A. 1981. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5(x): 631-660.

Tanenbaum, L. 1999. Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Tanenbaum, L. 2015. I Am Not a Slut: Slut-shaming in the Age of the Internet. New York: HarperCollins.

Tolman, D.L. 2002. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls and Sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

White, E. 2002. Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. New York: Simon and Schuster.


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