This series of posts from the community is in preparation for Paradigm
Shift’s next event, “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women”
A Discussion with JESSICA VALENTI, Author & Feministing.com
Founder/Editor on TUES, FEB. 23rd, 7pm, NYC. We want to hear your
stories. View call for submissions- deadline 2/19- Click here!
by Miriam Rabinovich
– Imagine a world without the concept of virginity and “purity”- what would that look like?
It would be a world without white wedding dresses, and wedding nights without blood-stained sheets, crimson marks that prove purity only through loss. It would be a world without Eve and her daughters, women who can bring the world to its knees by seducing men on theirs; a world without Mary and the cult of female guilt that surrounds the ideal woman – a son’s mother who has never slept with his father. A world without the narrative of children’s innocence might well be a place without pedophiles. A world without “good girls” is a world without snuff films, as the myth of purity perpetuates apathy and aggression toward “loose women.” It would be a world far less invested in the policing of symbolic and embodied boundaries, a world without homophobia, honor killings, eating disorders, and clitorectomies. It would be a world without the sexual hysteria that created the fantasy of the hypersexual black predator out to hunt white virgins cowering in every corner. A world without the concept of virginity and purity is a world without hate.
But perhaps most importantly, it is a world without Edward Cullen. Yes, the un-dead, devastatingly dreamy, adolescent vampire extraordinaire of the Twilight series. Others have noted that the supernatural thriller espouses quotidian views of female purity and encourages abstinence. Bella’s blood is central to the text, it is what Edward and his pale pals sniff for and run from; every look of longing drips with its promise. It’s a story even older than 104 year old Edward, the eternal saga of female “purity,” and the masculine desire to both destroy and preserve. We know this story well and all little girls learn to cross their legs when they play. What interests me, however, is the less explored twin of female purity – male prurience. Fundamentally, what makes a woman sexually pure is her lack of contact with a penis. This is perhaps an obvious point but worth thinking of – for all of the anxiety generally attributed to men when it comes to female sexuality and women’s bodies, how much ambivalence must they have about their own sexuality when it is contact with them that makes women unclean?
Edward’s fear of his impulses is evident in the first film. He warns Bella that he might not be able to control himself around her, evinced early when Bella notices that Edward’s eyes changed color. Uncharacteristically flustered, Edward mumbles something incoherent and rapidly stumbles away from her, ashamed by his lack of control over his body, foreshadowing the constant tension between his dangerous desire for her and his love for her, as though the two can never merge.
The second film is even more apparent in its handling of male sexuality. We now have Jacob vying for Bella’s body as well, but just like Edward he forces her away, fearful of what he might do to her. Jacob is a boy transitioning into a werewolf, coming into his paternalistic legacy, clearly a parable for puberty. He too possesses little control over his bodily impulses. An older werewolf in the film who ripped into his wife’s face in a moment of passion, forever scarring her, acts as the warning of what men can do to women if they aren’t careful.
So we have two adolescent boys in physical flux and for both of them adult male sexuality means lack of physical control and (possible) violence against women. They pass on to Bella what has been taught to them and insist that she be scared of what they can do to her, of the beast that emerges when a kiss lingers a moment too long, of the loss of control when she comes a shade too close, of the danger when she dare desire as much as they. With Twilight we have not only the reinforcement of the female virginity and purity myth, but also the criminalization of male sexuality, both of which work symbiotically to perpetuate distorted views of gender and eroticism. Though much has been made of Bella’s body, critics have been more reticent about the construction of male sexuality – the arguments rarely evolve past the danger these boys pose to Bella’s sanctity. We have to move past this allegedly natural sinister male sexuality and explore the cultural investments in constructing male sexuality as dangerous, impulsive, and ultimately – in Twilight literally – disfiguring to both men and women.
The mutability of the disobedient body, its spontaneous shape-shifting and surprising fluidity, most pronounced during adolescence, seems to me to be a paradigm of the way female bodies have been constructed and described through all of their phases. It is plausible that adolescent boys on the cusp of puberty come closest to the culturally constructed descriptions of female embodiment. While this small space of flux is a site of massive potential for empathy and communal experiences, it currently functions as precisely the opposite. It becomes a time of delineating your borders, summoning your troops to the front line, and defining the male body as hard, strong, stable, and in control. And when it isn’t in control, it must be blamed on the female body that causes his defenses to crumble and rapidly consolidated into sexual aggression. So long as we refuse to create paradigms for the lack of self control that are not negative and weak, instead of say playful, productive, and transformative, men will always hold women culpable for their “weakness,” and thus project on to her the dirt he discovers in himself.
If masculine sexuality were not about possession, then female bodies would not be commodities, decreasing in value as soon as they have been opened. So long as male desire is constructed as criminal and something that – at its most intense – has the power to destroy, eroticism between men and women will always hinge on the palpable possibility of violence, and so a woman who wants is so often a woman who is asking for it.
We must defang male desire and provide adolescent boys with different constructions of masculinity, one that isn’t gnarled with skewed visions of strength and power. If we begin to deconstruct cultural criminalization of male sexuality, we will begin to unsettle the pure/impure dichotomy that has haunted the desiring female body since the time of antiquity. So long as male desire is viewed as a crouching creature always about to pounce, there will always be two types of women in the world – the one who helps him overcome himself and the one to whom he flees when the moon is full and his body howls.
Ultimately, this construction of masculinity is about reaffirming the heterosexual imperative and “traditional” values – the angel in the house will cleanse his sins after he confesses to depravity. Internal strife, inevitable sin, perpetual longing, crippling guilt, cherubic absolution – Edward’s desire for Bella is a biblical anachronism. So many of the distortions and anxieties around sexuality, female purity, and male aggression find their birth in Genesis, and loyally continue their evolution throughout the bible. A world without the concept of virginity and purity is a godless world. Amen to that.