Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Review: Jessica Valenti: Studs and Sluts and Virgins and Myths

Jessica Valenti, in an effort to make us all feel like we should get up earlier, has not one but two new books out. Both are released in the UK on May 7th (tomorrow).

He's a Stud, She's a Slut (And 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know) looks like one of those rather meaningless "gift books" that you buy for friends when you can't think of anything else they'd like or you've only just remembered that it's birthday drinks you're heading to when you get to the train station with two minutes to spare.

But we know Valenti better than to expect anything so simple. The "fluff" appearance of the book, no doubt soon to be appearing on every thinking woman's toilet shelf, is part of it's brilliance. You really could give it as a fun little inexpensive (£7.99 in the UK) gift to someone who'd never thought about women's rights before. Inside, chopped into sassy bite-sized chunks Valenti presents an overwhelmingly compelling case for the existence of a double standard for women in every branch of society.

The focus is on both the media and public attitudes, as she dissects why women politicians are so over-scrutinised for their appearance and why praise is heaped on men who make the slightest effort to involve themselves in the lives of their children while mothers doing the same are at best taken for granted and at worst left out of a job. The tone is witty and sassy and it comes with lashings of true stories from Valenti's own life from the toys she had as a child to her early relationships and recent media appearances.

The one place where the sass starts to grate for me is in the So... What To Do? sections which follow each mini-chapter. On the one hand I think it's admirable to offer practical suggestions for tackling sexism, on the other hand these become repetitive because what is there to do about sexist stereotyping and discriminatory media coverage? Make a point when you hear someone use it, write to your local paper and if you want to then do the things that society is telling you you're not supposed to. And I'm never one for advising people to shut up and ignore prejudice but if you really called out every time you heard one of the double standards in this book, you'd never get past the end of your road in the mornings!

Still for the uninitiated in matters of women's equality, this easy-to-read entertaining little book will serve as an eye-opener on the inherent injustice of attitudes we have all been brought up with and often ourselves accept unquestioningly. For the long term women's rights supporter of course the fun of the book is very different. Instinctively you find yourself trying to come up with more examples of double standards to add to Valenti's fifty. Here's the best three I could think of:

1) He's had unlucky with women, she goes for "bad guys". Have you heard this? A guy dates a string of women who dump him or stand him up and the reaction is "Women eh?", a woman gets beaten up by one guy, robbed by the next and emotionally abused by the third and the conclusion is "Why does she always go for bad guys?".

2) He's fit and healthy, she should go for regular tests. I'm not knocking a regular visit to the doctors for a check-up if you want to. However there does seem to be a whole pink-coloured industry devoted to letting women know that our bodies are weak and frail and liable to let us down at any moment. Of course there's no denying that it is us women getting the lion's share of the breast cancer and the cervical cancer and other specific womb-related issues. What seems to have been forgotten though is: women live considerably longer than men. Whatever it is that's killing us is doing it later, slower and less often than it does for you guys. There's nothing wrong with Ronan Keating releasing a fund-raising record in aid of breast cancer research in his mother's name but where is the female starlet belting out a teary ballad for sufferers of prostate cancer?

3) He's a lawyer, she's a female lawyer. Seems like certain jobs (good, well-paid jobs) belong to men so very specifically that any woman who dares do them will live forever with the unofficial job title FEMALE doctor, FEMALE MP and, in my line of work, FEMALE comedian. The only time the tables are turned of course is for lower-paid, lower-status jobs, MALE nurse, MALE secretary and MALE cleaner - who is probably given the better title janitor or caretaker and paid a fair bit more than the women doing the same job.

Feel free to add your own once you've checked out Valenti's list!

The Purity Myth (How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women) is a much more serious piece, though certainly not stodgy or academic. It's a systematic critique of the increasing obsession with purity and virginity in modern America and the impact this is having on young women the country over (Valenti even includes a specific section at the end on discussing the issues raised with young people - about as direct an attack on the abstinence schools programme as she could make). These groups have in recent years made minor inroads into the markedly more secular UK but their reach has so far been thankfully limited.

Nonetheless there is no doubt that we do as a nation continue to subscribe to some very old-fashioned notions of purity relating to young women's sexuality. Anyone with half an eye open recently will have seen the scandal involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross making unpleasant phone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs. The furore which exploded afterwards centred on the offense caused to Sachs. No-one seemed to be asking why exactly a man should be upset to discover that his own granddaughter, who is well over the age of consent and living her own independent life, has had sex. And no-one seemed to be wondering what exactly it was about said sex that somehow sullied the woman in question - Georgina Baillie - but didn't do anything to damage the reputation of Brand.

These are exactly the attitudes that this book does a wonderful job of myth-busting. Starting with the fact that virginity has no meaningful medical definition. Valenti addresses the sinister nature of the abstinence-only lobby in the US but also tackles the fallout from this for women who choose not to remain "daddy's little virgin" and are suddenly considered "immoral" and "fallen" women regardless of their hard work, their studies, their volunteer work, their political activism, their ability to care for others and countless other contributions they make to the world.

She also discusses how the attitude of contempt for women who choose to have sex hampers our ability to deal with real problems in society like teenage pregnancy, STIs, rape and the abuses that go on within the sex industry. So as long as our distinguishing line is between disgusting women who have sex and pure women who don't we cannot progress to seeing the nuances of what kind of sex women are having - is it satisfying, is it safe and is it consensual? And while we dismiss those who have sex as dirty it is also impossible to objectively tackle the abuse of women in the sex industry.

On this final point Valenti and I disagree somewhat. In fairness she doesn't reach a conclusion on the subject, she merely says that attention needs to be paid to the issue and suggests that in dealing with it it is important to listen to the voices of the women who work in the industry rather than marching in with ready-made solutions that may not fit the problems. On this I agree, but worry that the issue is more complicated than it may at first seem.

In Britain many groups exist claiming to speak for the thousands of women working as lap dancers, prostitutes, escorts, and so on. The problem is that many appear to be astroturf campaigns (i.e. grass roots campaigns, only fake) run by the club owners, agency managers and pimps promoting an agenda which largely ignores the horrors of the industry - rape, violence, abuse, addiction and human trafficking and instead demands only continued liberalisation in the hunt for ever-soaring profits. We need to be sure that we are hearing the real voices of women working in all areas of the sex industry. Maybe it is less of an issue in the US, but in the UK there is probably a need for a disclaimer on that chapter.

The rest though is bang on and will undoubtedly become compulsory reading for the next generation of pro-sex feminists.


The Urban Feminist said...

I work for a publishing company that produces several magazines and you'll be pleased to know that it is explicitly stated in our style guide that we must not use phrases such as "woman conductor" or "female composer".

Unfortunately the classical music media is quite a niche area, but it's a start!

emee said...

(maybe I missunderstood, I don't understand English 100%)
"tackles the fallout from this for women who choose not to remain "daddy's little virgin""

do you mean that all women that haven't have sex is this, for me It's actually quite hard to find someone that attracts me, androgynous guys are rare, and that don't make may dad ruling me, actually I don't even have contact with him(and what the hell, would he have to do with my sexuality anyway, ugh! I actually gets very offended by that!) in Sweden it's like this; young people want to get rid of there "virginity" so they usually have sex because of that, not because they want it, I refuse to be forced(raped) by society to have sex(in this way), but waiting until it feels right, unfortunately the kind of guys it would feel right with is quite rare as been said, this have to do with the order of gender where guys are supposed to be manly...the word "virgin" should be removed, why call someone something because they haven't done something particular with someone else of the opposite sex, it's just an ancient rest of a Christian and patriarchal society...what's important is that people can be happy and not being prejudiced because they did or not did something(that actually is private, and not others business)

Cruella said...

The virginity movement encourages women (and girls) to pledge their virginity to their father until marriage. I think that's very different from growing up and choosing not to have sex for your own reasons.

I think there is pressure on young women here too to lose their virginity - particularly when their friends have, etc. Of course that pressure is wrong too but actually the virginity movement is not about telling women it's ok not to have sex if they don't want to - it's about telling women they must not have sex or they will burn in hell. That distorts the debate because the emphasis is shifted away from what women want and what choices they choose to make and onto others (family, teachers, religious leaders) making those decisions for them.

Valenti talks about this and I think she makes some very good points.

emee said...

I didn't know about the virginity movement, I heard some extreme Christians think it's important(for both sexes) though, but I'm against marriage and's not a big issue here I guess

Cruella said...

Yes exactly - if you lived in the the US there is a good chance the government would be paying people to come into schools and tell your children that sex is wrong and evil and that they mustn't do it before marriage...