The Penetration Fixation
We might as well get it out of the way straight off the bat: I did not have sexual intercourse until I was 21. In that way, I was a “technical virgin” until well after college and, even though I had been sexually active since senior year of high school, by the time I was 20, I had somehow become completely obsessive about “going all the way”. Or, more precisely, about “still not having gone all the way”, which I didn’t realize then are two very different things: I thought it was about sex when it really was about social status. I remember vividly having a discussion with friends, back when we left for college and half of us still had our flowers intact, and someone told me “You can start worrying when Tom has done it and you haven’t.“ Tom is a very good friend of mine and an amazing guy but he was just really shy and pretty clueless with girls. Sure enough, two years later, Tom got a girlfriend and a lot of action while I started hating the fact that I would be the last of my circle to lose my virginity. [Side note: I really resent the concept of virginity but, as I have explained before, I have to use popular language if I want to be critical of it.]
In retrospect, beside the fact that 21 years old is actually not that late in life to have sex for the first time, I really don’t think that ticking that one box felt that earth-shatteringly new in comparison with everything else I had experienced with other guys [Side note: and the one girl; ah, high school.] Yet, before I did, I remember feeling completely alienated whenever people around me shared personal info about their sexual prowesses. Not that I really minded listening to relatively generic anecdotes about threesomes and whatnot, but the sense of validation that those stories seemed to give them often made me question my own existence as a sexual, if not human, being. It wasn’t just the fact that I looked like a total prude when we played Never Have I Ever, but the idea that non-penetrative sex wasn’t really sex —with its subtle implication that “If it’s just eating, it’s not cheating!“— upset me insofar as the carnal knowledge that I’d gained since I was 16 felt very real to me. And yet, here I was: a perennial figure of underachieving lovemaking with a big phallic chip on my shoulder. I know an existential crisis over coitus (or lack thereof) sounds disproportionate and juvenile, but I find it is one of the core components of contemporary pop culture, and methinks that part of the issue thence stems.
The idea that sexual activity defines social status is a pretty common axiom in popular entertainment. The plots of American Pie, Cruel Intentions, Superbad and many other teen movies revolve (almost exclusively) around it. The situation is usually pretty straightforward with male characters: the guys who have a lot of sex are studs while the virgins are nerds who can’t get laid —but, not to worry, as soon as they do, they instantly become cooler. Young women, on the other hand, often find themselves caught in this double-bind where not having sex amounts to social ineptitude yet having sex to moral depravation. As a rule, female characters in teen movies tend to define themselves —and one another— depending on how sexually active they are. Just look at Clueless‘s Tai calling Cher “a virgin who can’t drive“, not to mention the Burn Book from Mean Girls:
“Dawn Schweitzer is a fat virgin.”
“Amber D’Alessio. She made out with a hot dog.”
“Janis Ian, dyke.”
“She is a fugly slut.”
I sense a theme here, and it’s clearly not bad hair.
The worst of this tendency to define femininity in relation to sexual activity is exemplified in the way that younger pop singers tend to situate themselves on one of the only two available archetypes of feminine identity: prude or whore, incarnated respectively by Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. With regards to Swift, I couldn’t put it better than Helen Charman:
“When she isn’t sitting by the phone sobbing into her inexplicably formal domestic attire waiting for this lava lamp in human form to sweep her off her feet, she’s labelling any other woman who dares to exist around the object of her affections as a promiscuous whore of Babylon figure, tempting these poor hapless men astray: it is almost always seen to be the woman’s fault, removing any agency or blame from the man in equation. For Swift, who has openly declared herself not a feminist, female sexual emancipation is a synonym for promiscuity: she speaks of this universal other woman variously as being ‘known for the things that she does on the mattress’ (Better than Revenge), and as the kind of girl who wears ‘short skirts’ (You Belong With Me), the hardly subtle implications of the latter really hammered home in the video in which the virginal Swift’s man is messed around by a wanton brunette in a red dress.”
Meanwhile, Cyrus is twerking up a storm in her video for We Can’t Stop, her FOURTH song about how much she likes to party after her Girls Just Wanna Have Fun cover, Party in the USA and Can’t Be Tamed (no joke, I actually ran into her at a club in L.A. so I’m just thinking “WE GET IT, MILEY.”) Granted, she isn’t singing about sex in a literal way but the idea that “being wild is the coolest” is not that much of a stretch either, given the numerous up-the-crotch shots and her general tendency to stick her tongue out in the We Can’t Stop video, both of which seem to me like a desperate cry for “Look at how fuckable I am!” And frankly, there is nothing wrong with her being fuckable or wanting to be fuckable or even wanting to get fucked because it’s her body, she can do what she wants. [Side note: For a while, I really thought that was how the song went, but I recently realized she wasn’t giving us Gloria Steinem realness at all, because it actually goes “It’s our party, we can do what we want”, which sounds more like what my bratty classmates used to say when, back in the jour, I would express doubt about pulling pranks on passed out guests at social events. Again: ah, high school.] But, just as it took me a while to realize that I didn’t suddenly become socially relevant the day I had intercourse for the first time, Cyrus and Swift should probably stop trying to convince their audience, which we all know consists significantly of girls in the process of building their identity as young women, that life revolves around this mythical Axis of Slutness —which, I’m sure, looks like a stripper pole.
The reason for this dichotomy —and I’m really just speaking from what I hear around me every day— might be that, after menses, sexual activity is the most common trigger for the phrase “My [insert relationship to the female person here] is finally a woman!” Clearly, the ability to breed seems to equate womanhood in that scenario and popular entertainment has certainly not helped break that barrier. Take How I Met Your Mother, for instance: every single female character on that show is defined in relation to motherhood. Obviously, any woman Ted dates throughout the series is a potential candidate for the eponymous character, but even Lily and Robin have had to define their identity as women according to whether they wanted/were able to become mothers. [Spoiler Alert: This isn’t necessarily an issue, considering how subtly and rather touchingly they handled Robin grieving over not being able to have children even though she didn’t want any in the first place, and how she ended up having a very fulfilling life all the same. But could she not just as well have had an awesome kidless life by choice and never looked back like the (surprise, surprise!) male character of Barney?]
But back to the metaphysics of sex. I recently discovered that the word “coitus” only designates heterosexual intercourse, and that even the concept of “intercourse” used to refer exclusively to heterosexual activities. What that tells us is that, to put it prosaically, if the penis of a man is not penetrating a woman’s vagina, NEWSFLASH: YOU’RE NOT REALLY HAVING SEX! Considering how many Muslim women resort to anal sex so they can still be considered virgins when they get married, that actually makes a lot more sense than one would think. This leaves us homosexuals in an awkward position (pun intended). I was once discussing with a lesbian student of mine how there was a double-standard that allowed heterosexuals to ask LGBT people intimate questions that they would otherwise never ask a straight person. Clearly, the one that always takes the cake is “But when you have sex with someone, which one plays the man and which one plays the woman?” [Side note: She had the singlemost amazing response to that: “When you use chopsticks, do you wonder which one is the fork and which one is the knife?“] The question is very revealing in that same-sex relations are seen by those who ask it as make-believe versions of what real sex is about, in the same way that, when two children play house, one is always the mom and the other is the dad [Side note: I’m looking forward to the day when one is the single dad and the other is his gender-variant kid.] I understand it’s not ill-intended, but it’s exactly the kind of heteronormative thinking that led me, and certainly still does many other young people, to think that not only being a virgin wasn’t cool but also that sex should go a certain way to be viewed by others as legitimate and real. This participates in queer-erasure in that lesbians and gays never really make the transition from adolescence to adulthood unless they emulate heterosexual practices, and in rape culture in that it pushes penetration as the only true sex act. [Side note: I acknowledge I am using a very strong term here but I do know many women —and men, for that matter— who gave in and had intercourse when they didn’t really want to but felt they “had to” because they “wanted to make it count.” To me, that borders on date rape but, hey, what do I know?] Considering that, when not using protection, it increases the risk of unwanted pregnancies, not to mention the spread of STDs, I don’t think it’s very wise to belittle non-penetrative sexual practices.
At the end of the day, sex is what you make of it and it should be less about performance and more about enjoyment. Which brings me to the most ironic thing about this piece: I actually really like intercourse.