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In the past couple of decades, the Christian right has aggressively championed the idea that “virginity”–an abstract concept that usually means someone has never had sexual intercourse before–should be elevated to an aspirational, even holy status. The argument is that being a virgin, at least for women, somehow makes you “pure” and that you should wait until your wedding night to have sex in order to give your husband the “gift” of your virginity, as if your vagina is a piñata that gets busted open once and releases the candy, never to be the same again.
This notion that non-virgins are tawdry and unworthy was pushed by the Bush administration, which manipulated federal funding to try to get “abstinence-only” programs teaching this view of sexuality into every public school in the country. It also surged within Christian right circles with the rise of virginity pledges, purity rings and even purity balls aimed mostly or exclusively at girls to send the message that you somehow become dirty or impure if you have sex without being married.
Well, new evidence has emerged showing that this effort to turn virginity into the measure of a young woman’s worth has been a big, fat failure. New research published in the Journal of Sex Research shows that, for women over the past three decades, feelings of guilt over losing virginity have been in decline. Women who lost their virginity in the years 1980-1991 rated their feelings of guilt as an average 4 on a scale from 1-7, but women who lost their virginity between 2002-2012 rated their feelings of guilt at 3.5.
More interestingly, taking pleasure in their first intercourse, which stayed at a steady 4.9 average rating for men over the decades, went up even more dramatically for women than feelings of guilt went down. The 1980-1991 cohort reported a low average 2.75 score on a scale of 7 when it came to enjoying their first sexual intercourse, but had gone up to 3.3 for the 2002-2012 cohort. Still too low, but the number is moving in a promising direction.
All of this increase in pleasure and decrease in guilt has occured despite the dramatic uptick in Christian right guilt-tripping over sex and pushing the idea that virginity equals purity. Even as Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson were making big public fusses over how they were supposedly virgins, ordinary young women were refusing to feel guilty about sex. The Bush administration tied sex education funding from the federal government to the requirement that schools shun contraception education to push the silly idea that everyone should wait to have sex until marriage, but young women bucked that pressure by having better, less guilty first times at sexual intercourse.
Now, it is possible that all the virginity pressure slowed down the rates of improvement. After all, having to take off that virginity ring in order to have sex was bound to invoke some guilt in women who otherwise wouldn’t have felt bad about sex. (What the virginity rings didn’t do, however, was actually cause young women to wait until marriage. A few did, but by and large, most virginity pledgers also have premarital sex, just like their non-pledger peers.) The most all this guilt-tripping about sex did was slow down a general trend. Overall, the numbers show that women are rejecting the idea that they should want to be virgins and that they should hang onto that status out of fear that they’re somehow spoiled if they have sex.
That’s good, because it just so happens to be true: There’s nothing wrong with not being a virgin. After all, 95 percent of Americans have had premarital sex, and the world has not stopped spinning on its axis. In fact, the truly harmful behavior may actually be putting a premium on virginity. The myth that virgins are somehow “pure” and that a man takes something from a woman by having sex with her can do immense damage to women’s self-esteem, even if they do follow all the arbitrary rules and wait until marriage to have sex.
Earlier this month, the writer Samantha Pugsley, writing for XO Jane, described the serious damage done to her life and her marriage by her “choice,” made when she was a mere 10 years old, to take a virginity pledge, a pledge she actually kept by waiting until her wedding night to have sex. Despite Christian propaganda pushing the idea that waiting until marriage leads to better sex, Pugsley found that her feelings of awkwardness and guilt about sex persisted even after the ring on her finger supposedly made sex okay. “Everyone knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers,” she writes, adding that she felt “soiled.” “My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it.”
Eventually, her misery around sex caused Pugsley to get help and eventually come around to seeing that “the entire concept of virginity is used to control female sexuality.” But the concept of virginity and the idea that women who “lose” it are somehow spoiled and should be ashamed has ramifications beyond just the individual damage done to women’s psyches and relationships.
It’s not a stretch to say that much of the Christian right’s current activism is built around the idea that women–at least single women–should remain virgins. The relentless attacks on abortion access, the fight to remove contraception from the list of mandatory services covered by insurance, and the increasing attacks on family planning clinics all go back to this idea that women who choose to have sex outside of the narrow parameters set by the religious right are bad girls who need to be punished. (Yes, married women use contraception and abortion services, but that just goes to show how much the guilt-tripping about sex hurts even women who supposedly have permission from the Christian God to have sex.) Even the right-wing obsession with women who have children “out of wedlock” goes back to the idea that a woman who has sex is used up and worth less than a woman who hasn’t had sex.
So it’s a good thing, for women’s individual lives and for society as a whole, if women are shrugging off efforts to make them feel bad for having sex. There’s still a lot more work to be done, but this new research shows that the trends are heading in the right direction.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and journalist. She's published two books and blogs regularly at Pandagon, RH Reality Check and Slate's Double X.More Amanda Marcotte.
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