by Molly Delaney
Sexual images and phrases are used to sell everything from handbags, to hot pockets, to Internet domains. Although we are confronted with sexual images daily, our culture is somewhat shy when actually talking about sex. For young people this can be very confusing. As they start to develop romantic feelings, they begin to experiment. Unfortunately, what the media perpetuates directly contrasts with the abstinence only lessons taught in school and by the quickly growing purity movement. Young people are often told to “abstain” from sex until marriage, or until some other indefinite period of time. While there is nothing wrong with waiting to have sex, the word “abstain” has a negative connotation. In addition to sex, young people are also told to abstain from drugs. This correlation makes sex seem bad, shameful, and deviant. In addition to the negativity regarding sex is the glorification of virginity. That is not to say that virginity is not important, because it definitely has value on religious, cultural and social levels. However, the extent to which virginity defines a person’s worth is troublesome, especially when the standards of virginity are very vague and set by people in position of power as opposed to the individual.
Awkward. S01Ep03- The Way We Weren’t
I wanted to start with this video because it addresses the question of what counts as sex, how moral value is directly tied to sexuality, and how sex is used as social currency. Unfortunately, it is impossible to embed videos from MTV so I had to settle for this GIF (if the GIF doesn’t move, click on it to open in another window). To view the episode, you can click on the link that the bottom of this post. Valenti addresses the the definition of virginity and sex in her article “The Cult of Virginity.” There is no diagnostic standard for virginity. The cultural consensus is that virginity is not having sex. So what is sex? For Lissa, sex is heterosexual intercourse. It doesn’t mention it in the clip, but Lissa is the President of the Abstinence Club at school. Lissa seeks Sadie’s advice on how best to regain Jake’s attention without breaking her vows. Sadie reassures her that there is a “loophole” and God has a “blindspot” (puns intended by the writers, I’m sure). By giving Jake her “be-hindmen,” a quirky way of saying anal sex, Lissa can stay on good terms with her identity as an morally upright person because according to Sadie anal sex is not actually sex.
Lissa tells Jake that although she can’t give Jake everything, she wants to “reward Jake for being patient.” The fact that she thinks her body and sexual availability to Jake is the best way to reconnect shows self-objectification. Lissa definitely connects her morality and self-worth to her body. The idea that a woman’s body is what defines her ethics is problematic. It “suggests that women can’t be moral actors” and our “ethics are the ethics of passivity” (Valenti 184). In this example, I definitely think the show is poking fun at the ways in which what does and does not count as sex is subjective and actually kind of ridiculous. I say this mostly because of the language used and Jake’s reactions. As viewers we are supposed to think Lissa’s justifications are ridiculous but her reasoning is used by many women in our society who want to express their sexuality without losing the respect of their peers.
You can view the full episode at: Awkward. S01 Ep03
The clip I discussed is between 12:40 and 15:55.
We already talked about this movement in class but I wanted to show another clip and keep discussing it because I think this movement is very interesting. It is very possible to see good intention in this movement, but there are many negative aspects. Many will agree that girls should be treated with respect in a relationship and relationships between fathers and daughters are important. The biggest critique of this movement is its symbolic gestures that relate to patriarchy and male ownership. Historically, women were seen as property of their fathers until they were married where they became property of their husbands. While women are no longer legally considered property of men, some traditions still exist. There is a correlation between the father giving away the bride to the father in this video giving his daughter a ring that she will wear until she is married (1:55). The ring from her father signifies that she promises her virginity to her father until she is married where her body is promised to her husband.
The movement also promotes the notion that men and women are fundamentally different and serve different purposes – “thankfully,” according to the father (5:15). Both the mother and father believe that women are created to be accepted by men. If women were created for men, that means their value is determined by men. This family and movement is based on religious beliefs, which is totally acceptable. The problem with this movement is that it is federally funded. There is supposed to be a separation between church and state. Maybe if the government also funded alternative sex education, the funding for abstinence only education wouldn’t be so problematic. Abstinence should be encouraged, but safe sex practices should not be ignored in the process. At the end of the video the young girl says that if she does kiss a boy or break her pledge she can just ask the Lord and her parents for forgiveness (6:11). Although her parents said they would accept her, asking for forgiveness is not going to undo the risks she puts herself at (like disease and pregnancy) by being ignorant of safe sex practices.
“Purity is Important After All…”
This video makes an interesting comparison between the purity of water and sexual purity. While this comparison seems plausible, there are a few flaws. The description beneath the video is that “promiscuity is just plain gross.” Their comparison suggests that the more sexual partners you have, the less value you have. Not only will anyone want to have sex with you, they won’t even accept money to have sex with you! It is obvious slut-shaming and doesn’t differentiate between promiscuous sex and sex in monogamous relationships. The video has both men and women drinking from the bottle so it criticizes sexual promiscuity of both men and women. The idea that a person loses value after having sex echoes the idea that once a person has sex (usually women) they were and sometimes are still referred to as “damaged goods” (Valenti 183). It is somewhat hypocritical to say that virginity and purity are invaluable and priceless while simultaneously comparing a person’s body to a commodity.
40 Year Old Virgin
This movie looks at virginity as it applies to a middle aged man, which disrupts the usual connection between virgin and woman. Because of this new perspective, virginity is critiqued differently. As a man, especially an older man, Steve Carell’s character, Andy, feels the need to prove himself to his coworkers by bragging about past (false) sexual encounters. Andy describes a past girlfriend who wanted to have sex all the time which makes him seem desirable and sexually experienced. When he mistakenly compares a woman’s breast to a bag of sand, his coworkers know he’s lying. At first they ask if he’s gay. Because of his male identity as well as his age, they believe the only possible reason for him not to know what a woman’s breast feels like or why he’s never been with a woman is because he is not attracted to them. Their confusion implies their belief that the only reason a man of his age wouldn’t know what a breast feels like is not because he could not have sex with a woman but because he didn’t want to because of his sexual preference. When they find out he is a virgin, they are completely shocked. Romany Malco’s character, Jay, says “how does that even happen?” because men are expected to be sexually experienced, especially by the age of 40. Sexual experience is often encouraged and often expected for younger men more so than younger women, such as in films like American Pie. When those expectations aren’t met, the men feel a sense of embarrassment and inadequacy. This embarrassment is amplified by Andy’s age. He scolds himself as he rides his bike home and walks around the house screaming. He dreads the ridicule he knows he will face at work from his coworkers. In this example, virginity is not admirable, it’s embarrassing.
Easy A Send Off
Easy A is a great movie that points out the double standard surrounding male and female sexuality. Olive pretends to have sex with guys at her school so they can gain respect, but in return everyone at the school hates her, even though she didn’t actually do anything. She lies at first to impress her friend Rhiannon but the rest of the school eventually hears about it and twists the story even more. At first, Olive likes the attention but the admiration from her peers eventually leads to hatred and some of the students even go so far as to make signs calling her a slut. This video is the end of her webcam posts explaining her side of the story. She recognizes that many of the people watching are still expecting her to fall in to the promiscuous image that has been assigned to her, and that she has somewhat embraced because no one will hear her side of the story. Her live webcam was supposed to set the record straight about what really happened with all of those guys. Despite her articulate and rather witty reclamation of her identity, at the end of her post the men watching are still waiting to see her take her clothes off. On one hand, this ending shows how it is going to take a while for society to change how they view promiscuous (sexually active or not) women. However, Olive’s send off is that her sexual relationship with Todd is “nobody’s goddamn business” (1:08). Olive challenges the idea that sexuality should be dictated by others and that it is not an indicator of someone’s identity or personal worth.
Analysis as a Whole
Virginity in our society is an extremely complex and complicated ideology. It is a social constructed idea whose definition has changed over time. Valenti refers to Hanne Blank’s book Virgin: the Untouched History which suggests that a “long-standing historical interest in virginity is about establishing paternity…and about using women’s sexuality as a commodity” (183). The first sexual manual published in North America was in 1776 but had been circulating around England as far back as 1507. Aristotle’s Complete Master-Piece lists sexual customs that are similar to that of present-day traditionalists. The book states that “virginity, in a strict sense, does signify the prime, the chief, the best of anything” (Aristotle, 28). He goes on to distinguish the loss of virginity with the heterosexual sex and compares the vagina to a flower. “Deflowered” is still a term used today to describe women who lose their virginity. It seems as though the sexual ethics of a good portion of America hasn’t changed as much as we like to believe over the past two hundred years. Virginity was and still is something to aspire to. It is something to take pride in. The definition specifically relates virginity to “the fair sex,” or woman, which is still a connection made today. It also specifies when virginity is ideal and how it loses its value with age. It is mainly women’s virginity that is constantly redefined and scrutinized. Men have similar expectations to some extent but not nearly as much as women. If anything, men are told the opposite. Men are encouraged to gain social status by having sex. As seen in 40 Year Old Virgin as well as other movies about a man’s quest to lose his virginity, sex is all about conquest. In these examples, sex is important because of the status achieved as a result of having sex.
Something I noticed in my research that both Jessica Valenti and Kimberly Springer have pointed out is the huge lack of diversity in representations of virginity. Virginity is most valuable when it is upheld by a “desirable” virgin. According to Valenti, the desirable virgin is “sexy but not sexual. She’s young, white, and skinny. She’s a cheerleader, a baby sitter; she’s accessible and eager to please (remember those ethics of passivity!)” (185). Valenti’s observation of the desirable virgin is embodied completely in Lissa on the show Awkward. This ideal virgin leaves out women of color, low-income, women who are overweight, and women with disabilities. Women of color face a whole other set of standards when it comes to virginity that are shaped by racial stereotypes. Kimberley Springer tackles this in “Queering Black Female Heterosexuality.” The virgin/whore complex is narrowed down to the division between “black lady” and “hoe.” In the virgin/whore complex it is not always an issue of good versus bad. Virgins can be also criticized as being prudes or teases. The difference between the typical, “desirable” white virgin and the “black lady” stereotype is that virgins still maintain a level of sexual attraction where as the “black lady” is viewed in a nonsexual way (Springer 208). Women who do not fit the standards of the desirable virgin do not receive the same idolization as those who do. Instead of being praised as moral characters, they are viewed as nonsexual agents.
Virginity is undoubtedly important to many people for various personal, religious and cultural beliefs and it should not be discounted or disrespected. The problem with our societies fixation on virginity is that it is used as a stand in for moral character. Valenti points out how the conflation of sexuality and morality by society removes women’s agency and lowers her personal worth. “Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters,” states Valenti, “not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for” (183). The idea that purity equals morality is just as much about abstaining from sex as it us upholding a passive model of womanhood (Valenti, 183). Valenti and Springer point out the flawed perceptions of virginity and Springer challenges women to reject the sexual identities forced upon them. She calls for “new visions and ways of talking about sexuality” (Springer 210). Discussion of virginity and sexuality must be opened up in order for women to be sexual actors as opposed to objects.
Laci Green – Let’s Lose Virginity
This video is just a bonus for pleasure purposes because I wanted to share what she says about virginity. Her analysis definitely echoes that of Valenti and Springer and she gets her point across in a quirky way. I especially like her idea of calling your first sexual experience your “sexual debut” instead of “losing your virginity.” “Sexual debut” sounds positive and connotes agency. “Losing your virginity” makes it seem like now you’re not as whole of a person as you once were. If you like this video, check out Laci Green’s YouTube channel for more sex talks!
allthings- awkward. Gif. Tumblr. 8 August 2011. Web. 7 October 2013.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Complete Master-Piece. New England, 1820. Print.
Fumonchoo666. “Easy A ending” YouTube. 5 October 2011. Web. 7 October 2013.
Green, Laci. “Let’s Lose ‘Virginity'” YouTube. 19 June 2013. 7 October 2013.
LaneCh. “Purity Is Important After All” YouTube. 15 October 2007. Web. 7 October 2013.
movieclips. “The 40 Year Old Virgin (1/8) Movie Clip – Are you a Virgin?” YouTube. 16 June 2011. Web. 7 October 2013.
Snorre Wik. “Purity Ball for Abstinance in South Dakota.” YouTube. 17 December 2007. Web. 7 October 2013.
Springer, Kimberly. “Queering Black Female Sexuality.” Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape. By Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Berkeley, CA: Seal, 2008. 77-92. Print.
“The Way We Weren’t.” Awkward. MTV. 2 August 2011. Television.
Valenti, Jessica. “The Cult of Virginity.” In Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Susan Shaw and Janet Lee, eds. 2011. 5th Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill. 181-185. Print.