March 4 was The National Day of Action to Defend Education, and at Maryland we took action to create the kind of education we desire. We held a series of workshops in the Art-Sociology building’s atrium on feminism in academia, hip hop and society, sports and education, the prison-industrial complex, and whatever else is in our everyday lives but is little discussed in our classes. I am fortunate enough to be enrolled in several courses this semester which deal with issues of sexism, classism, ableism, racism, and other inequalities which are prevalent in our system today, and I wish to share just a sample of the progressive and intellectually stimulating topics from my 300-level Women’s Studies class on the Sociology of Gender.
On March 4, we discussed the intersection of Michel Foucault and sexuality in society, specifically concerning purity balls. For further information on purity balls, I highly recommend Jessica Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, as well as these links. These often federally funded events represent the hegemony of several institutions on the bodies and brains of young women, a phenomenon which Foucault links to the definition of the Self solely by one’s sexuality.
“Since Christianity, Western civilization has not stopped saying, ‘To know who you are, know what your sexuality is about.’”
-Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction
“Sexuality as a term did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century. What had been some 300 years earlier just so many disparate urges, inclinations, and activities were delineated as a problematic set of traits and drives that supposedly define a central aspect of human nature…[and]…define us as sexual objects.”
– C.G. Prado, Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy
Because the Self is a social and cultural construct, the hegemony of certain institutions in society and their obsession with sexuality led to the definition and eventual policing of our bodies in terms of our sexuality. The Church, specifically, pursued its their goal of disconnecting sex from pleasure starting in the 19th century, and began to define sex as a sin punishable by eternal damnation – allowing religious morality to permeate all forms of privacy, so that people ended up policing their own choices for fear of retribution. Our sexual selves are also managed by the government and medical communities, under the guise of the “public good.” In short, the advent of this new Self definition represented the institutionalization of sexuality.
Purity balls, then, represent a fairly recent evolution of this institutionalization. As I see it, underlying these ceremonies is a great fear that the expression of women’s sexualities will in some way topple the order of society which, for the past 200 years, has recognized the power of individual expression to the independence of many social groups. Most tragically, this trend of hypersexualization essentializes young women so that they are defined by a single issue – their sexuality. How sad that equal focus is not placed on their education, advancement in male-dominated academic fields, or protection from the patriarchy instead of from themselves.
Young women who express their heterosexual desires – not to mention those women who *gasp* align themselves somewhere else on the sexual spectrum – are forced to suppress their wants by social institutions. At the same time, however, young women are also hypersexualized from a very young age because of this very same trend of defining the Self not by one’s thoughts or actions, but solely by one’s sexual expression.
Foucault challenges us to not only recognize who we are sexually – gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc – but also to deconstruct why many of us identify so strongly with our sexual selves in the first place. 200 years ago, few defined themselves by sexual expression, and to claim otherwise is to lay a false metanarrative of sexual expression on history.
Foucault’s strongest attribute in terms of deconstructing sexuality is his ability to question exactly whose ends our identifications serve.
“The central issue…is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue [is] the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.*’”
– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
*Foucault defines “discourse” as simply a discussion among people, but as a discussion that “society has with itself: a set of meaning-making practices.” The discursive power of the narrative of purity produces certain types of individuals with repressed sexualities.
The hypersexualized young woman who is forced into purity balls is certainly not serving her own desires or interests, but most likely those of her parents, and religious leaders. This definition of women by their sexuality and “purity” is detrimental to all involved. It hurts young women who learn to measure their worth based on a single issue. It hurts young men who struggle to see their sisters, cousins, friends, and partners for more than their sexual purity. It hurts society because this focus on the sexuality of young women impedes the recognition of so many other facets of a women’s mind. Ultimately, all parties lose out, but none so much as the women who fall prey to the policing of their minds and bodies by a society which strategically subordinates them to maintain dominance.