Monday, January 24, 2011

Thoughts on Abstinence

My dad said to wait until marriage. My mom said to wait until college. Me? I just wanted to wait until I was in love.

One big target of feminism is the purity movement: abstinence-only classes, lies about sex, purity balls, slut-shaming, all that bad stuff.

But in our fight for a sex-positive society, people tend to get confused and think we're all against abstinence and pushing girls to become sexual.

Make no mistake, that's not the case.

I, for one, am not a virgin, but I see nothing wrong with the choice to abstain from sex, and our society should be just as accepting of abstinence as it is of sex.

My only issue with abstinence is when it's done for the wrong reasons. Whether a person becomes sexually active should be a personal decision. If a girl decides not to have sex, it should be because of her own values, not because the men in her life - father, priest, teachers, politicians, or future husband - expect it of her. My problem with purity balls is that a girl is basically giving her personal autonomy over to her father, rather than maintaining it.

Conversely, if a girl decides to have sex, it's because she's ready, and it's in accordance with her own personal values, be them secular or spiritual (there's a difference between blind adherence to religious dogma and sincerely believing that sex is sacred and should be saved for certain situations, be it marriage or just a committed, loving relationship) - NOT because her boyfriend wants it and she feels obligated to please him.

Whether a woman chooses to be sexual should also have no impact on her value as a human being. The problem is, many see women as valuable only if they are sexual - look sexy, act sexy, and put out for their male partners - and most others only value women who are pure and virginal. In either case, reduction of a woman to her sexuality is based on her willingness to obey and please a man, be it her older authority figures who expect her to save her flower for marriage, or her same-age male peers who expect sexual gratification from her, is detrimental to her personal autonomy.

If a woman makes the decision on her own, and has the gall to claim ownership over her own body, well, that's a different story - she's either a whore or a frigid bitch, depending on who she's refusing to submit her autonomy to.

Gay women can't win either way in the virgin-whore dichotomy because either way, they're not pleasing men. They're pissing off their male authority figures by simply being lesbians, and they're frustrating their male peers by not having sex with them - the only way they can be accepted by their horny male peers is if they're a) hot and b) willing to make out in front of guys, make lesbian pornography, or engage in threesomes. Otherwise, they're scorned because they're seen as worthless.

The problem with this current society is that a woman can't win. Why? Because she can't please everyone, and pleasing everyone is what women are supposedly here for. If they give their bodies over to their fathers, male religious figures, and future husbands and promise to be pure until marriage, they're prudes in the eyes of anyone who expects sex or has simply has different sexual values. If a woman chooses to have sex before marriage, she's a slut in the eyes of those who expect the former behavior. If a woman refuses to have sex in any one instance because she simply doesn't want to, she's a bitch in the eyes of the man she rejects; but if she gives into the pressure and has sex unwillingly, she has no self respect.

The phrase self-respect is thrown around a lot when discussing sex, specifically abstinence. This is particularly true in urban areas where misogyny runs rampant and women are reduced to sexual objects in a culture fueled by hip-hip and rap, infamous for their sexist and degrading themes. In such a culture, using self-respect as a means of female empowerment sounds great - the problem is, it's assumed that every girl who has sex is doing it because of low self-esteem rather than making a personal choice of her own free will. Not always the case. It's sometimes hard to decipher a woman's motive to do anything these days - is she dressing that way because she thinks she should, or because she wants to? Did she have sex because she wanted to, or because the pressure got to her?

And really, can you blame any girl for succumbing to pressure? Why not blame the guy who coerced her in the first place? Why not focus more on hammering home ideas such as "no means no" and "silence is not consent," rather than tell girls to just say no? Saying no isn't enough in a world where, to many guys, no means "I shouldn't" rather than "I don't want to," and that a no can easily be turned into a yes with enough persuasion. Saying "no" would be enough if guys knew to take it seriously.

In general, it takes ovaries of steel for a woman, much less a teenage girl, to rise above society's expectations of her.

I'm also not implying that two people should stay together if they have different values regarding sex. If a girl wants to wait until marriage to have sex, she should either date someone who's also waiting, or a guy who isn't necessarily waiting, but willing to abstain from sex as long as he's with her. If someone wants sex to be a part of the relationship, they should date others who want the same thing.

Abstinence is a perfectly legitimate choice if made for personal reasons. The purity movement would be fine in the eyes of feminists if all it did was promote acceptance of the choice to remain abstinent until marriage, but it's not about choice. The purity movement is one side of the spectrum of sexualization, reducing a woman's value to her virginity, and her willingness to sacrifice her sexual autonomy to the male authority figures in her life, and demonizes women who claim their bodies for themselves.

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