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Couldn’t Give It Away

November 20, 2009

Some time ago, I wrote about virginity (which is a meaningless concept with no value) and about the premium placed on it, something I discussed in Towards A Performance Model of Sex, in Yes Means Yes. Jessica Valenti also discusses it in detail in Purity Myth. However, neither of us spent much time with the reverse dynamic: how the culture treats women as abnormal if they don’t fall in line with the compulsory sexuality as expected. Some folks have raised that issue in response to things I’ve written in the past, though I can’t find the references now, and then recently Salome wrote eloquently about it in comments here.

It ought to be a non-debatable maxim that anyone can refuse to be sexual with anyone, in any way, at any time, for any reason — with any particular person, or with anyone. Some folks are asexual. They’re not interested in partnered sex. It is wrong to assume that this is some sort of pathology; not everyone who lacks the desire for partnered sex has been traumatized. Some are asexual. That has to be okay.

Folks who do want partnered sex have plenty of reasons they can’t find it. Just to pick an example, gay and lesbian folks in conservative and very homophobic environments may (or may not) have trouble finding partners. It can’t be easy finding same-sex partners in, say, Provo, Utah, but then I’ve heard enough stories about guys behind the bleachers at Christian rock concerts to know that repression never works as completely as the repressors would like. Likewise folks whose gender expression doesn’t fit the binary, or doesn’t fit their assigned sex — which is not to say that trans – or genderqueer folks don’t have active sex lives; plenty find partners. Folks whose bodies fall outside the expected norms may (or may not) have trouble finding partners. (For all that the mainstream media tells us that fat bodies, for example, or unlovable and unfuckable, I’ve spent decades in and around communities where fat people have found love and fucking; and the media hardly acknowledges disabled bodies at all, but that neither means that disabled folks don’t want partnered sex, nor that they can’t get it.)*

But difficulty finding a partner — not just any partner, but the right partner — is not unique to people who fall significantly outside some real or imagined norm. A few weeks ago, Tina Fey was on Letterman, and disclosed that she was a “virgin” (she didn’t unpack that; mainstream media never does) until she was 24. Video here. She jokes that she was “homely,” and I suspect that this is a true statement of her insecurities. I’ll admit that I find Fey very attractive; though her Liz Lemon character, whose personality is dominated by her insecurities, not so much.

We expect men to be made to feel ashamed of virginity (whatever that is) or lack of sexual experience. That’s not good, but that’s not a surprise. Yet, with all the pressure that abstinence entrepreneurs and professional scolds put on women to not have partnered sex, one would expect that there would be some perceptible support or reward for women who decide that’s what they want to do.

But that’s not what I keep hearing. What I keep hearing is that support for abstinence is mostly illusory; that women who actually make the choice not to have partnered sex have about ten minutes between “good girl” and “you’re not getting any younger.” That, in practice, abstinence is pathologized. But so is any expression of sexuality other than monogamous, committed relationship with an opposite sex partner fitting within a narrow set of acceptable demographic constraints.

So, as it always is with patriachy, almost everything is a no-win situation. Abstinence puritanism lives right next door to compulsory heterosexuality, working to completely eliminate alternatives and choices for women to express an authentic personal sexuality, and instead penalizing any choice but the stifling “correct” one: to wait, but only as long as appropriate, and then be sexual on command with an approved partner.

There are permutations, of course. Salome talks in comments about the pressure on her to just find a more or less random partner, though she knows that’s not what she wants:

I have to deal with this stigma all the time, as a 19-year-old college student who hasn’t had sex, but is an agnostic and thus clearly isn’t one of the “purity pledge people.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told I should stop waiting to get into a relationship with a guy I care about, and “just get laid.” I’m a gender & sexuality minor, so sex is no mystery to me and in some ways I’m more educated about it than my sexually-active friends. However, there’s this assumption that because I haven’t had sex yet, and I’m not particularly eager to have it simply for the sake of “getting laid,” I’m somehow repressed about sex. And that unsatisfying sex with someone I’m not interested in is somehow going to change this.

* * * *

By “sex for the sake of getting laid,” I mean the sort of sex some of my friends encourage I have, where I sleep with someone I’m only marginally interested in just so I can say “I did it!” Which to me, doesn’t sound very fulfilling.

It seems to me that most women who want partnered sex and have not had it fall somewhere on the spectrum of Salome’s stance and Fey’s joke: that they have some ability to find a partner, but the opportunities they have are ones they think will make them less happy instead of more. Certainly, there are folks who just can’t find a partner, cis- het- women included. But I don’t believe that, for example, Fey literally “couldn’t give it away.” I believe she didn’t want just any partner, just for the sake of metaphorically checking a box, and was made to feel insecure about thinking that she shouldn’t settle for less.

I’m certainly not going to dictate to others what kind of sex they should like, or have. But whatever it is people think they want, they are probably right. If a young woman thinks she would rather wait for the right person or the right situation than just get it over with, she’s in a better position to gauge that than anyone else; so, her view being the best information available, she probably ought to trust it.

And giving her a bunch of crap about that is just as wrong as slut-shaming. In precisely the same way and for precisely the same reason: because compulsion to say “no” and compulsion to say “yes” are equally antithetical to a Yes Means Yes ethic.

*Whether fat or disabled or trans folks, there are lots of people whose bodies are stigmatized and who find lots of available and even eager partners … who fetishize them. I’m using the term in the specific sense — not merely finding something particularly attractive that most people don’t, but rather being attracted to a characteristic almost or completely to the exclusion of the person. Fat fetishists, disability fetishists, etc. often treat the people with these characteristics as inconvenient interference between them and the characteristic that has erotic power for them. For the object of the fetish, this can be a tremendously lonely and alienating kind of interaction. Some folks will say that the fetishists are partners when there are not a lot of other options, and others will say that no partner is better than a partner that makes them feel depersonalized — and that has to be an individual choice. But the fetishists — again, using the term in the specialized sense and not as loose terminology for kinkster — ought to recognize that that fat person, disabled person or any other person is still a person.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2009 2:04 am

    Juliana Hatfield was 24 when she did an interview, they kept asking if she was dating this guy in this band or this other guy writing for this magazine, and she felt the most interesting and honest answer was to admit she was still a virgin.

    She said she was dissapointed in the very negative reaction to that statement, she thought the indie rock community would just think of it as something unique and quirky about her, but they made fun of her for it or said she was lying for attention.

    In the end, you have live with your decisions, so I am all for not doing something you don’t want to do just to please a societal expectation. But the confusion comes in when you realize you are part of society and, even if it’s only a small part, I think everybody wants to fit in somewhere. The cool part of blogs like this and talk like this though, is thinking about what you really want and are comfortable with before you get in one of those social situations, then more of what you want will enter into your decisions.

  2. kaiori permalink
    November 21, 2009 9:26 pm

    Thank you for this post-

  3. DavidC permalink
    November 22, 2009 2:28 pm

    If a young woman thinks she would rather wait for the right person or the right situation than just get it over with, she’s in a better position to gauge that than anyone else; so, her view being the best information available, she probably ought to trust it.

    I just want to add that even if it’s somehow the ‘wrong’ choice, it’s still her choice. That makes the kind of coercion (pathologizing abstinence is coercion!) you’re talking about bad in a way that’s independent of this point about people generally knowing what’s best for themselves. Maybe there’s some kind of subtlety about when coercing people for their own good is okay*, but this doesn’t seem like a case with too much subtlety. Coercing people to have sex is wrong.

    And yeah, what you said too. I’m not really under the impression I’m adding much here, but I thought it was worth saying explicitly.

    *Or maybe not. Maybe it’s always just wrong? But some actions intended to influence people’s decisions in order to help them are okay. So maybe it comes down to which ones are ‘coercion.’

  4. November 23, 2009 10:54 am

    I’m not really surprised by this and it is a case where while the details may be different, the same shit pretty much gets laid at the feet of both men and women. The “just shut up and go get laid” card gets thrown down with ease.

    I do think it is slightly different for those who are already sexually active (don’t want to unpack “virgin” here) and announce they are going to be celibate (or chaste – never sure what the properly accurate terminology is) for a while and those who haven’t “lost their virginity”. Those who have opted out (and are viewed by the public as capable of getting sex if they wanted it) get a little more respect, I think.

  5. November 23, 2009 5:25 pm

    I think another of the myriad ways in which the whole focus on the virgin/non-virgin binary is stupid is because “virgin” and “folks who do want partnered sex [but] can’t find it” are not at all synonymous. On one hand, you have the folks for whom “do want partnered sex” doesn’t apply, because they’ve decided they don’t, or don’t want it yet, but that’s not taken seriously because of course everybody wants a sexual partner; they’re seen as either lying or in denial. On the other hand, there are the folks who currently have difficulty finding a sexual partner even though they’ve had partnered sex in the past; their frustration is seen as irrelevant, as whining, as entitlement–or as something not to be believed.

    Look at Tina Fey’s story mentioned in this post. (Not the same situation as the frustrated non-virgin, but similar.) The reaction, even here, is that she must be exaggerating, or have been mistaken, or just wasn’t satisfied with the options available. That it’s merely a “true statement of her insecurities,” implying that we, by virtue of evaluating her attractiveness now (as if that were the only possible obstacle!), know her past situation better than she does.

  6. November 24, 2009 12:44 am

    Thank you! So many people refuse to accept asexuality.

  7. November 24, 2009 9:36 am

    Thank heavens. It’s not often that a blog post speaks this directly to my own experiences.

  8. November 25, 2009 1:46 pm

    Personally, I’m leery of sexual relations with virgins. For me, the dangers are those of excessive attachment, inexperience, and immaturity. In some ways, I view it like raising a child: I’m getting old enough that I don’t have the energy to train, babysit, explain and teach.

    I don’t mean to imply that all virgins will have the above issues. But virginity, especially at a higher age, is a warning indicator that the level of effort required will be too large for my comfort.

    I used think otherwise. Experience has changed my mind. Perhaps it is all the fault of society pressuring people, and perhaps I should treat virgins and non-virgins equally – clearly, that would be the fair thing to do. Unfortunately, it is not the best thing for -me- to do, as my personal experience has taught me that there is, in fact, a difference.

    The reason for the difference may not be fair. It may not be just. It may not even make any sense. All that is irrelevant in the face of the fact that there is a difference, and if I ignore it I will pay some penalty for doing so.

    • November 25, 2009 2:11 pm

      What do you mean by “virgin”?

      • November 25, 2009 4:08 pm

        Those with very limited or no sexual experience. Lack of true sexual intercourse is only an indicator, though it is a fairly strong one.

        It occurred to me while writing this that there is a similar problem at the other end of the scale: while partners too inexperienced for their age bring one set of problems, partners that are far too experienced for their age generally bring another.

        Perhaps the lesson to take away is ‘all things in moderation’.

      • November 25, 2009 4:52 pm

        Your definition makes “virgin” a scale of sorts rather than a binary — which is not how anyone uses the term. Lots of people argue for flexible virginity, but I am unaware of any definition of relative or scalar virginity…. Interesting.

        About this:

        “partners that are far too experienced for their age generally bring another.”

        I have not the first idea what you are talking about, either in the “too experienced” or “for their age” areas. If by that you mean young people sexualized early, then obviously that raises issues — but that’s not an obvious or a literal read of what you said.

        The literal read, I fear, is nonsensical. How could one’s fifty year old partner be “too experienced” for zir age? Is there a proper curve of sexual experience that carries through a lifetime, such that one can be not experienced enough at 25 and too experienced at 35?

        What on earth do you mean?

        As to moderation, I’ll quote one of Jaclyn’s favorite maxims: “everything in moderation … including moderation.”

      • November 26, 2009 7:36 pm

        Let us take for example a person with 75+ partners by age 18. Whether male or female, this would be in the category of ‘too experienced for their age’, at least from my perspective.

        If nothing else, this kind of partner would bring with them a high risk of STDs, and a pattern of what could probably be considered ‘unhealthy’ behavior.

        Neither of these are desirable from my standpoint.

        Scaling 30+ partners per year starting at age 16 to age 50, you end up with a 50 year old with on the order of 1100 partners. Would you consider such a person as a partner, or would you hesitate?

      • November 26, 2009 11:03 pm

        I would not hesitate to have sex with someone merely because that person had accumulated sexual experiences with a large number of people. Whether such a person’s conduct is particularly likely to expose that person to STIs depends on the kind of sex — giving a thousand handjobs probably carries less STI risk than bareback fucking with a dozen strangers, for example; and a person with ten anonymous partners n Zimbabwe is incurring probably greater STI risk than a person with a hundred partners in Holland.

        It really sounds to me like when you say “experience,” you just mean that you think people with a lot of partners are sluts. That’s not a view I agree with, and its’ proponents often rely on an implied “surely”: that an extreme enough example will get folks like me to say, “well, yeah, that’s slutty …” It won’t. That’s not my view. Number of partners alone, in my view, provides very, very little useful information. It does not tell us whether folks are enjoying their sexual experiences or not, whether they are acting in a health way or not. It tells us almost nothing.

      • November 27, 2009 10:49 am

        Perhaps that is your mindset; however, it is not mine.

        No matter how you look at it, no matter how you justify it to yourself or say that it is the fault of society for labeling such people ‘sluts’, you cannot escape that fact that sexual relations are risky. Regardless of care and precaution, there is the risk of acquiring a permanent, possibly fatal disease.

        It simply comes down to the numbers. An increased number of partners increases the risk. I’m personally very risk averse, so perhaps my ‘red flag’ limits are lower than yours.

        I also disagree with your implication that having a large number of partners relative to age, for example 150+ prior to age 20, is a meaningless indicator. Quite frankly, every person I have seen in this category has had, shall we say, serious ‘issues’, and regularly demonstrated what I would consider ‘extremely risky’ behavior.

        If anything, this single statistic has been a rather reliable indicator for me. You may not like that and it may not be politically correct to state; nevertheless, the numbers do not lie, and have served me well.

    • Wendell permalink
      November 25, 2009 6:03 pm

      If a person knows how to turn themselves on by knowing and exploring their body hasn’t yet had pvi, how limited is their experience? If they enjoy going on a trip and engaging some “heavy petting” with a person they just met and won’t ever meet again–but nothing “more”, how limited is their experience? To me, experience in these two examples can sometimes exemplify a maturity lacking in some of those people who have done “more” and have been “more adventurous” sexually (on a purely physical level). See the original post, above.

      The fun of Hendrix’s album title “Are You Experienced?” is the reader/listener is brought to wonder, “in what?” Leaving it open-ended in this situation speaks to possibility. The connotation from what you’re writing is “experience” is incredibly limited, and even limiting.

      • Wendell permalink
        November 27, 2009 3:23 pm

        Dentin–I can’t reply directly to your last comment, so I’m doing it here.

        Allow me to simplify things. The point is to not allow a single piece of information predetermine your thoughts on the bigger picture. The larger concept we’re getting at is a way of viewing the world, of not drawing conclusions on something or someone based on what amounts to a paucity of information. (See David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” for even more on how we do, in fact, have a choice in how we see and respond to the world.) Thomas showed what a fallacy it is to rely solely on numbers when those numbers may mean different things for different people.

        In my conversation with potential partners, all I care about is sexual health information and what they like. You have a hyper-rational (-ized?) point that more partners increases the *odds* for more risky behavior, but unless you specifically discuss sexual health–the actual results, if any, from those numbers–the numbers alone don’t tell you a damned thing, regardless if they’re “low” or “high.”

  9. December 18, 2009 4:20 am

    Wow, I just found this article (I hadn’t been on Yes Means Yes in a while), but I’m very happy my comment managed to help inspire something like this! Thanks!

    I wanted to clarify that I’m not trying to say that people who do take an until-marriage abstinence pledge don’t experience some of the same problems other “virgins” (I too dislike the term) do; I’m sure they experience some of them. But in my experience, the people who’ve made that choice for that reason seem to get a sort of unspoken respect from the same people who harp on us other virgins the pressure to “just get laid.” I think the fact that voluntary celibacy seems to have been so co-opted by conservative religious groups that it ends up hurting those who are abstaining from sex for reasons other than religion, or whose “finish line” is some time other than marriage.

  10. December 19, 2009 9:26 pm

    Another thing you touch on here that I think would make an interesting post: the way the problems with the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the fact that neither end of the dichotomy is really accepted, are reflected in the double-standard about “picky-ness” when it comes to women and their standards in romantic and/or sexual partners. Women who aren’t very selective are shamed as either “slutty” or “desperate,” whereas men who do so are “players” and “lucky” for getting so women. Yet, women are also made to feel bad about having too *many* criteria, demeaned as “picky” and told to be more “realistic” (the underlying expectation being that a woman should be happier with a man who doesn’t meet her standards than she would be single). Women are made to feel like they owe *any* man who shows interest in them a “chance” whereas men (usually) feel no such compulsion to date a woman they’re not interested in, and unlike women in their situation, don’t really need a “reason” to reject her; their disinterest is good enough. (Personal example: This summer, one friend kept insisting on setting me up with a guy I met at a party who was crushing on me but whom I knew I had no interest in; and I had to give her a long, long list of reasons why he turned me off. None, including his stupidity, homophobia, insensitivity, or the fact that even she thought he was a jerk, seemed to be good enough for her. After talking to some male friends about it, I realized that I’d be in no such situation if I were a man rejecting a woman.)

    IMO, what I call the “picky/desperate dichotomy” – that women can’t take just anyone, but can’t be too selective – reflects the virgin/whore dichotomy what this posts get at: the discomfort with women taking control of their sexuality either way. Women can’t actively want sex, but they’re also expected to submit to a man’s advances as soon as they find one who is “respectable” enough in society’s eyes (not her own). Both prop up patriarchy by rejecting women’s sexual agency.

  11. PatriarchySlayer permalink
    January 11, 2010 7:39 am

    Wow…..what an awesome post! I am amazed at how dead-on these posts seem to be in terms of my unspoken problems with sexuality in society. Just one point I was wondering…I thought that Asexuality meant that they had little to no sexual desire? Is that an incorrect definition. Because it seemed to be so when you mentioned that Asexual people don’t want partnered sex. I see a huge difference here, meaning that Asexual people have some sort of sexual desire.

    Also in terms of the whole “virgin” issue….I think it has little to do with your maturity and clinginess factors. I think that is more about education, personality type etc. I had very very little sexual experience (hadn’t kissed a guy) up until I was 23 years old. When this would come up in conversation with men (but sometimes even with female friends) there was one of two reactions: the first being, ‘Well let me take care of that for you because you must be dying to get rid of your V-Card’ and the second being (and much more often) ‘What’s wrong with you?’
    As in an earlier post….people assume a lot of things about inexperienced people. That they will cry at the drop of a hat, be clingy, want to get married right after, and on and on.
    It’s no wonder I am so confused on which way is up and down. I feel like I need a roadmap just to survive sexuality in this society.

    • Jan permalink
      August 22, 2012 3:24 am

      Late to the conversation, but I just want to second what PatriarchySlayer says here. Where the hell do these ideas about the emotional instability of “virgins” come from? Why the continual assumption that the first instance of PIV sex will always be this massively emotional, life-changing moment; why can’t it just be fun? It was for me. I have had very little sex over the years really, for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean I need to fall in love to have it, it doesn’t mean that I’m uptight about it or have emotional issues I need to work through. It just means that I’ve found that a man who is available, is both attracted and attractive to me, is not dangerous and shares my sexual tastes doesn’t come along very often; that’s all there is to it.

      If virgins are so clingy and neurotic, does having sex a second time cure them then? Or do they have to be fucked and chucked to “teach them a lesson” and get them to “toughen up” and realise that sex isn’t always about love (because obviously there’s no way anyone could know that before they had sex)? Ludicrous. Though there do seem to be power-tripping people of both (and presumably all) genders out there who assume that by being someone’s “first time” they are granting them a life-changing experience. I think encountering that kind of disrespectful attitude could make a well-balanced person start crying, in fairness. If I found out that there was a non-pre-arranged psychological power kick that my partner was getting out of having sex with me, when I thought they were doing it just for the sheer enjoyment, I’d be pretty pissed off.

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