27 September 2008

Sex and society

By Nicola Pratt

Chatting with Jordanian friends the other week, we were all stunned to hear about a 22 year-old American woman who planned to publicly auction her virginity. We were surprised not so much because the woman was still a virgin at 22 (although, according to surveys, this puts her in the minority of women in her age group in the US). Rather, we were shocked because she was willing to sell her virginity to the highest bidder and told a TV interviewer that she found this 'empowering'. A few days later, after having just returned to Norwich, I turned on the TV to find an advertisement for a programme called The Virgin Daughters — a documentary about American parents who are actively encouraging their daughters, one as young as six years old, to practise celibacy until marriage. According to one father interviewed, sex before marriage exposes young women to all sorts of dangers that can ruin the rest of their lives, including 'getting cervical cancer, divorce, VD'.

Coming across controversies about women's sexual behaviour twice in as many weeks reminded me that it is not only in 'other cultures' (such as, amongst Muslims) that society is concerned about with whom, when and why women have sex. The rise in the numbers and importance of Evangelical Christians in the US has put questions of morality, and especially sexual conduct, at the centre of the political stage. Even in the UK, where there is no real equivalent to the 'Religious Right', public debates about women's sexual and reproductive activities are common—from changes to abortion legislation to panics about teenage mothers.

Despite the increasing ease with which many women can enjoy sex outside of marriage—due to increased access to contraception and abortion, living away from the parental home and less strict social attitudes—nevertheless, a sexual double standard continues to exist more than 30 years after the 'sexual revolution'. For example, one of the worst insults for a woman to receive is, 'slag' or 'slut'. No equivalent term exists for a man. Dominant notions about femininity and masculinity hinge on different social attitudes to women's and men’s sexual behaviour.

Increasing access to contraception since the 1960s, and, in particular, the invention of the pill, has enabled women to enjoy sex without the worries of pregnancy, leading to great strides in women's sexual autonomy in this country. However, it seems that whilst the 1960s helped women to expand their sexual horizons, it did little to challenge society's views about the sexual double standard. The sexual revolution appears to have led to an expansion in the commercial exploitation of sex and a situation where women are more sexually available to men than before—in lad mags, 'gentlemen's clubs' and through escort agencies and other services. No longer are women supposed to be the perfect housewives. Instead, they are bombarded with magazines and books instructing them on how to achieve multiple orgasms and have 'hot sex' with their partners. The rise in teenage pregnancies is one indication that young women may be more vulnerable than ever to intimidation in the name of 'sexual freedom'. Many people of 'other cultures' look at this and ask, 'Is this what women’s liberation means?'

The sexual revolution has not completely liberated women—although it has created more choices for more people. Instead, women face pressures to conform to a new mode of sexuality that exposes them to different dangers, such as the increased likelihood of sexually transmitted infections. The backlash against this transformation in sexual habits has taken the form of a socially conservative and religious neo-puritanism that harks back to a 'golden age' where women got married, had children, families stayed together and the world was supposedly a better place. This ignores the fact that a large number of people, particularly women, were obliged to stay in unhappy marriages with unfulfilling sexual lives and limited life choices because of social pressures.

I do not want to live in a society where the choice is between watching women auction their virginity versus young girls being socially coerced into abstinence before marriage. Sexuality is at the core of human identity and, therefore, it is essential that we are able to develop healthy sexual personae. The continuing sexual double standard prevents women (and men) of all ages from being empowered to make choices about their sexual lives, free from exploitation, intimidation and risk. Whilst legislation attempts to protect people from many forms of sex discrimination (for example, in the workplace), inequalities on the basis of our sexual behaviour continue to exist with negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.