Skip to content

No Win Situation

February 22, 2009

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.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

5 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    February 22, 2009 12:37 pm

    Thomas,

    “Neither finger-wagging at sluts, nor at prudes, is consistent with that.”

    absolutely.

    “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.”

    I don’t think there’s no way to get it right. Right is what’s right for you. As far as societal expectations are concerned, I also believe it’s not as complicated as you seem to think when you look at the extremes of early sex and late virginity, promiscuity and abstinence. There’s a lof of room in-between that society (as in most reasonable people of either gender who aren’t engaged in public discourse about this) in general regards as healthy and – normal.

    That said, I believe there still is a general tendency to shame people about their sex-lives or lack thereof. With respect to women this is probably more about promiscuity shaming, with men it is definitely more about abstinence shaming (and believe me I *know* what I am talking about here). Both is wrong, but it’s also not true that no one can “get it right”. In fact, most people do get it right.

  2. February 23, 2009 12:41 pm

    John said:

    There’s a lof of room in-between that society (as in most reasonable people of either gender who aren’t engaged in public discourse about this) in general regards as healthy and – normal.

    I think you miss the point. People don’t live with a single consensus vote as to what “normal” is. They live with the individual data points that make up the distribution. If everyone voted and agreed on a “right” decision, and then agreed to not criticize any decision that matched it, there would be a way to avoid being judged. But instead, anything in the “normal” range will be SIN! to many religious and social conservatives (many of whom demand that sex be only with opposite sex partners, only within marriage, only open to the possibility of conception, and lots of other stuff). The same decision in the “normal” range will mean that a woman who is a virgin at the upper end of that range will start to get judged and criticized for it. If 70% of the population thinks it’s fine for a woman to become sexually active at the age of 17, three out of ten people think it’s not — and that 30% does not have to have a majority to loudly wag the judgment finger and make a lot of women feel like shit.

    Now, humans are judgmental critters, and treat lots of thing this way. But women’s sexuality draws more fire and is a site of major social control, so on my account that’s a place where people who are doing what’s right for them need to not catch a lot of shit for their decisions. But within what you describe as a normal range, women at least do catch a lot of shit — so I have been given to understand by women.

    So when I say there’s no way to “get it right” I mean no way to avoid some part of the population saying, “you got it wrong.” No way to be free of criticism in something so personal that, I think you and I agree, the only way to really get it right is to do right by one’s self.

  3. Johnnyboy permalink
    February 24, 2009 10:46 am

    Thomas,

    “So when I say there’s no way to “get it right” I mean no way to avoid some part of the population saying, “you got it wrong.” No way to be free of criticism in something so personal that, I think you and I agree, the only way to really get it right is to do right by one’s self.”

    Sure, there will always be some people who don’t agree with you. But no woman who grew up within that 70% percent (I think it’s a lot more, but using your number) would let the opinion of assumed loons from “the other side” affect her self-perception, just like she wouldn’t let the opinion of a Taleban mullah with respect to female sexuality affect her self-perception. The point for me is not to be free from abstract criticism of lifestyles, the point is to be happy with one’s choice and *not* let the critics affect oneself.

  4. February 24, 2009 11:01 am

    Johnnyboy, I think that’s simplistic. It’s a lot easier to say, “I don’t care what people say about me”, even people one disagrees with, than to actually feel it, and that is much more true for women, who get bombarded with messages to please others and avoid conflict.

  5. Jessica permalink
    February 24, 2009 12:31 pm

    Thomas, I agree. We get the conflicting messages about what we’re supposed to do and not do sexually from such an early age and from so many different sources that even once we decide to try to ignore the critics, it’s hard for us to really tune them out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: