The Maze

Please enjoy this excerpt from my dissertation. 

From third grade through high school graduation I attended a very small, very conservative Christian school which eschewed the notion of sex education, as such, but nevertheless, made it clear that Christians, particularly Christian women, were expected to remain virgins until marriage. When I was fourteen a friend of mine, we’ll call her Mhysa, was expelled after she got pregnant. She was not expelled for getting pregnant, per se, but because she was pregnant she could no longer hide the fact that she was sexually active which was against the rules. In some ways, this dissertation started that school year when I told the principal that an unmarried, pregnant, teenager needed the community of Christ more than anyone else. I will never forget the principal’s response, “Yes, but not here.”[1]

Two years later, one of my classmates came out to us as gay. Together, my class of twelve people made sure that no teacher or administrator ever heard a whisper of a rumor about his sexuality because we knew he would be expelled if that was the case. For further context, a group of students were caught smoking marijuana in the church van on a school sponsored ski trip.[2] These students were sentenced to in-house suspension meaning that they spent every day for a week at desks in the principal’s office being unimaginably bored. Why, I wondered, was sex so different? If the teachers and administrators believed what they taught us in the mandatory chapel, that all sins were equal in the eyes of God, then why did sexual sin seem to garner so much more earthly punishment than other sins? On top of that, why did sexual sin seem to be biased against women? It seemed, at times, that our bodies were a betrayal—a temptation to sin for the men around us and an undeniable witness to our own culpability through pregnancy.

It is over a decade since I graduated from high school. I am a PhD candidate and I have moved home to help my mother transition after the unexpected loss of my stepfather. I am standing in front of a room of eighteen non-traditional students “teaching” a four hour long course called “Technology Fundamentals” in a building that is a few miles from my high school. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, from six to ten p.m., I watch while the students use a reactive software designed to teach them how to use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. I am a glorified proctor at a for-profit college and the students that sit in front of me are in one of two mandatory course that they must take before being shunted into their chosen track. Students are required to wear uniforms based on these tracks as part of their professionalization process, so I can tell at a glance what field they’ve chosen: pink scrubs for future dental assistants, blue scrubs for medical assistants and medical office administration, and dark blue jeans with a black button up shirt for future HVAC technicians. This class happens to be all women and the room is all pink and blue. They have developed quite a rapport with each other and seem fascinated by the fact that I am getting a PhD. This is our last week of class and many of the students have already completed their final projects but are here because of the strict attendance policies. Next week the will begin the courses that correspond to their specialization. Tonight, sensing their restlessness and bored to tears myself, I ask if they are willing to help me with my research. They agree quickly, most likely out of a desire to have anything to do.

“What is virginity?” I ask.

“Virginity means that you haven’t had sex yet,” says a gregarious student in pink scrubs.

“Ah! So, can you tell me what sex is?”

 

Various answers come from around the room and I write keywords on the whiteboard. After taking a look at the words they have suggested, all of which seem to indicate that penile-vaginal intercourse defines sex, I ask, “So, if this is sex, then what do lesbians do? Or are all lesbians virgins?” They laugh and I launch into an explanation of my research on virginity.

I have done this exercise many times, in many classes, but this is the first time I am doing it in a classroom made up exclusively of non-traditional students. These are not the college freshmen who seem so self-assured when I ask what a virgin is (and why wouldn’t they be, given that many of them have spent several years in abstinence-only education classes in middle and high school) but so perplexed and shy when I ask what sex is. Instead, these are adults, people who came of age before abstinence-only education was federally mandated. Many of these students have kids of their own, some even have grandkids, and one works at an adult bookstore. Yet, the question, “what is virginity,” so simply and confidently answered at first, proves to be a stumbling block even for this group of experienced adults.

One of the first things I tell them, as I always tell audiences when I do this exercise, is that there is no reliable, distinctive marker of virginity on the body. It is true that most vaginas have a hymen at one point, however, hymens, even before partnered sexual activity, are variable in size. Anatomically, the hymen is a piece of membrane attached to a muscle. Use of that muscle effects the position of that membrane. Far from the absolute barrier it is often conceived to be in the phallocentric imagination, the hymen is more akin to the temporary barriers used to line State street on the day of a home game: a slight impediment, easily moved. The presence of a hymen is no more proof of virginity than its absence is proof of sexual activity.[3] In fact, virginity has neither a definitive anatomical marker nor medical definition. Virginity, in its present form, is an exclusively negative identity, that is, it is defined by not having sex.

As the exercise described above illustrates, most people have a working definition of sex but are hard pressed to put that definition into words. Some of this difficulty is simply The Trouble With Normal, that is, the shame inherent in human sexual activity and talking about sexual activity which Michael Warner describes, but this is not the whole of the issue.[4] Sex is, simultaneously, deeply personal and deeply cultural. Acts that are considered sexual in one time or place may not be in another; of acts that are considered sexual, personal preference will dictate how these acts are engaged in. Perhaps the classic example of this is Rachel Maines The Technology of Orgasm in which she charts the history of the vibrator as a medical necessity and, later, home appliance which rested on the assumption that the hysterical paroxysm induced by clitoral stimulation was not sexual. Maines goes into great detail about how the androcentric view of sex and patriarchal medicalization of women’s bodies worked together to obscure the sexual nature of clitoral massage.[5] I will return to Maines and androcentric definitions of sex in chapter one. For now, the most important point is that definitions of what constitute sex, who can have it, and what it is, are variable over time and across cultures. Therefore, virginity varies as well. In my experience, this idea is shocking to most people who are used to thinking of virginity as a permanent fixture of human life with a single and straightforward meaning. Personally, the idea that virginity is not fixed, but contingent on sex, which is itself culturally constructed, was less shocking to me than the revelation that virginity is primarily an economic construct rather than a moral imperative.

This project began as an attempt to make sense of the seemingly contradictory messages I received about sexuality at school, a few of which are described above. What I have found along the way is that virginity is far more than a temporary identity or a stage of sexual development. It is implicated in economic and political systems across the globe. It is the fundamental form of sexual control of women. Yet, for all this, remarkably few people seem to know what it is. It is tempting to compare virginity to the myriad things in the natural world with which humans coexist but fundamentally do not understand, such as electricity and lightning, but to do so would be to ignore the socially constructed nature of sexual categories, of which virginity is one.

At fourteen, I began to question why virginity seemed so important in Christianity, and exponentially more so for Christian women; I was a child, tugging on a thread to see what would come loose. During my master’s study I began to see virginity as the golden thread showing the path through the maze that is our shared existence through patriarchal systems. At this point, I am beginning to wonder if virginity may not be the maze itself. What follows, are the parts of the maze I have mapped out so far and tentative conclusions about how we may be able to exit the maze at last by embracing a queer phenomenology as the organizing principle of our sexual lives.

[1] One wonder if Mary went to stay with Elizabeth during her pregnancy because her community had a similar response—be with a community of faith, but not ours.

[2] The school I went to was so tiny that it was housed in a small-ish church and school trips often used the church van.

[3] In fact, the popular imagining of a hymen as a barrier that completely covers the opening to the vagina is known as an imperforate hymen and becomes a medical problem at puberty as it prevents menstrual fluid from exiting the body. The build up of menstrual fluid causes other complications which leads the person or her parent to contact a doctor. Once the problem is discovered a small surgery is performed to reduce or remove the hymen to allow for normal menses. To readers not familiar with West Lafayette, IN, State Street is the street that runs through the heart of campus and on days when there is a home game it is lined with movable barriers that are arund knee-height which, I think, are designed to prevent drunk pedestrians from stumbling into the street.

[4] Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 1-5.

[5] Rachel P. Maines, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 10, 50, 55.

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2 thoughts on “The Maze

  1. I am SO happy to have stumbled across this essay. I was tasked with starting a 3mt competition at my university two years ago. Coming from a humanities background myself, I have been increasingly troubled and outraged by the STEM bias. It’s especially clear at regional competitions. Thank you so much for adding lots of important perpectives to many of my own thoughts and feelings.

    1. Hi Briana! I’m so happy you stumbled across my blog as well. I really do love 3MT as an exercise for people to rethink what’s most important about their research but the STEM bias is so frustrating. I’m happy that my reflections resonated with you–it’s good to know I’m not alone 🙂 Do you have links to the competitions you’ve organized?

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