Friday, July 18, 2014

The Virginity Concept: Meaningless?

Recently, I've been thinking about emotional sexual health. I came across an op-ed which argued that virginity is an imaginary concept bereft of actual meaning. While this seemed well-intentioned it made me weirdly uncomfortable.

We all approach things from our unique social location. I read the op-ed about virginity as a Black Christian woman. And that identity comes with its own unique complexities when informing my views of what my sexuality should be like.

But I also read it as a Black feminist. And from that vantage point it seemed to be almost a denial of the pervasive nature of patriarchy. More of a high ideal than an actual reality. I suppose it would be great if virginity actually was bereft of any meaning. But as long as we live in a patriarchal culture how can that ever be truly possible?

And then if it's not fully possible for virginity to be a meaningless concept then how do we propose that women, specifically Black women, engage in sex that is physically AND emotionally safe?

I don't really know the answer to this question. But it seems to me that this is the pivotal question to be asking.

The liberal feminist tendency to say "virginity is meaningless" doesn't tackle the fact that it's in fact very meaningful and that sexuality remains one of the fundamental axes of women's oppression.Telling women that their virginity is meaningless does not in anyway counteract the ways in which the world functions to let women know that it's not.

It reminds me of the liberal feminist "lean in" theory. The idea that one must simply be more assertive and less emotional and then all of their professional problems will be solved! Ignoring sexist factors outside of a woman's control and the masses of women who do not work white collar jobs.

Similarly, the advice that one ought to just believe that virginity is meaningless ignores the sexist factor existing outside of an individual woman's control. It also ignores the women who don't even have complete say over when they become sexually active and in what way they become sexually active.

Many women (and people in general) grow up learning that sex is something a woman "gives" to a man (a very hetero-normative concept) and that a woman "loses" something if she gives her virginity to anybody besides her husband.

And I've seen how women (myself included) have tried to digest these sexist messages.

Taught to believe that sex is evil and impure, they might have lost the desire in an intellectual sense to engage in sexual activity. But the biological and emotional draw still remains. It can create in a person a muddling sense of confusion.

When a woman loses her virginity that's when the reconciling begins. The guilt. The feelings of being less than, somehow soiled. Not because the woman is actually less than or soiled. But because her entire life she was taught that that is what losing one's virginity made you. This guilt may be compounded by religion. But it also comes from secular sources.

There are those who might argue that the sex positivity movement clears this all up. All you have to do is tell women the reverse message: that being sexually active isn't bad. Now all problems are solved!

Except does the sex positivity movement fix the prevalence of sexual assault? Does it mute the voices of those who call sexually active women a ho or slut? Does it fix the feelings of being used or taken advantage of when women are emotionally manipulated into sex?

Does it fix the fact that the default position for a Black girl is a ho? Black women (and unfortunately even girls) are automatically sexualized. The push for female virginity has long been viewed in the Black community not merely as an internalized of sexist gender norms but as a means of protection. Black Christian women (specifically within the Baptist church) pushed the idea that Black women could be "chaste" and pure as an attempt to lessen sexual assault (see Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent).

This is not to say that virginity is better than non-virginity. It's to explore how the concept of virginity has been viewed within the Black community and the reasons why it has been viewed in that way.

A part of me feels that our mothers and aunts and grandmothers said "keep your legs closed!" not because it was the full story but the simple one. The uncomplicated explanation for how to deal with a patriarchal culture that derides women who possess sexual self-determination.

I recently read a piece geared towards teenage girls telling them to refrain from having sex because it will make them disrespected. I was irked by the simplistic analysis that denied their autonomy. But at the same time I was oddly sympathetic to the view as I've found myself in the position where it's not that I'm opposed to being sexually active on principle but that I don't want to deal with the social (and maybe even physical) ramifications.

I suppose I'm wondering how can we have real conversations about women and emotional sexual health without overlooking the challenges that patriarchy has created or acting as if women have no self-determination entirely and are merely victims of patriarchy?

I honestly couldn't tell you the answer. But I do know that it must be more complex than "stay a virgin until marriage!" or "virginity is a meaningless construct!"

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