Directly following the Obamania surrounding the January 2009 presidential inauguration, U.S. news media began running stories about Natalie Dylan, the 22-year-old women’s studies graduate who decided, in the wake of completing a degree based on the refutation of patriarchal principles, to sell her virginity online to the highest bidder. While the media made much ado about the implications of Dylan as a failed “role model”—with much hand-wringing about the decline of civilized courtship, the encroaching tidal wave of raunch culture onto “good girl” suburbia, and the loss of old-fashioned values of purity and chastity—they failed to take seriously Dylan’s own narrative about this exchange. This essay asks: What does Dylan’s reading of selling her virginity offer to a feminist politics?
Indeed, Dylan went on record making several claims that would typically fit with a classic sex-positive, feminist model of sexuality: she wanted to associate the personal with the political, in that selling her virginity would enhance her thesis research on the value of virginity. She believed that selling her body would lead to self-determination in the face of a culture that strips women of their bodily power, and she learned to “think differently” in her women’s studies education about the master narratives of purity, chastity, and virginity. She said, “College taught me that this [idealization of virginity] is just a tool to keep the status quo intact. Deflowering is historically oppressive—early European marriages began with a dowry, in which a father would sell his virginal daughter to the man whose family could offer the most agricultural wealth. Dads were basically their daughters’ pimps. When I learned this, it became apparent to me that idealized virginity is just a tool to keep women in their place. But then I realized something else: if virginity is considered that valuable, what’s to stop me from benefitting from that? It is mine, after all.”
These complexities raise two questions for me, questions with which this essay wrestles: First, what does it mean that the news media refused to take seriously Dylan’s reading of this event as a feminist act? Second, what else is at stake here? Focusing on this first question, my inquiry grates against obvious limitations about the relationship between women and the media. When looking at this relationship, a more obvious set of limitations about the interplay between gender politics and media coverage become apparent. Mainstream news media typically has nothing but contempt for feminism as a concept, ideology, practice, or identity; those who espouse feminist views—particularly if they actually use the “f-word”—typically end up ghettoized by the media as outdated (e.g., “those silly peace protesters from the 60s”), hypocritical (e.g., the frenzy about Gloria Steinem getting married after claiming that marriage oppressed women), a celebrity fad (e.g., Ashley Judd and Susan Sarandon as spokeswomen for a cause waning in its trendiness), or downright scary (e.g., the vilification of sex-negative thinkers like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin within academic and media circles).
Further, the media’s reluctance to accept Dylan’s reading of this event as a feminist act reveals that our media rarely considers the social context of sexual acts, preferring instead to argue for biological essentialism and the “naturalness” of heterosexuality. It seems impossible for the news media to take seriously any claims about the social context in which vanilla sex occurs, let alone the social context that enables prostitution or sex work. I raise this issue because, embedded within these frenzied discussions about Natalie Dylan are the deep-seated cultural anxieties we have about imagining sex as a social act, including the social aspects of virginity, what “counts” as sex, or what is at stake (emotionally, physically, etc.) in (first) sexual exchanges. Case in point: we still believe that erectile dysfunction is primarily related to physiological problems; the popularity of Viagra attests to our blocks about seeing erections within their social context as related to, say, partner communication, relationship issues, crises of masculinity, fatigue, abuse, fear, stress, etc.
So, in addition to the vilification of feminism and the reluctance to see sex in its social context, we also have the problem of the news media believing, particularly for young women, that sexual scripts are fixed, determined by men, and non-negotiable in their social meaning. In other words, we believe that Dylan should value her virginity because it has inherent value, rather than seeing virginity as something constructed in light of our obsession with women as the “purer” sex. We are outraged that Dylan is selling her virginity because it evokes our fear that men will lose control of the sexual economy (e.g., men trade women amongst each other—via marriage and legal arrangements—and not the other way around). In short, the primary objections to Dylan’s actions include the following two things: first, virginity matters; second, men should rule the sexual economy. In this light, the media must belittle, make fun of, ridicule, and shoot down Dylan’s own narrative of selling her virginity as a feminist act. For example, one recent blogger responded to Dylan’s statements by snarkily saying, “Sounds like someone took a couple of philosophy classes, too, and paid really close attention when moral relativism was described (but not critiqued).” If we could move past such belittling statements, we might enable a discussion about that most frightening of realities: the fact that the social world is a flexible, ever-changing universe, wedded not to the inevitability of stagnancy, but to the certainty of change.
This brings me to the second, and arguably more interesting, question I posed: What else is at stake here for social justice, particularly from a feminist lens? I ask this question not in spite of, but in light of, the problems set forth above (namely, that mainstream American news media have a vested interest in reducing the complexity of this situation, dismissing Dylan’s own claims about selling her virginity, and insisting upon a worldview that denies social context and cultural ambiguity). If selling one’s virginity now represents, for Dylan anyway, a feminist act, what do we as feminists do with this assertion? What do we stand to gain from agreeing with her, and what do we stand to lose by disagreeing with her?
Here’s what I like about Dylan’s labeling of selling her virginity as a feminist act: it takes our culture’s normal to its logical extreme. Much feminist research has sought to show how that which is on the fringe actually informs, comments upon, and alters that which is in the middle. For example, Susan Bordo has long argued that the anorexic body, rather than being an aberration, mental illness, or a symbol of the non-normative, actually most fully represents the normal. ((Susan Bordo, “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the crystallization of culture,” Philosophical Forum 17 (Winter 1986): 73-103.)) In other words, the anorexic body shows us what we value in women: passivity, weakness, thinness, conformity to patriarchal norms, lack of nourishment, pre-pubescent and therefore non-threatening bodies, and so on. In showing us these facts, the anorexic body simultaneously takes on a kind of empowerment, saying to the world, “You want thin? Well, this is thin. Now what?” Similarly, Dylan’s approach takes on a similar logic: “You want to overvalue virginity and give it all kinds of powerful social meanings that it probably doesn’t deserve? Well, how about just making it an explicit bidding war!” In doing so, she reveals to us our cultural pathologies about virginity in the very extremity of this act. We do overvalue virginity. We do sell and trade women’s bodies in a discursive sense. We do teach women to be the gatekeepers of sex and to ward off men’s sexual advances. We do have serious cultural hang-ups about keeping women pure and fetishizing processes that deflower them. Remember: in the world of plastic surgery, hymen reconstruction surgeries are on the rise, primarily in response to the demand for women to prove their virginity (or worth) to new prospective mates. The selling of virginity makes fun of, benefits from, and plays around with these realities. Dylan takes these hang-ups to the logical extreme, and this course of action might actually be useful, ideologically and otherwise, to a feminist politics.
That said, Dylan’s approach skirts one of the most severe problems within the feminist movement: we as feminists do not feel enabled—in part because of the heavy social penalties within the movement, and because our politics rely so intensely upon social constructionism, postmodernism, and relativity—to draw lines in the sand about what we will and will not tolerate in a political sense. Let us ask ourselves: Are we really okay with feminist prostitution? Do we really find it compelling to imagine that sexual liberation emerges from playing around with extreme cooptation, exploitation, and the treatment of sex as a form of labor? Might it be deeply problematic that we still construct men as the “buyers” of virginity/sex while women remain objects to be sold, bartered, and traded in a literal sense? Doesn’t it matter that, even in this discussion, we focus only on Dylan rather than on the men who want to buy her virginity? Must we learn to accept and tolerate extremity in the name of sex positivity?
What irks me most about the selling of virginity in general—whether labeled as feminist or not—is that it further entrenches us into a politics that despises pleasure, values commodification of bodies and sexualities, links capitalism with sexual power, and undermines the relational power of the erotic. As such, despite the rather insightful reading that Dylan has about the feminist implications of selling her virginity—and despite the way that it plays with the relationship between women (especially feminists) and the media—calling the selling of virginity a feminist act seems false. I say this with a full awareness of the hazards of drawing such a line in the sand. Yes, women’s desires are constructed by patriarchy and are therefore suspect. Yes, women have limited options with regard to how they enact resistance to social norms; we all, in a sense, struggle to find ways to reconcile the demands of patriarchy, racism, classism, heterosexism (etc.) with our political and social idealism. Yes, it is dangerous to assert that sex in the context of love and emotional relatedness is an ideal form of eroticism, for it sets up hierarchies between “good” and “bad” sex, “normal” and “abnormal” sex. Yes, the potential for resistance to patriarchy and power appears in all sorts of unexpected ways, and as such, we must take care not to obscure our own hypocrisies or exclude others from joining the cause. Still, mustn’t we at least attempt to articulate a worldview that moves in the direction of these most basic principles of social justice—equality, respect, love, solidarity, kindness, freedom from exploitation, creativity, shared power? Can’t we at least imagine a road to sexual empowerment for women that is not paved with the gritty, grungy, raunchy, hypercommodified realities of stripper poles, bunny ranches, online bidding wars, and girls going wild?