Jennifer Foote Sweeney

None of Your Beeswax

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be feminists. They've got excess baggage, overactive egos, underground pretensions, multiple personalities and an inexplicable sense of remorse.

Which would be OK. Especially when you compare that stuff to the hardwired weirdness of boys -- or the irritating psychic accessories of "enlightened" men. No, the problem here is not primal or deep. But it is irritating -- deeply and primally irritating.

You see, feminists have forgotten their manners.

Certain among us -- you know who you are -- have been chiseling away with righteous determination at a set of commandments, ranking the personal sins of feminists with paternalistic fervor and demanding contrition from transgressors. Marriage is heresy. (See "Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique" by Jaclyn Geller). Modesty is a commodity. (Demure contrarian femmes, led by Wendy Shalit, give this lecture). Eye shadow is good. (Bitch, Bust.) Abortion is better. (Call it a human right and pretty much everybody signs on.) Wrong choices, bad choices -- it is easy to fall afoul of the new feminist law. What happened to the simple old feminist embrace of choice itself, and the belief that for women, as well as other "living things," it should be free?

Take my mom. She was a feminist when there weren't feminists, just "women's libbers." She wasn't so much a First Wave gal as a Permanent Wave doyenne, someone who shaved her legs and kept a War Resister's League datebook. She played basketball with the men in the neighborhood until my dad got in a fight with the guy who had the hoop because he -- the guy with the hoop -- built a bomb shelter under his side yard.

Maybe my mom did some weird stuff. I think there probably was some informal consciousness-raising. Maybe she even looked at her cervix with a hand mirror. But here's the thing: She didn't look at anybody else's cervix with a hand mirror. She didn't demand to know about anybody else's cervix or judge them on the basis of what she was able to find our about their cervix. With apologies to "I do," "Do me," "I'd never," and "You'd better not" feminists, my mom was pro-choice and anti-invasive, personally free and publicly dignified. She understood the meaning of respect and the petty malevolence of snippy criticism based on personal choices. For my mom and her cronies, liberation wasn't just freedom to choose, it was freedom from having to justify one's choices.

Call me a postmodern Emily Post, but I cling to the genteel idea that one does not grill one's sisters about their private lives in order to evaluate their commitment to the sisterhood. It has never been polite to ask someone about their salary or the color of their pubic hair. Certainly it is not polite to ask a person why they got married or if they've had an abortion. And it is even more egregious if one is asking these questions to make sure that the victim's feminist papers are in order.

"What's it to you?" is my answer, by the way.

I've got a record as long as your arm -- marriage, divorce, pregnancies -- but there isn't a choice in my fat file that would epitomize my gender politics. And if there is, I'm the only one who gets to epitomize my gender politics. Besides, who wants one of those cutesy, derivative labels that one must now have to indicate which feminist team one plays for? "I do" and "Do me" -- they're all about boys. And the First, Second and Third Wave thing is reductive and vague, and conjures up a heave-making image -- wave upon wave of viscous rhetoric coursing into the gender trough.

Don't we have better things to do than evaluate each other's feminist pedigrees? It isn't as if we've dealt with all the important stuff and can now retire to a life of neurotic rationalizing and self-conscious crowing. There are issues enough to go around: Drug conspiracy law and mandatory sentencing rules are mired in sexism; welfare law stubbornly rejects the needs of women and the vulnerability of children. The absence of high-quality subsidized child care, inequities in the workplace, the specter of harassment in school: Where is a feminist when you need one? On a beach somewhere, apparently, dedicated to the rather eccentric task of separating Star-Belly Sneetches from Plain-Belly Sneetches.

It would be naive to suggest that we should all just get along or that the eggheads among us should ignore the delicious aspect of a nitpicking political debate about wedding rings and surnames. But I'm finding the volume on discussions of modesty, mascara and the implications of marriage to be up a little high, beyond ear-splitting to hair-splitting. One envisions, as these debates rage in page after page of earnest manifesti, a culmination of "Are you now or have you ever been?" hearings headed by Wendy Shalit and Jaclyn Geller. Pink-baiting, we'll call it. Guilty parties will not be blackballed, but declawed.

I vote for cafeteria-style feminism with a hint of mystery and romance. We can cruise the smorgy (graciously thanking the elderly chefs) and pick out the philosophical morsels we crave, leaving the hard-to-swallow for other palates. And then, and this is important, we dab the corners of our sweet lips with a serviette and leave. Sated. Together. We are smug and kind, superior and understanding. We agree on the important stuff, like human rights, and the rest is left to be divulged during good-humored drinking bouts or while holding hands across the Lazi-Boys during chemo.

The paternalistic sanctimony of defying women to marry for feminist reasons suggests that we poor lasses must be protected from our helpless selves. The pathetic weaseling of feminists who feel they must offer excuses for marriage suggests that the paternalist feminists might be right. The rest of us can wave lace hankies from the windows of the old school, abandoning goofy judgmentalism for power, choice and politesse.

Jennifer Foote Sweeney is the editor of Salon's Life section.

The Virginity Hoax

Whomp, there it is: a 63-page report on teen sex and virginity derived from the survey of nearly 100,000 adolescents at 145 schools by a handful of researchers funded with money from 19 federal agencies. Talk about tasty media chum. Toss out words like "sexual behavior of teenagers," "virginity" and "highly effective" and the parents of adolescents claw their way to newsstand and keyboard in a panicky search for enlightenment, looking, always, for relief from the kind of angst they heaped on their own elders just long enough ago not to remember.

So what did they -- we -- learn from the study of "virginity pledges" by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development?

Nothing new -- all of it depressing. And the stuff that wasn't there, the data between the lines? So infuriating, so heartbreaking, that it makes me want to cry.

Not that the titles, subtitles, conclusions and comments by interested parties in this report won't flirt with the vulnerable sensibilities of parents in denial and their poor, innocent children. The big news, the juicy part of the recently released study, was very high-concept. The virginity pledge movement, brainchild of the Southern Baptist Church and favorite fad of teen mags ("Virginity is hot," said Young and Modern magazine in an issue featuring the 100 secrets of Leonardo DiCaprio), has been a resounding success, according to the study's chief researchers. This in an introduction that opens with a line from the Madonna song "Like a Virgin." Pledgers, announces the study, postpone first-time sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months longer than non-pledgers.

This is heavenly news for Jimmy Hester, coordinator of the True Love Waits campaign. He told the New York Times last week that the report was great news since it proves that pledges do make a difference. On first reading -- if it is a quick skim with frequent interruptions -- there is a hint of the positive for those who might disagree with Hester about sex out of wedlock. "Surely," even the most liberal parents will mutter, "it is best if a teenager postpones sex for as long as possible, even if true love doesn't wait for the sanctity of marriage."

Ah, but this wishful thinking must die -- gruesomely -- in a hail of caveats, I'm afraid, once the report is fully digested.

The first, elephant-in-the-corner type caveat concerns why teenagers take, or don't take, the virginity pledge. According to the report, kids will only pledge to stay virgins until marriage if it is "cool," which usually means that other kids are taking the pledge. But kids won't take the pledge if so many other kids are pledging virginity that it is "uncool." Say the researchers: "The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, like other identity movements, the pledge identity is relatively fragile and meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially non-normative." My favorite description of this conundrum? "The pledge effect is largely contextual."

In other words, a virginity pledge, like glitter powder and Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts, is based on the painfully self-conscious surrender of self and not, as Hester wants to believe, on the early adoption of family values. It ceases to be attractive when Leo expresses a preference for sex or when virginity is no longer "hot" or so "hot" that it becomes "uncool."

(Nothing is said in the study about the troubling possibility that the respondents to the survey, wishing, as always, to be "cool," might have lied on their questionnaires about making the pledge or breaking the pledge or anything else, for that matter, in order to follow the non-normative rules of the day.)

The average delay incurred by the virginity pledge, reports the study, tends to be about 18 months -- marriage appears not to be a factor. And then there's the part about how the pledge works best among 15- to 17-year-olds (not so well among 18-year-olds) and that it helps if the pledger is religious, of Asian ancestry, in a romantic relationship or less advanced in pubertal development. (Pause here for the adolescent -- pledger or non -- to utter, "Duh.")

And finally -- whoops! -- when pledgers break their pledges they have a tendency to have unsafe sex. Researchers suggest that since the pledgers promised not to have sex, when they finally do, they haven't done much planning and are unlikely to use contraception. (Another favorite footnote here: "That pledgers who have sex are likely to be contraceptively unprepared is to be expected, for it is hard to imagine how one could both pledge to be a virgin until marriage and carry a condom while unmarried.")

The results so far: A very young kid who wants very much to be cool will promise to stay a virgin until marriage as long as it is cool and may postpone sexual intercourse for about 18 months; but when she decides it isn't cool to keep the pledge she is more likely than the uncool non-pledgers to get pregnant and/or a sexually-transmitted disease.

But, there's more.

Researchers only asked their subjects about vaginal intercourse. They did not ask about oral or anal sex, which recent studies indicate are reported at high rates among teenagers, more and more of whom believe that oral and anal sex can be indulged in without relinquishing one's virginity. In fact, a recent study by the Urban Institute, also funded by the federal government, focused on the sexual practices of 15- to 19-year-old boys and found that two-thirds of the more than 3,000 boys interviewed had experience with oral sex, anal intercourse or masturbation by a female. The first two behaviors put the participants at risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases, though few of the respondents were aware of that. Most of those interviewed said they did not consider their activities to constitute "sex," -- in fact, many felt oral sex qualified as abstinent behavior.

So, the pledgers who, according to the study, jealously guarded their "virginity" for an average of 18 months longer than non-pledgers could well have been having sex of another kind -- every other kind -- for years before "breaking" their pledge.

Didn't we cover this? Didn't we denounce this? Wasn't Bill Clinton guilty of sexual relations with "that woman" even though he personally believed that he was dutifully maintaining his own virginity pledge?

How, oh how, can it be morally acceptable to indulge in sex that involves complicating intimacy, not to mention sexually transmitted diseases, as long as one is "intact" on the wedding night? And why, oh why, would a federal agency conduct a study in such a way as to blindly honor a duplicitous and deeply sexist definition of virginity?

But that, alas, is not the worst of it. That is not the part that makes me want to cry.

The part that I hate most in this study is the unwritten part, the part that pompously assumes that teenagers are not entitled to intimacy, to pleasure, to education or to a sense of self. The part that is dangerous and sad implies that a "virginity pledge" is "effective" in dealing with teen pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases and participation in other "risk" activities like smoking, drinking and substance abuse but fails to acknowledge the role of the pledge movement in promoting oral and anal sex among teenagers while denying them any education about either. The part that is sneaky and amazing perpetuates the concept of "technical virginity," a state that is likely to be just as confusing and burdensome for a 16-year-old as sexual intercourse, if not more so given its uncomfortable and much-talked-about proximity to untruth.

What would be ineffective about a pledge to have safe sex motivated by what feels like love or desire? What could be wrong about acknowledging a teenager's emotional intelligence and need for intimacy? Would it hurt to bestow some respect and sex education on people who are engaging in sex, regardless of what they write on an invasive questionnaire designed to measure their moral rectitude? How could researchers who ostensibly care about adolescents insist that they are incapable of informed decisions? How could they endorse the idea that love and intimacy should be postponed -- not until an unspecific age of maturity has been reached but until marriage, regardless of when it happens?

I agree with the authors of this report when they suggest that teenagers should not engage in unwanted sexual activity. Nobody should engage in unwanted sexual activity. What a shame, though, given the funding and access that these academics enjoy, that they don't expose the "virginity pledge" for what it is: a sexist, guilt-driven campaign of terror that fosters frightened conformity in adolescents, as well as high-risk sexual behavior and dishonesty.


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