Friday, March 8, 2013

Clandestine carnal knowings

There's something that has for one reason or another cropped up in my life quite a bit lately. Whether it's in class, during a discussion of a film or television show or just in conversation with friends, I feel like I've been repeatedly confronted with the concept of sex in the last week. It's not because I've pursued the topic or been looking for answers regarding it. If anything, this is one area of my life where I feel most secure in my feelings.

For those who don't know, I openly choose to abstain from sex. I am 20 years old and I am a virgin. Unlike some my age who might feel like this is something to be embarrassed by, I am happy, even proud to proclaim that I take the decision of when and with whom to have sex incredibly seriously.

It is only recently, though, that I've discovered how the strong feelings I have on the subject truly set me apart from most of society.

The other day in one of my classes, we screened two episodes from the HBO series Girls. The show follows several female characters around New York City, showcasing their exploits (including substance use, sexual and otherwise) and their internal struggles as young adults who have just left college. The show has some relatively uncensored scenes of nudity, self-gratification and other sexual acts. And to be honest, it doesn't bother me very much. I've seen too many films - and too much media in general (hi, one of my favorite musicals is Spring Awakening) - to take offense about any lack of modesty in modern entertainment.

Where I took issue was with the conversation that ensued after the screening of Girls was over, in which some of my fellow students discussed how they could see themselves in the characters on the show - that they could relate to them and their experiences. Which in my head translated at least partially to how they dealt with the sex in their daily lives.

Far be it for me to judge the choices of others. I have no right to say that those who take the idea of sex lightly are in the wrong. We are living in the 21st century and social norms have it that premarital sex (or, in extreme cases, promiscuity) is not frowned upon as it once was.

But bring to me a show where the only virgin involved is also a character who is desperately trying to get laid, and I have to question how this speaks to greater societal issues...

Like how society has gone from an earlier generation where it was normal to question and resist sexual liberation to a completely new set of morals which suggest that there's something stunted or wrong about not having sex (whether by choice or by circumstance).

Because the issue for me is not that people are having sex. It is a fact of life here at university - especially in collegiate dorms where thin walls often make us victims to the sounds of the sexual exploits of our neighbors. It may become an annoyance, but it's certainly not something I can judge without becoming an enemy to the entire world.

The problem I see here is that there is no dichotomy any more. What I see before me is a society where sex is the norm and abstinence is abnormal, even alien. It serves as a means of setting people on the exterior of ordinary social interaction - if we haven't done, then we cannot speak to a subject. And seeing as I'm one of those people on the outside looking in, I feel as though the alternative voice needs to be heard.

In some ways, I think it has been.

After the Girls debacle, I spent quite a few days hunkering down and doing all of my homework for the end of the quarter. Once I had finished with it all, I decided to sit down and watch an episode of Bunheads, the newest show from Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator, writer and showrunner of my favorite television series, Gilmore Girls). The show doesn't often breach the subject of major social or even personal issues. There are teenaged girls involved - as well as a woman tiptoeing towards being middle aged and another woman approaching old age - so of course there are moments of emotional self-discovery. But this is the first time in the show in which the idea of sex - other than in the case of the older characters - was really discussed in any detail at all.

The way they chose to discuss it - which was unlike most other television I have seen in the recent past - was very pleasantly objective.

In the final episode of the season, the group of four teenaged girlfriends are studying up on the implications of having sex at their young age (just before graduating high school). They read books, look at websites, try to set up meetings to discuss the issue with a trusted adult. It's all very systematic, but it's in the interest of deciding whether or not to have sex - and as an audience, we can reasonably assume that they will choose to do so sooner rather than later.

In Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino doesn't represent sex as some unfathomable or improper object. In fact, in many of her stories, it plays an integral role. In Gilmore Girls, Rory's birth is the result of Lorelai's unplanned pregnancy at 16 years old. It becomes a point of contention on the show because in addition to uprooting Lorelai's young life, Rory's birth also marked an important transition for her - it made her into a self-motivated and hard-working woman. Sex, however, is also presented as something valued and significant in Gilmore Girls. In the third season, Rory is approached by her friend Paris who has just slept with her boyfriend for the first time. Paris feels guilty for having given into temptation. She asks Rory if she's slept with her boyfriend too. Rory admits that she's still a virgin and Lorelai takes pride in that - having overheard her daughter's conversation with Paris. When Rory loses her virginity at the end of season four, the timing sparks an argument between the mother and daughter, but in time they reach an understanding and the conflict ends.

The multiple facets surrounding the idea of sex make this a more palatable and authentic address of what, in my personal opinion, is an incredibly important and sensitive subject.

The end of Bunheads had, much in a similar way to Paris' admittance of her first sexual experience, a moment of reflection and regret in the aftermath of one of the main character, Ginny's, choice to lose her virginity to a boy she thought was "beautiful." It's a terribly tragic end to the season, which up until this point has barely breached the subject of sex and now presents us with this question of whether or not one of our most beloved characters will be permanently scarred by her first encounter.

This is a character with a heart that questions. She doesn't open herself up to the idea of sex as an inevitability. She wonders whether it was done in haste or if it was worth the choice. It's that agency and that intensity and thoroughness of thought that makes this story speak to me, especially when compared to so many other texts that discuss teenaged or young adult sexuality with a design of trivializing.

With all that said, I'd like to address an issue that will most certainly come about should anyone read this article who believes in unhindered sexual liberalism: What right do I have to pass judgment on those who take sex lightly? Why do I have any right to take issue with a television show like Girls that treats sex as just an ordinary and normative part of life?

Well the truth is that I don't have the right to do that. And that's not what I'm trying to do at all. Like I said earlier, the choices of individuals on whether or not be sexually open are completely personal and no one has any right to judge each other for that.

But much in the same way that it bothers me for people to judge me on the basis of my being vegetarian when I choose not to judge them on the basis of their omnivorous tendencies, I don't see any fairness in the representation of sex in those texts which only serve to glorify it (never putting it in perspective).

Admittedly, Girls depicts a character who contracts an STD, so the act of sex is not one without consequences in the show. But even that is handled with some passivity, to the point that it becomes a secondary plot point (as opposed to perhaps an episode of Degrassi: the Next Generation which would involve an entire episode revolving around the STD - essentially the show is an enormous PSA).

The reason I found so much more happiness in watching Bunheads tonight was that even though it has a liberal heart and mind, the show has a moral structure that prevents it from going overboard, desensitizing and minimizing a subject that is not as simple as television or film would have you believe.

There are physical and emotional ramifications to the decisions represented in these texts, and those aspects are what make me a cautious personality. But when, in my life, I become the subject of raised eyebrows for my hesitation and carefulness, I can't help but believe there's something wrong with the one-sided argument.

I want to believe there are still people out there who believe that sex is about love and not just instant gratification. That if you really care about someone you can wait until they're ready to become involved in that way, and until then you can be happy getting to know someone for their heart and mind rather than their loins.

The way sex is represented to me now, it's no longer something to anticipate or feel strongly about. It's just something that happens. Something that's meant or expected to occur.

To my mind, that is the completely wrong way of addressing an important issue. And it irks me that it's the only way society (other than religious sub-sects) seems to be viewing sex now.

So after that long rant, I'd like to simply extend my thanks to Amy Sherman-Palladino, who addresses the issue of sexuality with grace and poise, with moral tinges and liberal tendencies, existing in unity. It's neither wrong nor right to choose to be sexually active, and the same goes for abstinence. But even more than that, the latter choice should never be regarded as weird. I just wish everyone could see it that way.

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