"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

speak now #22: sexuality & shame in society part II - virgin shaming

Now Playing: I Come Apart by A$AP Rocky ft. Florence Welch (I just hope you put me back together when I come apart)

We have a really fucked up attitude when it comes to sex, in that both having sex and not having sex are both things to feel guilty over and shame other people about. I've often felt like an outsider to this society and the increasingly bizarre and hypocritical ways in which we treat the most basic and human of things, and to an outsider...it's just strange that two polar opposites with no middle ground can both be bad.

What is virgin shaming?

Virgin shaming is the perpetuation of stereotypes, assumptions and judgement of a person based on their lack of or limited sexual experience, or the perception that they may not be sexually active. Virgin shaming can also be seen in the pressure on people of all sexes and genders to become sexually active. Unlike slut shaming, which is predominantly associated with women, virgin shaming is gender neutral; or even perhaps slightly more focused on men.

Virgin shaming includes:
- pointed or inappropriate questions to gauge a person's sexual experience
- making assumptions that someone is anti social, ugly, unattractive or difficult to be in a relationship with because they are a virgin
- pressuring someone into participating in sexual activity, especially if they have little sexual experience and/or haven't taken part in that particular sexual activity before
- shaming a person's opinions on sexuality and abstinence
- shaming someone for involuntary celibacy
- using virginity as an excuse for homophobic, sexist or racist bullying
- accusing someone of not loving/respecting/valuing a person or a relationship because they refuse to consent to sexual activity

...the list goes on.

Gendered differences in virgin shaming 

Although the stigma of virginity is a gender-neutral phenomenon, I would argue that it effects the different genders in different ways, and that this difference reflects social conventions and values on gender roles. I've noticed that virgin-shaming for women is about criticising women for not 'giving in' to someone, or not being sufficiently attractive enough to make someone want to get you to give in, or being arrogant enough to refuse someone who finds you attractive enough to want you to give in. Virgin shaming is often manifested in accusation of unattractiveness, stubbornness, or a failure to care for the needs of a partner. In contrast, I've found that virgin-shaming for men criticises men for being weak, effeminate, unwilling to push for what they want, or not wanting what they're supposed to want; a lot of men who haven't been with a lot of women are accused of being gay and are the subject of homophobic discrimination. From this virgin shaming appears to be society's means of reinforcing gender roles; submissive female sexuality and dominant male sexuality.

The stigma of virginity in our society

Despite the sex negativity in our society we have an unhealthy preoccupation with sex; it is the validation of relationships and who we are as people. We are such a materialistic society obsessed with physical beauty, and intimacy is seen to be the solid proof of attractiveness; this has resulted in a lot of weird ideas of 'ugly' people not getting or not being allowed to be intimate, and the idea that attractive people must be open to any kind of attention from anyone. Having sex validates women as sex objects in the eyes of society; submitting to male desire, doing it 'because you love him' and 'because he wanted to', because you were sufficiently attractive enough to make him want to and you were compliant enough to let him. Having sex also reaffirms men as the hegemons of society, and this is seen in the rhetoric surrounding sexuality now and in the past - 'deflowering', 'taking virginity', 'claiming maidenhead'...it's all about conquering, asserting dominance and reaffirming masculine strength.  Men are expected to have disposable women at their disposal; if they can't get that or don't want that, there's something wrong with them.

Involuntary celibacy 

Involuntary celibacy is a state that we've all been in, and a state that is feared and held in contempt by most of society. The shaming of involuntary celibacy assumes that the only factor in facilitating sexual interaction is attractiveness, and that there is something wrong with you if you're not attractive enough to attract someone. In reality, involuntary celibacy is much more complicated than that; attractiveness does not necessarily mean that you want to have sex with someone or that you can have sex with them; it doesn't mean that that person is suitable or willing to be in the kind of relationship that would result in sexual interaction, and not having sex or being unable to find a sexual partner at this very moment has more to do with circumstance and chance, and not attractiveness. Because attractiveness is not universal, and it is not the sole factor in whether or not you're getting fucked or not. At any rate, I can't think of a single attractive person who hasn't been on their own when they want a partner. Involuntary celibacy is a universal phenomenon, and is nothing to shame anyone over.

Sex as an achievement and as validation. 

Virgin shaming implies that someone is inadequate; it asserts that if you can't find someone who wants to fuck you, or you refuse someone who wants to fuck you, that there's something wrong with you. Virgin shaming makes private lives public, and assumes that you are not an attractive person, or even a full person at all, if you haven't had sex. The reality is that there are thousands and thousands of reason why somebody doesn't want to have sex, or wants to have sex but isn't having sex right now. And it's really none of our business, and nothing to be ashamed of.

Virgin shaming & harmful ideas surrounding sexuality.

Sex is supposed to be something that 'just happens' - this was something I believed for a long time. There aren't meant to be any problems or hiccups. You're not supposed to say yes and you're definitely not supposed to say no. Sex is the only thing in which we expect to be fantastic the first time around, with no practice or research or equipment. Sex is the only thing in which we expect to know exactly what we're doing, and we expect our partners to know exactly what they're doing, exactly how you like it. Anything...deliberate, to either encourage or inhibit sexual interaction, is severely stigmatised, and when sex doesn't 'just happen', we fail to realise that virginity is the default, until something deliberate happens, and we fail to see sex as the result of deliberate decisions and relationships.

The psychological pressure of virgin shaming.

Virgin shaming is less about sex, or the absence of sex, and more about an excuse to shame people and really hit at the psychological weak spots of the different genders. Virgin shaming for women is all about making a woman feel undesirable, unwanted, unable or unwilling to make other people happy; these are all important attributes of Women in our culture, and failure to adhere to this not only contributes to a personal sense of failure and inadequacy, but also opens someone up to a broad range of discrimination and ostracisation. In a society in which the dominance of men is vital to maintaining the status quo of society and the hegemony of patriarchy, virgin shaming emasculates men, making them feel impotent and unable to get what they want; this is in stark contrast to the message of society, which is that this is a man's world, and men are expected to take what they can. We're told that pretty girls give sex, strong men get sex, and if you fail any of the above people have the right to pick on you.

Virgin shaming and rape culture.

A sinister and often tragic side effect of virgin shaming is the perpetuation of rape culture; just as slut shaming robs women of the right to say yes, virgin shaming also robs women of the right to say no. Wanting someone is sometimes considered such an honour, and refusing that honour comes with...a lot of scary consequences. I would know.

The emasculation of virgin men, or even men who refuse to 'take what they want', has led to a dangerous rise in extremely problematic attitudes towards sexuality and consent, especially amongst young men. Sexual prowess is such a fundamental pillar of patriarchal masculinity that men often have an alarming, and alarmingly subconcious, sense of entitlement; men are by default entitled to any woman, and if they don't want a woman it's not because of circumstance or personal preference or lack of chemistry or opportunity, it's because there is something wrong with that woman. The other sense of entitlement is that men have been conditioned to not see consent as the right of others, but rejection as an intolerable insult, an offence that must be punished - sometimes even punished with rape.

I said that virgin shaming is a gender-neutral phenomenon, in that it victimises women but also forces men to play the villain or risk being the victim as well. Virgin shaming has reconstructed the highly individual and extremely complicated realm of human sexuality into two rigid, uncompromising categories; female sexuality as passive, coy, for the benefit of men but ultimately a matter of little consequence to the actual woman in question; male sexuality is constantly distorted and exaggerated into something uncontrollable, irrational, violent but ultimately forgivable, even when it manifests in crime. This has had disasterous consequences on the gendered interaction in our society and has put an overwhelming pressure on the demographic that has become our society's sexual predators and rapists to do something, or to want to do something, that needs forgiving; failure to do so is unforgivable.

My take on virgin shaming

Virgin shaming is based on the glorification of virginity, the idea that virginity is this real, tangible thing, that virgin is a universally-understood identity, and that there is a single act, a single moment, in which you lose the stigma and glory of being a virgin for the stigma and glory of being a slut. But when you think of the immense scope and diversity of human sexuality, how hard it is to define labels and how badly labels fail to define us...virginity is a myth. There are no virgins, and there are no sluts, there's nothing that will make me either; there's just me, all the things I have done, all the things I will do, and all the things I won't do. In our beauty-obsessed, materialistic, capitalist society, something as beautiful and highly personal as sexual relationships is reduced to living up to hypocritical standards set by society, and virgin shaming is a cheap excuse to pick on others.

My experiences with virgin shaming.

I'm one of the many people who has experienced slut shaming and virgin shaming and, to be perfectly honest, it really does your head in when you have two equal but totally opposite pressures and no middle ground. I definitely felt a lot of pressure to have my first kiss, to have sex and all of that, and that pressure started way before I had wanted to do any of that, or had met anyone who wanted to do any of that. And because I had been taught that sexual attention was a natural consequence of being beautiful, or even of not being ugly, the fact that I was something of a late bloomer made me incredibly insecure and unsure of myself, and gave plenty of fuel for the bullies. Virgin shaming made me feel like there was something wrong with me, that I had missed some kind of deadline, that I had somehow invited criticism because I hadn't been able to coerce someone into coercing me. People were very condescending towards me, and also lorded anything they claimed to have done over everyone else, and there was a definite intent and expectation that we should be jealous. It's very strange, to be with people you know to be just as innocent as you are implying that they have done a lot more; it's stranger still when you find yourself doing that. The thing about virgin shaming is that you feel like if you can just do something, if you can just get someone to do anything to you, the haters will shut up, but it does not work like that; the virgin shaming ends and the slut shaming starts, if it hasn't started already.

This is part 2 of a three part series on sexuality & shame in our society. Click here for part 1 and stay tuned for part 3, coming soon.


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