“Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”
The first time I heard that little gem was in 6th grade Sunday school, watching a video on the Ten Commandments that had high school kids applying the commandments to their lives. Some girl, I guess talking about the adultery commandment, mentioned that her mom told her that or something. I’ve always had a feminist instinct, even though I wasn’t one until not quite a year ago, but I don’t have any recollection of this quote raising a red flag for me, although it obviously did something in my head because I still remember hearing it.
I bought the abstinence stuff completely. Well, not completely; I bought what they told me, but since they only said sex was wrong before marriage, I really thought everything else was ok. (That’s whatcha get for privileging penile-vaginal, Church.) Then I decided everything except kissing was wrong, and then I became a feminist and completely changed my mind. I thought about that proverb, and all the sudden I realized how incredibly offensive it was.
First of all, I’m not a cow. I know that it’s supposed to be metaphorical, they’re not saying I look like a cow or anything, but it does compare me to something that people own (should people own animals? …something to think about), something less than human, rather than an equal partner in a relationship.
But moreover, it says that marriage is an exchange of goods that works thusly: woman has sex, man has money. Woman gives man sex in exchange for financial support.
(Can we please accept that sex is not something women have and men don’t have? It’s an action between people. Treating sex as something that women actually own and men don’t is sooooo dangerous. Not to mention, it opens you up to jokes like “I lost my virginity. I swear I left it right here but now I just can’t find it anywhere!”)
This proverb is not describing a relationship. It’s describing prostitution. Ironic, ain’t it, since the Church is not too fond of prostitution (although if you check my Bible page, you’ll find what the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures are not fond of is prostitutes; johns are ok and pimps are unacknowledged, I don’t know if they were part of the system then or what). If you want to tell a sex worker that johns won’t pay her for sex if she gives them sex for free, still referring to johns and not to men she sees romantically, I see nothing wrong with that except for the fact that you’ll probably insult her intelligence, as that is painfully obvious (unless she gives free samples?). But if you want to tell me that all I have to offer a guy is sex, that he would consider marriage a burden, and that I need to bribe him to marry me by withholding sex until he does, call me crazy, but I’m gonna have a problem with that. It’s offensive to me, the cow in the situation, and it’s offensive to guys, by stereotyping them all as incapable of loving a woman and generally assholey.
I know someone out there will get a really pained look on their face and tell me just for my own good that I’m fooling myself if I think any man would ever really care about me for more than sex, any man would ever really want to be monogamous, any man would ever find marriage to be something other than a burden that he would only put up with for the sake of sex.
And don’t I know that if people live together first and then try to get married, their marriage is totally doomed, which just proves you have to make him wait for marriage to have sex? (via Ezra Klein)
And don’t I know that women want marriage and kids more than men do and men want sex more than women do, so it’s inevitable that I’ll have to trade sex for marriage instead of us both wanting both (or both wanting sex and both not wanting marriage)? (I don’t have a link for this, but a lot of women do happen to be big fans of sex.)
Back to me: why is marriage considered the goal, the right way? Aside from religion, I mean. If you don’t have to get married in order to have sex, and if people can actually love each other and want to be monogamous without being coerced or bribed and therefore don’t have to get married in order to be committed, then…what’s the problem? Of course, there are a lot of legal and social benefits, so we still have to allow everyone to get married without being blatantly prejudiced for no good reason except our religion which isn’t supposed to dictate our laws…
Some people don’t believe women are cows, they believe men are like dogs. According to them, it’s not that marriage is a transaction, just that men have a short attention span and like the chase more than they like women and we have to 1) let them be the pursuer and 2) never let on too much that we like them and 3) not have sex too soon (better yet, only as a reward for doing something we want them to do, like a doggy treat, to train them), or else they’ll get bored with us. These people need to look around. Even anecdotal evidence will show you that sometimes women pursue and it works, that playing hard to get is often not healthy for a relationship, and that having sex is not death to a relationship (can’t believe I just had to say that). Yeah, there are guys out there who are purely dating for their ego and just want a challenge, the challenge being getting sex, and who will leave after they get it, but you don’t have to play their game because not all guys are such assholes. (Why would you want to keep one of those guys around anyway?) And I would like to remind you that making the man The Initiator and the woman The Gatekeeper is a bad idea, as are any rigid gender roles; no matter how nice they seem at first (chivalry, for example), they’ll always be used to oppress women (and to hurt men in some way) because oppressors use whatever they can to oppress.
But some women buy into these arguments, probably out of desperation to find the magical answer to how to catch a man, probably because they’re convinced that their value as a person or possibility of happiness depends on it. Others, like the leader of True Love Revolution, just see the ridiculous double standards around (I do too) and instead of saying, like Jessica at Feministing, that the double-standard itself is the problem, they decide to safely place themselves in the virgin category of the virgin/whore dichotomy. I have to echo Kate in calling that “decidedly not revolutionary.” These people think they’re being bold and strong by going against the hookup culture, and I hear ’em, I felt the same way. It can be hard to abstain from sex when people who do that get called prudes or teases or are assumed to just not be able to get laid or are just seen as weird and uncool and no fun. (Am I saying there’s no pressure on women to be virgins? No, I’m saying there’s pressure both ways. It’s actually not uncommon for women to be told to do two mutually exclusive things.) Stand up for yourself and your decision, I’ll support that. But trying to pitch the idea that because the double standard means women who have sex are treated badly, women should accept that their options are limited and safely choose to be a virgin, as feminism or anything revolutionary is delusional. That’s ok, you don’t have to choose the feminist route all the time, sometimes you just want to protect yourself, but for the love of vibrators, don’t pretend it’s feminist and DON’T tell other people they’re wrong for behaving otherwise. Now, a feminist could say another thing I see in this article – that she demands men respect her and finds premarital sex disrespectful of her. But that’s a feminist I would want to distance myself from. We’re still trying to get over the het sex = rape thing. It’s not fair to men to say that they will without a doubt disrespect you if you have premarital sex with them. Please, avoid the douchebags that make all of the arguments here true. I know they exist, but you don’t have to date them. Edit: But if you do date them, it’s still totally their fault that they’re douchebags.
Also, being ashamed of your body and your sexuality and being freaked out by others’ sexuality is NOT FEMINIST. You’re not a bad person if you feel that way, but for crying out loud, don’t try to win over converts to that mindset. There’s nothing virtuous about rejecting a natural part of you. And anyway, this woman’s reactions to oral sex and especially to masturbation (where her abstinence arguments don’t apply, and yet even the guy said he had to quit masturbating) imply that the reasoning behind this movement goes deeper than the arguments they gave.
Oh, then there’s the oxytocin argument. I totally used this, in a less scientific way. You bond when you have sex, why set yourself up for hurt by making a bond you’ll probably break? Imagine how hard I slapped my forehead when someone pointed out that virgins get broken hearts too (and obviously, not all sexually active people do). In fact, I was one of them. The guy I was with while I thought everything except intercourse was ok? Healthy breakup. The guy I was with while I thought only kissing was ok? 6 month nightmare post-breakup. Physical intimacy was NOT the deciding factor.
There is such a thing as feminist abstinence – you could say “I don’t want to have sex because I’m not ready/I don’t want to have pregnancy scares/I just don’t feel like it, dammit and you better respect that and not pressure me to have sex!” And I would support you 100%. You could even have a feminist abstinence club, if it was made up of only people who had decided on their own to abstain and just wanted a social network of similar-thinking people, for support and possibly a dating pool that would be understanding. But I wouldn’t support you trying to convince non-abstaining people to join you, because then your reason wouldn’t be just how you feel, it would be that you think there’s some moral (they call it philosophical) reason not to have sex and that you don’t think everyone should get to make their own (safe, consensual) decisions about sex without being judged, and if you don’t think that about other people, why should other people think it about you? (Not that I’m saying it’s ok to pick on judgmental virgins; I’m just telling them to stop being judgmental because it makes them hypocrites. For the record, I’ve been one.)
So far we’ve seen these reasons why you have to be a virgin to be loved: because giving away sex means giving away your ability to bribe a man to marry you; because giving away sex means making a man lose interest in you; because having sex means letting men treat you like crap; because premarital sex is inherently degrading to women; because if you have sex and then break up you’ll get hurt too much. But there’s another one that’s really sad. It’s quite simply, because your virginity is your worth. That doesn’t sound very Christian to me (shouldn’t your worth come from God?), but some people think it is. (Look at the pictures in the links.)
But at least if they recruit for virginity they’ll keep people from getting STDs, right? Right? And at least we can rest assured knowing that their decision not to have sex is based on accurate information on the risks if they were given abstinence only education. Phew. That’s a relief.
In sum (and I’m saying this to everyone): don’t believe that you are worthless except for either your virginity or your ability to have sex with someone. Don’t believe that all men are assholes. Make your own decisions about sex. But don’t forget that the assholes that fit these descriptions do exist, and that’s yet another reason why we need feminism, to teach them that women have worth as full human beings.
PS – Sorry for making this purely heterosexual, but it was so long already…I’ll have to tie in the LGBTQ issue soon.
PPS – I know, I’m a liar and my pants are on fire and my paper isn’t written yet, but this humongo post is. Whoops.