Flirting with Danger: Power and Choice in Heterosexual Relationships. Directed by Lynn Phillips. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2012. 52 minutes.

Private Violence. Directed by Cynthia Hill. New York: Women Make Movies, 2014. 77 minutes.

Reviewed by M. Cristina Alcalde

Portrayals of the connections among heterosexuality, violence, and sexuality and how these issues shape young women’s lives in the United States are at the center of both films reviewed here. Whether it is research findings about young women’s experiences of violence and victimization, or the important role of advocates in working with women who have experienced violence, Flirting with Danger and Private Violence provide platforms from which to engage in wide-ranging discussions on violence, sex, relationships, coercion, and consent.

Flirting with Danger follows the research of social and developmental psychologist Lynn Phillips to focus mostly on the perceptions and realities of hookups, dating, and sexual violence among college-age women. Private Violence follows advocate Kit Gruelle to examine the complicated, multilayered experiences of women in abusive relationships. In doing so, it shows just how inadequate the popular question “why doesn’t she leave?” is in capturing women’s agency, experiences, options, and available resources.

Flirting with Danger presents interview reenactments with young women of varied social and racial backgrounds, clips from past and contemporary television shows, and magazine covers and advertisements. It underscores that young women’s experiences of sex, violence, and victimization (even, and perhaps particularly, when the victim label is rejected) are complicated by a society in which women are expected to be powerful and in control on the one hand and desirable and sexually available on the other. Women may minimize these experiences to avoid feeling and being seen as powerless in an age when popular culture promotes the sexualization of ever younger girls and simultaneously normalizes and eroticizes men’s violence against women.

The film pushes the viewer to consider the subtleties and contradictions surrounding women’s agency, as well as the limited options and strong societal pressure women experience. Viewers are encouraged to consider the gray areas between coercion and consent, between sex and victimization. We learn that, for example, young women could hesitate to carry condoms in their purses because although they may want to have sex and to protect themselves from STDs and pregnancy, they fear being seen as loose, easy, and slutty. They may give blowjobs not because they want to but because they see it as a way to avoid having “actual sex” and maintain some sense of control. They may struggle with self-blame in a society in which media still too commonly depict “no” as somehow meaning “yes.” To expand the discussion to the role of men, not only in perpetuating these forms of violence but also as allies in helping to end them, instructors might consider pairing Flirting with Danger with readings on bystander training, such as Erin Casey and Kristin Ohler’s “Being a Positive Bystander.”1

In Private Violence, set in North Carolina, the focus shifts to men’s physical, sexual, and psychological violence against their intimate partners. Drawing primarily on brief glimpses into some of Kit Gruelle’s cases and providing a more in-depth view of one woman’s (Deanna’s) case, the film carefully addresses several themes of interest to academic and community organizations: the importance and difficulties of cooperation among law enforcement, the judicial system, advocates, and individual women; the constant fear and threat women experience, which extends to fear for their children and other relatives; financial hardship; the effects of continuous manipulation and violence on women’s self-esteem; and the reality of an increased risk of being killed during and after the process of leaving an abusive partner. In one scene, Kit Gruelle points to a tall stack of folders during a radio show; they are the files of women murdered by their abusive partner. All of the women had filed restraining orders against their abusers.

Private Violence eloquently reminds us of the key, interconnected roles played by—or that should be played by—health professionals, law enforcement, and advocates who are often at the front lines of violence against women. The film will appeal in particular to those wondering about why or how advocates do the work they do. It may also encourage self-reflection in viewers inasmuch as their own experiences may be similar to those reflected in the lives of women who appear on screen.

In thinking of academic audiences and classes on violence, a scene toward the end in which Gruelle reads comments she received on a class paper may be a particularly good discussion starter. Her professor wrote that domestic violence is mostly a problem among poor people and the uneducated, and that professors, doctors, and lawyers are simply too educated to engage in this sort of violence. Frustrated at such ignorance, Gruelle rips up the paper. As she explains on camera how she felt when reading those comments she tapes the paper back together, to remind herself of the work that is still to be done. An earlier documentary Defending Our Lives (1994) similarly captures the horrific and multilayered experiences of everyday violence for women in the United States, the lack of understanding found among those in social, political, and legal spheres, and the limited resources available for those leaving an abusive partner.2 Private Violence reminds us that over two decades later, whether an advocate, educator, student, frontline worker, woman experiencing abuse, or any combination of these, there is still a lot of work to be done. 

1 Erin A. Casey and Kristin Ohler, “Being a Positive Bystander: Male Antiviolence Allies’ Experiences of ‘Stepping Up,’” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 27, no. 1 (2012): 62-83.

2 Defending Our Lives, directed by Margaret Lazarus (Santa Barbara, CA: Cambridge Documentary Films, 1994), 30 mins.

M. Cristina Alcalde is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Gender and Women's Studies Department at the University of Kentucky. Her areas of specialization include gender violence, migration, masculinities, and motherhood. Her publications include Provocations: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought (coedited with Susan Bordo and Ellen Rosenman, 2015), The Woman in the Violence: Gender, Poverty, and Resistance in Peru (2010), and numerous articles and book chapters.