Virgins and Whores

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I swear I didn’t plan my “pitfalls of writing women” series so I would end up making this post in the Christmas season. But since that’s how it’s fallen out . . . let’s talk about virgins and whores.

On the one hand, you have the Madonna, the Virgin Mary, the ideal of womanly goodness. Just look at the words we use to talk about virginity: innocence, purity, or old-fashioned “honesty.” Even now, in the aftermath of free love, our culture still hasn’t let go of the idea that this is where virtue resides; if not in total abstention from (and ignorance of) sexuality, then safely channeled into marital fidelity.

Don’t believe me? Look at the alternative. One of the best-known tropes of horror movies has been memorably dubbed “We’ve Seen Your Breasts; Now You Must Die.” The slut kicks the bucket, while the “good” (i.e. virginal) girl lives on. And even in these enlightened times, it’s the easiest insult to fling at a woman, whether she’s actually promiscuous or not. If she wears revealing clothing, if she talks about sex, she gets tarred with the brush of whoredom. And while our culture has a certain problematic celebration of the slut — just go to a frat party to see — in reality, she isn’t valued. That’s reserved for the virgin.

There’s two things to note here. First, this is a double standard; when’s the last time you heard a guy insulted by being called a stud? And second, it isn’t a spectrum, not for women. It’s not “a little from Column A, a little from Column B.” It’s either/or.

And it’s an unstable either/or, to boot. Purity is always endangered. It cannot survive blemish. Which is why, as many women have discovered to their peril, one step across the line — whether the step is real or just imagined by the beholder — threatens to produce freefall, from virgin to whore in one swift move. A girl cheats on her boyfriend with another guy, or just kisses him, or maybe she isn’t dating anybody at all but the “boyfriend” had staked a claim on her in his own mind, and now she’s violated that claim by being interested in somebody else: instant slut. The problem isn’t him, it’s her. Pushed to extremes, this leads to the logic that if she’s putting out for everybody else, he deserves his share. A woman is either the protected property of one man (her father or her husband), or she’s fair game for all.

It rarely shows up this brazenly in fiction, at least not in ways we’re meant to sympathize with. But believe me when I say this complex is there, an ugly little current pushing female characters toward one pole or the other. Especially once you start to notice the linkage between sexuality and evil, which goes way beyond “the villainness is the one dressed like a hooker.” A woman who crosses the one social boundary is presumed to have crossed all others, too. I saw an incredibly blatant version of this in the Jacobean play The Changeling, where the main female character (I hesitate to call her a heroine) detests the man she’s going to be forced to marry, and therefore has him murdered. She also hates the guy she manipulates into carrying out the murder — but next thing you know, she’s not just in bed with him but apparently in love.

A man can be a murderer and it will have no bearing on his sexual behavior. For a woman, it’s all or nothing: all virtue, or all evil, because one evil inevitably leads to the others.

So this is the pitfall, in three parts: the dichotomy, its linkage with virtue/evil, and the inequality of these standards as applied across the gender divide. It’s also a pointer toward a larger topic — one I’m trying to figure out how to break up into coherent blog posts for upcoming months — which is the general way in which female characters are reduced to their bodies and their sexuality. But in the meantime, if you’re concerned about your own writing or the stories you read, examine them for virgins and whores. Are the bad women sexual, and the good women pure? Is this issue used as fodder for insults, denigration, shaming, or attack? Even if you’re writing in a society (real or invented) where women’s sexuality is policed, there’s a difference between the characters treating it as a flaw, and the author doing the same.

And this issue matters.

It isn’t black and white. Chastity and promiscuity are choices that can have consequences, but one is not inevitably positive and the other inevitably negative.

Unless we make it so. Which is not a world I want to see.