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“He drinks because of you.” Even knowing now what I didn’t know then, the claim stinks of false blame, though youth and beauty are said to have great power over those who admire them. Young I was. But beautiful? Not really, I thought. A great many budding young women are kept far too busy frantically scrambling to keep the less-beautiful parts of puberty from turning their bodies into an embarrassment to take the extra step of deliberately using their bodies to gain power over others. Some girls absolutely are Machiavellian little minxes equipped to use “sexiness” to manipulate others before they’re even old enough to drive. Other girls are as absolutely not: these latter are innocents in a society that still claims (however implausibly) to value innocence. And of course, gals come in all stages in between.
Toddlers are innocent. Toddlers are hilarious – and destructive – because they haven’t yet figured out their own agency. Our own toddler likes nothing better than to make something “happen” – but he has little idea what, or why. He’s more powerful than he knows, which adds to the havoc. Much innocence comes from simply not knowing yet what the hell you’re doing. While babies’ innocence of basic motor coordination, language, literacy, and social skills is cute, it’s not inherently valuable. Indeed, the quicker children outgrow that kind of innocence, the better. But we do value youngsters’ sexual innocence. We also value young adults’ sexual agency. Puberty is sexual toddlerhood, only we’d really rather not have our teens exploring the world with their genitals the way toddlers do with their mouths. Fortunately, children are, at least in theory, quite grown up in other ways by the time puberty hits; in theory, able to apply lessons they’ve learned about their agency in other spheres to sexual agency; in theory, able to use reason to assert their sexual agency while maintaining their sexual innocence. In practice, though, developing sexual agency while maintaining innocence is tricky, especially absent wise counsel.
Conservatives want youth – but especially, let’s be honest, young women – to exercise more agency in guarding their genitalia. Even libertine conservatives want today’s young women to recognize their sexual agency better, and most conservatives would also like to narrow the gap between the age at which women lose sexual innocence and the age at which they marry, through some combination of earlier marriage and later loss of virginity. We want this not primarily to control women (though for some, control is part of the appeal), but to make human life generally more flourishing – for women, too. One problem, though, is that, while lack of awareness of one’s own sexual power isn’t all there is to innocence, it’s part of it.
We often hear that women’s dress reflects knowing use of their sexual power: women dress “sexy” because they know the power it has over men. Well, no, not all women do, particularly young, innocent women. Girls know being “ornamental” is a role young women are expected to fulfill. Some young women know exactly how that role gives them social power. Others – more innocent – truly do not. They dress “ornamental” in order to play-act a role expected of them without understanding what the role is and the powers it has. The very act of playing the part is educative: young women will eventually learn, if only through trial and error, what presenting oneself as alluring is more-or-less about. But just as parents who’ll happily let their toddler accumulate some scrapes and bruises in the course of his play, so that he learns from his mistakes, still step in to save their toddler from worse harm, those interested in young women having an innocence left to defend must naturally take an interest in guarding young women from what would severely compromise it, even – especially – when the young women are too innocent to have developed the awareness to effectively guard themselves.
When Tocqueville visited the United States, he noticed that American girls were well-educated sexually. Not because they had an encyclopedic knowledge of contraceptive methods and various kinks, but because they were guided into maturity in a way that encouraged them to exercise agency over what was then quaintly called their virtue:
In France, where remnants of every age are still so strangely mingled in the opinions and tastes of the people, women commonly receive a reserved, retired, and almost cloistral education, as they did in aristocratic times; and then they are suddenly abandoned, without a guide and without assistance, in the midst of all the irregularities inseparable from democratic society. The Americans are more consistent. They have found out that in a democracy the independence of individuals cannot fail to be very great, youth premature, tastes ill-restrained, customs fleeting, public opinion often unsettled and powerless, paternal authority weak, and marital authority contested. Under these circumstances, believing that they had little chance of repressing in woman the most vehement passions of the human heart, they held that the surer way was to teach her the art of combating those passions for herself. As they could not prevent her virtue from being exposed to frequent danger, they determined that she should know how best to defend it; and more reliance was placed on the free vigor of her will than on safeguards which have been shaken or overthrown. Instead, then, of inculcating mistrust of herself, they constantly seek to enhance their confidence in her own strength of character. As it is neither possible nor desirable to keep a young woman in perpetual or complete ignorance, they hasten to give her a precocious knowledge on all subjects. Far from hiding the corruptions of the world from her, they prefer that she should see them at once and train herself to shun them; and they hold it of more importance to protect her conduct than to be over-scrupulous of her innocence.
Well, that was then, and this is now, and these days, I’d say plenty of American girls no longer benefit from the sexual education Tocqueville describes. For all the lip-service paid to the claim, “I can do what I want with my own body,” Mark Regnerus notes that a substantial fraction – 25% in one national study – of American women describe their loss of virginity as neither forced nor wanted. While this evidence that women can still distinguish between regrettable and forced sex ought to reassure the menfolk, if you know you can do what you want with your own body, and nobody’s forcing you, why do what you don’t want?
Why, if these young women have sexual agency, are they not using it? For all the “girl power” lessons they’ve gotten, Regnerus often observes that today’s American girls don’t see themselves as having much sexual power, especially when they’re young and inexperienced.
If youth believe they’re expected to discover their sexual power through simply having sex (this is the “use your genitals the way toddlers do their mouths” method), it shouldn’t be at all surprising when the sexually innocent are also quite innocent of their sexual power. Tocqueville, though, described an America where girls could learn how to defend their virtue while presumably still having a virtue left to defend: obviously, it’s possible to arrange lessons short of hide-the-sausage which might serviceably give young women enough inkling of their sexual power to permit them some mastery over it. What else might leave a young woman so unaware of the power she actually has that she fails to exercise it, despite all the rhetoric telling her she is and ought to be empowered?
Speaking just for myself, I had no idea when I was younger (and perhaps still don’t really know) how imperfect a young woman’s body can be while still being plenty arousing to many men. I didn’t grasp how many men don’t notice flaws that are perfectly obvious to any woman, and how much youth all by itself provides its own beauty, even to ugly ducklings.
I saw “beauty” as an act to put on because it was socially expected – a rather fraudulent act, too, when I did it: I didn’t picture myself as ugly, exactly, merely as not-beautiful, as having something to hide. Men were attracted to beauty, I had learned, and I simply wasn’t beautiful enough, I thought, to have much power over men. (I was also dimly and cynically aware that men may also find convenience attractive, but the prospect of serving as little more than a convenient collection of holes hardly seemed like “empowerment”.) Besides blithely assuming I couldn’t exercise much sexual power over men, I didn’t want to exercise such power, either – the “mean girls” I noticed exercising that kind of power over others were not the people I wanted to emulate. I liked guys. I admired them. I didn’t get my jollies trying to control them.
It’s quite possible to make yourself more attractive, to flirt and tease, without really knowing what all the coquetry is for – without quite realizing it’s for giving yourself the same kind of dangerous powers over others that others might have over you. It’s difficult to blame people for failing to control a power they don’t know they have. Laws cannot be geared toward protecting humanity’s most outstandingly naive individuals since the most naive are too far from the norm to take priority over the needs of normal people. But within some range of “normal”, we expect laws to err on the side of favoring the innocent. Hence, we expect laws to protect younger postpubescent girls sexually, despite the fact that they’re physically “ready” and many of them are already savvy enough to know exactly what they’re doing with their “readiness”: Many other, more innocent, girls of the same age don’t yet realize the postpubescent power they have, and consequently there’s less justice in permitting the Gods of the Copybook Headings to punish them severely for their innocence.
Babbling may not just be a stage in language acquisition, but a stage in any autonomous mastery – motor babbling, for example, is a means of autonomous machine learning. Conservatives caution young women to be careful about the sexual signals they send, but when you’re innocent enough, the “signals” you send are just so much babbling. I remained innocent a long time and often found myself confounded by complaints I had been sending specific signals when, as far as I knew, I hadn’t been. Like the complaint I’d driven a fellow undergraduate to drink merely by talking to him – and holding his hand once – before we went our separate ways: I would like to think that, in order to be a femme fatale, a girl at least has to put some effort into it.
A guy might object, well, I was putting effort into it. My appearance, for example.
Unrealistic standards of beauty attract a lot of blame, though it’s often not clear exactly what for. I’m beginning to wonder if one thing unrealistic beauty-standards might rightfully be blamed for is this tendency for modern American girls in the first bloom of sexual maturity to radically underestimate – and hence fail to own – the power they have over men. I consumed less pop-culture trash than many girls do, but even I got the impression that I’d be fairly disgusting to everyone (nonsexually, too) unless I could approximate a beauty I wasn’t born with – indeed, I considered myself a grim-enough case that’d I’d have to work extra just to be perceived as physically “normal” and not a pariah. Given this, why would I think I had the kind of beauty that could mesmerize men? I wouldn’t. Guys attributing that kind of power to me quite naturally struck me as riotously off their onion. And also as unfair: as blaming me for a desire to dominate others I did not have.
Meanwhile, what the guys saw was a gal who, despite no great natural gifts, was trying awfully hard to make herself attractive… to them sexually, they concluded – because why wouldn’t they? How could I not know the power of my youth and beauty (such as it was)? After all, it was perfectly obvious to them.
Douglas Murray recently wrote of one young man’s attempt to play a player – to capitalize on an older man’s sexual interest while worming out of the “obligation” to “repay” that interest with sexual favors. Murray observed,
The belief that power lies only — or only meaningfully — with older, richer, more “powerful” men and that these prey on younger, prettier, more vulnerable people is not just wrong because it is a construct of the modern, misandrist Left. It is wrong because it entirely ignores the form of (for want of a better term) bottom-up power that also exists. That is the form of power that attractive young women as well as men are capable of deploying in order to make some people do almost anything to gain their approval. As well as being observable in everyday life, it is also the subject of a great deal of art, as well as many novels and operas (both comic and tragic).
Only once did I try to play a player, and I found it terrifying. Fortunately, some combination of shy stubbornness and abject terror kept me from repaying his quid with my quo, until his abrupt disappearance. I’d say the whole affair scared the pants off me, only the result was more like it scared the pants firmly on me, which may have explained his vexation right before he vanished.
Was I exercising power over this fellow? At the time, I couldn’t discount the possibility I’d caught his interest because I was an easy mark – in his eyes, a pliable waif (which I almost proved to be, to my chagrin). That is, I suspected my sexual “power” over him might be no more than my convenience and relative powerlessness. Which isn’t to say he abused or exploited me – he didn’t. But the lessons I learned about power from the encounter weren’t, “Wow, I have sexual power over this guy!” Instead, I learned I had power over myself (though not as much as I’d hoped) – power to avoid falling entirely under a charming man’s spell, though not the self-mastery to avoid it with any dignity. Having gotten in over my head with this fellow, I was far too preoccupied with exercising self-control to consider whether I had control over him.
Whatever his intentions, he was the more experienced one – the player – while my knowledge consisted of little more than the broad truism that innocents like me should be wary around players like him. The thought that I was exercising power over him, too – that he had to worry about my approval – still makes me laugh. Of course, I knew – as he could not – that he already had my approval, in quantities great enough to cause me to doubt my self-mastery and even sanity. Sure, maybe I did have far more power over him than I knew – but if so, the fact that I didn’t know it was precisely the problem: we can’t plan to act on powers we don’t know we have.
The more experienced have had more chance to master the powers of their attractiveness, and that mastery is itself a power. While of course youth and beauty have power, the young have had less time to learn what those powers do. Often, the young and inexperienced ought to know better, in the sense that they ought to have listened when their elders warned them, but those older and more experienced really ought to know better – firsthand. No wonder we’re inherently less inclined to give an older party in a sexual scandal as much benefit of the doubt as a youthful party, no matter how attractive or intelligent the youth. Even wayward, fairly experienced youth seems likely to be less experienced than the sort of older person who considers such youth fair game.
Neither youthful innocence nor unrealistic standards of beauty fully explain, though, why so many of today’s youngest American women perceive themselves as sexually powerless enough to doormat themselves into having sex that’s neither forced wanted, a state of affairs that ought to disgust both those who value chastity and those who value individual autonomy.
While we could blame these young women for their pathetic self-assessment that they’re so powerless, we might also ask what they learned that taught them to see themselves this way – and I doubt that bugbears like “misandry”, “SJWs”, “self-esteem”, and “snowflake culture” are the only answers. Specifically, we might ask what other lessons girls could be learning instead to teach them to master their powers of youth and beauty without them having to sow their oats like wild young men, even if reliable contraception has permanently split the mating marketplace. America’s contemporary conservative Christian culture at least tries to offer youth alternative lessons here, although, in my opinion – and in Regnerus’s gathered evidence – with underwhelming success. Despite Christ’s admonition to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves, teaching innocent young girls to be sexually “shrewd” doesn’t sound, at first blush, like what Jesus would do! But if innocents cannot be taught to be shrewd while they’re still innocent, why should we expect them to defend their innocence successfully enough to make it truly their own?Published in