Virginity, sexuality, and women’s choice

Apparently the folks at kink.com are making a big to-do about adult performer Nicki Blue losing her virginity for the benefit of their viewers, complete with a hymen-cam and disingenuous copy about “sacrificing Nikki’s innocence.” Really? I somehow have trouble viewing an experienced porn star as “innocent” simply because she has yet to have vaginal intercourse. I also wonder if it’s a move by a site that thinks they can get away with anything because their audience views them as “progressive”, and thus they can and should be judged differently when they publish content (copy) that plays with damaging rhetoric about women’s sexuality. You can read more about this news here and here (both with NSFW images), but I want to get into the issue of virginity as the symbol of innocence and the apparent crux of any woman’s sexual life.

This is a question I’ve explored previously when faced with talk about virginity loss and how we (as a society and as empowered women within that society) view it, which I decided to reproduce here as a response to the kink.com issue. In a lot of these discussions, there was a trope that was bothering me, so I wanted to spend some time unpacking what made me feel icky about it. People would be talking about sex and someone would come out with their virginity story, and the responses were (regardless of the participants’ ages, the way in which virginity was “lost,” or other variables) always a variant on “good for you for losing your virginity on *your* terms!”

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am in no way trying to say that women taking charge of their sexuality or their virginity is a bad thing, make no mistake there. That’s the goal, that women get to enjoy as much sexual agency as men, and that men and women both get to enjoy more sexual agency than has historically been permitted following Enlightenment and Victorian ideals. That said, there’s a lot of things that rub me the wrong way about this congratulation for the virginity-loss stories.

On a personal level, it’s hard for me to hear this sort of congratulation, because my virginity was taken from me in a date rape situation, so I never got the option to have sex on my terms. And I feel like I shouldn’t have to justify it by sharing details, but I was fifteen and hooking up with a guy I had met and hooked up with previously, he asked about sex and I said no in large part because there were no condoms, and moments later realized that he was inside me, and I knew that was that. Rather than cause a scene I froze up, waited till he was finished, then got up without a word, put on my clothes, and rode my bike home. After that I figured the damage was done, and virginity was a non-issue from that point forward.

So it’s tough for me to hear others congratulated for doing something that I never got a chance to do. I will never get that kind of praise, and it’s not because I did anything wrong, but because some assface took that chance away from me, the chance to set the terms of my sexual history. The thing is, though, I think I’ve had a very healthy, empowering, dare I say feminist sex life over the past 20 years. Love me or hate me for my sluttitude, I have done what I wanted, experimented, grown, loved, fucked, sucked, and everything in between, and in general done so with as great regard for my partners as possible. Where’s my congratulations for that? Why is the loss of one’s virginity, a single sex act (and with very few exceptions typically an inexpert, naive, not-entirely-pleasurable sex act that one recalls with a bit of a cringe), viewed as more important than a lifetime of empowering, respectful, intentionally feminist sex? Why do we as a culture privilege virginity-loss over the overall sex life?

I think one of the reasons we privilege the virginity-loss experience is that historically, virginity has been privileged as the only part of a women’s sexuality that matters. When women’s sexuality (and a woman’s body, by extension) was viewed as the property of her husband, the only thing that mattered was that this property was his and his alone – hence the importance of virginity, to prove that his property retained its assumed value, and that he was indeed the sole owner. Mind you, I’m not trying to say that virginity is not personally important to each individual. I think humans tend to place a great deal of value on firsts, and that the first time one has sex *is* important, just like a first kiss, a first love, a first job, a first place on your own. The problem is that I think it’s difficult (especially for women) to disentangle virginity loss from these very separate types of importance. Is it the experience against which we measure all others, or is it detritus from our patriarchal status as chattel? It may be both, but I think it’s important for us to interrogate those two roots and consider why we place such importance on the notion of virginity.

Going back to the congratulation of virginity-loss stories, several of the ones I encountered also involved passive mistreatment of sexual partners. “He wanted a relationship but I just wanted to lose it and that’s what I did;” or, “He was just some guy at a party, I never got his name.” You know, if a guy did that to a girl, most women would be up in arms about his callous treatment of women as sex objects. The way I see it, if it’s sexist for a man to do it to a woman, it’s sexist for a woman to do it to a man. (Yes, I understand that privilege and social inequality is about institutionalized systems of privilege but that doesn’t mean that personal interactions can’t be occasionally judged outside of those systems.) It just seems to me that the attitude is that if I’m a woman, and it’s what I want, then it’s not only okay, it’s also feminist. because, hey, you know, feminism is about women getting what they want, right?

And frankly, I see this as a broader problem with a lot of third wave feminists, this idea of moral relativity, that because they have been historically systematically oppressed, their desires now trump those of individuals in the oppressor group. You know what, feminism isn’t just about women getting what they (as individuals) want, it’s about working toward a world in which women (as a group, and in concert with other marginalized groups) have the power to make more choices, have more power to get what they want more of the time. But what it isn’t about is saying that women are better than men, or that their choices matter more than men’s; that’s the same sexist essentialist crap that patriarchy has been shoving down our throats (literally and figuratively) for generations. It also totally ignores issues of intersectionality with other identity categories, the idea that sex/gender as a category is more important than any other identity category, that sexism is more important than heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism, etc.

Rights and responsibilities go together. With privilege (even newly-fought and won privilege) comes the responsibility to acknowledge that position and use it to do what we can to help those without it. (Otherwise, changing existing privilege systems just creates a new, different system of privilege that marginalizes another group in different ways.) So if my sexual empowerment comes at the expense of another person’s, then it’s not actually empowering, it’s just selfish.

So if losing your virginity was empowering for you, then good for you, but be aware of whose sexual empowerment gets erased when you hold that up as the model of good feminist sexuality, and be aware of what antifeminist histories you’re reinforcing by privileging the notion of virginity and virginity-loss as the defining aspect of women’s sexuality.

[I could go on about this stuff forever, but I also plan to get back to food and fitness stuff for a while!]

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About pippingeek

feminist geek starting over outside the academy
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One Response to Virginity, sexuality, and women’s choice

  1. Pingback: What porn companies can learn from the Giffords shooting « Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed

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