Personal Agency

Rebecca Heimel

Personal agency refers to an individual’s ability to control their own behaviours and reactions to circumstances beyond their control, even if their actions are limited by someone or something else.

Rebecca Heimel is the Elizabeth J. McCormack Chair of Humanities at Cambridge College in Boston, Massachusetts and is a practicing interdisciplinary artist. Her academic research focuses on cultural texts as they relate to race, class, and gender.

Yuri’s Decision

Damaris was the first friend Yuri knew who had posted. Damaris chose a close-up of a rose in her Abuela’s backyard garden, which was pretty much the same as the other posts Yuri had seen.

Kamila texted first thing Saturday. “You seen?” Kamila asked. “Ya,” Yuri replied. Until that post on Friday, Yuri hadn’t known anyone personally who had actually done it and now it seemed like things were closing in on her. If Damaris had done it, who would be next?

Kamila’s texts kept coming. She screen-capped other girls’ posts with dates. Yuri was mostly silent. She wasn’t going out with anyone, unless you counted Alexey Monsenore. They weren’t technically together, but he had asked her in the hallway if she was “ready to post.” She feigned insult and said “shut up,” but now she was reconsidering. She didn’t want to, but she certainly couldn’t tell him that, and she definitely couldn’t tell Kamila who would never shut up about it.

“Who started this stupid thing anyway?” Yuri asked Kamila by text, but got no reply. It annoyed Kamila when Yuri thought too deeply about things. Yuri didn’t know how to possibly turn her brain off, and the fact that new posts of stupid flowers popped up all the time didn’t make it any easier. Why did the girls have to do this, and the guys didn’t? Two hours later, exactly, Kamila replied. “Who cares just do it and post it—I can’t be the last to do it, and neither can you.”

Yuri sat in her room holding her phone, wishing there was someone to talk to who was not involved in this whole mess but who wouldn’t question the basis of the mess to begin with. Her fathers were both downstairs, but what would they know about it? When she was a baby and they flew to Seoul to get her, could they have imagined that someday their daughter would be considering losing her virginity and then announcing it on social media?

By the time late Saturday evening came around, Yuri felt like she had been in her room for three days. Dad had brought her lunch. She had scrolled through Instagram, then tossed her phone away, then picked it up again, over and over. She tried to draw, which usually helped, but got nowhere. Kamila hadn’t texted in a few hours. She tried to imagine having sex with Alexey.

Once the sun had completely gone down, Dad knocked on her door.

“You seem down, Yur, what’s up?”

“All good, Dad.”

“Okay, doll. If you are coming to church tomorrow morning, would you let me know? I want to figure out which Mass to go to.” After he closed the door, Yuri buried her head in her pillows again. Hearing about church made the whole thing worse.

She was sitting in art class on a Monday afternoon when the idea came to her. By that time, Kamila had done it with Denny Hernandez and had posted—some kind of bushy blue flower in Elizabeth Park. Kamila talked only about Denny, with brief pauses to analyze her own post and the reactions. The other girls were treating Kamila differently, and Kamila was delighted. Yuri sat there with her new colored pencils drawing the still-life scene in front of her when she figured out what to do.

After school she found Alexey outside the auditorium stairs. “Want to take a walk?” She asked him. Alexey raised one eyebrow, which set her stomach turning.

On the walk, they were silent for most of the time. For all of his prior confidence, Alexey did not seem too pleased now. When they reached Crow Point and found a private spot he seemed very, very nervous when he said “I don’t have a condom.”

“Neither do I,” Yuri said. “But we don’t need one.”

He exhaled, then paused. “Yuri, what’s going on?”

“Listen,” she said. “Thank you, for—offering. I know you know about the posting, everyone knows, and everyone expects girls to do it, but I really don’t want to. It’s not like I’ll never want to, I just don’t want to right now. And I don’t like feeling pressured.”

“Sorry, Yuri. But really, I get it. I only asked you because I assumed you’d say no. I’m not ready either.”

“Oh well—oh. Thanks for telling me that. I wanted to take a walk with you today because I’m willing to say we did it if you want. We can pretend it happened today. I’m going to post later but it won’t be for sure, it will be kind of coded, so really no one will know. I’m not going to talk to Kamila or anyone else about it, so it’s up to you what you want to say. If that’s okay with you.”

When she got home, Yuri went upstairs to her room. She took out her old colored pencils from her desk and looked up a picture of a Rose of Sharon online. It only took her about 15 minutes to draw and shade the flower, and by the time she had finished, taken a picture of her drawing, and uploaded it to Instagram, she was certain she had done the right thing. No one had ever posted a picture of a drawing; everyone had posted a photograph of a flower. She had figured out a way around the pressure. It wasn’t honest, but it was better than the alternative.

 

Discussion Questions

  • Social scientists use the term “structure” to talk about forces or factors that control our individual actions. Which structural forces can you identify from Yuri’s story?
  • How do structural forces impact Yuri’s decision to have sex for the first time?
  • How did Yuri exercise personal agency in the story?
  • Considering Yuri’s example, do you think that individuals can ever have total personal agency?
  • Yuri’s decision depended on her circumstances and the popular trend in her school of females posting a picture of a flower to social media after having sex for the first time. In what ways is personal agency context-specific?

Exercise

Personal agency refers to the agency that people can exercise in their own lives and over their own circumstances and bodies. Other kinds of agency exist in the world, however, which are theorized differently. These include material agency and linguistic agency, in which non-human things (physical objects and words) are able to effect change in the world.

  • If you are not familiar with the concepts of material agency and linguistic agency, look them up to get a sense of what these terms mean.
  • How is personal agency (like that described in Yuri’s Choice) similar to material and linguistic agency? How is it different?
  • Can material agency or linguistic agency every be ‘total’? What implications does this have for the ways in which humans, objects, and language are all connected and interdependent?

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