vixen, temptress, slut: the art of telling old + new stories about women



If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories.
If you want to change a culture, change the stories. —
Michael Margolis


I don’t know her name and I’ve never seen her face.

But she haunts me.

Gang-raped in a mobile home on the edge of a small Texan town.

18 boys and men arrested, including two star athletes at the high school. Someone filmed the assault on his cell phone and showed it around (a student reported the video to a teacher, who contacted the police).

At a town meeting held to supposedly “discuss concerns about the case”, people expressed outrage.

Toward the girl.

Slut. Vixen. Asking for it.

Out to ruin the lives of our men!

(The girl is eleven years old.)

“After the meeting, many in attendance told reporters that the girl had consented to the sex.
“She lied about her age. Them boys didn’t rape her. She wanted this to happen. I’m not taking nobody’s side, but if she hadn’t put herself in that predicament, this would have never happened,” said Angie Woods, who lives in Houston but grew up in Cleveland.”

One speaker asked the crowd to contribute to the defense fund for the accused. No one suggested donations for the rape victim, be it for legal or medical or therapeutic expenses.

If these men are presumed innocent until proven guilty – remember that ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ are used here as legal terms, and not actual factual truth – the question surrounding a rape victim seems to be: Just how guilty is she?


There is a story that our culture likes to tell about women.

They use their sexuality to lure, exploit, and ruin men, whether forcing them from the Garden of Eden or the high school football team. As Jessica Valenti points out in her book THE PURITY MYTH, a woman’s character and moral worth are determined not by what she does but what she doesn’t do: have sex.

Her virginity is her innocence.

Lose her virginity, she can no longer be presumed innocent.

Unless, of course, she’s married (or in a monogamous relationship).

She is made legitimate – “an honest woman” – through a man, and if that relationship ends, so does her honesty.

Out to ruin the lives of these men!

A man marries an angel, and divorces a golddigger.


When a woman’s moral character is conflated with her sexuality – preferably the heterosexually appealing, young and nubile kind, that sexily rides the edge of being sexy enough to be appealing but not so sexy that you’re too sexy, because then, even if you’re still a virgin, you’re just a slut – and if that is what she gets judged and evaluated by, and she knows it, what is a girl to do?

A boy might want to have sex with her, and she might want it too. He has something to gain — and she to lose. Unless he’s willing to jump into an instant monogamous relationship (thus valiantly protecting her from the perils of evil sluttery), their interaction can become a kind of game, a sport, a battle ripe for conquest: sex is the prize extracted from the woman’s body.

The traditional “rules” of dating go something like this:

If you let a guy sleep with you too soon, he has no other reason to hang out with you, which means he will never call you back, which is a bad thing, because now you won’t get to marry him.

And this has nothing to do with him, whether or not he’s an asshole, or whether the two of you would have been even remotely compatible in the first place (really, what are the odds?), or the messages he absorbed growing up about how a girl who puts out, especially too soon, must be immoral, guilty, suspect and untrustworthy – vixen, temptress, slut. No no no, the problem is solely and completely that you slept with him without timing it correctly. Ergo, you are no longer worth anything — certainly not worth getting to know.


The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves inform our history, our social norms, our beliefs, our interactions with each other. They establish a framework for our culture that we tend to accept as unquestioned truth. But a culture is not about what is objectively true; it’s about what a group of people have agreed to believe in order to get along and share a reality.

We could (for example) tell a different story about sex, one that emphasizes the fact of mad mutual attraction, of the chemicals the brain releases during and after in order to promote human bonding. Instead of saying that friendship must precede sex (which is, admittedly, never a bad idea), we could add that sometimes it comes after sex; sex itself is the glue that keeps people interested in each other long enough to actually learn about each other, perhaps even venture into the deep ragged edge of true emotional intimacy (not for the faint-hearted). But in order to tell that story, we’d have to tell a deeper, underlying story that values women not for their hymen but for brain and heart and soul, action and accomplishment — none of which changes whether she sleeps with you on the first date, the thirty-fifth date, or never.

But we tell a story about the battle of the sexes: those who conquer and those who are conquered, girls who are pure and girls who are not, girls to sleep with after you marry and girls to sleep with before you marry someone else. Boys will be boys, after all (innocent until proven guilty), and so the girl must dress and act in a way that protects both him and her from his own desires (that he’s somehow not fully responsible for in the first place).

The battle of the sexes.

Language frames thought frames perception frames reality: sex as war: woman becomes a natural resource to be claimed, tamed, opened and mined for gold. In places like the Congo, mass rape serves to murder the soul of a people. You have to kill a man to truly kill him, but raping a woman is enough, her worth taken, her self so disposable that her own family or village will refuse to take her back. She is alive, and yet dead to them.

So the story goes.


What if we told a story that didn’t rank the genders, but stressed instead our interdependence, even as we all have the right to be the heroes of our own lives (instead of supporting players in someone else’s)?

What if we looked at our society not as a collection of individuals, but of relationships that influence each other? Hurt someone with less power than you, hurt the system, hurt yourself: actions ripple out in a way that ripples back to you.

What if we told our sexuality as an expression of our humanity, and not an annihilation of it, that men and women both must value and safeguard?

What if we retold the Adam and Eve story to express a different truth: about how human beings are wired, not for lounging around fruit trees all day, but challenge and meaning? What if the snake was a wake-up call to the adventure of the human experience, and when they left the garden she wasn’t walking behind him. They were side by side, hand in hand, knowing that each would be lost without the Other.

If the boys and men accused of raping this eleven year old child had grown up within the context of these other stories, these alternative stories, would they still have allegedly done what they allegedly did?

There’s a Hopi American Indian proverb:

Those who tell the stories, rule the world.

If we want a different world, perhaps we need to tell different stories.

What story are you participating in, right now? Are you contributing to it, rebelling against it, or seeking, in your own way, to transform it?

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Oct 15, 2011

15 comments · Add Yours

Great post. Hopefully I am here to transform it with my writings and examples I set throughout life.


Wow. Blown away. Best thing you’ve written.

I’m off to share it.


It’s kind of sad really that you even had to write this post. That we can’t see people for the individuals that they are. That people feel the need to lable each other.
I’m about as hard core a libertarian as you can get, so my blind spot is I forget, or or maybe I just don’t want to believe it of people, that not everyone looks at a person and sees an individual.
Thanks for the reminder,


Don’t forget that you can also be condemned for being a virgin. You’re labeled a “tease”. You’re ridiculed and taunted, called “tight”. Especially if she wears clothes that are a little more revealing than what a virgin *should* wear.


Beautiful post. Your questions at the end are poignant. We are all participating in a story one way or another, whether or not we’re aware. We have to question our words, choices, and actions to see if we are comfortable with the story we’re perpetuating. If not, we have to take action. We have to speak up. Dominant stories in our culture are not going to change quickly, seamlessly or without a fight.


they shoot horses don’t they

tell the stories …


God, I loved this. Mostly because it aroused so much anger in me. Funny how that goes.

As someone called a slut since I hit puberty (regardless of the fact that I was a virgin until 18), I understand this one all too well. You’re pretty, but you can’t be too pretty. If you wear something revealing, you’re either showing your power or casting it in shadow. The never-ending set of “rules” of what it means to be a woman inside or outside of a relationship is steeped in contradiction, prepared in dogma, and served up piping hot in Cosmopolitan.

Wonderful post, Justine.


Wow! Great post. Sexuality is used against women in so many ways it’s maddening.


Sexuality IS great power. Sexuality is the last of the great gifts, potent whether tapped or not.

It is too true that rape kills a woman in some indefinable way….even when no one else knows about it. It kills a sense of…integrity even years later. We overeat to hide our gorgeous bodies under layers of disgusting fat so that no one else will ever slake his lust without love again. The outside matches the inside, the quavering questions of, “Am I really worth something with no physical manifestation of self?” “I wouldn’t be received as well if I weren’t pretty, so what happens when the beauty fades?”

In a strange way, I think the Muslims and the pagans have a better grasp on sexuality than Christians do. Pagans celebrate the fertility and beauty of a woman’s ability to grow new life in myriad rituals, and Muslims make it impossible to desire a woman based on her shape, her hair, or her facial beauty. You must desire a woman for the clarity of her speech, the wisdom she’s collected, and her acts of service first. Only then can you go deeper with her in a binding ritual which, properly executed, transforms man and woman into something indefinably greater than they were before the act.

The problem with current culture is our understanding of the mysteries of sex are so shallow & fleeting, the full gorgeousness of it is left unprobed. It’s a bit like eating a jalepeno pepper when it’s still a flower. You miss the point entirely.
Hormones force “connection” when it’s still immature and nowise ready–like extreme hunger would ignore unripened fruit.


@Jeanie I can’t agree that forcing a woman to cover herself is somehow honoring her ‘deeper’ self simply because it makes it more convenient for the man to deal with her without being distracted by pesky lust (and makes her responsible for ‘provoking’ that lust) — I can’t believe that any culture (including our own, although we’re working on it) that puts woman in the one-down position is coming from a place where they can see her as a person, and not first and foremost as an object. (Look at how, in your comment, you assume that the man is the subject who desires and the woman is the object who is desired — where, in that equation, is the space for female desire, female sexual experience?) If any relationship is one-up, one-down, it’s not about true recognition of each other so much as manipulation and power (whether it’s preserving it or chafing or rebelling against it or maneuvering around it).

No one dictates to me when I am ripe enough to eat — or the kind of meal I “need” to have in order to be a decent worthy person. I am in a loving relationship with a man who does respect and honor my inner being (as well as my outer), but it (or I) is in no way diminished by any of the experiences that came before it, be it a ten-year marriage or a casual college affair: those were the experiences I needed when I needed them to learn what I needed to know in order to evolve as both a human and spiritual being. I am, as a woman, fortunate that I live in a time and culture where I had the free agency to do that without getting stoned, either literally or metaphorically.

The point is not to ignore desire, or beauty, or sex appeal — we are human beings, we can’t do that — but to understand the humanity that comes along with all of that, and to RESPECT IT UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. There *is* depth and gorgeousness in that. We are not flowers. We are not fruit. We are human beings (with hormones). And there are different kinds and degrees of connection.


You’re right about sex being the connection. My DH and I had a hot and heavy lust affair for two years before we realized we needed a bit more to build a relationship on. Thirty years later we are friends and confidantes and gasp, still lovers. If you asked me I would say to be friends first, but that’s not what really happened for me.

I know you hit hot buttons when you talk about religion or people’s sacred stories. I am religious but have also been thinking a lot about the book Ishmael where the gorilla points out that our sacred (Christian) story teaches us to “dominate” the earth rather than care for it or be one with it. Your stories hit me the same way. Our sacred stories served a purpose but maybe that purpose has changed or is no longer needed and it’s time to move on to the next plane.


The same thing happend in a small town in Sweden. A girl was raped by a guy in her school, at the school toilet, and when she pressed charges against him everyone ganged up against her cus he was a good student, a “good” person etc etc.
The whole fucking town was against her, and when it was time for her graduation the townpriest even invited the rapist to åarticipate so that she would have to face him there. ofcourse thousands of people in Sweden caused a riot because of this, but i haven´t heard much about it after that,but i´m pretty sure that the priest lost his job(and hopefully his priesthood, although i doubt it) and that the rapist was put in jail(although he´s probably in a “youth prison” and rapists only get 2 years in this fucking country).
i think the girl was 16 and the boy 17.
sick country. sick world


This is such a great post. I love the connections you’ve made between the stories we tell and our assumptions about virginity/purity/innocence. Such a great post. Well said!


Excellent thoughts. Even better connections made.


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