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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