Posted by: terrapraeta | April 13, 2009

I AM More Than My Vagina


Take it up higher.
4 degrees warmer.
Give in now
and let me in.
You’ll like this in
Don’t pull it out.
It brings us closer than
dying and cancer and crying.
Come on .
You can take it all.
Just like that.

Tool, 4 Degrees

Surfing Blogmad the other day, I ran across an article entitled You are More than Your Vagina. The article was predominantly an argument against ‘neo-feminisim’ which the writer characterized as:

Women traditionally have been looked upon as sexual objects. So what do these neofeminists do? Celebrate and proclaim liberation in being a sex object, of course. Frat boys on campus look at these poor girls as a vagina on two legs and they want to slap that idea on a T-shirt and sell it. They’ve gone one step further from the prostitution of women to preaching harlotry. The difference between a prostitute and a harlot is that the prostitute at least has enough self respect to demand payment for services rendered.

On reading the article I had a strong visceral reaction: after all, I feel that sexual liberation is an important part of feminism, yet I have previously pondered the reactionary effects of creating a dichotomous situation: in an environment of sexual repression (especially female sexual repression) it is not surprising if the pendulum swings to far into alternate, extreme behavior patterns, for a time.

So today I went back to the article to look into it in more depth. Part Time Pundit had added some references to his article, in response to reader comments, and I followed these links, as well as the original links embedded in the article. What I found made it necessary to write a rebuttal.

Enter groups such as the Feminist Majority at the University of Illinois. The motto of this group and those like it can be described as “love me for my body … PLEASE!” The slogans they chose to put on their T-shirts revolve around sex toys and genitalia. In psychology this would be called a “fixation.”

I went to the website for the Feminist Majority, and found absolutely nothing to justify the characterization presented above. Their Mission Statement begins:

Our purpose as the University of Illinois chapter of the Feminist Majority is multi-tiered. First and foremost, we make our best efforts to inform the student population about the issues related to women’s rights and equality in society. As important as the first step of understanding and comprehending these issues is enabling the student population to act in accordance with them. This could vary from say, volunteering at the women’s shelter to helping support, plan, and execute the annual sexual health fair, Sex Out Loud. When all of the smoke clears our final objective, however, is to make a positive difference in the lives of others – helping to form a world of equality among men and women. (link)

This does not sound anything like “love me for my body… PLEASE!” The only sexually overt item on found on the website was in their picture gallery. They had a series of pictures from their annual Sexual Health Fair, which included a “Vulva Coloring Contest.” While certainly ‘overt,’ I would characterize this as an effort to demystify and de-mythologize female biology. And it is a far cry from pushing extreme sexual promiscuity.

Next, I looked at the T-shirt Slogans. Here is the complete list of available slogans:

~This is what a feminist looks like
~Start a revolution, stop hating your body
~My body, my choice
~I think therefore I’’m liberal
~My Vibrator is my favorite power tool
~Respect the clit
~Of course I’m a feminist
~ I ? my penis
~ I ? my clit
~Marriage = ? + ?
~Well behaved women rarely make history -Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
~Clit Envy? (link)

Are they sexual? Certainly some of them are. Are they rallying cries for promiscuity? Again, I think not. Rather, they offer amusing or insightful or silly expressions of sexuality as a natural part of (men and ) women’s lives. If you don’t like it, you needn’t buy one. But the characterization offered by John Bembenek is, at the least, misleading.
Later in the article, Bembenek goes into an unfortunate rant on abortion: I am pro-choice myself, and I have no desire to debate the topic. Deciding where human life begins is cultural. I personally, tend to agree with the scientists, that an embryo becomes a ‘life’ when it is capable of living as a discreet being. However, I also can see some rational scientific argument being made for tribal notions of ‘life’ beginning at three or four years of age (somewhere in this range is where psychologists identify children beginning to acquire a ‘sense of self’) and so I can recognize that the only valid way to look at it is to accept that ‘life’ is a social construct. That being said, I am not one that is likely to accept someone forcing their social construct into my life and belief set.

But I have not yet gotten to the topic I really wanted to discuss. At the core of the article was the issue of promiscuity and depression. The assumption that all of this ‘sexual liberation’ has led to increasing depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and generally negative personal psychology. For this several links are provided.

The first link was to The Heritage Foundation. As a Conservative Think Tank, I would expect any article they publish to support the Conservative Agenda, including abstinence only sexual education. This, however, damages their fundamental credibility, as they are known to be pushing a political agenda.

The second link was better, following the WebMD link provided, I tracked back to the source of the study: The Pacific Institute for Reasearch and Evaluation. Unfortunately, the study cited was predominantly focused on Depression with multiple indicators. IE, they asked if sex, drugs, and alcohol predominantly preceeded depression, or if these behaviors were in response to depression. The results indicated that risk behaviors did, in fact, tend to come first. However, they did not separate out sex from drugs or alcohol, so what we have is a correlation that is further weakened by the inclusion of multiple factors.

So how about the third link? This one I actually found quite useful. A complete study, conducted at a University, over two semesters, addressing multiple facets of sexual behaviors and attitudes amongst college students. (link) I find the study to be rather inconclusive. While they do find some associations among women between depression and casual sexual relationships, they also note that the psychological problems generally predate the sexual behaviors. They also find that men show decreased likelihood of depression in response to casual sexual relationships. Additionally:

There are several limitations in this study. First is the limitation of a convenience sample of college students. College may be a context in which casual sex is promoted, but it is unclear whether the rates of casual sex would be as high in a similarly aged, non-college population. Likewise, it is unclear whether rates of casual sex decline after college. Moreover, our sample was obtained from a university located within the Southern Bible Belt with a fairly conservative student population. It is uncertain whether students in less conservative regions would engage in more or less casual sexual behavior. We consider our findings a starting point for future researchers to understand the nature, motivation, and meaning of casual sex relationships among young adults. In our previous study (Grello et al., 2003), using a longitudinal, nationally-representative sample of adolescents and young adults (age 12-21), we found that casual sex was associated with higher levels of delinquency, violent victimization, and symptoms of depression, but these difficulties existed prior to engaging in casual sex, rather than as a result. In this sample, we were not able to examine cause and effect because our data was cross-sectional. Longitudinal data may afford further elucidation of casual sex behaviors.

At the end of the day, the real issues, in my mind, have to do with improving individual health, self-understanding and expressiveness. Our American culture has been an icon of sexual repression for most of our countries existence. There has always been an undercurrent of overt sexuality: prostitution, sex/strip clubs, mid century pin up girls and Hollywood. However, it has always been stressed that these are not models that good little girls follow, while boys are made to understand that even if they partake of some of the shadier sides of sexuality, this is something that should be, at least, under gentleman’s agreement. We don’t talk about it. We don’t accept it. It is our dirty little secret that everyone knows.

By contrast, if we are to advance the fundamental ideals of feminism, we are not only encouraging our women to explore, understand and accept their own sexual natures, but we are also asking our men to do the same. Get rid of the black curtains, the open secrets, the real secrets, and recognize that we are sexual beings and more importantly, there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing shameful or disgusting about a ‘Vulva Coloring Contest’, there is nothing immoral about nudity, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, about our human biology that should cause us guilt or shame.

That does not mean that we are defined by our genitalia. But that when I say I am more than my vagina, I recognize that it is still, incontrovertibly, part of who I am.

(Originally Posted December 5, 2006)

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