PSA: This celebrity is not having sex!Posted: December 20, 2010
We recently watched Russell Brand in New York City – which is absolutely hilarious and 100% recommended to anyone who doesn’t mind salacious (but intelligent!) humor, and having a bit of fun poked at the U.S. and/or religion. Actually I recommend you watch it even if you do mind it, as you might come to appreciate such humor ;)
Anyhow, when Brand hosted the 2008 MTV VMA awards, he sparked controversy with certain viewers by, among other things, making fun of the Jonas Brothers’ promise rings (for the uninitated – a promise to remain “pure” by not having sex until marriage). Brand does a wonderful riff off some of the hate mail and death threats he got after his hosting gig – video below, which is definitely NSFW!
I particularly liked the bit where he talks about the implications of the Jonas Brothers’ public declarations of their virginity (about 6:15-7:15 in the video clip).
I think what I meant to say when during the MTV VMA Awards, I implied that the Jonas Brothers’ chastity rings and virginity might in fact be a cynical marketing ploy, utilizing the theories of Michel Foucault, who said that in Victorian society, the repression of sexuality was just another way of bringing sexuality to the forefront of our consciousnesses. It’s a marketing technique. By saying that the Jonas brothers are virgins, you can’t help but think about them having sex. The Jonas Brothers are not having sex (*thrusts pelvis*). The Jonas Brothers are not having sex. The Jonas Brothers are not having sex. As long as you’re looking at the rings on their fingers you’re not wondering about where them fingers ain’t straying. When I said that, I think what I meant was, “A jihad on all the world’s Christian people!”
How awesome is it that he name drops Foucault? Love it. And he’s completely right. Even as a firm believer in premarital abstinence, I never understood the tendency of some in the movement to loudly and publicly proclaim their status as virgins, and make that a central part of their public identity. So much of what I was taught was that sexuality was something private, between spouses, and not something to be “flaunted,” especially when members of the ‘opposite sex’ were present – in part because indiscreet talk about sex could stir up temptation (so much more could be said about this, another time perhaps). Drawing lots of attention to one’s virginity seemed to me to be pretty overtly sexual. As Brand so humorously points out, it’s inherently impossible to publicly announce that one is not having sex without also conjuring up the thought of one having sex – it’s like trying not to think about pink elephants. It would be more consistent to simply not discuss one’s sexual status in mixed company at all.
Of course, not every public advocate for abstinence specifically discusses their own virginity. But at times, the way the purity movement talks about virginity can be quite bizarre, and even hypocritical. I’m particularly reminded of an article I once read, which sadly I can’t find now, about a very attractive abstinence speaker whose talks on chastity involved lengthy commentary on how wonderful having sex with her husband on her wedding night was going to be, and how much fun they would have and how good it would feel, etc. etc. At the time, it struck me as strangely exhibitionist . . . advertising herself as a virgin and implicitly inviting the straight men in the audience to imagine having sex with her.
Looking back on this story from what I hope is a more nuanced and empathetic perspective, it occurs to me that the abstinence movement in general encourages this kind of exhibitionism when it comes to female virginity in particular, and frames female virginity in a way that’s every bit as sexually objectifying as the “secular” media they’re constantly complaining about. There’s a way in which the announcement of a woman’s virginity, and the framing of it as alluring, and as a ‘gift’ ‘saved’ for a man – is itself a presentation of women as sexually available to men, and objects of male sexual desire, just as much as any objectifying photo shoot of scantily clad women.
So I now understand that this speaker may not have had much say in how she presented herself – she was using the language and promoting the ethics and philosophy of a movement that inherently objectifies and sexualizes women. And in fact the implicit premise in much of the abstinence movement is not at all opposed to “secular” assumptions that women’s bodies are male property; rather, the abstinence-based assumption is that a woman’s body can only belong to one man – coded as a gift she gives to her husband (virginity is much, much more often spoken of as something a woman saves for her husband than as something a husband saves for his wife). Whereas there is in theory more acceptance of experience with more than one partner in the “secular” world – as long as you’re not “slutty,” of course, which is just a hypocritical standard used to vilify self-possesed female sexuality while justifying and celebrating any and all expressions of (cisgender, straight) male sexuality, no matter how toxic.
I think Brand is also right that there’s an element of marketing in all of this. I don’t think it’s necessarily cynical; in all likelihood the Jonas Brothers believe quite sincerely that it’s very important to remain a virgin before marriage. But sincerity of sentiment isn’t incompatible with publicly advertising that sentiment in a way that is (intentional or not) personally beneficial. You take an attractive celebrity being held up as a heartthrob or sex symbol, and repeatedly emphasize their sexual naivete – as Brand says, this brings their sexuality to the forefront of the public consciousness (more obviously with celebs whose careers are explicitly bound up with their packaged sex appeal – e.g. Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, etc.). And as we all know, sex sells.