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Rethinking Virginity vs Slate. Sexual Shaming vs Public Health. What really happened on our controversial panel

This is an update on a Rethinking Virginity article by Slate's Double X that seriously misrepresented the overall message and goals of the panels. With video of the discussion in hand, we re-examine the issues.

This past May, I was invited to take part in the Rethinking Virginity Conference at Harvard University. A group of scholars, sex educators, bloggers and one filmmaker (me) spent the day talking about the meaning and importance of virginity, a most elusive and much-discussed concept.

In the end, I don't think we managed to find a good working definition of virginity, nor felt we really had to. It was more a feeling that our sexual status was something that we should be able to define, control and make decisions about, without judgement or shame, and in a consensual and healthy way. In a time when conversations about youth and sexuality have been muddied and distorted by abstinence-until-marriage psuedo-science and shame-mongering, the conversation seemed especially vital.

What Jessica Grose of Slate's Double X took away from the conference was decidedly different. Writing in her article Why Is a Former Sex Blogger "Rethinking Virginity"? she instead portrays the panelists as being “shaming” and intolerant of “unusual or hedonistic behavior,” and the audience wanting to protect virgins 'from the risks—and the joys—of youthful trial and error:'

In theory, the Rethinking Virginity conference was supposed to create a utopian space in which no one is judged for any kind of sexual behavior—whether it be Jesse James’ mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee or someone who chooses to be abstinent. But the conference-goers didn’t exhibit much tolerance for unusual or hedonistic behavior. I asked the panel called “The Feminist Response to Slut-Shaming & Sexual Scare Tactics” what they thought of adults having nonmonogamous unprotected sex, and the response was uniformly, well, shaming. “They’re doing something damaging, and careless, and it’s not a choice I personally approve of,” said one panelist.

What is this opinion based on, you ask? We have no idea. We actually took great pains to create a neutral space for people who were sexually active, abstinent and everything in between. This happened a while back but I'm still pissed off about it, so I went back to the video we shot to see what really went down. Turns out, the question she posed to our panel had nothing whatsoever to do with hedonsitic behavior and everything to do with public health, even down to Grose's own wording. As you can see in the above video from the conference, she asks:

I feel like there’s a lot of judgment of women who are grown women and decide to have unprotected sex with partners they’re not monogamous with. How do you respond to that as a health risk or even if it’s your friend or someone you know who by all accounts knows the risks and knows what they’re getting into but does it anyway.”

As Lena Chen writes in her follow up Is it ever okay to shame someone for their sexual behavior?:

You can see from the above video that the panelists (a group which included Fleshbot’s (NSFW) Lux Alptraum, Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle, Feministing’s Chloe Angyal, and Shechter) emphasized the importance of responsibility, transparency, and mutual respect in sexual interactions. I recall that Alptraum even used the adult film industry’s health standards as an example of how people can have promiscuous, but safe sex.

Grose's reporting was a huge mis-characterization and I can only wonder why. Did she walk into the conference with a preconceived story idea about some new morality of feminist sex bloggers? The subhead of her article, "Sex positive" young women reconsider abstinence made it sound like we had all taken a group True Love Waits abstinence pledge.

In fact, in condemning both slut-shaming and virgin-shaming, we placed abstinence within a broad spectrum of sexual choices, but free of the moralizing tone that often accompanies it. Grose didn't bother to mention our discussions of queer perceptions of virginity, pornography for women, historical definitions of virginity and the harm done by current global attitudes towards female virginity.

Both Shelby Knox and Lena Chen wrote scathing condemnations of Grose's implications that young feminist had become 'chastened' and embarrassed by their youthful sexual exploits and now were moralizing as a way to make up for their past much-regretted behavior. They're worth the read. And, if you're interested in what was really discussed at the conference, check out these posts.