Virgins, Sirens, Madonnas, and Whores: Female Sexuality and Extremes in Pop Culture

I’m on a bit of a tear about female sexuality in pop culture these days, although, let’s face it, I’m almost always on a tear about female sexuality in pop culture, because there’s so much going on in that regard, and so much of it is deeply, deeply wrong. While men seem to be allowed to do more or less whatever they want without consequences, women, still, find themselves boxed into the virgin/whore dichotomy, with nowhere to move from there, and I find it deeply disturbing that this shows up even in allegedly progressive media.

Take, for example, Buffy, where both Buffy and Willow are punished for expressing interest in sexuality. (Buffy has sex for the first time and her boyfriend turns into a monster, Willow starts to fall in love with a guy and he becomes a werewolf…and later, when she finds love with Tara, Tara is shot and killed right in front of her. To be fair, Xander winds up with a giant praying mantis in his early explorations of sexuality, but he also has a comparatively safe relationship with Cordelia.) This is a show that’s been celebrated for progressive values and feminism, and it’s a darling of feminist pop culture critics. Yet, a lot of the messaging about sexuality (remember what happens to Dawn when she starts to mature and becomes interested in boys?) is rather negative; sex is dangerous, sex is bad, sex is a dividing line which, once crossed, cannot be undone.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Twilight, which has been castigated by feminist critics for the extremisms of sexuality it presents; here’s a book and movie series where the main character’s insistence on virginity and ‘purity’ (blech) plays a very important textual role, and we’re very much supposed to see this as positive, as readers. It’s a reflection of the author’s values, of course, but it’s telling that many young women find the series deeply appealing: they like the idea of an unconsummated relationship characterised by stalking and controlling behaviour.

Female sexuality has been falling out on one end of this extreme or the other for millenia, of course, which doesn’t make it any less distasteful, and it’s rare indeed that we see true twists on these tropes in the form of genuine female sexuality or an active flipping of mythology. For example, in Beautiful Creatures, we have Ridley, who is literally a Siren—which makes her theoretically Dark, but her character turns out to be more complex than that, and while she does use the power of sexual attraction to control and compel people, she’s not that simplistic and cannot be read purely as a stereotyped and troped description of the siren leading men around by their penises.

Or Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, who calmly has sex with Augustus in a scene that is sweet, touching, and unfussy. She’s not presented as a precious, pure, fragile virgin before, nor does she become a ‘whore’ afterwards; Hazel is still the same person, she’s still in love with Augustus, and while their relationship has deepened, they haven’t become fundamentally different people. Sex, in other words, does not destroy their relationship or turn it into something radically new.

While that might be a more accurate depiction of female sexuality, it’s so rare that it’s a bit of a surprise to stumble upon. So often, it seems like young women are being punished for having sex or even thinking about it in YA; they’re getting pregnant, being mocked for their sexuality (look at Veronica Mars, accused of being the town bicycle after her rape, the one and only time she’d had sex to date at that point in the series…and, of course, how much stress is placed on her having been a virgin at the time of her rape), having their partners turn into monsters, being abandoned, finding out the people they love are their siblings (or maybe not…), and more.

Sex-as-punishment, and sexuality-as-punishment, are such common tropes that one would think we’d be over them by now. I get that everyone is very interested in sex, and I’m all for having it included (as we know, from my recent discussion about ‘steamies’), but why must it fit within such narrow confines? What’s the deal with always punishing women and girls for daring to be sexual and for exercising autonomy? Why, after all this time, must so many women and girls be trapped within the virgin/whore dichotomy with no room to move, or breathe, or be?

In male-centred YA, young male characters often experience their sexuality as a voyage of self-discovery, with fairly minimal consequences. It was fun, it was enjoyable, they got something out of it. The same narrative when flipped becomes a journey of punishment and suffering for girls, even as a generation of mostly women authors are fighting to change that with texts where women and girls are unabashedly sexual and aren’t punished for it or used as tools by other characters.

And those who do? Often marginalised with the dreaded ‘romance’ label, as though there’s something wrong with being an author in that category. Or they’re considered ‘not serious’ authors because their books are about girls doing girl things (clearly, sex is a girl thing). Or they’re told that because their books include fantasy and science fiction elements, they aren’t really on par with serious contemporary literature, and thus can’t be weighted with the same seriousness as ‘real’ books. All of these tactics serve to marginalise specific authors and genres, but more than that, they push female sexuality further and further away from the forefront, turning it into something to be ashamed of, something to hide in the dark, definitely not something to talk about or to integrate into fiction with open eyes and fair, accurate depictions.

After all, if we admitted that girls can have sex without the world ending, we might just…upend the world.