I was strolling alongside the Charles River on a beautiful summer evening, soaking in the warm air and cotton candy sky overhead, accompanied by a friend a few years my junior, who was visibly uneasy. Shortly after we began our walk, she professed that she was seeking advice. I remained calm and encouraging, but my inner thoughts began to spin. The suspense was killing me. This young woman was a perfectionist by all definitions (I even jokingly asked her to clean my apartment once), and was a sincere, genuine person with a golden heart. I couldn’t imagine what was troubling her this much. Finally, she broke the news: “I hooked up with this guy on Saturday night, and we’re not even dating”. Side note: For the intrigued readers, I’m going to keep the “hook up” definition vague throughout this post. After I stifled my laughter, I candidly told her that based on her level of disquiet, I’d figured she had either decided to move across the country, or opted to start dipping her French fries in McFlurries. Jokes aside, after I had ensured that everything was consensual, I asked her if she had feelings for this person, to which she responded exceedingly positively. Finally, I let out a deep exhale and admitted, “Okay, I’m not entirely following. What is making you feel so guilty?”
“I don’t want to be that girl,” she responded. I couldn’t help it. “What do you mean by that girl?”, I implored, even though I knew precisely what she meant. She confirmed my suspicions, explaining that she didn’t want to be seen as “easy” or “give anything away too soon”. My friend proceeded to tell me that when her partner had asked if she wanted to “go further,” she told him, “I don’t want you to think that I’m that girl.” She continued to explain that she was initially encouraged to confide in me because she knows that I’m openminded and supportive, while she anticipated her other friends’ responses would be overtly judgmental. I was appalled that young, educated women in the 21st century, amidst the multifarious women’s marches, fight for equal pay, and other movements that have actively been changing the status of women across the world, still thought this way. My immediate reaction was to announce that no one has a right to impose their opinions on anyone’s sexual decisions. It’s your body, your choice. My body, my choice. Any friend who doesn’t respect that motto either a) needs a self-help book on how to be a supportive friend or, b) should probably check the year; we’re almost in 2020, not 1840. Yet, I digress, because this isn’t just an issue amongst friend groups. It’s a societal predicament.
Back to that girl. Why are we so daunted with the fear of being that girl, or having others think of us as that girl? And who exactly is that girl? In my opinion, that girl is the woman who feels freed, liberated, and empowered to consensually explore her own sexuality, without fear of what others think, from the woman who dies without ever having sex, to the woman who consensually hooked up with whomever she so desired. Low and behold, society is still judging, using both of these women as tokens to emulate how other females ought not to behave sexually. They’re either “too sexy” or “too prude”. Exhibit A: I went to Boston College, a Jesuit University, and during hockey season, our Boston University opponents opted to jab at us for being a “Catholic School”. (Still don’t quite understand what’s so insulting about that.) We responded that they were our “safety school” because that is the pretentious a-hole community that comprised the majority of my university. Yes, this is all very immature in retrospect. Anyways, on a subway ride home one night, a Boston University fan, peeved that they’d just lost a huge hockey match to Boston College, saw my ‘Eagles’ hat, and yelled across the subway, “You may have won tonight but I bet you’re still a virgin! Catholic School!” Yes, I was indeed still a “virgin,” though I did not quite grasp the affront he was so admirably attempting.
I may be the anomaly in thinking that that girl is pretty awesome, as she recognizes the power and privilege to make her own choices and stands for all women who wish to do the same, without judgement or backlash from others. While many women openly enjoy their own sexual liberty, more often than not, they also impose these limiting double standards and stereotypes on other women. That is, some of the most sexually liberal or conservative women I’ve known have also been some of the most judgmental of other women and their personal sexual journeys. Ironically, however, while they are judging that girl, they are simultaneously sabotaging their own freedom simply by falling into those deeply-ingrained “slut-shaming” or “virgin-shaming” (if that’s even a thing) words, phrases, and attitudes.
In an egalitarian world, no one would regret their consensual, pleasurable, happy sexual experiences. When I asked a male friend if he ever felt guilty or ashamed after a casual sexual encounter, he responded: “Don’t think so? Guilt would mean something wrong was done. If two adults decide to hook up consensually, I don’t see why there would be guilt.” However, women around the world receive a universal message that their sexual experiences must align to what society expects: women are shunned for sexual exploration, while men are rewarded. Any logical person would say, in a heterosexual relationship, it takes both a man and a woman to tango. If men are rewarded while women are eschewed, there’s bound to be a loser every time (and if you’re astute, you’ll notice that it’s clearly the latter). I once wrote a thesis on this double standard, and where it stems from, which I found to date all the way back to the Virgin Mary (Yes, basically forever ago). Regardless of religious beliefs, this is another example depicting how exactly sexual expectations set women up for failure, because many of us do not expect to wake up magically pregnant without having had sex in the first place. Otherwise, there would be another Guinness World Records book, dedicated solely to the suspicious Virgin Mary’s of the world: The women able to birth children without having any sexual intercourse (or IVF). As funny as this Virgin Mary rant may seem, the immense amount of pressure placed on a woman’s first time can definitely be attributed to these religious sentiments.
Aside from the aforementioned limited stereotypes and expectations, the sexual double standard is also problematic in terms of setting expectations for healthy relationships. I’ve had girlfriends jump with joy at being asked out to breakfast or on a second date with someone they spent the night with after the first date. I quickly lost all the hard-earned enthusiasm I was putting into the half-hearted “Awww’s” and pivoted to a more sarcastic, “You did indeed spend a night together, and if you can deal with the snoring, morning breath, day-after-night-out hair do’s, and stranger sheet germs, I think you’re ready for a breakfast or second date.” However, they figured that since they had “given whatever away” in the first night, that guy would not be interested in pursuing a relationship. Even more acerbically, I would respond, “Sister, given the way biology works, there’s a 99% chance that he had to give away whatever you did.” Side note: Again, to the curious readers, I am not planning to explore the exceptions to that statement in this post.
The contrasting principles surrounding female sexuality is additionally limiting for well-being and self-care. Young women have asked me about birth control instead of their own mothers, for fear of what they will think of “the pill”. Side note: When I was twenty-one, I went on birth control for acne, and was even afraid to tell my own mother. I didn’t know the details at the time, but I am now fully aware that birth control can be used for a multitude of reasons, including regulating menstruation cycles, abating acne, normalizing hormones, lowering chances of contracting ovarian cancer, and of course, preventing 99.9999% of pregnancies if used correctly. In other words, it is another form of basic healthcare, that instead of denouncing, we should be encouraging.
This double standard is also problematic for men, which is something we oftentimes do not consider. Women are taught that they have something to protect and preserve, while men assume the duty of pursuing and persisting. You can bring these expected behaviors all the way back to hunter-gatherer days. While women protected their offspring, men hunted. However, regardless of where they come from, these binary roles are beyond limiting. My shy, introverted male friends are deeply discomforted by their “duty” to walk up to women at parties, in coffee shops, be the first to message on Tinder, etcetera. Meanwhile, personally, when I like someone, I’m blunt. I don’t play the stupid 21st century “Chase me, wink, wink” games. Instead, I prefer to be direct and to the point. Anything else is a waste of time, in my opinion. My latest boyfriend told me that I was a “unique wheel”. In hockey bro slang that means, as a woman, I was direct with him, which happens to be an anomaly and more often than not a “red flag” when it comes to women and dating. After all, society expects us to be the protectors, not the pursuers.
Sexism is reinforced in a myriad of ways, both subtly and overtly. The double standard surrounding promiscuity maintains a very pernicious power. Looking across various surveys, women are consistently viewed less favorably in accordance with their ascending number of sexual partners. Throughout these studies, the phenomenon demonstrates to be pervasive, as female acquaintances alongside close friends were more looked down upon for the greater number of sexual partners they had. Results from one of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website demonstrated: “Women were ‘increasingly derogated as the number of sexual partners increased,’ but men were not. This pattern held whether the people doing the judging were male or female.” Regardless of whether these results amount to the perception that as women have more sexual partners they break more societal norms, or some simple arbitrary number that individuals hold in their minds as an “acceptable” number of partners, we are (men and women alike), yet again, allowing society to impose limitations on others’ bodies and our own.
Personally speaking, the most striking aspect of this stereotype, double standard, or whatever you choose to call it, surrounds the policy implications it holds. Rape Shield Laws exist so that past sexual history or behavior of rape victims is not permitted as evidence in a court case. While I fully and wholeheartedly support this law, the fact that it must exist in the first place is unfathomable. By that I mean, this law exists because there are human beings who would leverage a woman’s alleged historical promiscuity to prove that a rape is justifiable or should not be classified as an unwanted sexual advance. Far too often we hear of sexual assault cases, and some of the first responses are, “Was she drinking?” or “What was she wearing?” I’ve even heard, “She was asking for it,” or “She probably reported it because she regrets having sex with him.” As you’re reading this, you may be thinking of similar comments. While these impulsive reactions are so deeply entrenched in our common ways of thinking, it is pivotal that we consider exactly why these comments are wrong, as well as prejudicial and detrimental for women.
As cliché as it may sound, we are the ones with the power to change these harmful norms. As you can see, it’s not just about altering our language around women and their personal sexual choices. Instead, it’s about transforming the perception around sex and intimacy more generally speaking. The more we talk about sex naturally and transitively destigmatize it, both genders will see less unplanned pregnancies and fewer sexually transmitted diseases. Women and men will begin to seek sexual healthcare from an early age, meaning birth control, condoms, STD testing, etcetera. Women and men will pursue healthy, supportive, and equal relationships, inside and outside of the bedroom. Women will no longer be panged with guilt or remorse when telling their friends about their own sexual experiences. Men will no longer feel as though if they don’t act now, someone else will “conquer” the apple of their eye. Most importantly for myself, while we revamp our outlook on sexuality and the nearly ubiquitous double standard around females and sex, violence against women will no longer be upheld, as it currently is through our microaggressions. Let’s all start by being that girl or that guy. The one who makes choices for herself, knowing that others’ judgements are not permitted on her body. The one who doesn’t feel obligated to chase anyone, and wholeheartedly respects a woman’s choices for her own body. I want to be that girl and I want more men in my life to be that guy. This is only the beginning of the journey to equality, but an important and necessary place to start.