Student virginity auctions and sexual economics

There has been another high profile student virginity auction; a concept I’ve been familiar with since at least 2011, conveniently contemporaneous with the raising of UK tuition fees to £9,000 but also, I have to admit, my own political awakening.

I’m loath to provide links to the particular high profile case that’s been brought to my attention in 2014, however, because it’s not clear to me that the student involved, whose identity has been revealed by that bastion of journalistic integrity, the Mail Online, consented to the revelation. Suffice it to say that a professed US medical student and “virgin” (scare quotes because skeptical about the concept, not of her veracity) attempted to auction a 12 hour date which would leave her a virgin no longer. “Friends” of hers (scare quotes because skeptical about their veracity, not of the concept) claim that her virginity didn’t prove as competitive a product as she had hoped, whereas she claims to have simply lost interest in the scheme. There also seems to have been some disapproval on the part of her university. Whatever happened, the date itself did not.

There is a lot to analyze here: how many parties have I already referred to who have apparently stood in judgement upon her actions? What does that tell you about the policing of women’s sexuality? That kind of policing isn’t what I’m interested in here, though — as far as it goes, I think women should be “free” to “choose” whatever they want to do with their own bodies. I’m more interested in the context of such choices (so how free they really are) as well as in why they are women’s to make in the first place. Why do women go there? Why do we consider sex work?

Student virginity auctions are particularly telling on this point. Because both men and women have to pay for higher education, yet the only student virginity auctions I’ve heard of have been flogging a woman’s first time. This could be about heightened scrutiny of women’s sexual choices, but I actually think (though I can’t think of a way of proving this) that a story about the auction of a man’s virginity would attract more page views and scandal. It would at least be novel. So in this case, at least on the most basic level, if we ill-advisedly forget about women being more likely than men to have dependents and probably getting paid less for doing the same work if they have a job alongside their studies and so on and so fourth — if we basically pretend for a minute that men and women are on an economically equal playing field when it comes to higher education and paying for it, and if we factor in that most people in higher education — including, apparently, the woman of the latest virginity auction story — probably have more economic options than your standard issue young person, then why do female students sell their virginities (and enter sex work in other ways)? Why are they seemingly more likely to do so than their male counterparts? On the admittedly flawed terms we’ve set up, it isn’t economic necessity driving them to it.

Does this mean that “transactional” is just the way women’s sexuality is — meant for commodification somehow?

The theory of sexual economics, widely unpopular among feminists, has been interpreted to claim so. But an insight of the theory which is often overlooked is its emphasis on the role of equality in shaping socio-sexual norms. Basically, the idea is that sex is something women have and men want (a “female resource”) which women exchange with men for access to some of the resources men have that women don’t to the same degree — wealth, status, earning power. Women police each other’s sexualities in order to keep sex in low supply for men, enabling women as a class to demand a higher price for it. However, when women have greater access of their own to resources like wealth, status and earning power, women are less bothered about the price they can get for sex. Conversely, a woman in particularly dire straits — with little to no access to such resources — is more likely to take whatever she can get for sex. So really well off and really badly off women are more likely to have sex in exchange for less, but better off women’s choice to do so is freer.

Now, this is an entirely heterosexual model of human sexuality and I am no heterosexual, yet is speaks an instinctive sense to me regardless. Because even though the people I think of as prospective sexual partners are not men but other women, I still think of sex as something I “have,” something I “give away,” and also as something for which there is a market among men. Most women I know think like this, and we’ve all had the conversation about what our price would be — in purely monetary terms, what would we give it away for?

Many of the women I’ve had this conversation with are also raving homos and most of us have been the kind of people who are always likely to have other options — we’re “middle class,” basically, though I hate that term. Many people would also tell us that we have all the access we want to the traditionally male resources of wealth, status and earning power, though hopefully not among the readership of this website. Thing is, even if that were the case, how long could even the most stalwart post-feminist claim it to have been so? Internalization of the transactional model of sexuality — women’s sexuality as commodity — runs deep. My question to those who want to celebrate this — “Woo empowerment! Ladies, you can profit off your pleasure (which you derive from giving him pleasure, and it always has to be a him)” — is how pleasurable can sex be which involves a cost-benefits analysis actually be?  And how pleasurable can sex be when it isn’t had for profit if, in the same scheme, having sex for its own sake is giving away freebies? All too often, not very, it would seem. Small wonder that we use “getting fucked” as a synonym for being taken advantage of.  Small wonder that property theft remains such a popular analogy among rape apologists. Small wonder our socio-sexual norms are so fucked up, basically.

I’m not going to advocate anything here to address this here (*coughs* political lesbianism *coughs*), but I would ask that as feminists, we take into account that inequality between men and women has been foundational to the model of sexuality that is normal for our society and that internalization of such a norm is unlikely to lead women into making sexual choices that are good for women, however “free” they may be. Feminists have good reason to be wary of any scrutiny of women’s sexuality, but surely some self-scrutiny wouldn’t hurt. A critical attitude towards sex under patriarchy should not be confined to the radical fringes of the movement — especially not when capitalism, one of patriarchy’s best henchmen, is currently taking the beefed up form of neoliberal austerity, as witness the existence of tuition fees in the first place and the fact that students have anything to auction their virginities for.

Elise is a 25 year old Welsh student and feminist with a profound distaste for capitalism. Blogs mainly about sexuality and anything that makes her angry over at startmeoff.wordpress.com. Not for the faint hearted.

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  • I’ve been reading about Lakoff’s idea of framing- that the way we use language itself conditions how we think about various things- and the concept of sexual economics fits perfectly, I think. Once we frame sex in terms of a resource which must be saved or spent, it probably makes us act in ways we wouldn’t otherwise (e.g. making men more aggressive, making women pass over men they might otherwise prefer).

    • The thing is, language that implicitly conceptualises sex as a commodity, usually a woman’s, is so ingrained in our language it’s nearly impossible to avoid. I also have some reservations about language-influencing-thought theory: isn’t it more likely our language got like that because we already thought like that? The relationship between language and thought is at least dialogical, not a one way street from language to thought. And I don’t think that the thought underpinning/ reflected in/ perpetuated by the language of sex as commodity is going to be undone by not talking about the fact that we frame sexuality in those terms — that is, transactionally. I think we should be aiming for self-awareness and a critical attitude towards the effect it’s likely to have on our decision making and even our instincts. Thanks for the comment though!

      • I totally agree that the relation is two-ways, not one-way. Language and ideology, they are absolutely inseparable. We definitely agree.

  • anaeli

    “I actually think (though I can’t think of a way of proving this) that a story about the auction of a man’s virginity would attract more page views and scandal.”

    While this sounds interesting and like something that hasn’t been done before, I can’t but think of the backlash such a man would receive. Keeping in mind the summary on sexual economics that you made here (it blew my mind by the way), sex is a female resource. There is a pretty strong social stigma attached to being a male AND a virgin, while women are praised for being virgins for as long as possible and not giving it away. I’m just extrapolating here, but a guy auctioning his virginity be seen with pity and as a desperate move, right? If that is the case, would he really make headlines? I guess it depends if he had good PR, but if it were just an ordinary guy, I think he’d just be brushed off as just another annoying dude looking for sex.

    • You could be right. I’m not advocating we experiment with getting some guy to try it!

  • Zachariah

    Young women have no need to pay for sex. They hold sexual power and are pursued by men. Young women have absolutely no trouble gaining access to sex near enough whenever they want, the same does not hold true for men, many who for whatever reason struggle to find a sexual partner. Hence, young women are able to sell sex as a commodity. As women age the power balance tips out of their favour, older men often date younger women, whereas older women struggle to date young men within the frame of a normal relationship. As a result many older women pay for sex with younger men.

    “I still think of sex as something I “have,” something I “give away,”

    You hit the nail on the head with this phrase, “give away”, men simply do not frame their sexual relationships – at least in my own experience and that of my friends – in those terms, men tend to see sex as something a women gives to them. This is, in my opinion, the crux of the issue and why more young women are able to sell sexual services more successfully than young men. Hypothetically speaking if men held sexual power and were in turn pursued by women, then the situation will quickly change because sex with men would become a very valuable commodity. Then people are able to exploit this for profit and others will make a rational economic choice and opt to sell sexual services.

    • You realize we’re mocking this conception, right? The one you’re taking seriously?

    • Here’s how we can theoretically shift the “sexual power” over to the men so that it’s men’s sexuality that’s “valuable”: first, you gotta create a culture in which men are shamed for having too much sex, so they feel like they have to limit how much sex they have to remain a respectable man. Then, you gotta devise a way to make it so that it is the man who will risk getting pregnant and not the woman, and make it really hard for pregnant men to get an abortion.

      That’s all I can think of for now. Anybody got more?

      • polarcontrol

        Well then you also adjust the purchasing power of the sexes.. (now what’s the statistics again, women’s income is one-third of the average income of men? Make it the other way round.)

    • CD

      Dude, you don’t have “power” when you are seen (and exploited!) as a commodity. After all, you can’t view someone as a thing that you can buy and still respect them as an equal, never mind a superior.

      As a side note to Elisa, I absolutely agree that the concept of sexual purity is crap. Also, although I’m a heterosexual woman, I don’t view sex as something that I have to give away (to men or to anyone), and I’ve never wondered how much money I’d make as a prostitute. Maybe I’m just weird or lucky to have avoided that, but I hope those ideas aren’t as universal as you think, because that’s a really destructive way for women to think about themselves.

      • anaeli

        “Young women have absolutely no trouble gaining access to sex near enough whenever they want”

        I really dislike absolute statements like this one here. It just smacks of the age old complaint of men that women (read: the tall, skinny, big breasted, possibly famous super models, the women that a normal guy can’t get to) have absolutely no trouble dating. All the other people who are biologically female, but are: not skinny, not tall, don’t have perfect skin/ teeth/ hair, are disabled and so on… well, they do not count. Women can have a lot of trouble dating if they don’t fit in the mold society gave them, I’m pretty sure of that. I think even the women that are most prized for their looks have trouble dating, because they are constantly seen as nothing more than a sexual object and a status symbol for the man who gets to be with them (and as human beings they might desire deeper connections than that). I think the fact that there a lot of young prostitutes out there is a power dynamic totally different. While in a regular exchange, so to speak, women have ”power” in that they can say ‘no’ to men they don’t want to date (while risking being seeing as snobs or bitches, or just being ignored) or they can themselves be rejected, prostitutes don’t have any trouble “gaining access to sex” because the whole purpose they exist, in the eyes of johns, is that they can provide pleasure whenever, wherever. Does that make sense?

        “As a result many older women pay for sex with younger men.”

        Do they, really? I find this hard to believe.

        • Grackle

          Men who make comments like Zachariah see women who are less-than young, slender, and fairly conventionally attractive the same way most of society sees them–i.e., hardly at all. They just don’t count as women; they don’t figure into what a woman actually IS.

          That’s why some people are able to make remarkably dumb statements like “young women have absolutely no trouble gaining access to sex near enough whenever they want” with a straight face. Zachariah doesn’t see unattractive women as actually factoring into his equation–the many women who, first if all, aren’t pursued by men in the first place, and secondly, who he COULD go for if he actually considered them potential dating partners.

          TLDR: when men are picky, it’s justifiable; when women are picky, they’re “withholding sex”.

          • anaeli

            Very well said, thank you! I’m barely 20, and a woman, and I’m as average as they come and yet I don’t to get walk over a path made of my suitors on my way home every night. Maybe I’m doing something wrong.

          • Missfit

            Zachariah did not say that good looking people hold sexual power whereas he seems to equate sexual power with having many potential partners interested in having sex with you. I have known very good looking men and they always had plenty of women willing to have sex with them. No, he specifically said that women (young women), not men, hold sexual power (even though, apparently, many older women would pay to have sex with young men – because sexual power also means people wanting to pay to have sex with you). He indicates that men tend to view sex as something women give to them – this indicates a conception of sex that is centered on men’s pleasure (which is how sex is conceived under patriarchy). Then he goes on to say that this is why women hold sexual power. What I would like to know is why so many people see being used as a commodity and a masturbatory object as power? Since when the person who is paid to service another, the one who is made to please and satisfy the needs of another, is viewed as the one having power?

          • marv

            “What I would like to know is why so many people see being used as a commodity and a masturbatory object as power?”

            Yes. Male dominion has captured our minds and desires. For example, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Zachariah typed his comment with one hand and had his penis in the other. Even if he hadn’t bypassed his brain in this manner it would have made no difference because of the pre-conditioning.

      • I guess I hope the same and that we can move towards a situation in which no one thinks like that 🙂

  • You say that women can “get sex whenever they want.” But you’re missing the point– sure, women can get “sex” on the masculine paradigm (i.e. degrading/ disrespectful, phallic/penetrative, divorced from a community or relationship of social responsibility, pregnancy-threatening, etc.) any time. no problem. But women– many women, at least– dont want that. They may (and that’s a big may, and does not apply to all women) desire “sex” with men, but what is “sex”? what does it look like? What women can “get” “whenever they want” is a type of sex that has built into it things that women do NOT want.

    • You said it!!! Great comment, you deserve way more likes!!!

    • I agree with yumicpcake. Great comment.

  • Danny Mills

    First of all I loved the article Elisa, articulate but to the point and not afraid to be blunt (I have followed you on WordPress).

    I like to think of a good sexual experience as when two (or more…) people give and the same number receive too. That’s an equal experience at least on the surface of it. Not to get all academic, but by reading Derrida (the aporia of the gift event) and Foucault on language and discourse and the economics of interaction it’s hard to not be persuaded as to the inescapable economy of interacting with other people. As much as I am committed to my altruism in a conscious sense.

    You couiold argue that if you I have anything of value to anyone else then you fundamentally cannot escape economic interactions. You have to be valueless. Is that not why (and this may be controversial) many feminists have willfully presented themselves as the anathema of what is considered ‘conventionally attractive ‘ ? That isn’t freedom I don’t think but being forced to live through a reactive lense – forced into action?

    • marv

      “You couiold argue that if you I have anything of value to anyone else then you fundamentally cannot escape economic interactions. You have to be valueless. Is that not why (and this may be controversial) many feminists have willfully presented themselves as the anathema of what is considered ‘conventionally attractive ‘ ? That isn’t freedom I don’t think but being forced to live through a reactive lense – forced into action?”

      There is no freedom for the masses (half who are women) if there is no equality for all at the institutional level. As long as there are sex, race and economic classes the only ones who are free are the ones on top. For those on the bottom to be free, those above have to be forced into social group equality. Of course the powerful are reactionary to their subordinates by taking political action to preserve the system and/or by not embracing solidarity measures to subvert the structures. White male philosophers are one diehard example. So it is not a question of being valueless which is impossible, but of abolishing class divisions as the ultimate value to organize society upon. Prostitution would then vanish as a result, as well as disparities in legitimate economic interactions.

    • “…I don’t think…”

      Obviously.