Skip to Content
Flirting with Danger: Power and Choice in Heterosexual Relationships cover image

Flirting with Danger: Power and Choice in Heterosexual Relationships 2012


Distributed by Media Education Foundation, 60 Masonic St., Northampton, MA 01060; 800-897-0089
Produced by Sut Jhally and Andrew Killoy
Directed by Sut Jhally and Andrew Killoy
DVD , color, 52 min.

Sr. High - General Adult
Gender Studies, Psychology, Sociology, Women’s Studies

Date Entered: 03/22/2013

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

As in their Killing Us Softly series, the Media Education Foundation presents another documentary that unflinchingly examines our culture’s misogynist attitudes toward women. Flirting with Danger: Power and Choice in Heterosexual Relationships focuses on the topic of sexual consent. It features Dr. Lynn Phillips, a social and developmental psychologist at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Phillips has interviewed hundreds of young women about their heterosexual relationships and hookups; in this film she analyzes the nuances and contradictions in the discourse of these young women. The documentary features re-enactments of the interviews, interspersed with Dr. Phillips’ explication. She notes disturbing patterns in the women’s stories. There is often no clear line between consent and coercion in the women’s narrative of their sexual experiences. When describing situations in which they have been victimized, the women typically blame themselves and minimize the abusive behavior of their male partner.

Using the framework of social psychology, Dr. Phillips explains that the contradictions expressed in the young women’s interviews do not fit neatly into the feminist sound bite of “no means no.” Dr. Phillips attributes this complicated communication pattern to our culture’s irrational attitudes toward female sexuality. She shifts the blame from the personal sphere and places it squarely in the social and cultural realm, contending that our culture continues to perpetuate the unhealthy virgin/whore dichotomy. Women are bombarded with the mixed messages that sexuality defines their worth, yet they are always potentially punishable for their sexual activity. Media images in our popular culture portray hypersexual women as desirable, yet women who express liberated, intentional sexuality risk being condemned and vilified as whores or sluts. The film features brief clips of these negative and/or conflicted media images of sexuality (in billboards, magazines, television, movies, and music videos).

The film gradually builds its case, first pointing out the contradictions within the young women’s interview statements, then implicating the culture’s tenacious ideals of femininity, coupled with the pressure to be hypersexual. Reality shows are negatively implicated, as are abstinence-only educational programs that equate sex with death, along with conservative talk shows, slasher films, and the Twilight series. The film also addresses the privileging of male pleasure, noting that emphasis in the cover stories of Cosmopolitan magazine. Negative stereotypes of masculinity are criticized, such as the eroticization of masculine violence. Dr. Phillips contends that these negative cultural messages are powerful and ubiquitous, operating on a subconscious level. She explains that it is easier to blame individuals than to see how confused we are as a culture and to realize how reluctant we are to insist upon male accountability. In the film’s last minute, Dr. Phillips ends with the hope that caring men and women can work together collectively for change.

The film is appropriate for mature high school students and college and adult audiences. It contains sexually explicit language. The DVD includes an edited version in which some potentially offensive words are bleeped and breasts are blurred. The film would be an excellent support to teen sex education curriculum, women’s and gender studies, media and communications studies, and behavioral and social sciences courses, particularly social psychology. However, the self-blaming discourse and the examples of the negative media barrage are so unrelenting that viewers will need an antidote. This reviewer hopes that a sequel from Media Education Foundation is forthcoming, one that depicts healthy self-assertion on the part of women, and shows men who accept accountability for their behavior. This sequel could expand upon the final minute of the film, specifying how men and women could work and/or are working together collectively for change. In the meantime, educators will need to provide the positive spin to supplement this thought-provoking documentary about sexual consent and misogyny.