Passion and Purity: Me, Lord? Single?
This section is a treasure trove of straw men and fear mongering. Ready?
I am just going to put the whole thing right here so you can appreciate it in its entirety:
[referring to her roommates’ singlehood and virginity] That was a hundred years ago, of course. But even a hundred years ago, anybody who quite seriously believed that and acted on it would be seen as an oddity by many people. Perhaps we were in the minority. I can’t be sure about that. Certainly the majority professed to believe that sexual activity was best limited to husbands and wives, whether or not their private lives demonstrated this conviction. Now, however, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, times have changed, they tell us. For thousands of years society depended on some semblance of order in the matter of sex. A man took a wife (or wives) in some regularly prescribed manner and lived with her (or them) according to recognized rules. He “messed around” with other men’s wives only to his peril. 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. Even in societies where polygamy was allowed, rules governed responsibilities to spouses, rules on which the whole stability of the society depended.
Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that we can forget all the regulations and get away with it. Times have changed, we say. We’re “liberated” at last from our inhibitions. We have Sex and the Single Girl now. We have freedom. We can, in fact, “have it all and not get hooked.” Women can be predators if they want to, as well as men. Men aren’t men unless they’ve proved it by seducing as many women as possible–or as many men, for we now choose according to “sexual preference.” We can go to bed with those of the opposite sex or those of our own. It doesn’t matter. A mere question of taste, and we all have a “right” to our tastes. Everybody’s equal. Everybody’s free. Nobody is hung up anymore or needs to deny himself anything. In fact, nobody ought to deny himself anything he wants badly–it’s dangerous. It’s unhealthy. It’s sick. If it feels good and you don’t do it, you’re paranoid. If it doesn’t feel good and you do do it, you’re a masochist.
How do you feel after reading this? I feel angry and manipulated. But I know that if I had read this a dozen or so years ago, in the height of my evangelical fervor, I would have felt validated–and afraid. It’s fear mongering, and Elliot does it well here. Take a look at the scare quotes alone: “liberated,” “sexual preference,” “right.” These words mean things, but Elliot doesn’t want to admit it; she wants you to sneer at them rather than understand them. She then quickly and smoothly transitions to a more sinister tone: “It’s dangerous. It’s unhealthy. It’s sick…you’re paranoid…you’re a masochist.” That’s what they are saying about you, she seems to be saying. Aren’t they corrupt? Aren’t they disgusting? I’m not like them. We’re not like them.
This is a very effective way of rallying readers to your side–especially if they were pretty much on your side to begin with. “Why, that’s true!” they might think, “Things WERE so much better before! Society IS corrupt! Everyone’s having sex with everyone!” Sympathetic readers are nodding along so vigorously that they ignore the fact that Elliot has employed numerous fictions to build her case.
Let’s go through step by step:
Now, however, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, times have changed, they tell us.
Times HAVE changed! Exhibit A: The Pill. Reliable birth control has decreased the rates of maternal mortality and relieved the anxiety of unwanted pregnancy for millions and millions of sexually active women, married and un-. In some women, the pill can relieve menstrual pain–not at all an insignificant point. It can help reduce blood loss and prevent anemia. It helps families time births to allow the mother’s body to heal between babies, which means that the babies she does have are probably going to be much healthier. If pregnancy would endanger a woman’s health, she can choose not to become pregnant. It means she can balance her family with her–and her children’s–education; it means she can plan her finances and be available for other economic opportunities.
In other words, the availability of the pill (and now, other forms of reliable birth control) lets more women to live how they’d like to live, with reduced pain, fear, and anxiety.
“Liberation” seems like the perfect word, doesn’t it?
Elliot doesn’t think so, but then, Elliot’s focus is on virginity, not reproductive health and economic opportunity. Fair enough–she can focus on what she’d like–but it’s disingenuous to pretend that “liberation” is only about “sleeping with whomever you want, regardless of gender.”
So yes, times have changed, some for better, some for worse, and the Pill plays a role in this. Is it really so bad that they’ve changed? Have they really changed so much? Were couples happier before? Was society stronger before? Were women more loved and protected before? Did men feel more manly before? Elliot seems to think so, but provides no evidence, no citations, no statistics, no anecdotes to support this. Color me skeptical.
For thousands of years society depended on some semblance of order in the matter of sex.
Society depended on it? Society depended on sexual rules and not on, say, hierarchies, or economic and class systems? Sex was more important than manual labor? Sex does not happen in a vacuum — sex can be used to control, to coerce, to reinforce power structures, to produce heirs, to oppress, to rebel. And you can’t coerce, rebel, or reinforce if you don’t have a social structure set up in the first place. Could this be why sex and order (or disorder) often go hand in hand? Elliot does her readers a disservice by not exploring this idea in more depth. The history of sex is pretty clearly not all loving marital bliss and righteous social order.
What’s more, our very definitions of “proper” sex have changed over time–she admits this upfront by including polygamy in her definition of marriage. We no longer consider wives property of their husbands. Polygamy is no longer acceptable to many of us. Does Elliot also think that loosening morals caused that dissolution of “order”? If not, why not? I imagine she’d make a moral argument (women are humans, and humans shouldn’t be property), but then we’re back where we started: one of the reasons that sex and order seem to go together is because women were often considered property, so there were laws about it. How does she untangle this? We don’t know because she doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem.
Even if her assertion is true, she hasn’t exactly proved that we have lost all order in the matter of sex. We may not order ourselves as strictly as she prefers, but we absolutely have social and sexual mores. Marriage is still a pretty big deal; divorce is possible but obviously emotionally and financially difficult. Cheating is still generally frowned upon. Child support is required by law. The nuclear family is still held up as the ideal, for better or worse. We absolutely have rules for who can sleep with whom, why, when, how, and how much they should talk about it, and we certainly don’t hesitate to punish those who don’t abide by those rules.
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.
Up next: why trading virginity for commitment is a terrible idea.