Yesterday in my women's history class, we began making our way through Joan Brumberg's The Body Project. I've been using the book for years and years, and it's a huge hit with my students each semester.
It is Brumberg who first drew my attention to statistics about menarche, marriage, and the loss of virginity. She points out that a century ago, girls menstruated for the first time at an average age of 16 and got married at an average age of around 21. Today, girls menstruate at an average age of just under 12 and get married for the first time at just over 25.
(A quick note about statistics. The problem with teaching statistics -- especially with something like menarche -- is that very, very few folks end up being "average". Almost every girl seems to have a sense of herself as being "early" or "late" -- a Goldilocks effect, I suppose!)
Here's where it gets interesting. A century ago, the time between the onset of puberty and marriage was but five years; today it's close to fifteen. If a contemporary young woman is trying to "wait" until marriage to lose her virginity, she is waiting -- in a very real sense -- three times as long as women did in her great-great grandmother's era! She's got three times the frustration of coping with unexpressed sexual feelings and longings, three times as long to struggle to live up to a cultural and religious standard of purity. Forget trying to live up to the standards of one's ancestors; today's young women who remain committed to virginity are trying to accomplish something that has, from a demographic and physiological standpoint, never been achieved before.
My class is 75% non-white, and of those, most are first-generation Americans. (Latinas and Asians make up two-thirds of the young women in the course; given the demographics of the area, many of the remainder are first-generation Armenians whose families have arrived from Iran, Lebanon, or the former Soviet Union.) Yesterday, I asked them the following questions:
1. How many of you have parents who want you to be virgins when you marry?
2. How many of you have parents who want you to go to college and get a degree before you get married?
3. How many of those same parents also want you to be skilled at cooking and cleaning in order to attract a husband?
After half the class had raised their hands to all three questions, I asked them a follow-up:
"Based on what you've read in Brumberg, and based on what you've experienced in your family, how does it feel to be asked to do something no one in your family has ever been asked to do before?"
The answers came pouring out! Many of these young women are the first in their families to go to college; they've often been raised by immigrant parents with a tremendous faith in education. Most of these families have embraced at least one aspect of feminism: the notion that women have a right to education, and perhaps an obligation to become economically self-sufficient. (Most of my students have been warned by at least one older adult to "get an education so you won't have to rely on a man.") But even as they've been encouraged to do what women in the past were not able to do (go to school and earn at least a bachelor's degree, if not something higher), these young women are still being given a message about sexuality that is as traditional as the one that their grandmothers received in little villages in Michoacan and Martuni and Mindanao and Mae Hong Son. And to top it off, their bodies (and the concomitant emergence of sexual desire) are developing earlier!
Over and over again, students say things like "Wow, do you know my mother?" Everyone laughs. It's not that they think that I'm personally so insightful, it's that they've never realized just how absurd -- and historically unique -- the bind is into which they have been placed. Their ambitious yet culture-bound parents are extolling a crushing set of contradictory ideals; they demand daughters who can be domestically proficient, financially independent, professionally autonomous, yet traditionally demure and asexual until marriage! No wonder so many of these young women appear so damned tired!
Some of my students make it clear (explicitly or obliquely) that they are rejecting their parents' values. Some have rebelled more successfully than others; the guilt in the faces and voices of some is painfully evident. Others are still making heroic attempts to live up to all of the hopes and dreams and values of their parents and their culture. Some have internalized these values to the point that they can claim them as their own, but most -- when made aware of their unique historical status as the first generation to face this particularly brutal constellation of pressures -- get appropriately ticked off.
In so many traditionally-minded families, there is still an unfortunately explicit connection between virginity and success. In the semi-mythical old days that the abuelas and the po-pos talk about, a girl who had lost her virginity before marriage would lose her opportunity to make a good marriage -- and that could mean a life of struggle and poverty. In the modern equation, the fear is of single motherhood. Having children outside of marriage while still young and uneducated is the contemporary stigma, one that all too often guarantees long-term financial hardship. In the old days, virginity might attract a good husband; in the modern age, these girls are raised to believe, abstinence is the surest guarantee that they'll be able to finish college and become self-supporting without being burdened by a child.
During these discussions, some of my white middle-class students (especially those from secular backgrounds) sit aghast. Raised by affluent baby-boomer parents who took them to Planned Parenthood when they were 16, the stories they hear from their classmates of color bewilder and horrify them. My privileged ones have never had to equate abstinence with success; their parents have never asked them to spend more than a decade as a physically sexual being without any outlet for their God-given desires. These young women express sympathy; some make the unfortunate mistake of issuing derogatory remarks about how appalling these "backwards" cultures are in which their classmates have had the misfortune to be raised. (I try and nip that sort of thing in the bud.)
After years and years of these discussions in my immensely diverse community college women's studies classes, I've become convinced that we're dealing with a vital feminist issue here. My younger -- and not so young -- sisters are trying live up to conflicting and contradictory imperatives that ask them to have a foot in two completely different worlds. As one of my students, a 20 year-old from an Armenian immigrant family, put it a semester or two ago: "My family dreams of me as their brilliant, virginal, medical doctor daughter -- who drives her own Mercedes, makes amazing baklava, has a perfect figure and has never kissed a man until she meets her husband."
If I were teaching at Wellesley or Vassar, that young woman might not be speaking for the parents of over half of of her classmates. But here at Pasadena City College, she is -- and as a result, the feminist curriculum has to be tailored to speak to her and those like her. Before they can become articulate activists for a global feminist agenda, these young women need to find the voice to speak out against the cruel and nonsensical double binds in which they have been placed. They need teachers who will encourage them to demand the right to be full and complete human beings. They need to be encouraged to offer each other support, to build feminist community, to help each other escape the crushing and contradictory burdens that weigh upon their minds and bodies. The culture tells them they need to be Superwomen; in a feminist classroom, they can learn to say "No" to the pressure and say "Yes" or even "Hell, yes!" to their deepest and most basic desires.
Is an almost middle-aged heterosexual Anglo man from Carmel by-the-Sea the right person to lead these discussions? Who knows? I may not be able to empathize with the majority of my students, but that doesn't mean I can't share some simple statistics, ask some simple -- and provocative -- questions, and then facilitate the ensuing firestorm of discussion. And from that discussion, I can only hope what all teachers hope -- that my students will find the inspiration and the tools to begin to make real changes in their lives.
Note: There are some obvious similiarities to the experiences of young conservative Christian women of any race who are also trying to manage both education and delayed marriage on one hand and traditional ideas about purity on the other. This post at Thursday PM is very powerful; a young Christian woman asks exactly the right question:
What if denying healthy sexuality is just as harmful to the psyche and self image as engaging in unhealthy sexual activity?
Another post, that one.