If you’ve been to one of my lectures you might remember me talking about a young American woman who auctioned her virginity over the internet – for a tidy sum I night add. It appears as though the concept has reached the Australasia, with a Sydney escort agency advertising the ‘sale’ of a young Chinese woman’s virginity.
The article above describes this as selling body parts, as putting women’s liberation back centuries, and the young girl as likely being exploited. What I found interesting is that it wasn’t a young woman engaging in sex work, or a young student (apparently prostitution is a not uncommon way for young women to get an education without incurring crippling student debt), but that she was selling her virginity, that made the news.
There’s no point in rehashing the arguments for and against sex work. To be honest, I stand on both sides of the fence on this. On one hand I am all for women making the choice to enter into this profession (informed choice, mind you), but on the other the buying of women’s sexual services is instrumentalist and can treat women as fungible objects (no fan of that). This is too sticky a debate to untangle here – the fact that the debate is still live suggests there is no real answer to the right or wrong, good or bad of the oldest profession.
What is most striking for me with this issue however is that what has triggered the newsworthiness of this story is the uncommon element that elevated the event above banality and subsequent un-news-worthiness of student prostitution and prostitution in general – namely the woman’s virginity. Should we be horrified about a woman selling her virginity for $15,000? Would we be horrified if she was selling her sexual product for such a sum if she wasn’t a virgin? Probably not actually. It is already being done, without much social comment. The fact that virginity auctions and sales in the west get significant media attention suggests however that we consider virginity to be something sacred, something not to be sold, and something we ought to treat more respectfully.
The irony is that sending a son to a prostitute to lose his virginity is a great western tradition, codified and celebrated in media and popular culture. Beginning to see the double standard ? If men are willing to pay to lose their virginity, what is wrong with a woman being paid to lose hers? Because it’s not the prostitution that is the issue (as noted above) its her purity.
The irony goes further. Although we have a growing acceptance of women having extra-marital sex, there is still stigma connected to a woman’s number of pre-marriage sexual partners (it’s even the topic of movies these days), a stigma that is connected to the desire for virgin brides – brides that are clean and unused. After all, we call women who are known to have sex outside of relationships skanks and sluts – words connected to dirt and filth – even when we don’t know how many people they have slept with (just think to the gossip and bitching you hear about someone you don’t know hooking up with someone you think is hot). As some of my research participants pointed out, it’s not how many people women have slept with that makes them a slut, but how they go about it. And as the slut label gets so quickly attached to women who engage in extra-relationship sex in so many ways, it’s not a giant leap to suggest that all women who engage in extra-relationship sex are potentially sluts. Considering the variety of story types from participants who noted they had been called a slut for having sex with someone else other than a boyfriend, I don’t think this is a giant leap at all – in fact it feels very much like a tiny step.
We ‘know’ that prostitution is dirty and demeaning – look at the social commentary against which pro-sex work supporters battle – and that virginity is something that is sacred and pure (I don’t endorse either of these ideas). To place these two aspects together clearly is not socially acceptable. We are willing to have morally questionable women charging for morally questionable sex (so they say) but not moral women. Virginity is after all a moral issue. Good women do not sell their bodies for sex. And a woman who is still a virgin, chaste and pure at age 19, well, she’s particularly moral in a culture where the average age of first sex is around 17.
What I find most disturbing about the ruckus this event has generated is how it has reflected back to us the value our society still places on women’s virginity and purity. Not only is it worth AU$15,000 (apparently up to US$3.7 million if you are a hot white chick like Natalie Dylan), but it is also worth the media ruckus and the moral outrage of a variety of groups, from social purity groups to feminists. Would this story have made the news if the young woman in question, a student looking to get our of debt (sounds familiar), was not a virgin. I sincerely doubt it.
Considering how so many young women today lose their virginity, I do wonder what the hoo-haa is all about. In Australia prostitution is legal, so this young woman had to have approached the escort agency of her own accord. If she had approached a loan shark, committed a crime, or run out on her debt, no one would be commenting (save her family). But because she is selling her virginity through an agency, we have a story that generate moral hubris, and has everyone assuming she is vulnerable and being exploited. We don’t hear similar comments being made about non-virgin debt-laden students entering into prostitution.
Of course the hoo-haa reflects our old-fashioned attachment to women as sexually pure, to women’s sexual value being attached to that purity, and to women as sexually active as dirty and immoral (sluttiness). Losing one’s virginity for women is supposed to be special, meaningful, sacred etc. Selling it demeans all that. Note the double standard again – there is no such sanctity around male virginity. As the saying goes, a man wants to be a woman’s first, a woman wants to be a man’s last.
Despite our sexualised culture, it appears that we are not that liberated after all. I don’t think that it is the sale of this young woman’s virginity that is setting our culture back with respect to sexual liberation. It is that we have to comment on it, rail against it, and rescue this young woman from a ‘horrible future’. What would be a better issue to discuss is why anyone would feel that prostitution was a good way (outside of those who genuinely want to engage in sex work as a profession) to meet the burdens of education costs. Or perhaps that our current society fails to support its members such that prostitution as a means to financial emancipation is on the cards for so many people. (And please, before anyone starts to talk about prostitution and addiction, I’ve known a lot of prostitutes in my time, and very few were addicts. Most were mothers with children trying to make ends meet, or young women trying to get on their feet after financially devastating events.)
Frankly I don’t care that the young woman in question is a virgin. To me that makes no difference in her decision (save good business sense if the commodity is so highly valued), despite what the story’s publicity suggests. How a young woman decides to end that sexual status should make no difference. Especially when we celebrate the variety of ways men find for doing so, including paying for first sex, and having it with a pie.