“The ‘Process-Oriented’ Virgin”: a letter


Dear Mz Blank:

I am what you would call a “process-oriented virgin”, though I, myself, would reject that label. I was so angry reading through your essay “The Process-Oriented Virgin” as included in Yes Means Yes that I could barely finish it before reacting to it.

I’m not surprised that you (or anyone else) is or was at some point shocked at the notion that virginity is subjective and that “sexually active” human beings can decide for themselves at what point they are no longer “virginal”. I grew up in a very Christian town that still buys into the “scientific” definition of virginity as “loss of the hymen” (obviously men don’t have a hymen, therefore men need not bother with the concept of virginity). But I did not expect such a small-minded view of the subject from a fellow feminist. Then again, I have long refrained from calling myself “feminist” because so many people who label themselves as such are in fact objectifying, racist, classist, ableist, stereotyping, gender/heteronormative and hypersexualizing persons that I felt I had nothing in common with this so-called feminist movement. Compared with the content caliber of the others essays in Yes Means Yes, I’m a little disappointed that your 18th century perspective was included.

Here is why.

First is your label of the “process-oriented” virgin: it is inherently pejorative. Your diction makes it obvious that you find the notion of choice (“process orientation”) self-serving and revisionist– which you actually go on to admit to in your essay, even so far as to call it “arrogant”. Forgive us for desiring autonomy and agency over and within our sexual selves. Supposedly you’ve repented of your ignorance, but your choice of words shows that your are still ingrained in the Patriarchy. It would detract from the importance, credibility and necessity of recognizing virginity as subjective and that reclaiming one’s own sexuality begins with a reflective analysis of previous sexual activity (most people don’t reclaim their sexuality before they start having sex/engaging in sexual activity, unfortunately, which is why your so-called “process” is so necessarily healing and empowering). Moreover you put process-oriented in quotations: highlighting irony, or “using scare quotes advisedly”? Either way you are (consciously or unconsciously) denying credibility to the concept. You might have invented a cutesy, armchair, ironical name for it, but the concept is real.

You also refer to “the virgin” as “herself”: maybe you didn’t even catch that during your revision and editing process. This is so blatantly Patriarchal that I’m surprised you haven’t put out an apology note retracting this ugly use of gendered pronouns. Similarly: “Way to raise the bar, ladies.”?? Rather than congratulating a few women on doing something they have already taken for granted, perhaps you should recognize that you are late to jump on the bandwagon? Because you have, for most of your professional career, “unwittingly [?] bought into the patriarchal conceit…[which is] at least broadly congruent with the traditional (misogynist, patriarchal) definitions I had been studying and writing about for so long” [emphasis mine].  You blame “culturally-ingrained notions” for your ignorance. I’m here to tell you that that’s not good enough; accountability within the feminist community is key to the eradication of Patriarchy. Moreover, you are assuming that male-identified persons (and genderqueer persons, for that matter) are not participating in the same self-exploratory historical revision. That is profoundly “unfeminist” in my book.

To jab a flag into the Land of the Process-Oriented Virgin as the “potentially feminist act” you believe it to be is unwelcome and unwarranted. You would need permission from each individual that your “study” and “analysis” exploits to call their personal choices “feminist”; they might be completely offended by this label. Some of them would be offended because their (perhaps not yet or ever-to-be self-identified) feminist standards make yours look Victorian. It’s not your right to label someone else’s personal revolutions and realizations as Feminist or not. It’s theirs, if they choose to do so or not. You also assume that their sex history revision is “fundamentally derived from feminist sex-reform philosophy”, rather than the other way around. You put the cart before the horse, in other words. Which is why you say these persons were doing so “intuitively” seems nonsensical; are you saying they have an inherent sense of feminist philosophy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that their “intuition” and revolution about their own definitions and standards has informed feminism?

And finally, as to your ideas on why YOUR “‘process-oriented’ virginity” is not “the ultimate answer to the problem” of virginity: there may or may not be a “thing” called virginity, but that is for an individual to decide. Virginity and nonvirginity may be two states between which a person transitions back and forth. Perhaps some individuals never experience virginity or nonvirginity. And perhaps still others see it not as a two-point spectrum, but as a radial continuum, across, through, around, and within which we can navigate and exist. Your “emotional and interpersonal train wrecks” that supposedly derive from “substantial sexual experience” coupled with a “claim [of] virginity” (hysteria, what what?) seem to imply that women aren’t or perhaps more accurately should not be engaging in sex in which they are not emotionally invested. What about having sex with a mutually consenting partner which is not about emotional connection, but is just about feeling good? Well, that would just be manly and unfeminineunnatural, really. Further, you assume that people attribute some kind of qualitative moral status (“good”, “bad”) to virginity, versus the view that many persons merely think of it as a “thing” that is neither good nor bad, desirable or undesirable, right or wrong– but nevertheless important. And the idea that a person with complete self-direction and autonomous control of their sexuality (including the “virginity”, “nonvirginity”, or “avirginity” aspect(s) of it) would be any more likely than a “normal” person to have a “medical [or] infectious-disease mishap” is utterly misguided. Such a person would be far more likely, given the thought and analysis with which they’ve approach the subject of virginity, specifically, and sexuality, generally, to take seriously or place value on knowing a sexual partner’s history. They would also be much less likely to lie about their own “status”, being that they would find value in sharing their “revisionist history” in all its detail. These factors would greatly reduce the risk of a “mishap” resulting in an STI.

Your initial impression of “‘p-o’ virginity” was that it was self-serving revisionism. But that is also your last impression, according to the essay: if you really understood both the concept and the persons thinking critically about said concept, you wouldn’t have included this paragraph in your essay. I will reiterate what I said above: sexual transparency is more likely be of great value to a person questioning the concept of virginity in the aforementioned ways than to a “normal” person whose default assumption, if they are female, is to claim virginity for fear of stigma, or if male, to claim nonvirginity for the same reason. Either way these claims are lies and disguise the real nature of a person’s sexuality and sexual history. You also assume that the “process-oriented approach to virginity is…profoundly unconscious”. In fact, it is not unconscious/intuitive so much as that you are just trivializing the experience and intimate metamorphoses through which the persons you are analyzing are going. That is, you are objectifying them. And since you readily admit that your evidence is anecdotal, why not try listening to your “subjects” as real, live, decision-making persons, rather than bupkins who are so ignorant in the ways of your feminism that they couldn’t possibly have come up with this idea on their own, through their own experiences. There may be greater self-sought intellectual, psychic, academic, and emotional transformation and theorization happening than for which you give credit. I would claim this as a valid description of my own process of reconstructing and redefining body, sexuality, virginity, consent, among other concepts which are all intimately connected. And I didn’t require a degree in women’s studies to do it. For all your talk of “‘p-o’ virginity” as “arrogant”, you don’t seem to notice that as a reflection of yourself.

I will agree with you on one crucial point, however: “It would be a massive step in very much the right direction…if it became a cultural constant that “losing your virginity” was a subjective, not an objective, transition.” And that massive step starts with individuals, like you and me. I would tell you the title of the book I’m going to write about subjective virginity, but I wouldn’t want you to steal it.

So sorry if this email was a little hostile, but I do feel so much better now. Please consider it directed only partially at you, and more at the overarching Patriarchal hegemony which guides much of how most of the world thinks. Maybe we’re all getting swept along in it, but now that you know there’s an “it” which you’re “in”, you have the responsibility to pull yourself and others out.

Best,
Lee

After some more reflection, I think I figured out another, more deeply-rooted reason why Blank’s essay rubbed me the wrong way: it is intrinsically academically paternalistic. That is, her diction, tone, and anecdotes are strongly reminiscent of the Othering language used by historians, anthropologies, sociologists, psychologists, and others in academe to observe, analyze, describe, and summarize their “subjects”: take Malinowski and his islanders (or should I say savages?) as an example. In other words, Blank is the kid with the magnifying glass and we (or her subjects) are the ants… We couldn’t possibly comprehend the magnifying glass, let alone her bizarrely patriarchal feminism.

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7 thoughts on ““The ‘Process-Oriented’ Virgin”: a letter

  1. Dear Lee, what a tremendous piece of writing (I do hope you publish). Had I received such an email I would have crawled beneath my desk and camped out there for the month. In consideration of your reaction to the “intrinsically academically paternalistic” tone I fear that I must be very careful in addressing you, as I have not set foot outside of the academic cloister (and indeed the cloister) for some considerable time. So please bear with me; it can often be my unintended ‘default setting.’

    The questions surrounding the concept of virginity and our numerous cultural hermeneutics of the same interest me greatly for reasons which may become apparent. While this is a devastatingly articulate critique of Blank’s essay, and one which I would hold some considerable truck with – as a theologian, not a feminist per se, I have a minor quibble with even your own internalisation of the idea. You agree with Blank’s point that it would be a step in the right direction if ‘losing your virginity’ became a subjective rather than an objective transition. Here I am at odds with the pair of you, as this strikes me as physiologically and emotionally reductionist. Why must the movement from one ‘state’ to another (if any difference in the humanity occurs in such a movement – which I think not) be viewed as a ‘loss?’ What precisely is being lost?

    From the perspective of a theology of the body one must conclude that this ‘state’ (good grief I detest that term) and its transition must be considered at worst ‘a gift’ (the gift of ones’ virginity or sexuality) and at best ‘a sharing.’ So in this schema one shares ones’ intimacy with another human being.
    **Post Scriptum (a humorous aside): What is with this understanding of sexual intimacy devoid of emotion being construed as “manly and unfeminine?” There is nothing ‘manly’ about the treatment of another person as a means rather than an end in themselves. Sadly it may be a characteristic associated with men, but then we (men) have allowed for the creation of a world wherein ‘boys will be boys.’ My problem with this is that girls and boys must become women and men.

    Jason Michael

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    • Jason,

      I was rather angry when I wrote this– I accuse her of being pejorative, but clearly my entire letter is! Anger is just so inspiring… Looking back perhaps I could have “lightened” the blow. I don’t want anyone to crawl under their desk!

      Mm, I agree about the notion of “loss”; for me, my “first time” was very much a loss. So were the successive dozen (several dozen?) times, all “consensual” (I am not yet able to discuss this concept of consent– I simply don’t fully understand it or the solid direction in which I should move pertaining to it), all equally unpleasurable. It was so emptying and distancing that, for several months into having sex with this person whom I’d already been with for two years, I was still calling myself a virgin “by mistake” (as I saw it then), sort of in the way when your 25th birthday has come and gone but when someone asks your age you still reply “I’m 24”. But my REAL first time was a gain: to borrow from Kate Chopin, an awakening. More accurately a reawakening. I wasn’t just learning something new about myself, but I was remembering things I thought were lost or broken. But this is merely my experience; due to the highly subjective nature of “virginity”, the idea of a continuum of “loss” and “gain” would simply not apply to some people.

      I suppose I haven’t revealed as much yet, but I do not believe in binary gender (possibly gender, at all, or biological sex, for that matter), thus I believe that all associated characteristics (masculine and feminine norms) are entirely culturally constructed and therefore rubbish. Girls and boys absolutely do not have to become women and men. “Girls” could become “men”; “boys” could become “women”. In the fantasy of my ideal culture, there is no such thing as categorization within quaint concepts like “gender” and “race” (maybe one day even “species” but I’m definitely not there yet).

      Can’t lie, this isn’t the comment I expected from a theologian. (I dread to think what would happen if my friends who are theologians found this blog!) It was very refreshing. ^_^ Thank you for the insights! ~Lee

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      • And likewise Lee, this was not the conversation I had had envisaged with an angry ‘bra burning’ feminist. Dialogue often has these beautiful surprises, and although we have taken our reason for a walk in different directions all too often the destination happens to be the same. Your description of ‘loss’ is truly saddening and I am glad that somewhere in the aftermath of this trauma you have found peace with it, even if that peace is just a new understanding. We are not the people we were when we first set out. Be careful of ‘theologians.’ In your corner of this earthy sphere that ‘title’ is embraced by every psychotic who thinks they know God. As a rule of thumb I am only ever at ease around theologians who are liberated in the knowledge that they haven’t the faintest idea who this God is. In this regard I make no pretence.

        For me this faith has been a fight (tooth and nail), but I too have found some little measure of peace, even so far as this peace has been new understandings. I have been sore and bitter angry that no one ‘loved’ me enough to share their virginity with me (do you hear that little violin playing?), and I have been lonely that I have not shared mine. But, like turning twenty-five, with age we find some peace – or some consolation (how I want to call this wisdom). Mine was a discovery of my god (not ‘God’ but ‘god’ because we’re on first name terms now) in all the people I meet. As a Christian (another term to be wary of) I believe that god became a person; a real – truly real – physical body with all its burps and farts. This makes the body and all that the body is and can be divine and important. And so it was in this revelation that I had my consolation; I had been shared with and I had shared. God offered me her virginity and I offered the same back – and I do this every day. Often this love making is just making a friend coffee, or talking with them. Here it is sharing with someone I know only as Lee. It doesn’t matter that she has set fire to her bra (you do know this is said with a smile?). What you are writing is important; it is of great value.

        One girls and boys becoming women and men you may have mistaken my intention. It doesn’t matter in the least that a girl might become a man, or a boy become a man who sees herself as a woman – or a woman pretending to be a man. My father was a pigeon racer (very working class), and as a wee lad I would clean out the loft and feed the birds. It was clear to me then that male and female isn’t limited by physical sex. Gay pigeons? Who would have guessed it! Darwin maybe. What I meant was that ‘children’ have to become ‘adults;’ no longer behaving as though they can treat other people as objects. This is ‘forgiveable’ in the child, but the adult must be mature; seeing all living things as ends in themselves (Immanuel Kant).

        “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” – Paul (a grumpy man at times)

        Jason Michael

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      • “God offered me her virginity”– alas! God didn’t have the right to do that… But you saw that coming!

        And, I never burned my bras. I just stopped wearing them.

        I appreciate what you’ve said about children, although, I must confide… I hate Paul, and anyone who wrote under his name. Absolute worst part of the bible. Complete Rubbish. (Confession: his “letters” used to be my favourite pieces of literature. But Paul just doesn’t jive with bra-burning, know what I mean?)

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      • Of course I saw that coming, Lee. Yet this may be where our understanding of the Other differs. To me the Other is always god, and so god is who I meet in every Other. To the monastic this god is the romance and she/he has all Power (thank goodness – people shouldn’t have “Power” – as opposed to ‘power’) and every right. ‘Virginity’ here is not sexual or ‘first time’ or any emotional or physical reading thereof, but the ‘primal gift’ of sharing. To the Christian this may be the Christ child; the one who suffers in solidarity with us (Immanuel) – the Incarnation. To the Jew it may be the Shekinah, the Muslim the Recitation, the Atheist love. I hope this makes a little more sense.

        Listen, the weight I am piling on, I might need a support bra or two. This ‘bra burning’ comment was not intended as an insult and I hope you haven’t taken it as such. You certainly have my sympathies in your opinion. Again, a healthy theology of the body should be a progressive and liberating feminism – not always the hallmark of Catholic Christianity sadly. This may take us another two thousand years, but I sincerely hope not.

        Paul. Saul of Tarsus, in the words of an old friend (now gone on the way of truth), is an ‘auld arse hole.’ There are precious few things Paul (you may notice I never ‘sainted’ him) ‘jived with.’ He wasn’t big into women (not odd in the Church), he was not a fan of homosexuals and neither was a good on consistency. Yet sometimes (and I think he may have had a ghost writer) he came out with eminently quotable lines; a real Oscar Wilde of the time. He and Ratzinger (spit spit) have so much in common.

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      • Indeed, Paul (and/or his ghostwriter[s]) is immensely quotable. So was Hitler. That’s about all I can say for either of them.

        Ah, ah, the theological Other– I am sorry, I should have clarified that I was talking about the anthropological Other/process of Othering. I find the spiritual Other quite positive, at times uplifting, always mysterious. The Other of anthropology, however, is that entity which is marginalized, minimized, silenced.

        But anyhow, what you have to say on the Other… I guess this is where I diverged from my fellows, as a Christian. I came to a realization that there can be no real love in a relationship of unequal power, which forced me to abandoned the Christian god. Don’t think I wasn’t loathe to do so; it was like starting at square one again. I wish I could describe the Other which has been reincarnated in my mind, but I really can’t; all I can say is that, were this Other a human being, we would be indistinguishable from each other and from everything else. That probably doesn’t make any sense… I can’t say I understand it, myself. Actually, I haven’t consciously thought about these things in a very, very long time. Hmm…

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    • Well other than trying to resist the urge to comment on your ‘Reductio ad Hitlerum,’ I am not quite sure that I could go quite that far. It is not, however, my mission to proselytise you; I am sure you are in no need to being ‘saved’ (what a thoroughly disturbing and disgusting Evangelical term!). So I shall merrily put Paul away (and indeed the Führer for that matter), even for the sake of friendship.

      I see no need to distinguish between this ‘theological’ Other and the marginalised, minimised and silenced Other of anthropology. The bottom line is that we are both speaking of real human beings who are often – all too often – marginal, minimal and silent. The real task of theology is to re-focus attention where God is always attentive; an empowered humanity, in all its parts, with a voice and treasured.

      Grief, we have become awfully holy in this discussion. I apologise if this was my doing. It is precisely because of our shared rejection of the notion of love in a relationship of unequal power that I embraced the Christian faith. In the beginning I wanted to be a politician and this introduced me to power and real inequality. It gave me a ring side seat in the circus of evil. Every day I see people like Mary and Jesus reduced to poverty, suffering and death – all resulting from greed and political power games. I “found Jesus” in the shit and realised that if this is where he began, then I could do no worse.

      You don’t need to be a ‘Christian’ you know. You don’t even need to ‘believe’ in God. The Other reborn in you is wonderfully human and alive. It is conscious and thoughtful, and this has produced great integrity and virtue. If ‘my’ God wishes to send all this to the burning pit, then it would be my privilege to join you. “Heaven for the weather, hell for the company!”

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