Virgins and whores

I swear I didn’t plan my “pitfalls of writing women” series so I would end up making this post in the Christmas season. But since that’s how it’s fallen out . . . let’s talk about virgins and whores.

On the one hand, you have the Madonna, the Virgin Mary, the ideal of womanly goodness. Just look at the words we use to talk about virginity: innocence, purity, or old-fashioned “honesty.” Even now, in the aftermath of free love, our culture still hasn’t let go of the idea that this is where virtue resides; if not in total abstention from (and ignorance of) sexuality, then safely channeled into marital fidelity.

Don’t believe me? Look at the alternative. One of the best-known tropes of horror movies has been memorably dubbed “We’ve Seen Your Breasts; Now You Must Die.” The slut kicks the bucket, while the “good” (i.e. virginal) girl lives on. And even in these enlightened times, it’s the easiest insult to fling at a woman, whether she’s actually promiscuous or not. If she wears revealing clothing, if she talks about sex, she gets tarred with the brush of whoredom. And while our culture has a certain problematic celebration of the slut — just go to a frat party to see — in reality, she isn’t valued. That’s reserved for the virgin.

There’s two things to note here. First, this is a double standard; when’s the last time you heard a guy insulted by being called a stud? And second, it isn’t a spectrum, not for women. It’s not “a little from Column A, a little from Column B.” It’s either/or.

And it’s an unstable either/or, to boot. Purity is always endangered. It cannot survive blemish. Which is why, as many women have discovered to their peril, one step across the line — whether the step is real or just imagined by the beholder — threatens to produce freefall, from virgin to whore in one swift move. A girl cheats on her boyfriend with another guy, or just kisses him, or maybe she isn’t dating anybody at all but the “boyfriend” had staked a claim on her in his own mind, and now she’s violated that claim by being interested in somebody else: instant slut. The problem isn’t him, it’s her. Pushed to extremes, this leads to the logic that if she’s putting out for everybody else, he deserves his share. A woman is either the protected property of one man (her father or her husband), or she’s fair game for all.

It rarely shows up this brazenly in fiction, at least not in ways we’re meant to sympathize with. But believe me when I say this complex is there, an ugly little current pushing female characters toward one pole or the other. Especially once you start to notice the linkage between sexuality and evil, which goes way beyond “the villainness is the one dressed like a hooker.” A woman who crosses the one social boundary is presumed to have crossed all others, too. I saw an incredibly blatant version of this in the Jacobean play The Changeling, where the main female character (I hesitate to call her a heroine) detests the man she’s going to be forced to marry, and therefore has him murdered. She also hates the guy she manipulates into carrying out the murder — but next thing you know, she’s not just in bed with him but apparently in love.

A man can be a murderer and it will have no bearing on his sexual behavior. For a woman, it’s all or nothing: all virtue, or all evil, because one evil inevitably leads to the others.

So this is the pitfall, in three parts: the dichotomy, its linkage with virtue/evil, and the inequality of these standards as applied across the gender divide. It’s also a pointer toward a larger topic — one I’m trying to figure out how to break up into coherent blog posts for upcoming months — which is the general way in which female characters are reduced to their bodies and their sexuality. But in the meantime, if you’re concerned about your own writing or the stories you read, examine them for virgins and whores. Are the bad women sexual, and the good women pure? Is this issue used as fodder for insults, denigration, shaming, or attack? Even if you’re writing in a society (real or invented) where women’s sexuality is policed, there’s a difference between the characters treating it as a flaw, and the author doing the same.

And this issue matters.

It isn’t black and white. Chastity and promiscuity are choices that can have consequences, but one is not inevitably positive and the other inevitably negative.

Unless we make it so. Which is not a world I want to see.

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  1. 1. Skip

    This is not a justification of these characterizations today, but there is a biological basis for the double standard. Evolutionary forces are going to push males to try and spread their genetic material far and wide, and other males are going to see that as success. On the other hand those same evolutionary forces are going to push women to be very selective, as they can breed much less often, and generally are responsible for the resulting offspring.

    It really bugs me when people complain about this without recognizing that it comes from millions of years of evolutionary pressure.

  2. 2. mioche

    I’ve really appreciated this series. The pitfalls you’ve written about have killed my enjoyment for many books in the past, and sadly probably will continue to do so in the future, but these posts have always been interesting to read.

  3. 3. Megs

    Skip, while I agree that there is a biological component, not everyone believes that there are millions of years of evolutionary pressure, since science has definitely not validated millions of years of human existence. It’s cultural, but it’s not every culture.

  4. 4. Megs

    And I also agree, Marie, that I dislike when books boil a woman’s worth, virtue, etc. down to just her sexual nature. There’s a whole lot more to a woman than that.

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    I don’t know how relevant this is in a larger context. The current entertainment target-demographic, (all younger than me) does not register these tropes/clichés/issues. I think the under 30 audience is largely puzzled by our views of morality, chauvinism, and/or subjugation. I won’t even get into the icky messages inherent to a certain vampire series that is making oodles of money in print and film off a HUGELY female audience. Nor shall I tackle the chicken vs. egg argument.

    The bottom line is, what was once draconian male attempts at denigration and ultimately control over the threat of female sexuality has devolved into simple pandering to the market. A market that is driven by women as much as by men. Yeah, the gate-keepers still want a stereo-type-female to latch onto; I just don’t think it’s Barbara Billingsley as often as it is Angelina Jolie. In fact, I think more often than not, if the woman in the book, movie, or TV show does not have sex-appeal, she is not valued at all. Which turns the coin from ‘Virgins and Whores,’ to ‘Whores up, Virgins down.’

    Don’t even get me started on the increasing sexualization of pre-adult characters. That one sends my objectivity right out the window and my temper through the roof.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Skip — actually, that evolutionary biological argument has (as I understand it) been increasingly discredited in recent years. There are also fundamental pressures on men that encourage commitment to a partner, and similar pressures on women to acquire a diversity of genetic material.

    Mioche — glad you’re enjoying them!

    Megs — there’s a lot more to say about that boiling down; I’m just not sure how I’m going to organize it into individual posts . . . .

    Elias — I’m actually in the under-30 audience, if just barely. You’re absolutely right about the societal requirement that women (in media particularly) must have sex appeal; on the other hand, slut-shaming is alive and well in the younger generations, too. Take a look at the link toward the end of my post for an example. It isn’t just the parents, and it isn’t just the men, either. I can’t speak for other countries, but in the United States, we still have a hugely conflicted view of female sexuality.

  7. 7. Brian Dolton

    Ah, and here I am again, since I’m a male who mostly writes female main characters (sometimes third and sometimes first person). And sex is a VERY difficult thing to write about. Not just sex scenes themselves, but sexuality, attractoin, and even the cultural attitudes to sex in pseudo-historical societies. Many historical societies were far more sexist than our current one and it’s sometimes difficult trying to deal witht that – on the one hand, I don’t want to airbrush it out of societies that I am basing on real historical equivalents, on the other if I’m writing about female characters I have to allow them a certain latitude of operation, in areas that they “traditionally” might not have had.

    The character I have the greatest difficulty with is one who is, quite literally, a whore. She’s the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid, by a fairly wealthy man who refused to acknowledge her and kicked the maid out, and she basically had no realistic social option but to lapse into either beggary or whoredom. Now I don’t know if I can eaisly get away with a main character in a novel who starts out as a whore, even if she moves on from that and much of the subtext of her story is about “reclaiming” her own identity, including her sexual identity. I also have some trouble in that I found, as I was plotting out her story, she kept ending up (well, “kept” is a slight exaggeration, but three times in three books) being threatened with either sexual abuse or enforced servitude. I’m still ambivalent about these plot elements. On the one hand, in the Renaissance-era societies I am depicting, it seems entirely plausible that sex would be used as a “weapon” against a woman trying to rise “above her station”. On the other hand, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea, as well as being aware that it’s such a cliche.

    On the other hand, I also have a “virgin” MC in a series of stories, who has some fairly significant and serious hang-ups about sex, and while writing her “origin” I found it happening again – that, as a woman “out of place” and in a man’s world, she was subjected to the threat of rape (her hang-ups do not directly or consciously relate to this, she more has a cleanliness OCD thing going and really does object to the whole sweaty/messy idea of sex).

    Half the time I honestly find it so difficulttrying to think my way through the minefield of sexual politics that I end up with virtually asexual characters. But that isn’t really anything more than a cop-out either. I mean, in short stories with a single plot and theme there’s rarely room for sexual issues and that’s fine, but in novel-length works it’s hardly realistic to spend months or years inside the head of a character and sex not to come up at some point…

    Writing is tough.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    Oh, I agree. As a nation we are horribly conflicted. We do not have a sexual dialogue. We are at once, sexual repressed and the world leader in porn production. Above it all is the imparative that if you call foul, you’ll be tagged as judgmental or against freedom of expression or speech.

    I work in the family courts and see the business-end of moral breakdown that is prevalent in our youth-culture. I’m not talking Christian fundamentalist morals here. I’m talking -if you respect yourself and your body you don’t, X Y or Z- morals. I saw the same thing when I was teaching.

    Writers should wrestle with/avoid the heavy-hand approach. ‘You showed your naughties, now you have to die,’ is extreme moralizing to the lowest common denominator. Instead, let’s endeavor to write as close to the truth as we can, based on our own experiences. That serves as a better conveyance to better ideas.

    In my experience, for every woman willing to uncross her legs, lower her neck line, or bat her eyes to achieve her objective there is a woman who does the same for attention/affection or because she thinks it is what is expected of her. Where, oh where would a woman ever get that idea? Yes, there are healthy, happy, well adjusted women that act upon their own desires, impulses, and motivations, but like every other action, there is a reaction. Often there is also a consequence that reverberates.

    I don’t claim/write that being a virgin means a happily-ever-after. But what is real from my experience is stripers don’t have happy endings; their life choices don’t allow for it. Teens who are sexually active usually don’t make the best life choices either and every once in a while they have to pay a disporportionate cost for the decisions they make. It’s not pretty but the truth seldom is.

    I’m all for reading and writing as a counter to the reality we are forced to live in. But if we’re ever to truly escape the tired set-pieces that prevail then we have to infuse our truths, good, bad, and inconvenient.

    Thanks for the dialogue on this topic Ms. Brennan and for not beating my brains out. My initial comment was very short sighted. In retrospect, I see, or should say, I can only see your very fine (good, not small) points as I stand on the shoulders of better thinkers than myself.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Dolton, your post hit before my response to Ms. Brennan. Please do remember us here, stuck in the mud, should you come up with road map out. After multiple short and one long work, I’ve only just written a story with any (intended) sexual tension and it really wracked my little brain. My protagonist is a thief and at the start of the story his lady of interest is morally… ‘iffy.’

    I introduce another interest who is a no-nonsense clinician. I’ve had fits reconciling a budding relationship ‘tween the two. The sexual dynamic is, whew, difficult to say the least.

  10. 10. Skip

    Sure that argument has become increasingly “discredited”. There are separate pressures at work there – to produce the desired politically correct result. Of course, to do that they have to ignore basically all of human history and most of the evidence from the animal kingdom, but at least they get the desired result.

    The most common primate social group in the wild is analogous to the clan. Run by the alpha male and alpha female, with most of the mating done by the alpha male, and new genetic material acquired by younger members of the clan being run off or leaving to go join a different clan and move up in the ranks there. That’s where we came from, and anyone who looks with open eyes will see residues left over from this.

    This has effects on the way that female characters get written into novels. I’m guessing you don’t like those effects, but that doesn’t make them not exist.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Brian — that’s where it becomes important to distinguish between what the characters think and what the author thinks. I don’t mind reading about societies where this is a problem; I do mind reading stories where the author treats it as a problem, too.

    Elias — what I’m arguing is the need to decouple things that may not be related. You say, “Teens who are sexually active usually don’t make the best life choices either” — which may be true, but then the next question is, what’s the correlation there? Is being sexually active a consequence of bad judgment, a cause of it, or what? How about the sexually active teens who do make good life choices? They exist; they just don’t make the news. So instead of treating “sexual activity” as an example of “bad judgment,” we’d be better off talking about how to do it with good judgment.

    Skip — I presume you’re not an evolutionary biologist or psychologist yourself. In which case, I recommend you don’t dismiss the professional work of experts in that field as driven by political correctness. It doesn’t make you look very good. I can tell you right now, based on my experience assistant-teaching a class on primate evolution and behavior, that the pattern you describe isn’t nearly as simple as you think. And looking to them as justification for tarring sexually-active female characters (or women) as bad won’t get you very far.

  12. 12. Merc

    Thanks for this article, Marie. :) Excellent points.

    This made me think about how I handle it in my work, and though I don’t have as many female characters, there is a range–but it seems predominantly, they are sexually active and not whores (and not “evil”). Just people, like the males, who make their own choices and have tastes and preferences, etc. They are PEOPLE, not simply there as sex objects or something for the guys to obsess over (the guys that like girls, anyway *grin*).

    Anyway, I’m enjoying the discussion and the series. I hope to see more.

  13. 13. Adele

    Sorry Skip, have to jump in on the evolution issue. It is now believed that women would have all their children by different partners within a tribe in order to ensure that it was in everyone’s interests to see all the children survive. Female promiscuity was normal and desirable behaviour. The idea of monogomy came from the living arrangements (in pairs) rather than the sexual ones. It’s a complex arrangment but means that it really does take a village to raise a child and elder males would be unlikely to attack any of the boys as they got older as they might be their own children. Evoltionary psychology/biology is a fascinating field and the only part of my degree that still interests me.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    Merc — “people rather than sex objects” is exactly the way to go. Glad these posts are useful to you!

    Adele — and this is why I love the internets. Because you never know when someone with more background than I have in evolutionary bio/psych might just wander by and offer their expertise. :-)

  15. 15. heteromeles

    Great post. I’d like to bring up a different kind of biology, that has nothing to do with “what primates do” (OT rant: why can’t we talk about lemurs or langurs, BTW, where the females are dominant, or gibbons, where they’re more pair-bonded than humans, or bonobos, where they have more same-sex encounters than heterosex). Anyway…

    Four words:
    –maternal and perinatal mortality. This is a big problem in cultures without access to good medical care. Right now, the highest in the world comes from Sierra Leone, which is running a 2% maternal mortality rate.

    One thing rarely addressed in fiction are the traumas surrounding childbirth. Yes, it’s less dangerous than warfare, but I can’t help wondering how that colors a woman’s view of sex. Sex can be very dangerous: it can kill you and/or your baby. If you are supporting other young children, it can kill them too if they are neglected after you die.

    While we often look at virginity as a masculine construct, I’d suggest, very gently, that some observant women figured out the odds, and decided that remaining virginal was a perfectly reasonable life choice.

    I can’t remember the source, but there was a woman author 100-200 years ago who was afraid that, if she got pregnant after she was 40, she would die, and that complicated her relationship with her husband. She was right, too. She did not survive her last pregnancy at 42.

    We won’t even touch what a scourge syphilis was before antibiotics were available, but there’s also the point that syphilis does cause mental deterioration in its end stages, so the link between sex and bad behavior is not always a social construct (and yes, this applies to men as well :) ).

    Yes, women suffer from the after-effects of sex more than men do. Aside from STDs and intercourse-induced heart attacks and strokes, sex doesn’t kill men. Women have the additional risks associated with pregnancy and child-rearing, and I suspect that helps explain why they also bear the brunt of sexual stereotypes more than men do.

    Now, note, I’m not talking about men’s prejudices here. Marie did a better job of that than I can, and as a man, I doubt I have as clear-eyed a view in any case. I’m simply pointing out that women have good reasons to be afraid of sex in certain situations, especially those encountered in your standard medievaloid fantasy.

    I’m also not saying that health issues should allow people to use the virgin/whore dichotomy uncritically. Rather, I’m saying the reverse, at least for sff worlds: if you want to have free love and sexual/gender equality, it’s a good idea to make sure that there are good reproductive health services and good birth control. If you don’t want to worry about it, just make sure that your fairy godmother is a damn good midwife and herbalist.

  16. 16. Andrew A. A.

    Animal nature and therefore sexuality has been documented to spread to all different types of family organizations — this includes difference in primates:

    Bonobos( free love) and chimpanzees(more dominance) both deal with sexuality differently and also trends seem to vary among family groups. Gorilla’s and Orangantangs are totally different.

    Lot of cultural/sexual/family differences is based on set and setting; writing or entertainment words for environment. If there’s a food source, if there’s need for protection, hot, cold, closed in communities and travelling communities.

    Human Cultures represent this too in sexuality. There are tribal cultures that have open sexual relations, tabooed relations, women dominance and male dominance. Simply a puritan culture base (Like the US) is not gonna have the same belief structure as an egalitarian society. A Medieval European based world is not gonna be the same as an Inca based world, no matter if the time period is the same or not. Question is why.

    I believe we can’t ignore the Archetypes that make up our basic tropes, not only because they do seem to transcend cultures but they are an integral part of all of us. But the most exciting part of writing is finding the outer paths of said archetypes and making them work in the set and setting of our stories. That’s our variations and that’s our excuses to write what we write.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    heteromeles — bonobos kind of detonate any attempt to say our sexual mores are derived from the wild, since they’re our closest genetic relatives, and they’ll nail anything that moves — opposite sex, same sex, underage, family member, they don’t really care. :-) (Lemurs and langurs get far enough afield in the primate tree that it’s harder to argue for their relevance.)

    You’re right that there are logistical strictures that have to be dealt with when talking about sexual behavior. Even without magic, though, there are some unexpectedly sophisticated (non-advanced) means of birth control and abortion out there. And this really stops being an excuse for authors writing in a real-world modern-day setting.

    Andrew — I like it when fantasy grapples with archetypes, problematizing them or imagining new ones. Not so much when fantasy uses archetypes uncritically, without regard for their real-life consequences.

  18. 18. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, I’m not drawing my opinion of bad decisions on stories that make the news but from my experiences as in the lab, classroom, and court room. While you may argue to decouple these disparate issues, I would counter, again, with context.

    Sex does not cause teens to make bad decisions. Bad decisions are part of what being a teen is about. But pre-adult sex is a bad decision based on an inability to shoulder potential consequences. Prudish, I’m sure, but as HIV/AIDS savages whole communities, social services are cut to the bone, and some body has to pick up the check, we can no longer afford pretty advocations for the devil.

    Some teens are sexually responsible, some teens are gun-responsible, and other teens are car-responsible. I hunted by my self at 13. I owned a Triumph at 15 and a Pontiac at 17. But if I had shot a human, I could not have covered the cost of that mistake. If I had hit/wrecked/killed some one, I could not have covered the cost of that either. My parents should have been a little more prudish in the face of adolescent impulses.

    Conversely, when a 18 year old mother tells me I don’t know how hard it is for her to give up school, or a 16 year old father and jock tells me I don’t know what it’s like to give up on a dream, to work and support a child, I have to honestly say, no I don’t. I don’t tell them that I made better choices. I just thank God that I did make different choices.

    So I can’t talk about how to take those risks with good judgement when taking the risk in the first place strikes me as a bad judgment. I’ve filed far too many motions to remove far too many infants and toddlers from neglectful, harmful, and/or abusive homes. I’ve seen too many students drop out, too many grandmothers raising babies because mom is in end-stage AIDS or HepC and dad is back in prison or the other way around.

    Again, I say that heavy handed moralizing in ficiton is not the answer. I agree that Virgin or Whore is overly simplistic and cliched. But a defense against slut-bashing writ-large expanded to ‘don’t you dare point fingers,’ is silly, bordering on irresponsible.

  19. 19. Steel

    Sheesh – this must be a so totally cultural thing! I’m European, and this tells me just NOTHING. It doesn’t even vaguely relate.

    So why write this out as if that applied to the rest of the planet?

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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