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 unfeminine— unnatural, 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.
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.