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July 30, 2013 | huffingtonpost.com
Most political sex scandals follow a predictable narrative: An illicit sexual encounter is followed by exposé, and then the inevitable apology and atonement.
From what we know about Anthony Weiner's transgressions, the mayoral candidate deviated from these stages in one key way: With copious use of the web, he appears to have satisfied his urges without actually having sex. The X-rated photos and explicit messages he exchanged with young women online don't appear to be a means to an end - no prelude to trysts in seedy hotel rooms or parked cars (offers of apartments aside) - but rather, they were the end.
Thanks to technology, it's a sex scandal without any sex.
Weiner's particular form of indiscretion - using websites to expose himself to more than a dozen different women - reveals how social networks have become portals to new kinds of sexual encounters while forging fresh forms of sexual transgression.
His online dalliances underscore a new age of sanitized sex, where sexual relationships have been reduced to their most abstract elements and all necessity for physical contact has been eliminated. In contrast to an earlier generation that experimented with spouse-swapping, group sex and free-love communes in the 1960s and '70s, today's online generation is embracing sex with no one. Flirtation, foreplay and consummation can be tidily reduced to a few typed sentences and graphic photos, or perhaps even a phone call, if a couple really wants to go the extra mile. To satisfy their desires, a growing number of people, like Weiner, don't need intercourse - they just need the Internet.
As Andrew Sullivan observed in 2011, when Weiner's racy pictures first surfaced, "The online world creates an outlet for the feelings that sexual adultery or sexual adventure create - but without actual sex, without actual intimacy, without our actual full selves."
Weiner, who seems to have sent at least one illicit photo to a woman without any encouragement whatsoever, seems to have a thing for exhibitionism. Some might see in his behavior the online equivalent to donning a raincoat in an alleyway and flashing women who walk by, but others suggest he represents something else: A man whose deviance could only exist in the online world, which makes spontaneous flashing possible without the effort involved in the more traditional variety. "I'd bet my whole Ph.D. that he wouldn't be standing on a corner doing that," notes Barry McCarthy, a sex and marital therapist, and professor of psychology at American University.
Instead, Weiner, like so many others online, has become accustomed to on-demand sexuality, where relationships with another person are convenient, controllable and entirely on his terms. We're adopting an Amazon.com or Seamless Web approach to our sex lives, expecting that sexual fulfillment can be ordered up over the Internet like sneakers or pad thai. And Carlos Danger's dalliances with people like Sydney Leathers suggest that, increasingly, they can be.
"He was never going to take this into the real world, but he wanted to express himself as a sexual being, and technology gave him the ability to do that," said Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, a platform for "real-world" sex videos, and author of Make Love Not Porn: Technology's Hardcore Impact on Human Behavior. "[Sex] is like anything else on the Internet: It's very easy to get a quick hit everywhere."
It's especially easy to get a quick hit on one's own terms. Weiner minimized the risk of rejection by relying on social media to serve up the women to him - he generally approached women who'd followed or praised him on Twitter and Facebook. The web allowed him to form relationships with real women who were mostly fantasy, responsive avatars that wouldn't spoil the illusion with annoying habits, physical imperfections or emotional demands. The online nature of the affairs also allowed him to indulge these fantasies on his schedule, anywhere and anytime he pleased. And he operated in an atmosphere of unreal reality, just virtual enough to seem innocent and unreal, and just real enough to make the fantasy a fulfilling one.
These virtual affairs aren't only more convenient, but the crescendo of a sexual relationship - eliciting desire, stoking connection and eventually reaching orgasm - requires less participation from the people involved than ever before. There are no rendezvous in out-of-the-way motel rooms and no heavy petting. Only typing.
What we have seen of Weiner's trysts has revolved around a kind of "sex" that was clean, cold, practical and utterly efficient. The leaked transcripts of Weiner's chats with Leathers don't read like the torrid, passionate correspondence of star-crossed lovers separated by circumstance. They're transactional and to the point. Weiner seemed to indulge a fantasy, then quickly get back to planning his political comeback.
For a public struggling to make sense of Weiner's online affairs, the virtual element makes them appear dirtier, says Rachel Hills, author of a forthcoming book on sex and Generation Y. Yet Tinder, the online dating app wildly successful among college students and twenty-somethings, perfectly embodies the rise and appeal of Weiner's brand of sex-free sex: The app, which connects people who find each other mutually attractive, can make people feel wanted without ever requiring them to speak to another person directly. Feeling desirable is now achievable through an app. Lonely? Insecure? Just log on, rate a few faces and wait for someone to like you back.
Tinder, one Tufts University sophomore explained to me this past spring, is used "more as an ego boost-type situation than a dating situation or a way to connect with people." The same could be said of Weiner's activities online.
Though these online relationships may seem as two-dimensional as the sites on which they play out, their effortlessness and simplicity raise a key question: Will they make offline relationships seem more appealing, or less? Is the absence of a warm body a downside or more of a perk? A John Edwards type might have had to soothe his lover's feelings or explain why he had to leave in the middle of the night. When Weiner had had enough, he could just shut down his computer.
Except, of course, Weiner's disgrace delivers yet another reminder of another aspect of the online realm. Just as it beckons as a place full of seemingly unlimited encounters achievable at any moment, it also functions as the ultimate archive, a repository of every embarrassing exchange, accessible to anyone connected.
The medium that enabled sexless sex scandals will also preserve them forever.
Aug 1, 2013 | www.huffingtonpost.com
It surely is this summer's major headline! Former U.S. representative and NYC Mayor candidate Anthony Weiner has been caught sexting with young girls again and again despite the fact he his married to a caring and supporting woman. So what? Is this really a big deal? Does it really need to be the most commented subject across America at a time where Detroit is falling down and leaker Snowden is reminding us of some scary Cold War nightmares?
Seen from a French point of view, I must say that this whole Weiner story illustrates to perfection what we can call the "American hypocrisy." On the one hand, you are offended by a man sending a few sextos (which is not a devious behavior!) and promoting virtue whenever you can but on the other hand, you're doing nothing to limit the influence of Hollywood-made erotic and pornographic production, you're watching Jerry Springer trash-talk on TV on a a daily basis and you're delighted to see what teenage icons such as Selena Gomez and Miley Cirus became (they went from being stupid and delicious products to being the latest, outrageous Madonnas with no talent...).
This is pure nonsense!
There is something America must understand: you can cheat on your wife and still be a good politician. Remember JFK and Bill Clinton? They both had affairs while at the White House but in the meantime, they are unanimously considered as top of the notch U.S. presidents. Weiner, Clinton, JFK. These men illustrate the fact that politics is dirty and so is sex! (And so is 1 in 5 readers of this op-ed since 1 American out of 5 is said to sext on a regular basis!)
June 25, 2016 | newyorker.comt
There's another, nearly opposite explanation: casual sex isn't the norm now, and wasn't before. There are simply always individuals, in any generation, who seek sexual satisfaction in nontraditional confines.
Part of the negativity, to be sure, does originate in legitimate causes: casual sex increases the risk of pregnancy, disease, and, more often than in a committed relationship, physical coercion. But many negative casual-sex experiences come instead from a sense of social convention. "We've seen that both genders felt they were discriminated against because of sex," Vrangalova told me. Men often feel judged by other men if they don't have casual sex, and social expectations can detract from the experiences they do have, while women feel judged for engaging in casual experiences, rendering those they pursue less pleasurable.
Its weird how only American Culture is obsessed about sex. To the point that its higher on society's priority list than getting a job/education/money
In the 1990s, against the backdrop of an ascending Age of Neoliberalism, sex offender registration statutes were passed in the United States. These laws require law enforcement officials to utilize computer technologies in order to publicly identify individuals who have been convicted of sexual offenses. In this study, we conducted in-depth interviews with twenty-four respondents who were forced to register as sex offenders. All of these participants resided within Southeast Texas, which is arguably one of the most punitive regions within the United States.
The vast majority of the sample reported moderate to severe forms of harassment as a result of being outed as sex offenders via computer technologies. We conclude that in the post-Keynesian United States, the Web-based monitoring of sex offenders will continue to remain a popular American pastime and may even expand to other industrialized democracies throughout the world.
Nymphomaniac, the new film by Lars von Trier, recounts the extreme, prolific, and at times risky sexual history of a woman named Joe, a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac. Put simply, it's one of the best films about being human that I have ever seen. As someone who has, at times, reveled in my high sexual appetite, and at other times struggled with it, while watching, I felt-as one does with great films about the human condition-deeply connected to Joe, her pleasures, guilt and compulsions (albeit, to a lesser degree). Played by both Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joe clearly sees herself as a bad person-someone flawed, who's harmful to the world. Much of the film can be summed up in her statement, "Sexuality is the strongest force in human beings. To be born with a forbidden sexuality is agonizing."
This idea of dark, overwhelming sexuality has recently become a hot topic in mainstream culture-from a string of Hollywood films broaching the subject to various celebrities checking into sex rehab. Sex addiction: It's the trendiest new problem! But as I've often wondered throughout the course of my own sexual experience: Where, exactly, is the line? At what point does one go from just being really horny to having a legitimate problem? What constitutes too much sex (an amount we're supposed to feel bad about), compared with the appropriate amount of sex, compared with not enough (which we're also supposed to feel bad about)?
I've always considered myself a sexually curious person. I welcome all alternate labels-horny, adventurous, nympho, slutty, etc. I remember at fifteen feeling that my virginity was like a disease that needed to be cured, impeding my ability to move forward with my intended sexual exploration. I ended up having lots of sex in cars during school lunch breaks, and in the town's Burger King parking lot. I had minimal backlash from classmates, aside from a never-ending school rumor that I had "the clap" (though no one seemed to have a firm understanding of what the clap actually was). But at seventeen, after getting caught spending the night with a 30-year-old apple farmer, my parents sent me to a Catholic therapist. It was the first time someone tried to convince me that my behavior was problematic. She said I used "sex as a weapon"-against my family, and against myself. In my rebellious teenage mind, however, I thought the concept of sex as a weapon sounded really cool. As if it was the faculty of a sexual superhero or something.
There's a part in Nymphomaniac when Joe recalls being taught by her friend, as a teenager, how to seduce men. "All you have to do," her friend says, "is look them in the eye and smile." Hearing that made me nostalgic. I remember clearly, as I'm sure many women do, the enlightenment that comes with the realization of possessing such inherent sexual power. Afterward, it becomes a kid-in-a-candy-store situation. For some, it can be hard to maintain control.
A lack of control is certainly a prevalent theme in the recent depictions of sex addiction in mainstream media. For starters, there was 2011's award-winning film Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, in which Michael Fassbender's character struggles to function in the midst of a dark, harrowing obsession with sex. Then there was 2012's Thanks for Sharing, which bizarrely handled the topic as a rom-com, starring Mark Ruffalo as a sex addict in the twelve-step program dating a close-to-perfect woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Last year's Don Jon, directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, depicted a man whose porn addiction renders him incapable of forming a real romantic relationship. And, in a recent episode of Girls, Adam tells Hannah that he once saw casual sex as a way to keep him from drinking.
What's strange is that as sex addiction becomes more visible in the media, the worlds of science and medicine are simultaneously becoming increasingly skeptical of the condition. And actually, nymphomania is a largely outdated term. As nymph is feminine, the term is predicated on the Victorian belief that when a guy wants to sleep around, he's a virile Don Juan, yet when a woman does, something is wrong with her. Today, when referencing excessive sexual desire, it's in the context of "hypersexuality," which applies to both men and women. However, in 2013, sex addiction was rejected once more for inclusion in the DSM-5 (aka the bible of mental health disorders, periodically updated by the American Psychiatric Association) due to a lack of substantial scientific evidence that one can actually be addicted to sex.
For most of my life, I've found my sexual curiosity a positive trait, and it's led me to have experiences I'm certain I'll be happy to have had when I die - from Eyes Wide Shut–style sex parties in hotel penthouses, to being a spectator on porn sets, to somehow ending up in a prisoner-of-war role play in Munich with a married couple who spoke not a word of English.
But there's also been a darker side to my sexual behavior that has felt less fun, and more compulsive. Although I've never been anywhere near as nympho as Joe-at a point, she's regularly having sex with ten men a day - watching the film, I definitely related to feeling insatiable, and struggling with intimacy. I continually sabotaged my chances of forming real, emotional relationships because I couldn't not cheat, and felt guilty for hurting people, though not guilty enough to change my behavior. Even when I was in a relationship with someone who loved me, I still craved sexual validation from others. Over time, it's become clear to me that at various stages of my life, much of my self-confidence and personal validation was (and still is) linked to sexual attention, and that's something I'm still dealing with.
I have friends who turn to alcohol or drugs during particularly rough or stressful periods - not to the point of addiction, but to a point of excess, as an escape. For me, sex has the potential to fulfill a similar kind of mindlessness - it's not necessarily done for the pleasure of it, but because it can be obliterating. I feel sort of embarrassed saying this, but for all this sex I was having in my late teens and early twenties, I would never come. Though I could come while masturbating, I didn't have an orgasm during sex until I was 22. It wasn't even expected - I would never even get close. And as I watched Nymphomaniac, I wondered the same about Joe. For all the sex young Joe has, you're never certain whether she's actually physically enjoying it, or coming. We see her moaning sometimes, but more often she's just staring into space or lying there like a dead fish. When trying to draw the line between a healthy appetite and a problem, it's important to be aware of how much pleasure one is actually getting from these supposedly pleasurable acts.
But that can sometimes be difficult. How much of the shame or negativity we feel associated with sex is inherently ours, and how much of it is a social construct? As Zhana Vrangalova, a sex researcher and blogger, recently told me: "It's hard to pinpoint the cause of the guilt, and shame of highly sexually people, because we live in a sex-negative culture that conflates having a lot of sex with being a bad person. The result is that the promiscuous are shamed, and dogged by guilt and doubt, and often their friends and partners inflate this by expressing worry about them, or treating them as if they have a problem."
Of course, there are health risks attached to casual sex, from STDs to the potential danger of being isolated with a stranger, and these are all things one must be very considerate and careful about (condoms are an obvious must). And it's certainly possible to have sex in an unhealthy or obsessive way that's harmful to one's life and relationships. But this is also true for other behaviors beyond sex, that don't get as bad of a rap. Consider the workaholic who works fifteen hours a day, barely eats or sleeps, and is obsessive to a point that it hurts her relationships with friends and family, says Vrangalova. Yet because we live in a society where work is considered a positive thing, very few people attach guilt or shame to this behavior. Or if there is guilt, it's a puritanical kind of masochism-the gain is worth the pain and sacrifice.
It all comes back to the quote from Joe: "To be born with a forbidden sexuality is agonizing." The key word here is forbidden. At the heart of Nymphomaniac is a girl who really wants something, yet the very nature of her wanting it makes her feel terrible. But what if it was OK to want it? It's hard to imagine what that would be like, because we've yet to have any real models of a happy, healthy, responsible promiscuous people. Usually, the story goes that the slut gets punished-whether she dies or ends up depressed or alone-because that's a narrative our society is comfortable with. There has yet to be a character in a movie who says, "I sleep with three different guys a week and feel great about it," because that makes people uneasy. We prefer successful adults to be sexually privileged, and we associate promiscuity with youth and bad decisions. The "slut" doesn't get to become a lawyer and live happily ever after (although I hope the Duke porn star proves me wrong).
But as much as I want to promote stigma-free sexual exploration and freedom, I understand that with sex, it's never that simple. We always run the risk of getting hurt or leaving someone broken-hearted, even if we don't intend to. The New Yorker's Richard Brody, in a post about Blue Is the Warmest Color, put it well: "Sex is actually never not a big deal, whether in movies or in life. Sex is the joker in the deck, the infinite variable that provokes, on screen as in life, radically divergent and wildly unpredictable responses and consequences."
05/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
Think you know the meaning of virginity? You'll be surprised to find out what Jessica Valenti discovered. In her new book The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, the founder and executive editor of Feministing.com takes on the virginity movement, and argues that it's high time we disassociate female morality and sexuality. Recently, I sat down with Valenti to discuss the book, the myths, and what's going on at those Purity Balls.So, what is the purity myth?
The purity myth is the lie that virginity or sexual abstinence has some bearing on who we are as people, as good people, women in particular. More specifically, what the book talks about is how that lie and how that myth is really a driving force in a lot of the conservative moves to regress women's rights and to reinforce traditional gender roles. So, how they're using this myth of sexual purity, this fear of young women's sexuality, to promote their agenda for women.You argue in the book that America is obsessed with virginity, female virginity specifically, and that there is, in fact, an entire movement fuelling this obsession. How exactly do you define the "virginity movement?"
The virginity movement, specifically, is a group of-and they certainly don't call themselves the virginity movement-conservatives, anti-feminist organizations, legislators, all with this really specific agenda in mind for women that's definitely regressive, definitely old school, definitely traditional. But instead of using the normal ways of pushing their agenda they're really focusing on young women's sexuality as not only a scare tactic but as a salacious way to get their point across.One of the more fascinating things that's revealed in your book is that there is actually no official medical definition of "virginity."
Right. Isn't that crazy!How, then, is virginity defined by those who are working so hard to defend the so-called purity of girls and women?
The virginity movement uses the definition of virginity that's the most culturally accepted one-heterosexual intercourse. And I think that limited definition of virginity is probably why so many virginity pledgers have oral and anal sex, because they don't necessarily see it as infringing on their virginity.So young people are engaging in sexual activity, and considering themselves still virgins because they say "If I have oral sex I can still be a virgin..."
Right. And that's what I found really interesting when I interviewed Hanne Blank who wrote Virgin: The Untouched History, which is this amazing history of virginity. The reason she started to look into the definition of virginity was because she was answering young people's questions on this website she ran, and a lot of the questions were, "Am I still a virgin? I did such and such." And she was like, "I don't know? Do you want to be?" She told all these really interesting stories of how young people will-I think she calls them Process Oriented Virgins-make excuses, like "Oh, yeah, I had sexual intercourse, but that's not really when I lost my virginity. I really lost my virginity when I did this." Or "I really lost my virginity when I had an orgasm." Everyone has different definitions for it.In some ways, virginity, as it's defined by the virginity movement-
It's completely irrelevant.And, if purity equals virginity then virginity is a myth, as well.
Right. Oh, I definitely think that virginity is a myth. I think that virginity is a huge lie. Having your first sexual encounter certainly is important, and I don't mean to demean anyone's understanding of their sexuality or how they want to think of themselves in that way. And I think that can be a really powerful experience and a wonderful first thing. But, as a concept it's more dangerous than not, because it puts us into these virgin or not virgin categories, which doesn't really give us a very nuanced perspective or understanding of sexuality.Speaking of danger, what are the things that abstinence only educators are actually teaching young children, particularly girls, and how are they dangerous?
Oh, there are so many! I don't think it's any secret that most abstinence only education is medically inaccurate. They lie about contraception in terms of its failure rate; one class was taught that condoms cause cancer. What ends up happening for a lot of these kids is that they've been taught that birth control is ineffective or birth control is dangerous so they don't use it.Outside of the medical and health dangers there's also a social message being taught in abstinence only education, which is that boys want sex and they'll do anything to get it and girls own sex and have to keep it. It's up to young women to be the gatekeepers of sexuality. There's a lot of talk about dressing a certain way, you control what men think of you. It's this very disturbing message that somehow young women have control over male sexuality, and that you shouldn't get a guy too excited. Which, of course lends itself to all sorts of victim blaming and sexual assault situations and things like that. So, that's also very dangerous.
Recently teen mother Bristol Palin was asked about using contraception and she said, "Everyone should be abstinent...but it's not realistic at all." Do abstinence only supporters and educators actually think what they're doing works? Or is there something more to it?I think there are a lot of folks who believe that it truly works, because they have these kids and they're pledging their virginity. You know, not understanding that, of course, if you get a 14 year old in front of their community members and church members and parents they're going to pledge their virginity. It's not like they're going to say no. So, yeah, I think [they think] they're being effective. But, they aren't honest about their larger agenda-that this isn't about keeping kids healthy, this isn't about teaching young people to make good choices sexually and morally. It's about reinforcing traditional gender roles in a really, really specific, rigid way. It's about relaying specific messages about sexuality and what's appropriate. And, of course, that's being straight and married and having kids.
The people behind the virginity movement go to great lengths to connect purity with abstinence, one of the more shocking examples are Purity Balls - which, you note, are federally funded. What are Purity Balls and why are we paying for them?[Laughs] Purity Balls. I could talk about Purity Balls all day. Purity Balls are essentially daddy-daughter dances where young girls at some point in the evening will pledge their virginity to their fathers, and their fathers, in turn, will pledge to be the caretakers of said virginity. If you can watch a video it's very, very disturbing. The language they use is mired in ownership and these really old school, antiquated norms about daddies owning their daughters. There's one video where the fathers give the daughters a necklace-it's a lock and a key. She keeps the lock and he keeps the key until the day she gets married and he gives the key/penis to her future husband. Very, very disturbing.
[Purity Balls are] put on by crisis pregnancy centers, which are federally funded through abstinence only education money. What's really interesting about them is when people started to complain, "Where are the mother-son purity balls?" and people started to call them out on their patriarchal bullshit, if you will, they create something called Integrity Balls. Integrity Balls are mother-son dances, but instead of the son pledging his virginity to his mother and his mother pledging to protect his virginity until he gets married, the language is, "I vow to be abstinent because I don't want to do that to someone's future wife or someone's current daughter." It's still framed in this language of women-as-property.Is this rooted in religion?
Purity Balls are definitely rooted in Christianity and Evangelical stuff, absolutely. But, I don't think it's necessarily relegated to one religion. A lot of folks are having the purity balls. More broadly, the idea of virginity and women's morality being tied up with virginity, young women being good when they're virgins, that's certainly not just a religious thing. It's a pretty culture-wide thing, I believe.How does feminism factor into the virginity movement?
The most interesting thing to me about the virginity movement and what reveals their true agenda-that it's not just about helping women-is the fact that they're so antifeminist, and the fact that a lot of the books that are written about this, a lot of the speakers, either have ties to antifeminist organizations, like Independent Women's Forum or Concerned Women for America, or straight up blame feminism for the woes of young women today. They're very direct in saying that they think feminism is the problem, which I think is really telling-what does it say about their movement that they think that women's equality is a problem for women?Admittedly, I never identified as a "feminist" in my teens and early 20s, and as recently as last weekend heard a close female friend, who's 30, insist that she's not a feminist. What would you say to young women and girls who are reluctant to identify as feminist, especially those who are strong, independent, self-determined individuals? What is it about feminism, or the notion of feminism, that turns them off?
There are a couple of things. There are a lot of folks out there that don't identify as feminists because of more political reasons. A lot of women of color don't identify as feminists because of the racist history of the movement. I get that. But overwhelmingly what you see are a lot of women, especially young women, who have feminist ideals, who believe in feminist issues, who don't call themselves feminist because they're afraid of being called a man-hater or they're afraid of being called ugly-whatever bizarre antifeminist stereotype they believe. Or, they're afraid of being questioned. This is [true] for much younger women I've spoken to who are like, "I don't really know all that much about feminism and I don't want someone to be like, what is it about?" Young women already feel apprehensive in terms of talking about politics, and stuff like that, so [there's a] fear of being called out.What I find really interesting about it is, once I do talk to younger women about feminism, and once you debunk those antifeminist myths and make clear that not only are these myths untrue but they exist for a reason, that they're really strategic, then they're like, "Oh. Yeah. That's true." So I think that it doesn't take much.
To get more young women, or women in general, on board...Exactly. And the truth is there are a ton of young women out there who are doing feminist work who don't identify as feminists. And that's okay with me, too. You don't need to call yourself a feminist in order to be doing great feminist work. People often ask me that: Well don't you think it's important that they call themselves feminists? Not for me it's not. For them, though, there's a real benefit in calling yourself a feminist because you have access to this community and this support system that you may not know is there. So that's why I really try to encourage young women to not only keep believing in those feminist values, keep fighting for them, but also to identify as feminist for their own sake, and for their own well-being.
You write a lot about pornography in the book - how does pornography relate to the myth of purity?Oh, God. So much. Mainstream pornography is very much tied up in the virgin-whore thing. They have virgin porn, they have barely-legal porn. This idea that the sexiest women are not women, they're girls. Then, of course, there's the whore porn where you have to do the most dirty, disgusting horrible things to someone. Porn plays into this dichotomous, binary vision of sexuality, that girls are either innocent and need to be taken advantage of, or they're whores who just want...I was going to say something disgusting but I won't. But, of course, as I say in the book, there's a lot of great feminist porn out there.
Yeah, you argue that there is a progressive approach to pornography.I do think that. It's difficult because feminist porn is really dwarfed by the mainstream pornography industry. It's difficult to be like, "Oh it's fine because there's feminist porn," when there are a couple of feminist porn makers and this huge, multi-billion dollar porn industry. But, the answer of the virginity movement and the conservative movement has been trying to put it away and hide it which has not been effective, and just makes things worse. Instead of doing that, why don't we talk to the women, few as they may be, who are making progressive pornography, who are looking at sexuality in a complex way. Why don't we look to them for answers, not just about sexuality, but about pornography. When we talk about pornography why aren't we talking to the people who are actually doing it right?
The purity movement has such a specific idea of what purity means-it's only white, female, heterosexual purity. Where do homosexuals and women of color fit into the picture?Well, they are the impure ones. If some of us are pure and innocent, then the rest of us are dirty and bad. Certainly with women of color I'm not the first person to say this. It's not a new idea that they're so hypersexualized, that they're never considered the virgin, that they're never considered innocent. But I would argue that the same is true for queer women. They're queer-they're the "other" in that way. Any deviation from straight, vanilla, procreative sex is impure, dirty, wrong. That's why I even think masturbation is seen as impure-because it's not procreative, because it's purely for pleasure, it's bad. So lesbian sex, or gay male sex for that matter, is wrong, impure, dirty, bad. Which not only says terrible things about their homophobia and heteronormativity, but also says terrible things about what they think about sexual pleasure and its place in the world.
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Womenby Jessica Valenti, published by Seal Press, 2009.
There is a moral panic in America over young women's sexuality -- and it's entirely misplaced. Girls "going wild" aren't damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. The lie of virginity -- the idea that such a thing even exists -- is ensuring that young women's perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It's time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they're sexually active.
A combination of forces -- our media- and society-driven virginity fetish, an increase in abstinence-only education, and the strategic political rollback of women's rights among the primary culprits -- has created a juggernaut of unrealistic sexual expectations for young women. Unable to live up to the ideal of purity that's forced upon them in one aspect of their lives, many young women are choosing the hypersexualized alternative that's offered to them everywhere else as the easier -- and more attractive -- option.
More than 1,400 purity balls, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers at a promlike event, were held in 2006 (the balls are federally funded).1 Facebook is peppered with purity groups that exist to support girls trying to "save it." Schools hold abstinence rallies and assemblies featuring hip-hop dancers and comedians alongside religious leaders. Virginity and chastity are reemerging as a trend in pop culture, in our schools, in the media, and even in legislation. So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they're simultaneously being taught -- by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less -- that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain "pure."
So what are young women left with? Abstinence-only education during the day and Girls Gone Wild commercials at night! Whether it's delivered through a virginity pledge or by a barely dressed tween pop singer writhing across the television screen, the message is the same: A woman's worth lies in her ability -- or her refusal -- to be sexual. And we're teaching American girls that, one way or another, their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable. The sexual double standard is alive and well, and it's irrevocably damaging young women.
The Purity Myth is something I've been thinking about for a long time. When I lost my virginity as a high school freshman, I didn't understand why I didn't feel changed somehow. Wasn't this supposed to be, like, a big deal? Later, in college, as I'd listen to male friends deride their sexual partners as sluts and whores, I struggled to comprehend how intercourse could mean one thing for men and quite another for women. I knew that logically, nothing about sex could make a girl "dirty," but I found it incredibly frustrating that my certainty about this seemed to be lost on my male peers. And as I talked to my queer friends, whose sexual experiences were often dismissed because they didn't fit into the heterosexual model, I started to realize how useless "virginity" really was.
I started to see the myth of sexual purity everywhere -- though in the work I do as a feminist blogger and writer, it wasn't exactly hard to find. Whether it appears in a story about a man killing his girlfriend while calling her a whore or in trying to battle conservative claims that emergency contraception or the HPV vaccine will make girls promiscuous, the purity myth in America underlies more misogyny than most people would like to admit.
And while the definition of "virginity" is fairly abstract (as you'll see in Chapter 1), its consequences for young women are not. And that's why I wanted, and needed, to write this book. The Purity Myth is for women who are suffering every day because of the lie that virginity exists, and that it has some bearing on who we are and how good we are. Consider the implications virginity has on the high school girl who is cruelly labeled a slut after an innocuous makeout session; the woman from a background so religiously conservative that she opts to have her hymen surgically reattached rather than suffer the consequences of a nonbloody bedsheet on her wedding night; or the rape survivor who's dismissed or even faulted because she dared to have past consensual sexual encounters.
My reasons for wanting to write this book aren't entirely altruistic, however. I was once that teenage girl struggling with the meaning behind my sexuality, and how my own virginity, or lack thereof, reflected whether or not I was a good person. I was the cruelly labeled slut, the burgeoning feminist who knew that something was wrong with a world that could peg me as a bad person for sleeping with a high school boyfriend while ignoring my good heart, sense of humor, and intelligence. Didn't the intricacies of my character count for anything? The answer, unfortunately, was no, they didn't. It was a hard lesson to learn, and one that too many young women are dealing with nationwide.
Understanding the Myth
On Love Matters, a pro-life, pro-abstinence website, pictures of smiling young women who are "saving themselves" are featured next to quotes about virginity and marriage. Kimberly Gloudemans, Miss California Teen USA 1997, beams under her brunette coiffed hair and a rhinestone tiara. Next to her picture, the caption reads, "It's been echoed to teens over and over again . . . we have no morals, no dreams, and no future. But I know I am not a part of that same generation. In fact, millions of teenagers are finding out the same thing about themselves. . . . We have morals and are standing up for what we believe in. . . . Because of that I am saving sex for marriage."
I've always found the idea of "saving" your virginity intriguing: It's not as if we're packing our Saran-wrapped hymens away in the freezer, after all, or pasting them in scrapbooks (admittedly, not the best visual -- my apologies). But packed-away virginities aside, the interesting -- and dangerous -- idea at play here is that of "morality." When young women are taught about morality, there's not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens (though the preferred words are undoubtedly more refined -- think "virginity" and "chastity"): if we have them, when we'll lose them, and under what circumstances we'll be rid of them.
While boys are taught that the things that make them men -- good men -- are universally accepted ethical ideals, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs. Literally. Whether it's the determining factor in our "cleanliness" and "purity" or the marker of our character, virginity has an increasingly dangerous hold over young women. It affects not only our ability to see ourselves as ethical actors outside of our own bodies, but also how the world interacts with us through social mores, laws, and even violence.
Women are pushing themselves and punishing themselves every day in order to fit into the narrow model of morality that virginity has afforded them. Some of us get unnecessary plastic surgery -- down to our vaginas, which can be tightened, clipped, and "revirginized" -- in order to seem younger. Others simply buy into old-school gender norms of ownership, dependence, and perpetual girlhood.
And don't be mistaken about the underlying motivations of our moral panic around the hypersexualization of young women. It's more about chastity than about promiscuity. T-shirts sold in teen catalogs with I'm tight like Spandex emblazoned across the front aren't announcing sexiness; they're announcing virginity. The same is true for "sexy schoolgirl" costumes or provocative pictures of Disney teen pop singers. By fetishizing youth and virginity, we're supporting a disturbing message: that really sexy women aren't women at all -- they're girls.
If we're to truly understand the purity myth, we have to recognize that this modernized virgin/whore dichotomy is not only leading young women to damage themselves by internalizing the double standard, but also contributing to a social and political climate that is increasingly antagonistic to women and our rights.
Virginity fetishism has even made its way into politics and legislation. In 2007, Republican South Dakota representative Bill Napoli described his support for a ban on abortion that allowed no exceptions for rape or incest by relaying a (quite vivid) scenario to a reporter. He explained under what circumstances the procedure might be warranted: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated."2
I found this moment so telling: Napoli couldn't help but let his misogyny and paternalism seep into his abortion sound bite, because, to him and to so many other men (and other legislators, for that matter), there's no separating virginity, violence, and control over women's bodies. When it comes to women who are perceived as "impure," there's a narrative of punishment that underscores U.S. policy and public discourse -- be it legislation that limits reproductive rights through the assumption that women should be chaste before marriage, or a media that demonizes victims of sexual violence. And, sadly, if you look at everything from our laws to our newspapers, Napoli isn't as far out of the mainstream as we'd like to think.
Toward a New Morality
Women -- especially young women, who are the most targeted in this virgin/whore straitjacket -- are surviving the purity myth every day. And it has to stop. Our daughters deserve a model of morality that's based on ethics, not on their bodies.
It's high time to do away with outdated -- and dangerous -- notions of virginity. If young women's only ethical gauge is based on whether they're chaste, we're ensuring that they will continue to define themselves by their sexuality.
In The Purity Myth, I not only discuss what the purity myth is and reveal its consequences for women, but also outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn't include their bodies. Not just because we deserve as much, but also because our health, our emotional well-being, and even our lives depend on it.
Copyright Seal Press, 2009.
Click here for a copy of The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women.
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