Every once in a while, someone sends me a link to something they know will infuriate me. A kind soul sent me a link to this short piece from the op-ed section of Nerve, which seems to be a "hipper than thou" dating site for sexually aware urban 20-somethings. Entitled "When you lose your virginity, how do you break it to your fans?", it opines:
Let's consider the possibility that it's right and proper for nineteen-year-old girls to act a little whorish, and that enthusiastically showing off their perfect bodies is what they should be doing at that age. It lets them be honest about the fact that they're sexual beings and eases the transition to womanhood. Not to mention the fact that using their sexuality makes these girls empoweringly rich — and having money empowers women a hell of a lot more than chastity.
Normally, I would let this one pass. I wish that this were satire, but it clearly isn't. Where to begin? As usual, I have a "yes" and a "no" to the Nerve piece.
I do agree that we know entirely too much about the personal lives of pop stars. I don't think society needs to know when Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson first had sex. It's unfair to these very young women to make their intimate lives the subject of intense scrutiny. Yes, many of these stars have welcomed and encouraged that scrutiny -- but the fact that someone barely out of girlhood invites us to stare at her (literally and figuratively) does not alleviate our responsibility to avert our eyes. I've started to watch a couple of Britney's recent videos, and have been forced to look away.
Here comes the "no."
The Nerve editors write:
Let's consider the possibility that it's right and proper for nineteen-year-old girls to act a little whorish, and that enthusiastically showing off their perfect bodies is what they should be doing at that age.
Okay, I considered the possibility. Possibility dismissed. Even if I did think that displaying one's body could be construed as empowering, I would be angry at the fact that only those deemed to have "perfect" forms should be allowed to "show off." Every damn day I see what ideals of perfection do to the minds and psyches of junior high, high school, and college-aged young women. I know perfectly well that so many of them gaze intently at magazines and videos, studying the images of these young stars, comparing themselves to what they see and invariably feeling as if that in their own human imperfections, they have fallen well short of the mark. The more freedom Britney and Cristina and the rest of them have to display their bodies, the less freedom from insecurity and self-loathing countless young women have. (And I have real questions about how much genuine freedom Britney really has to make these decisions, egged on as she no doubt is by those who stand to profit from her ever-edgier and tawdrier public image.)
And then, the offensive conclusion:
...using their sexuality makes these girls empoweringly rich — and having money empowers women a hell of a lot more than chastity.
The Nerve folks are trying to have it both ways, and it won't wash. It's no secret that sex sells. But empowering? Forget it. A tiny number of women will make real money with their sexuality. Most of them will have to do a good deal more than merely display their bodies in order to do so. And while some of them may end up feeling empowered, many more will end up feeling exploited and used. Even those who delight in the power their sexuality gives them will find out that that power begins to diminish rapidly as their age. What is sexually alluring on a 22 year-old becomes pathetic and embarrassing on a 42 year-old. In a culture that fetishizes youth, women who derive satisfaction from being objects of desire will find that life after 30 (or 40, or 50) offers far fewer "opportunities for empowerment." Nothing could be less feminist than to disempower the 99% of the female population that is not between 15-25 with a "perfect body."
Last of all, I want to touch on what Nerve's editors use to begin their argument:
First of all, teenage girls who feign asexuality are just plain lying.
Perhaps. But our friends at Nerve have made the mistake of confusing "chastity" with "asexuality." Those are two very different kettles of fish! I don't think most teenage girls are asexual. Raging hormones are hardly limited to the male of the species. At the same time, I don't think that displaying one's body is evidence of sexual confidence. There's a huge difference between having a rambunctious libido on the one hand and craving attention and validation on the other. Nerve seems to confuse the two.
At its worst, traditional culture (what we used to call "patriarchy") teaches women that their sexuality is the property of their husbands. A good woman's emotional and sexual satisfaction ought to be contingent on the joy she brings to others. Though surely "contingent happiness" is a right and proper part of the human condition, women also need to be encouraged to pursue pleasure and fulfillment for their own sake.
Our contemporary pop culture offers, as far as I'm concerned, the same damn message. Women's bodies no longer belong to their husbands, however -- now they are the property of society at large. Never before have so many had such visual (and sometimes physical) access to women's flesh. Young women today grow up expecting to be judged and scrutinized by men and other women alike. They see early on that displaying skin gets them attention. Some choose not to do so, others are not allowed to do so, but everyone is keenly aware of the power of sexuality. It's just that that power is still contingent on the responses and reactions of others. And that's not authentic power -- that's manipulativeness masquerading as empowerment.
Our stories tell us that our ancestors saw virginity as something to be prized. Indeed, an intact hymen had, at least at times, real cash value. Today, we value other parts of women's bodies more. But we still view women's bodies as commodities. In the semi-mythic past, husbands and fathers may have dickered over a bride's value, largely ignoring her desires. Today, the folks at Nerve encourage young women to sell their own bodies, market their own flesh, take the power away from their fathers. But until we completely break the connection between women's flesh and women's real value, we haven't gotten anywhere. Prizing perfect breasts and sculpted cheekbones is as oppressive to women as prizing an intact hymen.
We need to teach our daughters that their bodies are theirs -- theirs to delight in, theirs to care for, theirs to give -- or not to give -- pleasure and life to others.
Sigh. Off to grade papers, re-read a chapter of Iron John for my men and masculinity class, and get more caffeine.