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.