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 Not for the faint hearted.

Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current's amazing guest writers.