Kristin Aune looks at society’s attitudes to virginity and celibacy
So Big Brother’s Adele is a virgin. And she’s bisexual. And, before she met her girlfriend, she was single ‘for ages’. She told fellow contestant Lee and he was shocked. Not, though, that she was bisexual. It was her virginity that most surprised him. ‘You mean a virgin to blokes?’ he said. ‘No, both’ was her reply, and then, somewhat apologetically, she mumbled something about never having met anyone she wanted to have sex with.
Female virginity and female singleness are now, supposedly at least, so rare that they shock. Because they had heard of my book about single women and today’s church, a TV production company recently contacted me. Could I find them a woman who was a virgin? they asked ? they were making a programme where people reveal unusual secrets. Today female virginity shocks just as much as ‘nymphomania’ shocked the Victorians. We must be thankful in part for this. Female sexuality is now in a better state than it was in Victorian England, when women were categorised into three types: virgin spinsters, wives who only tolerated sex, or whores. Throughout the twentieth century, from Marie Stopes’s 1918 sex manual ‘Married Love’ to The Hite Report and Anne Koedt’s article ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,’ women’s capacity for sexual pleasure has been defended and explained in ever increasing detail. Today we read Cosmo and watch Sex and the City, where being a single woman is, more than anything else, about having a lot of sex.
But sexual freedom has not brought women the freedom they hoped for, and denigration of women’s singleness, virginity or celibacy is no mark of liberation.
Last year’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles revealed growing rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Abortion continues to rise, reaching its peak among women of the twenty-something age group, young women who are the daughters of the second wave feminists, the next generation for whom everything was supposed to be better. STDs are no mark of liberation, and neither is putting yourself through the traumatic experience that is abortion, as Polly Toynbee pointed out in the recent Guardian series on feminism.
The feminist call for women’s right to choose their sexuality has, in this post-feminist era, been transformed into an emphasis on compulsory sex, a state in which women are no longer free to choose not to have sex, not to be part of a couple.
Sexless singledom is derided. Bridget Jones, for all her acute observations of ‘Smug Marriedness’ and the dilemmas of today’s ‘Singleton’, is an enemy of true singledom. She lives in a romantic fantasyland in which Mr Right will sweep her off her feet and bring her total happiness, if only she could lose a few pounds and look appropriately beautiful. Bridget has given voice to women’s anxieties about their singleness, anxieties created by the popular cultural myth that singlehood is bad, and the best thing a woman could do would be to find a partner, preferably a husband.
This belief has recently been given much airtime. TV Dating shows ‘Would Like to Meet’ and ‘Perfect Match’ convince their female subjects that they are single because they don’t look ‘feminine enough’/ are too talkative/ independent/ shy/ boring. In short, they are single because there’s something wrong with them. John Gray, author of the pernicious Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, has written a book advising single people how to leave their unhappy singledom and enter Planet Love. He has been joined by Laura Doyle, the American housewife who came to fame with her bestseller The Surrendered Wife, which tells women that happiness comes through submission to their man’s every whim. Doyle’s predictable sequel, The Surrendered Single, shouts the same message: singleness is women’s fault, but can be escaped as long as women renounce control. I heard of Doyle’s book a year ago, and wasn’t worried. British women won’t fall for it, I thought. But they have.
A few years ago Natasha Walter urged feminism to ‘admit that it has no place in the bedroom anymore’. How wrong she was. Second wave feminists have also, I think, been caught somewhat off guard by the new tyranny of coupledom, the new compulsion for women to have as many orgasms as they possibly can. Women cannot be liberated where they feel compelled to have sex wherever, with whoever, and in whatever manner will guarantee the most ‘explosive’, ‘toe-curling’ ‘sensational’ orgasm; when they are cajoled by magazines which purport to represent their interests to use porn that objectifies them, enact fantasies of bondage and domination, implant silicone in their breasts, paralyse their foreheads and remove their pubic hair in order to be beautiful enough to attract the partner who will grant them this acme of sexual happiness.
Germaine Greer has made a similar point. But she even she has capitulated to the tyranny of sexual coupledom. ‘Celibacy is better than really bad sex’ she declared in The Whole Woman, that illuminating book which is the nearest British women have got to a new feminist call-to-arms. But a third wave feminism must go further than this. Until women are able choose celibacy and say, like Adele from Big Brother, but unapologetically, that it can be better than sex full stop, they will not be free.