Ritualized chastity

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, October 5, 2011 12:57 EDT
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I'm sure you all have seen the ads for the new Anna Faris movie "What's Your Number", which is built around a head-scratchingly outdated premise, that a woman who has slept with 20 guys would quite literally believe that pushing that number to 21 would push her out of the marriage market forever (and that she would believe it's better to be married to some random dude you have already determined you're not in love with than to not be married at all). Or I would have thought it was an outdated premise—the movie's poor box office showing suggests that may be the case—but Jessica Grose has convincingly argued that there's still a lot of anxiety about women having "too many" partners, and for men there's a lot of anxiety about having "too few". She also starts to crack open the eternal statistical mystery of how men can routinely claim to have more sex partners on surveys than women, which is so consistent that there basically has to be fudging going on, because the men couldn't be having this much sex if the women weren't into it, unless they were having it with each other. (Even the usual explanation—that a small handful of women are the "excess" partners for all these men, doesn't hold up—a greater percentage of men than women claim to have more than 15 partners.) Jessica discovers that part of what's going on is women round down and men round up to meet expectations. Men count oral sex and mutual masturbation as sex and women don't as much. 

What Jessica didn't note was that people just straight up lie on those surveys, too. Researches have found that when you hook survey-takers up to fake polygraph machines, the number of partners that women put down on the surveys nearly doubles. This reflects the double bind that Jessica describes women being in. You don't want to have too few partners, or people will assume you're a prude, but you don't want too many, or people will assume you're a slut. Women's official "number", then, is more reflective of social expecations than their actual behavior. I've even seen, in my time, tongue-in-cheek dating advice that suggests that women settle on some number, usually around 3 or 4, and say that's their number to potential boyfriends who ask, regardless of what the actual number is. 

Which brings me to this interesting article at Jezebel about research done recording sexual mores amongst college kids. Kids were given two nearly identical scenarios.  In both, a couple meets at a party and has a one night stand (locations varied, but the kids didn't seem to think whose house mattered that much). Afterwards, one of the two asks the other on a date, which ends with a kiss but no sex. Where the scenarios diverged was that in one scenario, the man did the asking for the date, and in the other, the woman did.  What researchers found was that in both scenarios, the man and woman were given basically identical motives for the one-night stand, i.e. that they were horny and there was a shot at getting laid. There was some overexplaining for the woman from some students, but it related mainly to overcoming pressure and inhibitions to get to the getting laid. But when it came to the dating part, there was a great deal of divergence.

Things looked different, however, when it came time to explain the date, and the mere kiss that ended it. Many students thought that, in both scenarios, the man and woman might be holding off on sex in order to get to know each other better. However, in scenario A, where the man asks the woman out, the most common explanation for the lack of sex was "redemptive chastity" — that is, the woman wanted to prove to the man that she wasn't slutty. Explains one student, "The first time they met, she probably assumed she would never really see him again so she didn't care what he thought of her. However, after he asks her out, she probably doesn't want him to assume she is a slut or easy so she decides to merely end the date with a kiss." In scenario B, where the woman asks the man out, two explanations were equally common: that both parties want to get to know each other, or that the man didn't really want to see the woman again, and only went out with her out of pity. One student encapsulated the "pity date" scenario thus: "The girl hoped for some kind of relationship. On the second date the guy tried to start getting away from the girl in a gradual way." The study authors add that "justifying their interpretations in explaining the man's sexless behavior, students often brought attention to the fact that it was the woman who asked for the date, indicating that if the man were interested in her, he would have requested the date himself."

Part of this, of course, is the generalized belief that women are all desperate for boyfriends and men are desperate not to be boyfriends. (Reality actually demonstrates that this doesn't hold up at all, because men tend to benefit more from partnering up than women.) But what I also thought was interesting was the performative aspect of chastity. It's strange to me that so many people think it's perfectly normal for a woman to put up the "not a slut" front to a guy who has direct knowledge that she's up for hopping straight into bed with men, or at least him. It's a strange choice on its surface, but what was really weird to me was that there was such a widespread expectation that not-a-slut-ness is a performance that has no relationship to reality. It's not that people don't think women are horny, they just expect women to pretend they're not. In my admittedly radicalized mind, there is literally no reason for this. Everyone involved in the dance knows that women like sex for itself and want it, so why pretend otherwise?  What possible value is there for performing chastity for an audience that knows you don't mean it? 

I tossed that question to my resident dude and informant on all ways patriarchal bullshit, and he said, "Well, it's a ritual, isn't it?" Ah yes, it is a ritual, the same way you go through the ritual of pretending to like your racist and overbearing uncle in order to keep the peace. The expectation here, as articulated by the students, is now that there's a potential relationship, the norms of said relationship need to be set up.  And let's be clear, the norm isn't just female semi-chastity for its own sake—I imagine the young man in this scenario expects sex after a couple of dates, and the young woman does, too. Basically, now that there's going to be a continuing relationship, the ritual of female reluctance is invoked in order to reimagine the relationship as a more traditional, male-dominated one. It's to establish that he's the boss now that their connection is more than fleeting. This is what the researchers also determined:

The study authors sum up the situation thus: "Women are allowed to have fun at parties, but once it becomes a serious matter, traditional gender norms, which affirm men's prerogatives, take precedence."

The charade that he chases and she is caught and seduced is performed even though everyone knows it's a charade, because by going through the motions, his dominant status is established. Even a fake "victory" over a faux-reluctant woman is good for establishing the power dynamic that is all too real in these traditional dating relationships. 

People who scold young women for "hooking up" often claim to have their best interests at heart. They warn of broken hearts and feelings of rejection. I often point out that dating is no cure for broken hearts and feelings of rejection; if anything, dating someone seriously means crying that much harder when it ends. That doesn't mean you shouldn't date, though—life is for the living, and all that. But it also means that you should hook up if that's where your muse takes you. But it's interesting to note that hooking up has one major advantage over dating, which is that it is less likely to invoke these toxic gender norms that are so destructive to women's happiness. Of course, to my mind the solution isn't "stop dating", but to date differently. For instance, don't go through ritualized performance of chastity. Any man who needs that in order to date you is just being sexist, and doesn't deserve to date you. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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