Feminism

Fascinating Womanhood Review: sex

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This is the last week of my extended review of Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood. Good riddance, I’m sure most of you are thinking– well, you’re not alone.

I’ve been procrastinating about writing this chapter because my feelings about it are  . . . complicated. You’ll see why once we get in to it, but I want to start out with this observation: very often, I’ve found that many people easily slip in the ideas that someone like me find necessary: agency, consent, autonomy. On the surface, Helen is about to say a lot of things that sound like we would agree with her.

She starts off, however, exactly where we would expect her to: the only permissible form of sex is between heterosexual married partners. Whether or not you agree with that, you should be concerned with how she extends that argument.

Uphold virginity as the most precious of virtues . . .

Keep your sexual life with your husband pure. A marriage liscense is not a liscense to do wrong. Don’t engage in a sexual practice which is impure . . . Don’t expose your mind to anything that encourages impure sex thoughts, such as sexy stage performances, movies, TV, magazines, or any type of pornographic material. Don’t listen to rock music or any music which encourages unwholesome feelings.

Even if you believe that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin, hopefully you can see the difference between encouraging abstinence and mandating virginity. One is an action, an ongoing path you can step away from temporarily and then come back to. Virginity, on the other hand, is not an action. It’s not a choice. It’s a state of being, and once you are no longer a virgin (whatever that means), you can’t go back. It’s something you lose.

And here is where things get complicated, because Helen says this:

You need not feel you owe it to  your husband to have sex whenever he expects it and never refuse.

But that is buried in the middle of this:

No man appreciates sex which can be had readily. It is simply too cheap. Although you owe your husband a generous amount of sex, he doesn’t own your body. To give him sex every time he asks is to spoil him.

I got a bit of whiplash as I was reading through this chapter, because I wanted to nod along with sentiments like you don’t owe your husband sex whenever he wants it, you can say no— these things are so very rarely said, and they need to be said more often. Except, they need to be said without justification, without qualifiers. Not wanting to haves sex is a perfectly legitimate reason: it’s the only reason anyone needs. However, it’s not enough for Helen– we can only say no because it’s for his benefit.

She goes on to tell us not to have sex when “he tries to insist,” but it’s only because if we give in to him, he will “experience bad feelings.” He’ll feel guilty for his “lack of consideration.” Everything we do, say, think, is about him. She emphasizes her point by referring to Amnon and Tamar– how he raped her, and that made him feel guilty. That’s the important thing to remember about this story, according to Helen. Tamar “gave in too easily, and Amnon felt bad because he pushed her, so don’t give in to your husband.”

Ai yi yi.

When she tries to give practical advice, she starts talking about how to “turn ourselves on”– which we should do, of course, so that our husbands feel adequate. But then this appears:

Parents, in an effort to withstand rampant immorality, teach their children to keep themselves clean. This gives children the impression that sex must be unclean. There is not a clear differentiation between the wrongness of sex before marriage and the rightness of it after. Without intention, the thought is placed in their minds that there is something evil about sex . . .

Unless she regards sex as natural, wholesome, and an enjoyable experience for both her husband and herself, her desire will be limited.

See what I mean about complicated? Because I can agree that the current evangelical teachings about sex can frequently result in this attitude. I wish she could keep on this track, but it’s Helen, so of course this happens:

When a man and woman have a wholesome attitude about sex, when they truly love each other, and are sexually awakened, they don’t need instructions about how to have sex with each other. It comes about naturally.

Excuse me while I, once again, go beat my head into a wall.

Helen, however, takes a turn toward they hysterical, and I have to share this with you all because it’s just that funny.

On occasion, a man may like his wife to be aggressive in sex . . . but a woman can be too aggressive, to the point of turning him off . . . She may dress in a frilly nightie, spray herself with perfume, give him a sexy look, and squeeze his hand . . . and this can strike him as too aggressive.

The first time I read that, I burst out laughing. Seriously, Helen– putting on a “nightie” and squeezing his hand is aggressive?! Wow. Just . . .wow. Makes me giggle imagining what she’d say if she ever ran into a dominatrix. I have a hard time imagining someone who is less aggressive than what she just described. What do you do if come-hither glances and frilly lingerie aren’t options?
Helen has exemplified in this chapter something I’m coming to see happen more often in evangelical circles. People are attempting to correct for some of the messages my generation has grown up receiving. I’ve seen articles and heard sermons recently from those who seem to realize that there are problems– they just have no clue what the problems are. Because everything about their universe is still male-centric, still oriented on the needs, concerns of men, still focused on maintaining male power, they are blind to what makes their teachings about purity so unhealthy. When you order your world around women maintaining their worth and value through sex– which purity culture does, and Helen has done above– no matter how you try to word it, you will fail to make any substantive change. Helen closes her book with a few pages of summary, and she makes it clear that the point of Fascinating Womanhood has been to show women how to “make him feel like a man.” In the end, it’s one of the dominant messages we still receive today.

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  • Angela

    Yes! all of this! My first encounter with purity culture was in a church I visited with a friend in high school, but now I see how bizzare it really is. In Christian school (middle school) we were all asked to sign purity pledges, I felt awkward about it because I did not know what would happen in my adult life, so I took one but never signed it. Now that I’m older I am glad I didn’t. These pledges aren’t vows one is making directly to God in a real search for wisdom, they are forced on naive young girls, who want awesome amazing sex some day, by institutions that want to ensure that women stay “below” the husband. Encouraging smart and virtuous behavior is not demanding one never make mistakes, it is encouraging wise decisions and responsibility for the mistakes that are made

  • Angela

    I should note, that I forgot to mention that it was my first “in depth encounter” with purity culture the event in middle school was one that didn’t have much impact on my life until later.

  • Gary Eddy

    This is sick. The man & woman are to give of themselves in sex. NOT take. That is what is wrong with porn is it is about taking not giving of oneself. I know from experience that when one gives of self what they get back it much greater than if they just are a taker.

    • Crystal

      Agreed. I’M GLAD YOU CAN SEE PORN HAS ONLY PROBLEMS AND ABOMINATIONS TIED UP IN IT!!

  • Shai-Hulud

    Illegitimi non carborundum

  • When one has an independent man and not a mama’s boy; marriage is so much nicer than Helen talks about. I am not a doormat nor is he. We are for each other, having one another’s back. Sex is incredible and keeps getting better. By the way we have been married 50 years and are 72 years of age.

  • What century was that written in? I had a bad experience with a book titled “Women in Journalism” – bought it as an introductory read and two pages in started leafing for the year of publication. It was abysmal, much like the book you reviewed by the sounds of it.

    • srs

      Wikipedia lists the book as written in 1963.

      • That may explain a thing or two 🙂

      • I’m working with the edition that was heavily updated in the 90s.

  • “Keep your sexual life with your husband pure. A marriage liscense is not a liscense to do wrong. Don’t engage in a sexual practice which is impure . . . Don’t expose your mind to anything that encourages impure sex thoughts, such as sexy stage performances, movies, TV, magazines, or any type of pornographic material. Don’t listen to rock music or any music which encourages unwholesome feelings.”
    Two comments/questions: #1. Is that really how she spells license?
    #2 – I suppose that a wife looking for the best deal for condoms would break that “don’t engage in a sexual practice which is impure” ‘rule’……..

  • I can’t do it. I can’t even quite read your account of this book, Sam. Skimming this article was the best I could do. Yeesh. I’m really glad you were able to though.

  • Patrick Prescott

    Glad you finally put this book to rest.

  • Of all the virtues I was hoping my wife would have, “intact hymen” wasn’t really high on the list, if it was there at all. “Yeah, she may spend me out of house and home, treat me like crap, and complain all the time, but doggone it! she was a virgin!” Yep…

  • Oh good grief, frilly nighties and come hither glances?

  • srs

    So, is there a list of virtues out there so I can see if virginity really ranks as the most precious?

  • Marie

    You make so many good points here! One of my favorites:

    “When you order your world around women maintaining their worth and value through sex– which purity culture does, and Helen has done above– no matter how you try to word it, you will fail to make any substantive change.”

    I feel like the things we really need to talk about when it comes to sex are communication and consent. If you get to know your partner, discuss what their/your limits are, and talk openly about what you both want, I think it will be pretty good!

    I’m not sure why Christian hetero married couples can’t just adopt this common sense. It would go far to abolish the kind of nonsense this book seems to be teaching.

  • Thank you so much for your heart, and you words. You bring me hope and freedom beyond imaginable because of your truth.