Virginity and the Value of Women

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Last night I watched Insight on SBS (which featured our very own Rose Russo talking about her experience hiring an escort to lose her virginity) and I was fascinated by all the different views on virginity, the cultural implications of the loss of virginity, and also there was a lot of discussion about the value of virginity.

It got me thinking a lot about the way women are viewed in society, and the way women are so often valued on their purity. We’ve written before about sexual dysfunction that can come from abstinence only education, and also the fear women can feel about sexual behaviour, as if it’s wrong in some way, but today I’d really like to focus on one word that kept cropping up in the program:

Value

It was raised from the perspective of a dowry, a financial transaction. It was raised as “she kept herself for me”, losing something or giving something to the man. It was also raised from a personal perspective, the value of yourself.

The repetition of this term “value” and all the associated terms, words like loss, losing, giving up, was almost unconscious throughout this whole conversation.

This really stood out for me, and I think it is different between women and men. There is a lot more focus on the virginity of women than of men. This is well documented and generally agreed on. A men who has a lot of sexual partners is a stud, a woman is a slut. We all know this is cultural perspectives in a great many cultures. But why is it that women’s value is so intrinsically tied to her purity, her virginity?

I would like to posit that it is because she is, at the heart of it, still seen as a commodity. And her virginity, her purity, her value, is entirely as a possession. A commodity. Something to trade, to own.

The language of some of the people in the program reflected this, as the women said “I kept myself for him” and the men said “she kept herself for me”.

The only different perspective that stood out to me was that of Tinashe Dune, who spoke from a Shona Zimbabwean perspective about virginity as something that gives a woman power, which is not for losing or giving up but sharing.

That perspective was refreshing, and it worried me a little that I found that refreshing. That I was so desensitised to the link between virginity and value that it wasn’t until Tinashe mentioned a different perspective I even realised I hadn’t noticed it up until that point.

Why are women still seen as possessions? What is it that makes society accept this? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

What do you think? Do you agree with me, or think women aren’t seen as possessions? Is value tied with virginity? Do you value your virginity? 

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  • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

    All I can say about the female perspective is that I’ve never thought of women as possessions – and while I imagine some men still think that way, I know most men don’t…

    I wonder if – a bit like a lot of body image issues – this lingering idea of “woman as possession” is something women continue to project upon themselves (when the majority of men actually don’t think that way anymore…)

    I also wonder, T, if your point of view is also influenced by your Christian upbringing and the continued focus on pre-feminist gender-roles that the more conservative parts of Christianity still preach (not that I think you think that way – I know you don’t)

    From my perspective, virginity affects all people in different ways – men and women – As I wrote on MamaMia ( http://www.mamamia.com.au/relationships/confessions-of-a-late-starter/ ), I was late to lose my virginity – and the pressure I put on myself to want to lose my virginity eventually led me to have an affair with a married woman. So, as always, I just want to remind people that issues like this – issues relating to self-worth and insecurities – also affect men too… not just women.

    • Aleced

      Great comment JJ. I was also going to ask if Tamsin’s religious upbringing has coloured this for her. I am a similar age to Tamsin and I consider this to be such a non issue in modern Australia. I dare say that (without offending anyone), most of my male friends would find it odd if a woman was still a virgin (particularly if not religious). I understand that the virginity value issue is still pertinent in other countries but Australia? Really? It certainly isn’t in my world,

      • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

        Of course, my story is from 25 years ago, so I suspect my experience is also different to young people today…

        I may have been a lot less socially isolated if I had access to social media in my teens…

      • Maree Talidu

        I personally think it IS pertinent in Australia, as a high school teacher I see teen girls (and boys to a lesser extent) struggling with this very issue on a daily basis, the inherent value of their virginity- I’ve had more girls than I can count lose their virginity for the sake of popularity, then get dumped, who come to me crying about their lack of self worth, certainly not feeling valued at all.

    • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

      I think my point of view is influenced from a religious background, however I also think in many countries there isn’t much of an alternative to a religious upbringing, as it’s so ingrained in the culture. A lot more than in our own country.

      I don’t think this is an issue women project on themselves. I do think it’s less prevalent in Australian society than other societies around the world, and therefore depending on the exposure you have had to different aspects within Australian society you may never have encountered it or seen it, but I have. And I have seen it. And I don’t think it’s an imaginary difference.

  • http://iamevilcupcake.com/ iamevilcupcake

    JJ mentions below that he doesn’t think that most men don’t think of women as possessions, and I agree. I do however think that most men don’t think of women as equal to them. Look at all the jokes out there regarding gender roles. Feel free to correct me, though.

    So I think that sex and virginity should be about equality. If men are able to be sexually active without be labelled as something negative, then women should too. How you fix this from a cultural point of view, I have no idea, but if it’s from a religious point of view, change religions if you don’t agree.

    Having said that thought, think about a stereotypical wedding, regardless of whether it’s a church wedding or not. The idea of “giving away the bride” while it seems like a really lovely thing, if you really think about it, it’s a man handing over a woman to another man. A bride wears white as a symbol of purity. Before that, you have the fact that the man gives the woman an engagement ring. This shows to others that she “belongs” to someone else.

    Women fight so hard for equality in the workplace, but how is that going to happen when in our day to day lives, we are pigeon-holed into roles purely based on our gender? Men also have this problem, they are expected to be the breadwinner, however there seems to be some flexibility with the roles. Men are often seen as awesome when they look after their own kids, but I would have thought this was just part of being a dad?

    Society has a long way to come with regards to their view on women. And while many men are now supporting women (in general I mean) with the fact they ARE equal, these men need to help the rest of us with our fight for equality. Unfortunately there are those that look at women’s plight and stick it in the “feminist rant” basket, I think that if the men that do support “the cause” spoke up too, it may help?

    Wow, sorry about that rant guys …

    • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

      Yeah – I’m going to correct – of course, I can only comment about the men in my life, but the ones I know all treat women as equals… :)

      • http://iamevilcupcake.com/ iamevilcupcake

        But what do you think JJ about it as a whole? What do you think men as a part of society can do to help?

        • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

          Lead by example, like I do – and the men in my life do…

          Can I ask you in return, do you experience a lot of sexism in your life? I know there are sexist men out there still, but how often do you encounter them? Would you say the minority or majority of men treat you as an equal? Is there a generational aspect to this? Do you find younger men less sexist?

          (I have no idea – all I can say, again, is that the men I work with, my male relatives and male friends, all treat women as equals… but most of them are 10-15 years younger than me…)

          • http://iamevilcupcake.com/ iamevilcupcake

            You know what’s funny? I usually only experience sexism when there are groups of men. You know, hanging around the BBQ or at the pub, where they have each other to bounce off, back each other up, and think each other is funny. But one on one, no, they aren’t that sexist. But if there was just one of those blokes, who DIDN’T agree with what was going on, they should say something, and not remain silent.

            I do think leading by example is an important thing. Especially as someone who is in charge of little ones, teaching the younger generation to respect all people regardless of gender, sexual preference, size, etc etc. But in trying to get across to adults, I think speaking up is very important.

          • Leah_loves

            I have to say I experience sexism a lot and it really saddens me. Most of the time it is in small ways, and the man may not even realise they are being sexist. Just little comments here and there. ‘Jokes’ about women belonging in the kitchen when actually the guy saying it has never cooked a meal in his life and does expect his female partner to do all the work because that is her role.

            Any talk about ‘sluts’, to me is incredibly sexist and I hear this from men A LOT. “Look how short her skirt is, what a slut.” Uh, sorry, when did what a woman is wearing classify her as a slut? Are AFL players sluts because they wear short shorts in public? I always tell them there is no such thing as a slut and to never mention that word in front of me again.I am 25 and this seems to be the mindset of many males I know (not necessarily my friends! And definitely not my partner).

            I have also experienced rape ‘jokes’, being grabbed on the arse by strangers in a bar, being asked if they can talk to my boss because a young woman clearly has no authority… Don’t even get me started on the sexual harrasment case in a workplace which i reported and was then bullied for! The list goes on and on. Just two nights ago I had a HUGE ‘discussion’ (read, screaming match) with my usually intelligent 24 year old brother who was essentially victim blaming in reference to footballer rape cases.Our parents did NOT raise us that way. Where does it come from?!

          • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

            I’m not denying any of that…

            But… what about the positive male role models in your life? Are there more or less of them in your life than sexist males?

            Why I ask is this… I grew up in the 1970s when the majority of Australian men – and many women – just assumed women should have a subservient role in society… I don’t believe that is the case any more – from my perspective, Australia has changed from being an overwhelmingly sexist society to one where gender equality is considered the social norm, and sexist men are considered abnormal…

            That’s a HUGE change in my lifetime – so from my perspective, whatever we have been doing in Australia over the past 30-40 years has been working…

            I’m just worried that we are seeing the world as a half-empty glass instead of a half-full… let’s damn the sexism, but not lose sight of the big picture… because when you look at the big picture, the fight against sexism in Australia has been an overwhelmingly positive one – and we should all be proud of that… and continue working towards the end goal of wiping it out altogether :)

    • Melissa Savage

      Yes cuppy! Spot on.

    • carohutchison

      I agree with you Cuppy on the giving away thing – when I got married I felt quite uneasy with the symbolism of being walked down the aisle by my father and handed to my new husband. I ended up sending Mum and Dad ahead of me and I walked on my own. I was raised to be an independent woman and wanted that to be part of our day.

      Hutch would also agree with you on the men parenting thing, he gets really annoyed if he has the kids on his own and people (usually older women) ask if he’s ok, or if he needs help. He’s more than capable to look after his own kids. It’s not baby sitting when they’re your own.

    • Leah_loves

      Totally agree with everything you have said Evil. I am getting married in 7 months and at first struggled with the whole idea of a wedding. So I have compromised – I do not have an engagement ring (my partner knew I didn’t want one), I am wearing orange, my two little cousins will walk down the aisle with me and the celebrant will not be asking anyone if they can ‘give’ me to anyone else! Now that I have this sorted I am actually quite excited about it all!

  • Monkau

    I really dont think most women care too much in our society, I couldn’t pick anyone I know of the female variety who is still a virgin, but I know plenty of males in their 20s and a few in their 30s who are still virgins, regardless of which way they swing.

    Personally I would rather make a relationship with someone who hasnt been a ‘stud’, not for the value of their virginity, but because they have a different attitude toward other people.

    I cant speak from a religious p.o.v but I dont think being ‘virtuous’ before marriage these days is of much value. Even most Catholics and Christians I know (who have even taken their vows) have turned around and slept with someone before marriage (probably wouldnt admit it to their parents lol). Id say if there is so called value to possessing virginity, it’s becoming less important as society changes and women become stronger and have more free will.

  • SonjaLouise

    I wanted to write a comment on what I think, but I can’t get the words out.
    Probably because I’m worried of being called ‘un-feminist’ ‘backward’ or ‘brainwashed’ – because I know how my views on these things are often seen by most people.
    So while I know you all a lovely people, I don’t feel comfortable writing about my views because they go against the norm (which says a lot more about me and less about you!).

    I will say that it’s very interesting for me to read very different viewpoints from my own :)

    • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

      Assuming you’re talking about it being important to stay virgins until marriage, I don’t think that is backward or brainwashed. I think it’s backward or brainwashed to say a woman loses her value when she loses her virginity.

      • SonjaLouise

        Right – yes I was.
        And no, I don’t think a woman loses her value when she loses her virginity.
        My story, and consequently my view on this topic is a bit confusing though, so until I can express it more clearly, I’m not saying any more :)

        (Thanks, T, for writing the article though. Thought provoking!)

  • http://iamevilcupcake.com/ iamevilcupcake

    I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and I wanted to address it from a religious point of view.

    I was once religious. T knows my story, but let me just say I’m no longer a believer and we’ll leave it at that.

    If you are part of a religion that follows the Bible closely like the religion I was in did, then if anything, more pressure was put on the man. You see, according to the bible, in a marriage, the woman is to be cherished, and looked after physically, emotionally, and sexually. The husband had the responsibility of looking after his wife and his kids should there be any. He was answerable to God if he didn’t do this.

    With regards to virginity, both sexes were expected to be virgins when they married. There was never more pressure put on the female to remain a virgin, while the male could do what they wanted. Both parties were equally answerable to God.

    While I understand this from a Biblical point of view (don’t worry, I won’t quote scripture), what frustrates me is that, if you get married, haven’t had sex with your partner, and they aren’t interested in sex, and you are, you are stuck. This is what happened to me. Even though my husband was bound, by scripture to see to my needs, he never did. So I was stuck in a sexless and loveless marriage. Divorce is only considered acceptable if a partner cheats, not if the partner withholds sex. Not if the partner beats you. And if you WERE to divorce your husband without “scriptural” reasons, you aren’t allowed to remarry as you are considered to have broken that vow or whatever.

    This was just the religion I was part of. Every religion has a different interpretation. But this is just my story.

    • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

      I actually find this fascinating because in the scriptures where they discuss sexuality and the “rules” there are a lot for men and the only one for women is that she cannot have sex with a donkey.

      So, really, those who have a double standard against women for religious reasons are doing it wrong.

  • marcus

    I have often been intrigued by the reaction of men to women who are not virgins. I have for some time suspected that it is to do with some feeling of inadequecy in them. No man likes to be compared unfavourably to another man, or found to be ‘less than’ some previous lover. To this end, I wonder if it is fear driven.

    It doesn’t excuse their behaviour of course, I am just curious if there is some deep-seated pyschological issue behind it.

    • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

      I’ve never slept with a virgin… I have no idea what the experience is like… and to be honest, I’ve never really cared either way…

  • http://kimbalikes.com Kim-Marie Williams

    Yes, I agree with your point but the main reason for virginity being so highly valued in so many cultures is more to do with the continuation of the male line. Yes, woman is seen as commodity but more in terms of carrying the next generation.