Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Capitalism, Virginity and Third Wave Feminism

Jay at Montclair has a great take on "Natalie Dylan", the college student who is "auctioning off her virginity" online. With more than 10,000 men having bid, the current total is $3.8 million and counting.

She refers to her auction as “a sociological experiment” (with experiments like this, who needs grants?), and one thing it’s already shown is the different ways it can be construed. Dylan herself styles it as feminist:
the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with men. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism.
Brooke Harrington at Economic Sociology is skeptical. Putting your hymen on e-bay doesn’t subvert or even challenge the patriarchal system, but merely exploits it.

But why is it worth so much?

The evolutionary psychology people have an answer, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Men value female virginity for the same reason they value female chastity and marital fidelity: without those, a man can’t be sure whether it’s really his genes that are being passed on to the next generation.

“Virginity and chastity in pre-menopausal women is fiercely guarded and socially hallowed the world over. Why? To minimise wasted paternal investment.” (Source here.)

The trouble with this idea is that “world over” part isn’t exactly correct. Hunter-gatherers – and that’s what we’ve been for most of the time that our psyches have been evolving on this planet – aren’t much concerned with virginity. That concern is something that arises (and turns into something of an obsession) with the transition to agricultural and pastoral societies.
Precisely. The notion that this is somehow "evolutionary" is absurd.

But is it "empowering" as Ms. "Dylan" claims it is? This is often heard in "Third Wave" feminism, that sex work such as nude dancing, prostitution, and porn should be viewed as empowering for women. Turn capitalist exploitation around: if men are dumb enough to fork out $3.8 million for the someone's virginity, take the money and laugh all the way to the bank.

In contrast, "Second Wave" feminists argue this is mere exploitation which confirms the denigration and subordination of women in a capitalist society. The fact we can commodify something like this, replete with racy photos of the young woman to boost the "sales price," suggests it's more prostitution than empowerment (the auction is, after all, being conducted by the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada). To put it another way, would a man be able to auction off his virginity for a similar price, if at all?

And then you have the religious angle.
From the blogs I glanced at, Christians seem predictably torn about Natalie Dylan's marketing her virginity. On the one hand, she provides confirmation that virginity still has great value. But they really don’t like a girl actually cashing in that value rather than giving it away.
In bad economic times, I suppose one needs to make a buck any way they can. But you tell me: is this empowerment or exploitation?

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