Love in Limbo

The paradoxes of dating and mating.

The Paradox Of Virgins And Vamps

Sexual power or pawns?

Abstinence virginityThe busty, beautiful college student sat across from me in our first session wearing a tight t-shirt that said "I bring men to tears". She was smart, outspoken and sexy and called herself a feminist. She was also frustrated, confused and upset. "I like that I embrace my sexuality and I love the attention I get from men. I like being able to make the first move - so why do I feel used afterwards when I'm the one who starts it?" She reminded me somehow of another young woman I had been working with who guarded her virginity as her "precious gift" to save for marriage - while making sure to mention it on first dates like a badge of honor. She kept boyfriends on the line with provocative clothing and oral sex. This client was also confused and upset, complaining that yet another guy who at first put her on a pedestal had deceived her - overtly conducting their relationship by her rules while covertly having casual sex with willing others.

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What do these two women have in common? I think their root issue is the same. They have both learned to objectify their own sexuality in response to men's wishes and influence - one in the name of liberation and the other in the name of "Christian values". They have not integrated their body parts and desires into congruent aspects of their own identities. As a result they both give mixed signals (but in opposing ways) in response to male behavior - and men call their bluffs by playing a game they already know they will win.

Like it or not sex has always been and is still a bigger bargaining chip for females than males in the dating marketplace since men,on average, place a higher value on it. Of course there will always be individuals who don't match group norms but this academic review sums up the research:

"On every measure, men were found to display greater sexual motivation than women. Specifically, men think about sex more often, have more frequent fantasies, are more frequently aroused, desire sex more often (both early and late in relationships and outside of relationships), desire a higher number of sex partners, masturbate more frequently, are less willing to forego sex and are less successful at celibacy (even when celibacy is supported by personal religious commitments), enjoy a greater variety of sexual practices, take more risks and expend more resources to obtain sex, initiate more goal directed behavior to get sex, refuse sex less often, commence sexual activity sooner after puberty, have more permissive and positive attitudes toward most sexual behaviors, are less prone to report a lack of sexual desire, and rate their sex drives as stronger than women."1

This pattern leaves some women in a quandary, even in the 21st century. Post-modern feminists like my client try to level differences by saying they gain power, autonomy, and control by being as free to make sexual overtures and have as much casual sex as men. Friends with benefits and hook-ups are equal-opportunity experiences for both sexes. But women who have sex purely for pleasure or with many partners are still called "sluts" or "whores" (mostly by other women) and much more likely regret the experience and feel worse about themselves afterwards. See Unhooked and What Women Want, What Men Want  for more thorough exploration of these phenomena over two decades.

Some women, like my second client, capitalize on the gender differences in sexuality by treating their genitals as precious commodities to be preserved and bartered, flaunting the promise of sexual access to hold a man's attention and get a marriage proposal. It's not surprising that "purity balls"  are just for fathers and daughters. If it's so important a family value why not have balls for the mothers and sons? One young woman went to extremes to make a point this year by offering up her virginity to the highest bidder and got an offer for $3.8 million (by a married man whose wife prohibited him from following through). She said she did it because the topic of her master's thesis was "the dichotomization of virginity and prostitution". Here she is on the Tyra show.

Seems to me, luring with the enticement of nookie while withholding it sets up a challenge that attracts exactly the kind of narcissistic and patriarchal guys who are most likely to treat relationships like a game and objectify women. The Rules books, which talk about "capturing the heart of Mr. Right", and works in the growing pick-up artist genre such as The Manual (Steve Santagati) and The Game (Neil Strauss) along with websites like The Seduction Chronicles  and Pick-Up Artist Life play right into this scenario. The gaming and commoditizing of love relationships is more popular than ever.

I respect women who are genuinely committed to waiting to share intercourse for the first time until after marriage. But I don't believe they are best served by using blatant sexuality as a carrot, rationalizing oral and anal sex as a way to "save themselves" or becoming "born again virgins"  if they slip up when they do what they really wanted to do all along. I also respect women who joyfully and freely embrace sexual expression in whatever way really works for them and harms no one. Ultimately what's most important to healthy sexual well-being is the strength to abide by one's own true beliefs without manipulation, mixed signals and denial of parts of oneself in order to please a man or "capture" love.  Love that is captured is not love at all.

See John Buri's blog post, Passion In A Hookup Culture  for another psychologist's view on dating and mating today.

1. Baumeister, R.F., Catanese, K.R., & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 242-273.

Copyright Linda R. Young 2009, all rights reserved

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

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