Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mid-Week Memo: The Virgin

Note: This is Part 1 in a 3-part series discussing Chastity, Purity, and Promiscuity.

The other day, Rosa,* 16, confessed to us that she had been raped when she was 9 by a family friend. "I'm fine now," she told us. Her voice wavered but her strength and poise was obvious. She seemed to have accepted what had happened and moved on. But our hearts broke when when she shared how it's affected the way she looks at love and sex:

"[My boyfriend now] knows what I've been through, and he don't even kiss me. We'll hold hands and he'll ask me if it's okay. I met him at church. There was a time where I came out to the church, because they were like, "Come up to the altar if you need healing because you've been raped or molested." So I went up there and he started praying for me...and I finally was able to give my problem to God. I really struggled with forgiveness, but now that I've started to go to church, I've forgiven the man who raped me. It was wrong, it was a mistake he did, but in God's eyes, I'm still a virgin, I'm still pure."

Our stomachs sank, not only because Rosa had been hurt, or because she was only a child when it happened, but because she fundamentally felt stained by the rape. No matter how she had let her life blossom, the most important thing to restore after she was raped was her "purity"--her virginity. Now that Rosa had gotten a second chance at guarding her sexuality, she barely lets her boyfriend touch her. On some level, she was admitting that she will forever think of sex as something to defend herself against, not to enjoy.

The reason for this dread is partly psychological--no 9-year-old is ready for sex, much less outright violation. But the social construct of virginity and purity is also so ingrained in our culture that who can blame Rosa for feeling impure and dirty? Why are we so fascinated by this tiny little piece of skin that, up until a few decades ago, was usually not even up to a woman to "give up"? Virginity is still a huge deal. Virginal pop stars are alternately idolized and scorned. "Virginity pledges" in the shadow of abstinence-only education are on the rise. Teenage girls constantly fret about what makes you "technically a virgin" (see Schechter's movie trailers, below). Not to mention that the whole idea of virginity is based on heterosexual relationships, leaving an entire population of homosexual women and men out of the equation.

Most unfairly, people couldn't care less about teenage boys losing their virginities. Guarding sexuality is almost purely, so to speak, on the shoulders of a woman, implying that the only one who would even want to have sex is unquestionably the man. Rape will always be unthinkably painful, but it could be a lot easier to heal from it as a young girl without the added job of "gatekeeper."

Emma and I have been obsessed with the topic of virginity ever since this road trip began. Emma is sinking her teeth into Hanne Blank's Virgin: The Untouched History, and I've been patiently waiting for Therese Schechter’s documentary The American Virgin (her website is where I stole that cherry photo). Schechter calls virginity "the cornerstone of Western civilization." It's a term that's only started to be questioned and broken down, and pop culture has a long way to go before they quit dichotomizing Madonna and whore.

*name has been changed

Discussion Question 1
Discussion Question 2

Monday, May 26, 2008

Chicago: DELIZA

Deliza is one of the ladies we've met through Step Up Women's Network. We got to know her a little while back when we profiled her for Student of the Month (check out the article here), which is an honor given by Step Up to a particularly inspiring, diligent, and committed young woman who is part of the Teen Empowerment program. Deliza (left, in her pantry-turned-studio at home) is 16, was raised in Puerto Rico and Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, goes to North Grand high school, and plans to be a famous singer/dancer/choreographer (she already writes her own songs).

Deliza freely told us her steadfast opinions on everything from teen pregnancy to women's roles in the Latino community, but "feminism" was a new word and concept for Deliza. Emma and I tried as best we could to explain the many facets of what feminism could mean. We gave her a little history, told her that it's all wrapped up in choices, happiness, sex, family, love. We quoted one of her fellow Step Up girls, Maryann, who said that "being a feminist is not feeling like you just have to be in the kitchen and pop out babies." This is what Deliza had to say:

"If someone called me a feminist, I think I would agree. It's like what Maryann said, there are so many opportunities out there. You don't have to be what people want you to be. I am going to take a stand for it...You know when your parents tell you, 'You can do anything you want'? I really took that into consideration. I believe I can do whatever I want, and no one's going to stop me. Not a man, not a female, not the government, not Bush. I am my own person. So with the definition that you guys have given me, I would see myself as a feminist."


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Overheard in Chicago #2: DARYL and JOEY

A coincidence: While Emma was out of town, I had two unrelated but quite similar conversations about GIRLdrive and our stance on international feminism. We've touched on this issue a few times (Siman from Phoenix had a lot to say about it), but it has not come up in a while.

The first conversation I had was with Daryl, a 25-year-old behavior consultant for an organization providing services for people with autism. She works in Berkeley but was in town for a conference, and I met her randomly at the tail end of Saturday night. When we got on the topic of the very American story of GIRLdrive, Daryl had a lot to say. "Our struggles are nothing compared to what international women go through," she commented over an Old Style. "I know you guys are trying to figure out where American feminism is headed, but in my daily life, I feel fine. I feel like I can say what I want and do what I want for the most part." Although tentatively identifying as a feminist, Daryl made it clear that basic human rights were her priority--and not necessarily sweating the "small stuff."

The next day, I heard something similar--from a boy. Joey, a twentysomething dude from Humboldt Park, Chicago, was in a car with me and happened to ask me why I moved to Chicago. I told him, and he had a similar reaction to Daryl's: "When I think of what needs to be done in terms of feminism, I think of other countries. It's all relative."

What do you guys think about this issue? Should GIRLdrive go global? Or is the search for feminism via a Chevy Cavalier a very specific American trope? Tell us your thoughts.