Passion and Purity, Chapter 1: Me, Lord? Single?
Last time we talked about Elliot’s failure to closely examine her paragraph’s main thesis, which is that all of society is built on sexual order. Not only does she overlook the fact that “order” and “oppression” are not mutually exclusive, but she ignores the many rules about sex and marriage, written and unwritten, that our society still values. Consequences don’t have to be violent for them to be real.
A woman knew that she possessed a priceless treasure, her virginity. She guarded it jealously for the man who would pay a price for it–commitment to marriage with her and with her alone.
This is some grade-A gauzy nostalgia right here. Back in the good old days, women never gave it up except to a guy who would commit! It must be true, because nothing like Sex and the Single Girl was published in the good old days … if a woman did put out, she would probably talk about it openly because she would never face any repercussions for that at all. Women having sex outside marriage is a totally new phenomenon!
Except…earlier in the very same paragraph, Elliot claimed that she was “an oddity” for truly believing that singleness meant virginity, but that most people “professed to believe” it, even if they did not practice it. Now she claims that every woman in the past understood how valuable virginity was. This is confusing. Does she mean that every woman valued virginity before, but somewhere around the 20th century, we all started forgetting how valuable it is? Or maybe she thinks that every woman inherently understands this even today but we are all just stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it in order to have fun sexytimes? It’s hard to tell if she thinks the fact of women having sex is a new phenomenon, or just the fact that they admit it. I suspect it’s the latter, but her timeline’s fuzzy.
Women aren’t born knowing that their virginity is a priceless treasure. Someone taught them that. So who do you think told them that, and why? Could it be that society told them that? The same society that decided that only legitimate sons could inherit? The society made up of men who wrote the rules about marriage and inheritance and power? Hmmmmm.
Elliot supports this shaky history lesson with an idea that I have heard over and over and over: women are supposed to trade virginity for commitment.
There are lots of really great variations on this theme: women want love; men want respect. Women are the sexual gatekeepers. Women trade sex for love; men trade love for sex. Women look for love; men look for sex. Women want commitment; men want sex. A woman’s virginity is the greatest gift she can give her husband. And it doesn’t take long to get from that to: women receive; men give. Women surrender; men conquer. Women submit; men lead.
The idea that women trade virginity for commitment has lots of problems. Let’s list them!
Here is one problem: the type of marriage that Elliot ostensibly encourages–a partnership of mutual affection, passion, and calling, one in which the couple support and encourage each other–is not a transaction.
Here is a second problem: in the type of marriage that Elliot ostensibly encourages–a partnership of mutual affection, passion, and calling, you don’t fall in love with a list of dos and don’ts. You fall in love with a person.
Relationships are not gumball machines. You don’t put in virginity and get commitment. Putting in sex 3x/week doesn’t guarantee anything–not commitment, not love, not that he’ll fix the screen door. And love is not a stereotype. A man might enjoy sex every fortnight; a woman might enjoy it every single day and twice on Thursdays. Who knows!? That is, who knows…until you actually talk to that person. It’s not at all useful to talk about sex in terms of generalizations and stereotypes, especially for the audience of this book, most of whom, I’d wager, are sexually inexperienced teens and young adults. Stereotypes are useless in relationships. You can’t understand all women, but you can understand a woman…when you communicate with her! You can’t guarantee he’ll commit, but you can use your words and ask him about it!
The third problem, of course, is that Elliot’s claim that virginity guaranteed commitment (and, by extension, a happy relationship) don’t seem to work in real life, and never has: some people are virgins when they get married and they have awesome marriages. Some people are not virgins when they get married and they also have awesome marriages. Some people are virgins when they get married and they have terrible marriages. Some people are not virgins when they get married and they also have terrible marriages. Could it be that nothing can guarantee a lifetime of love and commitment because people are not gumball machines, either.
The fourth problem in this passage is subtle, but I’m sure it will come up later in the book, too, so let’s list it. It pops up all over Christian culture: if you do x, God will do y. If you prove you’re a good girl, then you’ll get a present. If you pray enough… if you sacrifice enough… if you’re good enough… In this case, if you stay a virgin, God will give you a good husband. This is a nice idea, isn’t it, because it’s so easy. But this assumes God is also some sort of gumball machine–a cosmic one, but a gumball machine nonetheless: “Congratulations! Your virginity status is top-notch, so I’m going to give you a decent husband!” We’re skating dangerously close to a works-based righteousness, aren’t we? Is that what God meant when he said he gives good gifts to his children? Does he only give good gifts — in this case, a dude who will make it official — to those who deserve them? If so, the theological implications of this are troubling.
Fifth: the glaringly obvious double standard. Women are to be virgins, but apparently men can do as they please, as long as they eventually commit. Elliot does of course think both men and women should remain virgins, but in this sex-for-commitment transaction she gives us, it is explicitly the woman’s virginity that is a “precious gift.” Hmmm. This puts women at a distinct disadvantage. She can only give her virginity away once. If the dude turns out to be a dud, if he hightails it after the honeymoon or decides he’d rather commit to someone else, some other virgin, say, she’s up a creek. Her “most precious gift” is gone, and all she has to give now is her personality, work ethic, fertility, character, sense of humor, insight, commitment…too bad none of those things are as precious as her lack of sexual experience.
The sixth and final problem in today’s list is perhaps the most insidious: the virginity-is-your-most-precious-gift idea cultivates an environment of shame and despair for victims of sexual abuse and rape. If virginity is the best (or sometimes only) thing you can offer your husband, what are you supposed to do if someone takes it from you? The church should be a bastion of support for victims, not one of the many gathering to throw stones.
In sum: the Good Old Days Elliot refers to never existed, so it seems like she’s mainly upset that American society has stopped punishing sexual sins as publicly and as harshly as we used to. In this one fluffy sentence, she holds up an ideal of virginity that completely disregards a number of valid objections that happen to be extremely inconvenient for her message: that, historically, women have a disincentive to divulge their sexual desires due to a long, reliable tradition of punishing women harshly for improper sexuality; that communication and respect are much more important to a healthy relationship than virginity; that life is not made up of a series of gumball machines; and that a myopic focus on virginity can and does hurt victims of abuse and rape.
Next time: freedom and equality and “freedom” and “equality.”