Why Standards Night Is Substandard

The balance sheet continued to change for me and my girlfriends as we emerged from childhood into womanhood. Our increasingly voluptuous bodies were reliable tools of status and control. The power was heady, but confusing, because wielding it always left us feeling empty and weak. And it was treacherous, because its force attracted not only the male peers we were aiming for, but also troubled stepfathers and leering strangers. But by the time we realized the perils, we'd grown dependent on this means of power. Of course it didn't yield true power, because it didn't originate within ourselves: it originated within the perceptions of the boys and men we hoped to entice. Yet in our economy of success, sexual attraction was the only currency we thought we held. And counterfeit money was better than nothing.

Six months after my conversation with Amy's mother I attended an unexpected bridal shower. Amy sat at the front of the room, in a wingback chair like a throne, visibly pregnant. Before she opened her gifts, one of the hostesses handed her a rose in full bloom, delicate pink, and encouraged her to pull its petals off one by one while she listed aloud the reasons why she loved her fiancé. But after the first layer of petals was gone she ran out of things to say. The hostess hastily retrieved the rose and handed her the first gift to open, a jumbo package of diapers. When the time came, Amy gave birth to a daughter, still looking much like a child herself.

I see Amy and her husband at church from time to time. Their daughter is three or four years old now, with beautiful dark eyes and curls. Some might say it's a shame she was conceived in sin, a shame that Amy failed to keep her personal temple holy. But I believe the shame is not so much what girls like Amy do, but why they do it. And I believe it's a shame we collectively bear, the shame of creating a world where too many women opt to trade sex for power because they don't see any other convincing options. All of humanity suffers every time a woman, young or not, uses her body not to express herself, but to secure a self; not to feel pleasure, but to gratify another's; not to share love, but to barter for it.

Elizabeth is swinging. The blue vinyl seat arcs skyward, and during that moment of suspension before gravity's backward pull I see her face, serene, with a slight smile meant only for herself. She's so different than I was at her age, at ease in her own skin, boldly claiming the life she desires. She knows the power of sexual attraction, but she doesn't need a man's approving gaze or hungry touch to feel strong. I don't take credit for my daughter's choices any more than I blame Amy's mother for hers, and I know Elizabeth is not immune as she emerges into the wide proving ground of adulthood. But if her confidence falters, I have hope that she'll remember swinging through the summer air, unafraid even in the dark, and know that the smooth kinetic energy of her body and mind and spirit can carry her far beyond the surface of the earth.  

* Such studies include books by Lisa Diamond and Mary Roach, a documentary film, and articles in the NYT and Salonwhich reference studies by Meredith Chivers at the University of Toronto and Michael Bailey at Northwestern University. 

For blogposts and responses to this article, see here.


Kathryn Soper is wife of one, mother of seven, memoirist, essayist, editor, nonprofit CEO, practicing Mormon, depression survivor, Down syndrome advocate, Greek-blooded American, WordTwist addict, and Radiohead groupie. (Not necessarily in that order.) She is the founder of Segullah and author of The Year My Son and I Were Born (Globe Pequot Press, 2009), and makes random appearances on her personal blog

9/15/2010 4:00:00 AM
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