Young Feminist Bashing: Rethinking Virginity Edition

On Tuesday, Double XX editor Jessica Grose posted a misguided, finger-wagging analysis of the recent Reclaiming Virginity conference held at Harvard, at which I spoke on a panel.

As Jessica Valenti noted, via Twitter, Ms. Grose took in the Rethinking Virginity conference as “lady bloggers rethinking their slutty ways.” Grose spends most of her post laying out conference organizer Lena Chen’s past as a sex blogger, including the slut-shaming she endured at the hands of fellow students and print and online publications. It’s obvious she views Chen’s decision to give up her blog (for the moment) and identify herself as a “Third Wave Marxist feminist” as a defection to what she describes as ‘Generation Scold’ – “deeply conventional and traditional” millenials determined to stamp out sexual promiscuity.

In what I can only call a lapse in journalistic ethics, Jessica Grose leaves out both the actual and political context in which the Rethinking Virginity conference occurred. In service of her completely off-base attack on the generation directly before her own, she leads the reader to believe that Lena Chen pulled the money out of Harvard to have a day-long conference – including speakers from other cities, programs, food, etc – to absolve herself of her past and warn other young women of the dangers of sex. Nowhere does she mention that Harvard has become the newest hotbed of abstinence-only-until-marriage activism in the form of a group called True Love Revolution, which has made headlines for, amongst other things, condemning gay sex as a sin and calling on GLBQ students to remain celibate for life to avoid the fires of hell.

Harvard students – the intended conference audience — are of the generation most affected by the federal government’s decades long policy of funding medically inaccurate, morality infused abstinence-until-marriage-programs. Whether it was right in your face — like my pastor coming into my public school and comparing sexually active people to dirty toothbrushes – or seeing the media shame pregnant teens and treat young sexuality like a horrific public health crisis waiting to happen, it’s hard to be twenty-something or under and not have at least wondered how virginity and abstinence are intertwined with your personal worth and future. As far as I can tell from most young people I talk to, grappling with these questions isn’t a manifestation of conservatism but rather an attempt to sort out ideology shoved down our throats at the expense of much actual information about sex.

By bringing together mostly young experts to discuss a range of topics that Ms. Grose chose to ignore, including the concepts of queer and trans virginity, teaching about masturbation and sexual pleasure in public schools, celebrating one’s first time engaging in different sex acts, expressing desire to partners, and making better porn for women, Rethinking Virginity was a youth-led foray into doing for ourselves what our sex education should have done: lay a neutral foundation for us to navigate our lives as sexually healthy, happy adults. And Lena Chen, in organizing the conference, took an opportunity to insert a gender justice analysis into an in-progress conversation amongst her peers. In other words, she did some good, old-fashioned feminist organizing.

It’s my understanding that feminism is about making the choices you want to make when you want to make them. It’s also my understanding that feminism is about examining the culture’s influences on and reactions to your choices and evolving and growing through this examination. Where then, I have to wonder, does Ms. Grose get off shaming Lena Chen for doing some of this analysis, making a personal choice to give up her blog, and trying out a different form of activism? Why is her feminism as expressed through fostering conversation on her campus any less valuable as expressed through her sex blogging? (Make sure to read Lena’s response to the post.)

In this case, it seems to me Ms. Grose’s egregious mischaracterization of this event in order to fit a young organizer into her ideas about the millennial generation is a swipe at a generation slightly more wary of embracing “having sex like men (are presumed/supposed/reported) to have sex “as a pathway to liberation. Her piece is hardly different from Second Wave feminists claiming young women are apathetic, as in the recent Newsweek controversy. It comes from the same place: an inability to see young women’s lived experiences as valuable, an unwillingness to listen to their voices in the context of those experiences, and an automatic rejection of activism that looks or sounds different from one’s own.

If we were wondering what a Third Wave critique of millenial organizing might look like,  I think we just found out.



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6 responses to “Young Feminist Bashing: Rethinking Virginity Edition

  1. Lauren

    It’s funny. Millennials, especially women, get slammed, slut-shamed, and concern-trolled by the mainstream media for the supposed evils of “hook-up culture” (this resulted in the most awkward conversation of my adult life; my dad saw a CNN special about it that featured my alma mater and decided he needed to know if it was true. Sry, dad). It seems like we’re constantly being portrayed as emotionally stunted sex fiends who care not a whit for our personal dignity/self-esteem/wtfever…until the older feminists step in and decide that we’re not sexually liberated enough and take us to task for being judgmental prudes. Uh, what? Really? Way to perpetuate the virgin/whore dichotomy in an incredibly demeaning manner, y’all.

    Honestly, I can’t formulate a polite response to Ms. Grose’s article, as there’s no civil way to ask someone if they’ve been living under a rock with no internet access that is far, far away from a residential college campus.

  2. Tessa

    Great response Shelby. Keep ’em coming.

    Ms. Grose’s piece, to someone unfamiliar with the “rethinking virginity conference”, was confusing and confused the issues of the conference with what she was trying to sell. Thanks for clearing that up.

  3. Really, really sharp post, but question on your last bit:

    “If we were wondering what a Third Wave critique of millenial organizing might look like, I think we just found out.”

    Are you saying Grose’s critique comes from a Third Wave position? And that Lena is the millenial?

    Lena positions herself as a Third Wave feminist, which to me isn’t mutually exclusive of the millenial generation — I say as a straddler of both.

    Just wanted to tease that out, because I think this is a huge thing and want to dive into it (see also: responses to the 92Y Manifesta panel in April).

  4. Lovely dissection of the issues, Shelby, and the tropes that obscure them! Given that you or Lena or anyone else can be simultaneously damned if you do (by, say, Laura Sessions Stepp) and damned if you don’t (by, evidently, Jessica Grose) I can’t imagine what other concept on the big blue marble needs to be rethought more urgently than virginity. And rethought, by the way, in the terms it sounds like the conference intended to address.

    The culture of virginity (as bought into by both its defenders and detractors) makes it extremely difficult to have complete conversations about choice. The culture puts extraordinary pressure on boys and young men. It puts gruesome and sometimes murderous pressure on girls and young women. It’s hard to imagine Lena catching so much grief without it. It’s hard to believe “frat” culture would be so toxic without it either. And without it “purity rings” would just be some kind of trademarked gimmick on cheap water filters.

    So yeah, why on earth would anyone want to rethink the basis of all that? 😦

    Wonderful post! Glad I found your blog.


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