Couldn’t Give It Away
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.