Regarding the David Allen appointment, I'm quoted in this morning's Scott Jaschik piece at InsideHigherEd. I've got more thoughts about men teaching women's studies (and, in my case, a straight man teaching lesbian and gay history), but that will have to wait.
Complete shift of topic:
I heard from a former student the other day wanting a bit of advice. Her boyfriend recently left her, ending a two-year relationship. The reason? He couldn't "handle" her sexual past. When they started dating, he was a virgin, while she had had a modest number of sexual partners (she didn't specify a number to me.) Their relationship had been going along swimmingly until that fateful day when he chose to ask her "So, how many men have you slept with?" She chose to answer truthfully, and things were never the same. For the remaining months of their relationship, he alternated between pestering her for details of her past, and calling her a "slut". (Why she put up with such demeaning and inappropriate behavior is another topic altogether.) Finally, unable to cope with the truth of the disparity in their experiences, he dumped her. She was devastated.
Over the years, I've thought quite a bit about the phenomenon of sexual jealousy. I respect its power. Without any verifiable evidence, however, I have my own theory on the subject of men's obsession with women's purity. It's hardly an original one, but here goes: men are terrified of two things, I think. One (and this is probably a hold-over from our ancestors), men are scared that if women are not virgins on their wedding night and faithful ever after, they will be unable to know with certainty if they are really the fathers of their own children. In a world withoud DNA testing, fathers have precious little assurance that their children are really theirs. (Of course, they could simply trust their wives, but that would involve making one's emotional wellbeing dependent on a woman!) The "double-standard" thus serves to protect men from the awful, nagging doubt that a child is not their own.
Male sexual anxiety seems to play a part as well. I've heard from many, many women whose boyfriends or husbands seemed stunningly preoccupied with comparisons. After all, the more lovers a woman has had, the greater the number of other men to which a current beau can feel himself compared. As one man put it to me bluntly, years ago, "If you marry a virgin, Hugo, you'll be guaranteed to be the best f@*k she's ever had." Charming, huh? Nothing seems to threaten an insecure man like the possibility of being found "less than" compared to other males. Female purity, therefore, seems to be an effective tool for safeguarding the male ego.
This latter theory plays well with what I've written about before, Michael Kimmel's notion of homosociality. (Homosociality is the idea that men are more concerned with winning the approval of other males than of women. Men measure their worth according to standards set by other men, not by women). Accordingly, many men who are in relationship with heterosexually experienced women may find themselves competing with all of her previous lovers. Indeed, this sense of competition often seems to happen even when the woman involved is scrupulous about not making such comparisons herself. But, if one buys into the notion of homosociality, it doesn't matter much what the woman thinks; the man will be competing with her past lovers in his head, even if no such rivalry is taking place in hers. After all, he isn't really after her validation; his real goal is to prove himself "better than" those she's been with previously. And while some men might find that competition exhilarating (and many more women find it bewildering and exhausting), other men may find it terrifying. And let's face it: it's a lot easier to call one's girlfriend a "slut" than it is to acknowledge one's own sexual anxieties.
On the subject of one's sexual past, I've become a great believer that no one should ever ask -- or answer -- the question "So, how many people have you slept with?" (Let me clarify: I don't mean one shouldn't tell one's good friends -- just not one's partner.) Answering a request to reveal one's number rarely turns out well, especially for women. For more conservative (and insecure) men, any number higher than "zero" will be too high; whether it's five or fifty or five hundred, she may pay a high price for answering truthfully! To be fair, some women are also going to be unnerved by what they may regard as an "inappropriately high" number. The only rational response to such a query from a current or prospective partner is a gentle, loving "Tell me why you really want to know, and tell me what you're going to do with this information once you have it."
I recognize that we're all curious people. Folks like to talk about "the number"; I've posted on this before. But I'm a very strong believer that we all have the right to have had a past, and to have that past without apology. Mind you, this is not an argument against pre-marital chastity! Those who, for spiritual reasons, choose to remain virgins until the wedding night do not deserve our scorn. In certain instances, they may even merit our admiration. But those who, for whatever reason, have not "waited" deserve not to be shamed by their current partners.
It is possible to have a loving, honest relationship without disclosing every detail of one's sexual history to one's current partner or spouse. Indeed, I suspect it's a sign of high maturity and self-confidence not to ask for details of one's lover's past! A true lover can say, "Before there was an 'us', there was a 'you' and a 'me', and I will never use what you did in the past against you. I honor your right to have lived the life you chose to live before we were together, and I ask that you honor my right to my past as well." True love focuses on the joy of the present and a shared commitment to the future; it seldom dwells on the past. There are times when a focus on the past matters; a history of abuse or molestation can have huge ramifications for one's future sex life, as can certain sexually-transmitted infections. But with those caveats, I think it's safe to advise a policy of "Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue."
When we marry, we promise each other many things: fidelity, devotion, and a willingness to share all one has. For many of my generation who come to the altar after years and years of "experience", we perhaps ought to give another kind of pledge: the promise to focus on the future together, not on the past. Real love rejoices in all the things that have made one's husband or wife who he or she is today, knowing that without those experiences he or she would be a fundamentally different person. But despite the often overwhelming temptation to pry, I'm convinced the wisest course is to acknowledge that there are some things none of us need to know, and we can give our partners and spouses the gift of an uncondemned, unchallenged, unquestioned past.
Postscript: I realize that I haven't mentioned how this intersects with faith. That's probably another post in and of itself, but let me say this for now: from a spiritual standpoint, there's a huge difference between holding oneself to a high standard and expecting that same standard from everyone else. A good Christian might well desire to be a virgin on his or her wedding night; it doesn't follow that a good Christian has a right to demand that his or her spouse have an equally low level of sexual experience. I know quite a few Christian couples where one partner was a virgin, and the other wasn't. This often happens when a "cradle Christian" marries an adult convert; new Christian Lauren Winner writes quite honestly about this when she talks about the disparity in experience between herself and her lifelong believer husband. Indeed, it's a particularly Christian act of love to marry someone who has had a colorful and extensive past when one hasn't had one oneself. It's even more Christian to never condemn that past, and to never allow the spectre of past lovers to haunt the marriage bed.