Virginity, overrated

I'm trying to figure out what Dick Cavett is saying in this piece. He seems to be bemoaning the idea that teens are openly sexually active today, and that what was once called virginity wouldn't pass muster back in the hoary old days when he was a youngster.

Even in the allegedly innocent 1950s, there were always rumors in junior high and high school of this or that pair who had visited the promised land, but even rumors were few. In general you had little reason to think that your contemporaries were quaffing sweet nectars that you were not. And then, the first thunderbolt.

Eighth grade, Irving Junior High School, Lincoln, Neb. A tall, rugged and handsome “German-Rooshen” lad transferred to our school from western Nebraska. The girls swooned. He seemed bigger and older than the rest of us. We never got to know Terry very well. After only a month he had to backtrack to his native Scottsbluff to tidy up some unfinished business. And I had learned a new term: shotgun wedding.

Here's why I'm confused. I can relate to not knowing what was going on sexually when I was in high school. I mean, I heard the same rumors that Cavett apparently did, perhaps slightly more graphic (one involved a guy who had graduated and gone to LSU, where there were girls in whipped cream all over the place), and there was one girl I graduated with who gave birth about two weeks after we walked, but outside of that, there was little discussed openly other than what we hoped would happen some day.

I was a nerd; what do you expect. I was uber-nerd, actually: glasses, no money or fashion sense, driving a rust-gold 1970 Pontiac Bonneville, working at a local fried chicken joint, photographer for the yearbook, VP of the Art Club, editor of the literary magazine. Oh yeah, and did I mention I was a Jehovah's Witness? I was a black hole of dorkitude. Actual sex was like antimatter as far as I was concerned.

But Cavett follows up with the story of the guy who gets called back for a shotgun wedding--and he was in the 8th grade. When I was in 8th grade, sex didn't exist either, outside of furtive glances at porn mags behind the counter at the convenience store.

Now it's certain that more kids are having sex at younger ages today--my daughter had 3 or 4 classmates in the 8th grade who had kids--and that's tragic, but that's less an issue with virginity, I think, than it is with open and frank discussions about and access to contraception.

Part of the problem with Cavett's post is that it's unfinished, and he acknowledges that. I'm interested in seeing where it goes, since he finishes with an anecdote about his high school reunion where he discovers that the school is offering daycare for their teen mothers so they can continue in school (a fabulous idea, I might add). I hope he plays that part of it up and doesn't turn it into a judgmental rant on kids being too sexually active, because I'm not sure that they are.

As far as I can tell, teens have always been sexually active. Romeo and Juliet were teenagers, and that story has been universally lauded for centuries now--it's not like critics have complained that that story over-sexualizes teenagers. It's just that we've now moved other parts of adulthood to later periods in maturation. Instead of going to work right out of high school, or even before finishing, we're starting our careers later--early to mid-20s or even later for professionals. But we're still horny while in high school, so we have sex.

The mixed signals don't help. We have companies advertising makeup to girls under the age of 12; Clothing companies marketing thongs to preteens; even dolls like Bratz are highly sexualized. And don't even get me started on the monstrosity that is the pageant industry--those parents are monsters, in my eyes.

The pressure to be a sexual person is high on boys as well, but it's of a completely different type. While the girls are pressured to be objects that are gazed upon, and are expected to be willing receptacles for the gaze, the boys are pressured to be not only gazers, but conquerors (to steal Amanda's construction) of the female. So the problem as I see it isn't so much the age that kids are when they're acting out sexually, but the frames they're acting within, and the reasons they're doing so. I really like Amanda's description of this, so I'm going to steal it:
The conservative-sexist metaphorical framework of sex is Sex As Conquest. In this frame, women’s bodies are objects and sex is about the struggle to conquer the pussy. Sometimes the struggle over the pussy is between men (ex: jokes about fathers guarding their daughters’ bodies from young male interlopers) and sometimes women themselves are tasked with defending the pussy from sex. If sexual intercourse happens, by definition, the man who gets to fuck the woman has won and the defender (father or woman herself) has lost. Sex happens when women surrender, in this model.

The liberal-feminist view of sex is that it’s not a war or a game, but more of a mutual collaboration, less like a battle and more like playing music. In this model, to be a sexual person is to be a musician and sex is playing your instrument. Sometimes you play by yourself, sometimes you get with others and jam, and sometimes you actually have a band that you have a long-term relationship with. There aren’t winners and losers, but there can be good and bad sex, just like there can be good and bad music. The collaboration model of sex explains why acceptance of homosexuality and kinkiness are generally liberal views. It makes no more sense to call homosexuality immoral than it does to posit that rock is more moral than jazz; it’s all a matter of taste.

Right on! I want to shout. Why can't we teach the sex as collaboration model to kids, along with the inherent respect for each other that comes along with it? It would be healthier, for one thing, and not just emotionally. If sex ceases to be a matter of conquering the will of another, then we don't have one partner pressuring another to not use protection, and that cuts down on pregnancies, on STDs, on abortions, on all the things we point to as a society and say are a result of our oversexed culture.

Maybe we are oversexed--I'm certainly not the person to make that judgment, as I wouldn't mind seeing a public orgy every now and again. But the real problem is more the way we look at it, I think, and less at what age we're starting it or who we're doing it with (except when it comes to child molestation. I shouldn't have to put that caveat in there, but I can imagine the hell I'd get if I didn't).

I've gone far afield from where I began, I fear, and I'm not sure the title even fits anymore. I'd planned on going on about how I was a virgin when I got married, and how now I look at it as a mistake, because I built sex into something it could never hope to be, when in the end it was just sex. And there--I've said it. Virginity is overrated, especially if you have a screwy way of looking at sex to begin with. But I fully support Bill and Emily's continued renewal of their virginity vows, no matter how often they break them.

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