Everything about this interview is fantastic. The interviewer, the interviewee, the questions, the answers… it is really really really fantastic. [Trigger warning at that link for description of sexual assault].
Maya, the interviewee, is incredibly articulate about her experiences and her beliefs; she’s clearly thoughtful and open-minded. I wonder, though, if we still wouldn’t be better off if marriage weren’t this marker that suddenly made sex ok; if we recognized that “virginity” is basically a made-up concept, and not something you “have” or “lose;” if sexual violations were considered evil because they twisted something pleasurable into something vile and not because they took away some fundamental part of a woman. I’m not pinning any of these views on Maya. But I do think that belief in the importance of virginity before marriage and the concept of sexual purity feed into a necessarily misogynist worldview, wherever those views come from. I don’t think you can separate those views out from misogyny, and from a view that says sexuality is potentially sullying if not performed in the service of something other than mutual pleasure — reproduction, God, the family, the state.
That doesn’t mean that people aren’t entitled to their own choices about sexuality. Given a particular background or worldview or set of experiences, an individual’s choice to not have sex until marriage may be the best choice for them. But I do wonder, quite honestly, about the sexual trajectory, and how jumping into the deep end may have serious psychological consequences. (For the record, this has nothing to do with Maya’s interview, and at this point are just my own scattered thoughts fueled by the word “virginity”). As an example: I know a woman who is very religious. Before getting married, I think she had kissed a man or two, but had done nothing else sexual. And by the rules of her religion, she was supposed to have sex for the first time on the night she was married (fairly standard religious fare, I think). I can’t help but wonder how that wedding night must have been. Because for me? Going from zero to sex would have been really, really traumatic. My own sexual trajectory was years long. I had my first kiss in eighth grade, and I didn’t have sex for almost a decade after that. And between that first kiss and my first PIV sexual experience, there was a lot of in between — of touching and getting to know other peoples’ bodies and sexual-but-not-sex behavior and all kinds of other normal developmental stuff. I was lucky, in a lot of ways, that I felt very entitled to my own boundaries as well as to my own self-exploration. I was probably older than “average” when I was doing most of these things, because I understood sexual behavior to be something that wasn’t just for boys but was for me as well. So if I felt safe and happy and comfortable and prepared, I proceeded. If I didn’t, I stopped. That frankly resulted in a lot of stopping until I was well into college.
There are two major problems I see with how young women relate to sex, and they come down to the right to say “yes” and the right to say “no,” and being totally mindfucked about both. Young women are taught that we are the holders of sex; we embody sex. We have The Sex, and men want The Sex (and yes this is all very heteronormative, but I’m talking about how many of us are culturally conditioned. LGBT kids are conditioned the same way, and then left out in the cold). But if we “give” The Sex under the wrong circumstances, then we are dirty / bad / slutty. But men respond well when we give The Sex, or exhibit some hint that we might give The Sex. So much of our relationship to our own sexuality revolves around how men are perceiving us, and how we walk this line between being alluring but not slutty to men.
The abstinence message isn’t, “Healthy sexual expression includes establishing boundaries, and you are entitled to your own boundaries, whatever those may be, so it’s totally ok to say no under any circumstances.” The abstinence message is, “As the female, it is your obligation to put the brakes on sex, and so you should say no because that is your job, and not saying no will make you dirty.” And then the broader cultural message isn’t “Sex can be good and fun and healthy and intensely pleasurable, and you should have sex that pleases both you and your partner.” The broader cultural message is, “Sex is something that men need, and being sexy involves having the kind of sex that most pleases men.” Even the most progressive sex education tells us, “Wait to have sex until you’re ready.” But — and I remember thinking this as a high school and early college student — how does one know what “ready” feels like? Sexually “ready” is, unfortunately, not like finding the perfect wedding dress — you don’t always just “know” when you know. But the clues that could be really helpful aren’t offered up on a large scale. I knew I was “ready” because I felt comfortable telling my doctor that I needed to go on birth control; I talked to my boyfriend about our past experiences and our expectations and what having sex meant to both of us; we spent a lot of time being physical with each other and getting to know each other on many different levels before having sex. I felt pretty “ready.” But I still wasn’t sure. Very few of my high school friends were sexually active; all of my college friends were. I felt like the odd woman out. I didn’t know how to determine whether sex was an authentic desire or acting on a curiosity (I was particularly lucky, I think, to be in a relationship with someone who was significantly more gun-shy about sex than even I was). I didn’t know for sure, but I went for it anyway. It was the right decision at the right time, but I still felt pretty alone in making it. I wish that back then, I had more resources than just “wait until you’re ready” or “wait until marriage” or “just be safe.” But even as an almost-30-year-old woman, I have no idea what those resources would be.
We are very limited when it comes to sexuality. We are especially limited in how we talk about it, and how we teach those who are newly experiencing it.
This is getting much more personal and over-sharey and stream-of-consciousness than I usually get, but I think it’s important, so bear (or bare) with me.
There’s no good framework for saying no; there’s no good framework for saying yes. Even the yes/no framing positions sex as something that men try to get and that women either provide or deny. In our mainstream, heteronormative culture, we have a poverty of language for discussing sexuality. Many of us are having wonderful, pleasure-affirming, outside-of-the-PIV-only-framework sex, but we don’t have the words to talk about it. I suspect many more of us want to be having that kind of sex, or at least want to imagine that kind of sex is possible, but don’t know how or where to start or how to communicate that to our partners. I suspect many of us don’t know how to break through the thoroughly reductive and fucked-up ideas about sex that we ourselves hold.
I worry that making marriage the point of when sex is “good” and “safe” is neither good nor safe, even if we qualify that with “But this isn’t for everyone, it’s just my choice.” I worry that emphasizing the right to choose to wait until marriage frames the conversation in a way that is fundamentally unhelpful. We all do choose to wait for sex until X moment. We all of course have a right to choose to make marriage the X. But what does it mean when we decide that consent to sex is best given in relation to a ritual or a particular day rather than in relation to a mental space or a feeling?
I think it means, again, that we lack the tools to holistically talk about, and even understand, sex. One is not simply “ready” or “not ready.” There isn’t a line you cross over. And so we pin readiness on rituals or arbitrary markers. Marriage. College. Birth control prescriptions. 16th birthdays. We create external forces to establish readiness, instead of doing the much more difficult work of parsing the messy reality of sexuality and self-awareness, and the understanding that this is not black and white.
Marriage as a marker doesn’t depend on how both parties feel; it depends on a ritual and a day when suddenly sex goes from “bad” to “good.” And if you’ve had little or no sexual experience up until that point, I imagine that sex is foreign and sort of exciting but largely scary. If the expectation is to have sex on your wedding night, there’s no long lead-up. Not to get too crass here, but there aren’t the years of heavy petting and handjobs and non-penetrative naked time that accustom you to how your body works and how other bodies work and what feels good and what doesn’t and when to know when to say “no” and when to say “yes.” There aren’t even months or days or hours of getting accustomed to all of that. There’s just the expectation of “yes, all of it, right now.” Zero to 60.
I don’t think that’s a good thing. I especially don’t think it’s a good thing for a partner who’s being penetrated. I especially don’t think it’s a good thing for a female partner, when the culturally-accepted definitions of “sex” and “virginity” are constructed around the male sexual experience, beginning with an erection and ending with ejaculation. I wish that the sex advice that Dan Savage gives to a young gay couple were given, in slightly altered form, to every person in the world before they embarked on any sexual activity. Because the thing is, when it comes to the spectrum of sexual experiences, you can’t do all of that in a day. There are inherent problems to hierarchies and timelines of sexual behavior; the “base” model, with first base and second base and third base meaning whatever it is they mean (I don’t think we’ve all agreed) is not a good one. The model of first comes handjobs then comes oral then comes vaginal sex is not a good one, nor one that many people stick to. But I do wish we agreed, culturally, that going from no sexual activity to penetrative sex is not usually a good thing to do in the course of just a few hours (or minutes). Because I do believe that sexual exploration should be an exploration. It should be a process. Penis-in-vagina sex should not be the only thing we recognize as “real sex.” It also should not be entered into without preamble.
But we glorify it and paint it as the most “moral” choice. And the choice that is at its most morally moral when executed without the lead-up.
All of my sex-related ramblings aside — and again, that wasn’t a response to Maya’s interview, but rather a letting-out of a bunch of Thoughts related to sex and virginity and abstinence that have been spinning in my head since this article — let’s get back to Maya, who has some great things to say. I love how she talks about the contradictions between how she dresses and how she chooses to live her life sexually — that she recognizes it’s ridiculous to think that what someone is wearing as any bearing on what they do (or don’t do) in the bedroom. I love how she is self-aware enough to recognize that online survivor communities weren’t helping her, and that she deserved time to process and grieve and go through a range of horrible emotions before declaring that she felt she had “survived.” I love that she feels entitled to decide when she will have sex and with whom, and that she is happy and secure in those choices. I love that Jia, the interviewer, asks amazing questions and is thoroughly respectful without pulling punches, and I love that she chooses interview subjects who aren’t caricatures or stereotypes and who are wonderful and fascinating and generous with their experiences and beliefs.
I still wish we all had a broader vocabulary with which to have these discussions.
- The Problem With Purity by Jill August 24, 2012
- The Line: A New Doc About Consent by Audacia Ray August 6, 2009
- Interview: Heather Corinna of Scarleteen by Chally August 2, 2010
- Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing by Clarisse Thorn September 22, 2011
- Dealbreaker indeed. by Jill August 8, 2011