Womens Health

Bristol Palin's "Stolen Virginity:" What's the Real Message?

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Okay, I finally have to admit it, I am obsessed with Bristol Palin.  I don't understand her but I can't get enough.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard that John McCain had tapped Sarah Palin, the then-unknown governor of Alaska, to be his running mate and that (gulp) her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. I spent a lot of time arguing with people that summer about whether Bristol’s pregnancy could be made an issue in the campaign. The irony of a pro-abstinence, religious conservative running for office with an unmarried, pregnant, teenager in tow was awfully tempting to discuss (and one could only imagine what the religious conservatives would say if the tables were turned and a liberal or progressive supporter of evidence-based sexuality education hit the campaign trail with a daughter in a similar situation). For the most part, however, I believe that a candidate’s family, especially children, deserve some privacy. The thing was that Sarah herself kept pointing to her children, and her role as hockey mom, as proof that she was qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. I don’t think you get to point to your kids in the morning and yell at commentators in the afternoon for “targeting” them.

Then, after Sarah Palin lost the election but became a media sensation, Bristol started talking herself. She became (double gulp) an ambassador for the abstinence movement, and a well-paid one at that, apparently charging $30,000 for speeches. While the whole thing felt a little bit “do as I say, not as I do,” I don’t necessarily have a problem with someone learning from his/her own mistakes and trying to help others find a different path. The problem was that I never believed a word she said.  In her media interviews she tripped over her carefully scripted talking points about abstinence, saying things like "abstinence is the only way that you can effectively, 100 percent, fool-proof way to prevent pregnancy.”  She sounded disingenuous at best and when pushed often admitted that teens having sex should have safe sex. (She could have become a more genuine ambassador for comprehensive sexuality education but that probably wouldn’t have served her mother’s career as well.)  

Then there was Dancing with the Stars (why not make some money) and the flap of her jaw surgery (I’m inclined to believe she needed it and agree that she looks better now).  Now, at the ripe old age of 20, Bristol Palin has written her memoir; Not Afraid Of Life: My Journey So Far. According to some of the advance press, the book covers everything from the campaign trail, to what she really thinks of the McCains, to her seventh-grade hopes and dreams (which included dating Levi Johnston, meeting President Bush, and owning a pet pig) to, of course, dancing with those stars.

While I have not read the book… yet... I did see an advance interview on Good Morning America in which she discussed one of her most startling comments from the book. She claims that she was drunk on wine coolers and that Johnston “stole” her virginity. 

In truth, my first instinct was that this was a classic shirking of personal responsibility; “It’s not really my fault that I’m not a virgin anymore or that I got pregnant.” We send such mixed messages to young women about sex—we ask them to be sexy in skinny jeans and smokey eyeliner but tell them they're sluts if they really want sex.  The end result is that girls learn that it's okay to have sex as long as they feel guilty afterwards. So, it never surprises me when I hear a young woman say "I can't believe I did that, but you know, I was so wasted."  We have allowed alcohol to become an easy excuse and socially acceptable explanation for some who don't want to admit that they actually wanted to have sex. And Bristol may have been under even more pressure to deny having wanted, sought out, or enjoyed sex because of her mother's political career and later her own sources of fame and finance. In fact, I half expected her to go on to say that that was the one and only time she’d ever had sex with Levi or anyone else. 

But she didn’t. Instead, in one of the more well-spoken interview moments since she became a public figure, Bristol said that she behaved foolishly and looking back on it with "adult eyes" she feels like her virginity was stolen from her. When pressed, though, she said that she wouldn’t call it rape or date rape. This is a puzzling contradiction, which once again makes me wish we had a different spokesperson for teen sexuality and parenting.

By definition, if her virginity was stolen from her, it was taken without her consent and, therefore, it was rape. Educators and advocates have spent the last few decades working to ensure that everyone (young people, parents, school administrators, law enforcement officials) takes date rape seriously.  We have hammered home the messages that consent is vital and it’s still rape even if the two people know each other.  We’ve told legions of college students that no means no even if you’re in the middle of something or have had sex before; that alcohol is no excuse for not getting someone’s consent (or put another way, it’s never okay to have sex with a person who is passed out in your bed); and most importantly, that no one is ever at fault if they are raped, even if they’ve gotten themselves into a situation they “shouldn’t have.” While I respect Bristol’s right to her own feelings, I can’t help but think she’s setting these messages back.

I also have a problem with the spotlight being on her virginity especially given that she and Johnston went on to have a long-term sexual relationship which included a pregnancy and at least two engagements. I think it plays into society’s obsession with virginity and the way we use it to categorize women—virgin/slut, good/bad.  And I always hate it when virginity is referred to as a thing, an object, or as the abstinence-only-until-marriage folks like to say “a precious gift that can only be unwrapped once.”  Frankly, I don’t think it’s all that important.  Sure, you are more likely to remember your first time than you are your sixteenth but that’s true of most things you do from the first time you drive a car to the first time you see the ocean. We have to teach young people to think critically about their sexual decisions every time whether this is their first time or their twentieth and whether this is their first partner or their fifth.  Our obsession with virginity sends a dangerous message that only one decision is important, and sets teens off on a lifetime of regret.

When I listened to Bristol’s description of her stolen virgin that’s what I hear—regret.  She regrets how it happened. She wishes that when she looked back on her first time certain pieces of it could be different. That is a very fair (and very common) feeling. But even coming close to calling it rape just because you wish it hadn’t happened that way is a very dangerous precedent. If she were an ambassador for comprehensive sexuality education (in the GMA interview, she once again suggested safe sex), maybe she could have discussed these common feelings, reminded viewers about the importance of consent, and advocated for young people to think critically and make choice careful choices about sex. 

Instead, she’s an ambassador for her book and nothing sells better than strong language and shocking revelations about sex.   

Bristol Palin's Stolen Virginity