No Win Situation
Patriarchy is all about double-binds. One of the most powerful dynamics is to create a Scylla and Charybdis, so that there is no safe course for a women to sail between them. I see it everywhere I look, and recently I was reminded of it in Piny’s post on Carol Lay’s dieting at Feministe. Where I’m going with this is that it isn’t about weight; it’s about everything. Including virginity.
In the diet post, all the things happened that never don’t happen. Folks defended the diet and exercise regimen by basically calling the critics fat and lazy. Critics self-credentialed by saying how much they ate and how much they exercised. Folks chose sides and pointed fingers. There was a whole lot of “I’m not like them.” This is all as inevitable as victim-blaming in comments about rape.
Not long ago I posted both here and at Feministing about the Commodity Model and the Performance Model, the stuff I wrote my YMY essay about, in the context of Natalie Dylan’s highly publicized virginity auction. One thing I noted about the Commodity Model was that it placed a premium on virginity. Ninapendamaishi pointed out that this was not her experience:
I’ve never felt virginity is considered valuable in our culture.
In fact, I’ve known many more men my age who were interested in finding a partner who would have sex soon and was already good in bed without them having to take some time to learn together.
In some ways, I think that’s just as shallow as looking for a virgin.
Ninapendamaishi’s criticism is one I’ve heard a few times. Lots of women don’t have the experience where their virginity is valued; instead, they get derided for it.
In fact, I did touch on this in Toward A Performance Model, by contrasting the abstinence-only crowd and their virginity-fetishizing with “pick-up artists” and other “libertines” who want women to give them sex early and often. See p. 32. But I hadn’t really focused on how this creates a double-bind around virginity. Lots of women are well acquainted with it: virginity as shameful, called evidence of undesirability or brokenness. Just as “slut” pairs with “prude.”
This is all about maintaining women’s sexuality as something of value to men: keeping it for men, giving it up for men. When a woman makes a truly autonomous decision, whatever it is, that is a threat. Women are dissuaded from doing that by Scylla and Charybdis: if they give the “slut” label a wide berth, they can almost always be labelled a prude; if they try to prove they are no prude, they can almost always be called “slut.” The “right decision” is an illusion; even if we simply ask in the abstract at what age a woman should lose her virginity, there is no age that will keep her safe from criticism. 15? Too early. 22? Too late? Anything in between is wrong both ways by somebody’s lights. There’s no safe choice, no choice that won’t be judged. That’s the daily dynamic of patriarchy, the one that I don’t have to live but that I learned about by listening: that there is no choice that won’t be judged. Merely by making a choice, a woman is judged.
(See also women’s clothing. Anything that’s not clearly too sexy could be called too frumpy, and vice versa. Every choice is subject to judgment. Men have business clothing choices that are uniform and not subject to second-guessing.)
Zuzu added an important thought as I was writing this. It’s about appetites: both the Carol Lay thing and the virginity issue. Women are not supposed to have appetites. Subjects have appetites. Objects are defined by how they are used (consumed) by subjects. But either indulging or refraining for one’s own reasons and desires are acts of agency. Women are told to do either or both of these things to please others: not as they see fit, but when and how they are told.
If we’re serious about women’s sexual autonomy, if women are really subjects, we have to respect decisionmaking that serves first their own interests. If a woman is free to choose — supported in choosing — when and how to be sexual, her choice may be “not.” Some folks are asexual, others are only interested in being sexual within a narrow range of circumstances. The only basis for evaluating a woman’s decisions that really respects her autonomy is “what’s right for her?” Neither finger-wagging at sluts, nor at prudes, is consistent with that.