“A Woman’s Honor”
In Europe in the 1920’s, when everybody suddenly discovered they were “modern,” my mother was importuned by a young man to be “modern” in the way of most interest to him. When her answer was negative, he protested, “You put such a price on yourself!”
“You have the price you put on yourself,” she rejoined.
Things haven’t changed that much. The influential minds today still don’t encourage women to price their favors high. (I am referring to all the kinds of surrender, including mental surrender – not just the sexual kind.)
(1) We’ve been assured, by certain anthropologists, that in the prelapsarian South Sea islands, in Samoa, to name one island, virginity is not a pricey item at all. Not valued, and yet the Samoans are, or were, less uptight and neurotic than we seem to be.
(2) We’ve been assured by Dr. Sigmund Freud of the correlation between mental disorders and sexual repression.
(3) We’ve been urged by the sociobiologists to acknowledge respectfully the male instinct to share DNA with as many females as possible.
(4) We’ve been warned by the existentialists against the “bad faith” of trying to ornament the body’s naked urges with the trappings of courtship. Courtship is so yesterday!
(5) We’ve been encouraged by the post-moderns to adopt stratagems that will be “transgressive” with regard to the established norms, which, they tell us, cloak the transfer of power from the unconscious oppressed to their cunningly conscious oppressors.
Is there anything questionable in all these recommendations from the best and the brightest?
Re Samoa: Anthropologist Derek Freeman has revisited Samoa. Margaret Mead was misinformed. Samoans place an excruciatingly high value on virginity. Not Mead’s fault. The young girls who were her informants were practicing a local custom we can call “putting on the anthropologist.”
Re Freud: As James Baldwin once noted, reacting to Norman Mailer’s cult of the Breakthrough Orgasm: “Where I came from, people had orgasms all the time and they still cut each other up on a Saturday night.”
Re the sociobiologists: any man who wants to take you to bed on account of his species needs, doesn’t need you.
Re the existentialists: the woman who – for the sake of avoiding phoniness or acquiring instant “authenticity” – allows an applicant for her favors to dispense with the courtship preliminaries, has given that applicant permission to dodge any and all tests of character or intentions. Hey, existentialists: I was born in the dark but it wasn’t last night. Not recommended.
Re the post-moderns: this seems mostly an academic category, but of course it has spillover into the culture more generally. The “ transgressive” move fails to shock; there’s been too much of it. It seems parasitic on the norms it would violate (if anyone still remembers what those were). To that extent, it’s got to be derivative, which means relatively shallow. Question for the post-moderns: Are all the great works of human designing just distractions from power relations? To suppose that is to drain oneself of one’s own power to do some great works oneself one day.
What do theoretical moves 1 through 5 have in common? They claim to know you and me better than we know ourselves. They hurry us. They crowd us. And they all offer smooth opening lines for predators.
Mom was right. “You have the price you put on yourself.” Sooner or later (nowadays it’s generally later) we learn that, and we raise the price.
Honor in a woman must depend on her finding her own footing in life, exercising her own best judgment, basing it increasingly on what — by trial and error, by comparing experiences, reading and reflection — she has learned and made her own.
To do this, women must not be crowded and rushed. There needs to be a certain distance between our own selves and the selves of others, so that we can figure out what is real and valuable and what isn’t.
There must be space and time, for the honor we pay ourselves to have play.