Guest Post: Queering Virginity
Today's guest post is brought to you by Grace, who blogs over at Are Women Human? Grace and I met about a year ago through both commenting at Jesus Needs New PR and I'm really grateful for her insight into the intersection between sexuality and fundamentalism and feminism.
Trigger warning: discussions of sexual contact that may be triggering for survivors of abuse.
One problem with the evangelical concept of sexual purity that's not often discussed is the way it completely erases anyone who isn't a straight, gender conforming man or woman. It's not a problem that's restricted to talking about virginity, of course. It's pervasive in just about any conservative evangelical discussion of gender.
Take, for example, Don Miller's generic, narrow-minded stereotyping masquerading as relationship advice and a magical formula for all "good" love stories:
1. Boy meets girl.
2. Boy falls in love with girl.
3. Girl is a bit hesitant knowing her heart is tender and could get hurt.
4. Boy proves himself strong enough to handle and defend her heart.
5. Girl trusts boy and they live happily ever after.
All love stories are different, of course, but these are central themes that weave in and out of the good ones. And if they don’t, the stories are normally tragedies.
There are a few assumptions - erroneous, as it turns out - that Miller had to make before arriving at this simplistic formula.
1) Everyone in the world is either a "boy" or a "girl."
2) All boys are attracted to girls, and exclusively to girls. All girls are attracted to boys, and exclusively boys. Everyone else either doesn't exist (cf #1), or their love stories are tragedies. Perhaps God doesn't care about them enough to want them to have non-tragic love stories.
Can I just note briefly the infantilizing nature of Miller's terms here? It's just one instance of the disturbing tendency of evangelical relationship gurus towards cutesy language that implicitly downplays the seriousness of what are ultimately weighty choices with longterm, irreversible consequences. Marriage is not for "boys" and "girls." Marriage is for grown people.
But back to the idea that everyone must either fit into the "boy" or "girl" box: as Dianna has explained before, this assumption is based on a confusion of assigned gender, usually based on anatomical sexual characteristics and externally assumed or imposed by family, medical authority, and/or society at large, with actual gender identity - i.e., our internal sense of ourselves as male, female, both, or neither. This is a cultural assumption so strong that we punish in various ways anyone whose existence or identity might make us question it: both trans* people, who identify as a gender other than what they are assigned as birth, and intersex people, whose biological sexual characteristics (e.g., genitalia, sex chromosomes, or hormones) don't fit with what's considered "normal" or expected for their assigned sex.
To accept Miller's platitudes as the basic ingredients of a "good love story" requires accepting that diversity in sex, gender, and sexuality simply don't exist. There's no place for intersex people, for trans* people, or for queer people in this model. Boys can't love boys, girls can't love girls, and there's no love to be had at all for people who aren't boys or girls.
The same problem exists with mainstream understandings of "virginity" that conservative American Protestantism pushes to the extreme of the sexual "purity" movement. As with Miller's vision of the good romance, virginity and sexual purity are constructs that really only apply to heterosexual, gender normative relationships between people with anatomically normative bodies.
This might seem obvious. The same sexual purity movement sees non-hetero sexuality as a sin. The same movement also believes that their beliefs about how gender should be assigned are divinely inspired. Therefore it's a sin to have a gender identity that doesn't match your assigned gender, and really especially sinful to take steps to bring one's physical appearance and characteristics in line with one's gender identity. Well, if you're trans, anyway. Putting on makeup and a dress to "be more feminine" is fine if your assigned and actual gender are both female. Because of course, just being perceived as your actual gender isn't enough to be a "real woman," you also have to act like a woman. Go figure!
Like I said, given that conservative Protestantism is so hostile to queer and trans people to begin with, it might seem a bit obvious that its model of virginity and sexual purity isn't really for queer or trans people. Fair enough. But I think there's more going on than just that hostility.
The thing is, the prohibition and erasure of non-normative sexualities, genders, and bodies isn't just about forbidden sex acts or identities; it's about the ways in which they undermine prescribed gender roles and expected gender performances in normative heterosexuality. Because what we think constitutes "normal [straight] sex" is very often really about what we think constitutes "normal" gender.
To get into this, I'm going to have to talk in a bit of detail about our cultural assumptions about sexual mechanics and roles and how that relates to gender. Bear with me on this. If it's a bit uncomfortable to read, for what it's worth, it was a bit uncomfortable to write!
Specifically, our concept of virginity, having it and losing it, reduces sexual acts to a moment where one person's body is penetrated by another person's body, we invest that first moment of penetration with a huge amount of meaning. Before that moment, you're a virgin. Afterwards, you're not one. That's it.
In addition to this, there's the assumption of binary, complementary, static roles in sexual contact. In that central moment, one person gives and is active, the other receives and is passive. These roles are seen as static not only within specific relationships, but across categories of people. And there's also a perceived power dynamic where being penetrated is as the weaker position, the weaker role, while penetrating someone is the stronger role and in some way an act of power over the person receiving.
Unsurprisingly, both in general understandings of virginity and in the sexual purity movement, the assumptions are that in a heterosexual relationship, the proper and natural order of things is for the man to be in the "active" role, and the woman to be in the passive, receiving role. Men are not supposed to receive. Women are not supposed to be active.
And of course, there are also assumptions here about what the bodies of the people having sex look like. Man = penis, which goes in vagina, which = woman.
Queer, trans, and intersex people screw with all of these assumptions about what bodies and sexualities are supposed to be. Men can have vaginas or genitalia that aren't easily labeled. Women can have penises, or genitalia that aren't easily labels. Men can be in the receiving role. Women can be in the active role.
And this really, really bothers a lot of people. It's reflected in the specifically sexualized ways hostility against queer, trans, and intersex people manifests. For example, our culture equates being a gay man with being weak because we implicitly, and often quite explicitly, associate gay sexuality with being in a receiving sexual role perceived as weaker. We tell jokes that are built on the assumption that having sex in a particular way is an act of humiliation.
Lesbian women, especially those whose gender expression is butch, are stereotyped as women "trying to be men" - aspiring to a higher and stronger position than where they should be. They're told that being with a "real man" would change their sexual orientation - a veiled assertion that the "right" kind of sex, which would put lesbian women back in their "proper" passive, receiving roles from men, will turn them into "real women."
Anti-trans hatred and discrimination against intersex people have similar roots in this idea that "real men" and "real women" look and act a certain way, that masculinity is superior to femininity, and that agency is masculine while passivity is feminine.
As Dianna has been explaining, these are the same assumptions underlying the purity myth. Queer, trans, and intersex people don't fit into the purity model not only because their identities are seen as sinful or anomalous, but also because their very existence overturns these hierarchies of gender and sex roles that are built in to the concept of virginity.