Monday, June 25, 2007

In Which Belle Does Something Against Her Better Judgment

I should be working in anticipation of doing a lovely amount of nothing when I visit my parents, and I have to figure out how to get around my self-imposed blogger code of conduct about not writing about my current personal life or romantic status, but here goes:

WTF of the Day, Courtesy of the New York Times:

"My Virginity Went From Choice to Burden":

When you are a young woman of childbearing years, most visits to the doctor inspire some form of inquiry about the state of your uterus. At my college health clinic, it didn’t matter what you went in for: pinkeye, sprained ankle, heavy drinking. Anything seemed to be a potential symptom of pregnancy.

At 19, seeking a Z-Pak or Robitussin with codeine, I was able to laugh the question off easily. “I’m still a virgin,” I’d say to the doctor, nurse practitioner, receptionist — whoever it was who asked. My virginity seemed so utterly normal to me at the time, and it was. Many of my friends were still virgins then, too. I was a late bloomer; I was choosy. And anyway, who wants to have sex in a twin bed?

As the sexless years ticked by, though, I became less forthcoming with the details of my virginity.

By that point, if I was to keep the promise I made to myself at 21 (to lose my virginity by the time I turned 25), I had only one more year. Four years had once seemed impossibly far away. But as that birthday loomed ever larger on my mental calendar, my lingering virginity began to loom larger as well, until I entered a state of near panic and told myself it was time to meet someone, anyone, and get it over with.

So I looked — in bars and at friends’ parties, on the subway, in coffee shops. And I met a lot of perfectly decent men. But I remained a virgin. I never actually made the choice to no longer be. (Belle: last sentence grammatically strange to you? Did she not make the choice to stop existing?)

I hadn’t waited all this time just to lose it to a random guy for the sake of getting it over with.Unfortunately, this realization did little to stem my anxiety. When my friends told me to chill out, that I was attractive and great and that it would happen when the time was right, I freaked out even more. Why had the right time not shown up yet? And what if it never did?

Eventually I began to view my entire reproductive system as a personal
affront. Every month, my period, which had been cloyingly regular since the day
it started, served as nothing more than a reminder that there was no possible
way I might be pregnant. I was sure I could hear mean giggles coming from inside
the box of tampons as I opened it.

Still, the possibility of conception (and perhaps the fear that accompanies it) is part of womanhood. Without it, I wondered, imagining the lonely eggs floating inside me without even the potential of fertilization, was I fully a woman?

I know, I know: sex and conception aren’t even linked for many women, whether because of their sexuality or their fertility or their personal choices, and I would never question the legitimacy of their womanhood. A woman is so much
more than her ability to bear children. I know this, I believe it, and yet I
wanted that possibility.

My virginity had trapped me in childhood, and by 25 I was willing to lie to appear as if I was out of it, if only for a moment, if only to one person. I was willing to lie, even pay, for the illusion of normalcy.

[I] wanted to bring the fantasy as close to reality as possible. To this end, I paid a $24 monthly co-pay on the prescription and pumped my body full of hormones I didn’t really need. Crazy, I know. But before I had been on the pill even three months, as if those little white tablets tricked my body in more ways than one (and I should add, at the very moment that I made the choice to stop worrying about it), I lost my virginity.

First off, let me establish that I'm not wholly unsympathetic to this young woman. I too, wanted to wait till marriage. I didn't, but that's because I thought I was going to get married to the guy I lost my virginity to. I was young and naive and then not a sex-positive (which includes being sex-negative) feminist. After three years of believing I would be the future Mrs. Molecular Biologist Dude (sorry, can't come up with a snarky pseudonym), we broke off the engagement and broke up. But I was still wedded (pun) to the idea of waiting for the right one. I'm no longer wedded to that idea, but it persisted for a while.

Then, after two quasi-relationships from my last year of college to the first half of my 1L year, I decided to be alone. On purpose. I decided to try to learn how to live with myself and focus on school, family, friends and self. And it was awesome. I was single and celibate for most of law school, and if you go to law school it's not that weird to be single. There are plenty of couples who met prior to law school, a smattering who met in law school, and a chunk of people who wisely choose to date outside--but at any given point, to be single is nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of people I knew were. It's a lot of work, a high pressure environment, and the perfect excuse to be every bit the selfish, workaholic, type-A person you had to be to get into law school in the first place. So I thought of myself as normal.

But tell that to the lady at the health clinic! If you read the full article on the NYT, past the age of 20 the author's assertion of her virginity is met with incredulity by medical staff. That was pretty much the reaction I got a few years ago (I call it The Worst Gynecological Exam Ever, and by capitalizing each word I think I drive in the not-excessive hyperbole), when I put "2+ years ago" the date of my last sexual experience. I think the joke I got back was "re-virginized."

So I sympathize with the author, I do. I know what it's like to want to wait for something "special," to have humiliating exams in which the nurse asks, incredulously, "but you do date, don't you?!", and what it's like to be essentialized with my bodily functions and childbearing capacity.

I have sympathy. I also have some major beef.

I could launch into the "you feminists take it too seriously" double standard tirade with the whole "men are confirmed bachelors but women are spinsters thing." Heck, why not? I'm not above that.

My twist is that an relatively attractive, semi-gainfully employed (or educated at least) guy could not date casually or seriously and pass off the excuse of being a "workaholic," "too busy," or "ambitious," etc. Women are "too choosy," or "just not attractive enough." I could almost understand why the doctor questioned my lack of sexual activity at that exam--it could, in theory, be due to hormonal reasons suppressing my sex drive. I might give her that. But to ask if I date? What, was I at some slumber party? Why couldn't I just use the excuse every law student uses for a slump in personal life: I'm busy! I have different priorities! It's the excuse we use when we neglect our parents (who call me sometimes wondering if I've forgotten the phone number), significant others, plants, pets, etc. It's a great excuse not to go through the insufferable process of dating. Meeting someone, playing phone/email tag, trying to reach some uneasy detente about where you stand, having more State of the Unions than are expected during a presidential administration--it's not something that jives with being career focused. And I like my work. So if men can reject all that rigamorole and be waved off with a tag of "non-committal" or "workaholic," why can't I? There's just something wrong with a girl who hates the dating process--as if we invented the "three day rule."

I like to magically appear in relationships at the midway point, where it's less fussy and just comfortable and good. Where there's a nice, lovely kind of love but not that messy initial period of uncertain, hormonally based animalistic and immolating passion (I'm Buddhist, the Dalai Lama says that passion doesn't last and isn't the basis of an enduring bond, I believe him).

I like to miraculously segue between friendship and girlfriendhood, where the relationship is solid enough for me to not feel anxious about needing to work during the week, limiting time with The Dude to weekends and once or twice during the week; monogamous (for sexual health reasons) and emotionally attached enough to be publicly declared (none of that junior high stuff of wondering if I can be called the "girlfriend"), but not one that would hold me back from moving to another state for a job or impair my work and independent life. If I can't meet my scholarly obligations or keep up my contact with my friends and family, it's probably not going to work for me, and I would be too loathe to give up an independence that took me three years of law school to find. If I can't be myself in a relationship, I'd rather "not be" as the author says.

In writing this, I think "I sound like a guy." Which is precisely my point about how ridiculous this all is and how many gendered constructions are in the article and in my own encounters with people who don't understand why you would be a virgin by choice (or default) or single by choice (or default). And no, I'm not making any admission to where I am now on this spectrum--it could go either way, couldn't it, now that I'm out of law school and not required to visit my aging parents every weekend? All I will say is that at present, I'm pretty happy, and happily myself.

In the theory of choice, there is both positive and negative liberty. I can do something or I can not do it. I wonder how many men are questioned for their choices so aggressively or incredulously (or intimately) as women, how much they are probed (physically, emotionally) for the reasons behind their choices, and how much they are essentialized by their body functions. I can't imagine a guy thinking he should take some unnecessary hormone to feel like a part of the sexually active community. Maybe there are guys out there who buy condoms and just display them artfully and casually, even if they are unnecessary.

Still, I'd like to think that I have the freedom to choose between having sex (without being called a whore) and to not have sex (without being called asexual); to choose between the right to have an abortion and the freedom to not have one and admit that it's a difficult choice in any case; the freedom to date a lot without being called a "wild girl" and the freedom to not date without being asked "what's wrong with you;" and the ability to remain ambivalent about marriage and children without being questioned about my femininity or marriageability (or procreative abilities).

Just write me off as an anti-dating, pro-choice, pro-celibacy, non-committal, ambitious workaholic who nevertheless likes diversion, sex, relationships, monogamy, and children. Now there's a bundle of satisfying contradictions.