Regrettably this post exclusively focuses on sexual autonomy in a heterosexual context. The idea of “saving yourself for marriage” is a patriarchal concept that stifles women’s sexual autonomy. Even worse, “saving yourself for marriage” places women’s right to bodily ownership into men’s hands. Utilizing concepts from American Legal Jurisprudence, this essay argues that while men are given absolute ownership of their bodies, women are given the inferior possessory right of inhabitancy, rather than ownership of their bodies.
If patriarchy is a war on women, then patriarchy’s most powerful military base is in a woman’s mind. And patriarchy does an excellent job of convincing women to accept sexist value systems that justify men’s domination and women’s subjugation. I myself have had to work to rid my psyche of internalized sexist ideas. Growing up, I was a quintessential patriarchal princess; and I wanted so badly to have worth and to be a “good girl”. Thus, I embraced sexist value systems that told me that I would be worth less if a man, who was not my husband, penetrated my vagina sexually. So I was committed to “waiting until marriage” before beginning a sexual life, despite knowing that most heterosexual men were not waiting. Like most people who selectively enforce religious doctrines that warn against pre-marital sex, I was convinced that it was acceptable for men to possess the power and liberty to sexually explore, while I repressed my sexual desires in search of approval and validation from a patriarchal society.
Escaping the Prison of Virginity Politics
As a patriarchal princess I did not understand that I owned my body completely, and thus “saving myself for marriage” reinforced the notion that sex changed my body into a wasteland. I also failed to understand that my hypothetical future husband’s supposed interest in my body was less important than my bodily autonomy; until I became a feminist.
As a feminist I realized: (1) my body was mine and I could do whatever I wanted as long as I did not hurt others, (2) my worth as a human did not decrease because I had sex (essentially there was no “decay” from sex), and (3) that the most important aspect of my self-worth had little to do with sex and everything to do with my impact on the world as a global citizen.
I also realized that any man that wanted to keep me sexually confined, while he explored his sexuality, could never be a loving partner, as he was a domineering oppressor. Nonetheless, I still had to deal with the notion that penile-vaginal penetrative sex meant some man was “taking my virginity”, and that I was losing a part of myself.
My first encounter with penile-vaginal sex did not cause me to see myself as tainted. It was fun. There was no cosmic shift or everlasting soul bonding; a voice did not boom from the heaven to declare, “YOU ARE NO LONGER A GOOD WOMAN”. There was just a new sexual act introduced to my already existing sexual arsenal.
I wanted to include penetrative vaginal sex into my sexual conduct while
maintaining complete ownership of my body. So, I bought a purple penis-shaped vibrator to ensure that I was comfortable with vaginal penetration on my own. Then I had penetrative sex with a man. It was the first time my sexual experiences with another person had shifted from manual (clit-rubbing) and oral sex to include vaginal penetration; and it was fun! Rejecting the construct of virginity meant that there was no loss, only a gain of sexual experience, and I did not bother to tell him that it was my first penetrative experience because it was not a big deal. There was no cosmic shift, no everlasting soul bonding; a voice did not boom from the heaven to declare, “YOU ARE NO LONGER A GOOD WOMAN”. There was just a new sexual act introduced to my already existing sexual life.
My essence did not change, because frankly neither penises nor men have the power to change a woman’s intrinsic value. And that is how I avoided the baggage of “virginity” and reclaimed the power to have sex as a heterosexual woman on my own terms.
Women’s power to have sex on their own terms is robbed through the use of sexist rationale that grants women an inferior possessory right to body ownership. The sexist conditioning that robs women of bodily autonomy can be elucidated utilizing concepts from Property Law.
Quick lesson in Possessory Estates: Life Estates Vs. Fee Simple Absolute
In American Property Law, there are numerous ways to possess a property. One can possess a property temporarily, or permanently. Here are two concepts: fee simple absolute and life estate, that will be analogized to discuss how men are given complete control over their bodies, while women are taught to preserve their bodies for men’s ownership and consumption.
A. Fee Simple Absolute
A Fee Simple Absolute is the greatest possible kind of property ownership right. A person with a fee simple absolute owns the property completely, and has the right to do whatever the person wants with the property. The owner has the right to possess the property exclusively, may reap all of the benefits of the property, dispose of it, give it to someone else, sell it to someone else, and even engage in activity that makes the property decay or waste. This form of ownership is absolute ownership.
A Fee Simple Absolute is a form of ownership that grants an owner absolute right to utilize a property however the owner desires.
This is your
muthafuckin’ property and you can do whatever you want with the property. When one has a fee simple absolute, they have a right to even “decay” the property freely. (Still gotta pay taxes and cannot interfere with other people’s rights.)
B. Life Estate (Life Tenant)
A Life Estate is a type of possessory estate through which a person gets the right to use a property for the entirety of their life. Usually, the person with the right to use the property for the entirety of their life is called a life tenant. A life tenant has the legal right to live, rent, and/or use the property until the life tenant dies. After the death of the life tenant, the property goes to another person. The person that the property goes to after the life tenant dies is a future possessor or owner.
While a Life Estate grants the life tenant use of the property for the rest of their life, the life tenant does not have absolute ownership. Instead, they have the right of inhabitancy and use till they die.
There are numerous restrictions on a life estate. Unlike a fee simple absolute, a life tenant merely inhabits and does not own the property absolutely. Thus a life tenant cannot commit certain kinds of waste on the property. Waste is the improper or unreasonable use of a property by a life tenant.
Unlike a fee simple absolute, a life tenant’s lack of absolute ownership means:
(1) that the life tenant has to ensure that they do not engage in certain kinds of waste, as the property must be preserved for the future possessor or owner
(2) that the life tenant must get consent from the future possessor (owner) before selling, or substantially changing the property.
Women’s Inferior Possessory Right
In terms of sexual autonomy and bodily ownership in a heterosexual context, women are issued a lower possessory right than men. While men have a possessory right to their bodies that resembles a fee simple absolute, women have a possessory right to their bodies that resembles a life estate.
When women are told to “save themselves for their husbands”, the message sent to women is that their bodies do not belong to them absolutely, and thus they cannot utilize their bodies as they please. Women are treated as if they merely inhabit, rather than completely own, their bodies and must thus preserve their bodies for the rightful owners: their future husbands.
In a fee simple absolute, an owner is given an absolute possessory right to use the property however they please. In a fee simple absolute, waste (decay of property) is not a concern, as an owner has the right to use the property however they desire. In terms of heterosexual men’s sexuality, men are given an absolute right to use their bodies however they please. No one tells men to “save themselves for their wives”, and no one treats men’s bodies as commodities that will decay if they explore their sexuality. Men are given absolute ownership of their bodies.
Women, on the other hand, are given less than absolute ownership with a possessory right similar to a life estate. In a life estate, a life tenant is given the possessory right to inhabit the property but must ensure that impermissible waste does not befall the property. The life tenant has an obligation to preserve the property for the future owner, who has the legal right to sue or bring about an injunction if the life tenant fails to preserve the property. Additionally, the life estate must preserve the interests of the future possessor/owner before making a substantial decision. Just like women are told to do. Women must “preserve their bodies” for their husbands by refraining from having sex. Women are also trained to consider their husbands desire for women’s bodies, before engaging in sexual activity.
While men are given the absolute freedom to use their bodies in any manner that they find acceptable, women are limited from utilizing their bodies in any manner that they find acceptable. Women are cautioned to refrain from sexual activity as a means of preserving their bodies for their husbands, while men are not.Women are told they must ensure that they don’t cause their bodies to go to waste, and men are not. Women are thus denied absolute ownership, as their husbands are treated as a future owner whose interests they must observe. And men are not.
For women to be completely free, our bodies must be absolutely ours. Thus, this discourse of “preserving one’s virginity for marriage” must die.