‘Just because you lost your virginity doesn’t mean you can go around throwing your cat at everybody!’ Emma Stone’s Olive Penderghast, the self-proclaimed ‘slutty’ version of Hester Prynne, spends the entirety of Easy A enduring the consequences of openly ‘losing her virginity’, or at least pretending to, at an all-American high. That being said, the V word sometimes goes unspoken. The Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides instead suffer in silence, the result of wildly protective Christian parents and the stifling atmosphere in a sweltering Michigan summer, as they are forcibly kept from the neighbourhood boys. But it gets worse. Bella Swan sits painfully through the Twilight franchise, even going as far as agreeing to a wedding, before her sparkling, undead boyfriend agrees to have sex with her.
The reality for male film and sitcom characters, from Mad Men’s infamous Don Draper to the entire male cast of American Pie, is a completely different ball game. Be it their perfectly executed playboy image or 7 seasons of binge-worthy promiscuity, these men are celebrated for any sexual deed. With the recent release of Oscar-nominated ‘Ladybird’, in which the female protagonist is promised a ‘lifetime of un-special sex’, it is hard to fathom how such an apparent discrepancy has arisen between the ‘deflowering’ of men and women in popular arts and culture. How do we reconcile issues of faith and feminism in response to virginity’s portrayal in film?
Religious sexual repression is often associated with the role of the pious virgin, the character in film that waits until marriage to consummate his or her relationship. More often than not, this role is assumed by a timid female, who spends the majority of her screen-time dodging smooth-talkers and jocks until she finds a man ‘worthy’ of taking her virginity. Should she choose to see it through, the deed often follows a candle-lit meal or grand romantic gesture, with no condom-related dilemma or the awkward groping of fledging lovers. Her first sexual experience is ‘oh-so-worth-the-wait!’, with both parties somehow emerging fresh and totally satisfied. Less popular is the pious male; nine times out of ten, the virgin boy jumps at any opportunity to have sex, his social status only increasing with the number of girls he sleeps with.
The debate surrounding this issue is nuanced, as the biological implications of sex, especially when ending in a potentially unwanted pregnancy (i.e. Juno), are often more serious for women. It is no wonder that caution is often advised. STDs are rampant, and it’s true that they increase in likelihood as your number of sexual partners rises. Nonetheless, while a woman can be celebrated for embracing her sexuality, there will still be parties that unconsciously associate her with the role of the ‘harlot’. It seems that even the most liberal-minded, forward-thinking mothers engender their daughters with a sense of sexual-responsibility, unknowingly coveting the purity associated with the untainted image of the virgin. Fathers pat their sons on the back after they successfully pursue the girl-next-door; why does the burden of virginity still pervade every aspect of the young female’s life? We can be both agnostic and feminist, but we continuously find female promiscuity hard to handle without viewing it from a moralistic stance.
When discussing this prejudice and gender-imbalance with a friend, they summed it up perfectly with the quip, ‘a key that opens many locks is a master-key, but a lock opened by many keys is a terrible lock’. The ‘slut-shaming’ culture should, ideally, be eradicated by now, but the chase of the chaste is a fantasy that appeals to the egos of that minority group who still fetishise the ‘precious’ virgin status, viewing themselves as irresistible in light of their ‘conquest’.
Consequently, to be a devout feminist and woman of ‘faith’, finding the balance is almost impossible. With such direct contradictions, especially prevalent in the bildungsroman genre, it can be hard to find the line between doing what you want and retaining the principles promoted by your religion of choice. When Pope John Paul II commented on new wave feminism in 1988, he implored women to ‘reject the temptation of imitating models of male domination’ and to ‘affirm the true genius of women’, ‘overcoming all discrimination, violence and exploitation’. And yet, as he promoted the feminist cause, he still called us to ‘bear witness to the meaning of genuine love’ and worse, that ‘gift of self’ which is present in a ‘special way in the relationship of husband and wife’.
For a society that prides itself on separating Church and state, and religion from overall society and rational thinking, this doctrine seemingly remains imperative for our female population. Women can become heads of state, astronauts or whatever else they wish, but popular culture still teaches us to put our virginity on a moralistic pedestal, much of which stems from religious practices condemned as ‘outdated’ and ‘backward’. 1 Corinthians 6:18 tells us to ‘Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body…’ it seems we’re fleeing from religion, but can’t quite move past the heteronormative concept that, no matter what, it’s different for girls [Guardian].
This contributor is writing under a pseudonym. Find out why The Broad offers this here.