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The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma: Why Sexuality Sucks For Women

5 Dec

Female silhouette.“Let her lay aside her delicacy, and her influence over our sex is gone,” said the Reverend Jonathan F. Stearns at a discourse delivered in the First Presbyterian Church of Newburyport in 1937. This statement resonates with me. Where have I heard it before? Certainly not from a sermon delivered before my time, but instead from many of my male friends: “If she puts out on the first night, then I lose all interest.” Sure, the reverend’s statement is far more eloquent than the colloquial language of my friends. But the underlying message remains the same: a woman who engages in sexual activity ‘too soon’ — a time frame which has varied in interpretation throughout the centuries — is immediately branded in a negative light, regardless of the era in which she lives. But let her express disinterest in sexual activity, and she’s chastised for that, too! This is the kind of female sexual oppression that fuels the gatekeeper’s dilemma: woman is regarded as the gatekeeper of sexual activity (thereby rescuing her male counterpart from his “uncontrollable urges”), yet she is criticized for performing the very role that she is for whatever reason expected to fill.

From the early 1800’s until present day, we women have struggled with abstruse expectations regarding our sexuality: in order to be considered pure and ladylike, we must carefully guard our lady parts – but the very people who expect us to do so also expect to be satisfied sexually whenever they see fit (how does that even make sense?). Of course, in earlier history this dichotomy may not have been so apparent since women simply did not object to their husbands, but what else is a woman to do when she expected to be both pure and submissive? At least today we have more autonomy, but the principle of the double standard remains the same: if you engage in sexual activity too soon according to social standard, then you’re a slut. If you exercise your right to deny access to your vagina, then at best you’re mean for giving your guy blue balls, and at worst you’re an uptight prude. These are the unrealistic expectations that have been placed upon us by society and (dare I say) many of the men in our lives. They perpetuate the unfortunate tightrope that we women walk, and sadly even some women are guilty of fueling the fire, too. Bluntly stated, if you aren’t a slut, you’re a prude, and there’s little space in between. How how did such an ugly paradox even come to fruition in the first place? And in what ways has women’s sexuality transformed throughout history?

The short answer, unfortunately, is that it hasn’t transformed much, which explains how we find ourselves saying essentially the same things – albeit in different ways – nearly 200 years later. Why? Because one expectation has remained constant throughout history: woman should only exercise autonomy over her sexuality in ways that are favorable to society. That is to say, a woman should only exercise her right to say ‘no’ under certain circumstances (i.e. until marriage or monogamy, take your pick), at which point the very same ‘no’ becomes not admirable but obnoxious. This isn’t some novel idea, either. Historical ideologies of female sexuality run parallel to contemporary ones. Let’s talk about one of the earliest ideas to govern women’s sexuality, and perhaps the origin of the woman’s paradox: the Cult of True Womanhood.

From roughly the 1820’s to the 1860’s, a Cult of True Womanhood emerged. From this cult materialized an ideology centered on four virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. In relation to this topic, I find purity and submissiveness to be especially interesting. According to the ideology, a “True Woman” is pure, remaining chaste to God prior to marriage and to her husband after marriage. If a man were to express sexual interest in a woman prior to marriage, it was considered her autonomous duty to “not give in and let man ‘take liberties incompatible with her delicacy’” (Welter, p. 157). In other words, under those circumstances, she was permitted to exercise her somatic rights. A True Woman was also, however, expected to be submissive, again to God and her husband as well as others. This meant that she must even acquiesce to unwanted sexual advances, and under such conditions her aforementioned power and autonomy were suddenly supposed to be nonexistent.

The contemporary woman faces a similar dilemma. Granted, we now have more protection and autonomy in terms of our bodies and our rights to take command over sexual encounters. But, like women from earlier periods, we’re still expected to maintain a sort of purity when not in a committed relationship. Society expects single women to engage in sexual activity after a “waiting period” of sorts, and frowns upon  women who elect to engage in a more “frivolous” sexual lifestyle comprised of hook-ups and one night stands. So here we are again, expected to assume an uninterested stance on sex until we find a committed partner. And, also like women from earlier periods, we face a catch-22: should we attempt to remain chaste while single or turn down a partner’s sexual advances, we’re often hounded and hassled rather than respected.

So, to the women of the world: do yourself a favor. Stop walking the tightrope. Cast aside society’s stupid expectations of who you should be and how you should act and do what feels right for you. Don’t concern yourself with someone else’s opinion of how you should be. Also, do your fellow women a favor and stop slut-shaming and calling each other out on the matter of sexuality. At the end of the day, your sexuality is your business and not anyone else’s. In my mind, true womanhood is the act of conducting yourself in a way that truly reflects who you are as a person. A true woman, to me, is a woman who governs her behavior based on her own moral compass and disregards the criticism of those who don’t happen to share her perspective. Men, I implore you to keep all I have said in mind when courting a woman. A true woman’s integrity is not dictated by her sexuality or lack thereof, but rather by the sum of her parts — the many aspects of her character, personality, and behavior that make her who she is.