Once upon a time, the phrase “The Lady or the Tiger?”–taken from an 1882 short story of that name–was a byword for impossible choices. The story took place in a mythical kingdom where justice was dispensed through the workings of chance. The accused were presented with two identical doors behind which awaited opposing fates: one concealed a hungry tiger, who would immediately devour the accused, while the other concealed a beautiful woman, whom the accused would have to marry on the spot. This doesn’t present a problem until the accused man is the lover of the King’s daughter; when the lover asks the princess for a hint as to which door to choose, she has to decide whether she’d rather see him dead or married to another woman. The story ended without the author revealing the princess’ choice or the lover’s fate; the unresolved puzzle thus secured the story’s role as a topic of speculation and “thought experiments” for generations to come.
This is by way of prologue to the economic sociological news that an American woman was recently offered a live tiger in exchange for her virginity. Now the woman has been running an auction for her virginity since September, so the offer didn’t come entirely out of the blue. But still, the offer of a live tiger (by a zookeeper in an undisclosed location) is incomparably bizarre.
It’s also deliciously ironic, in that it brings “The Lady or the Tiger?” into a 21st century Western context, in which everything can be legitimately and publicly commodified so that there is no longer an irreducible opposition between lady and tiger. Instead, they are being offered as equivalents for exchange. Reduction of everything to a price tag puts everything up for grabs, and everything on an equal footing.
I stress the legitimate and public commodification of virginity, because of course, intact hymens have been put on the auction block for hundreds–perhaps thousands–of years. It still happens openly all over the world: Nick Kristof of the New York Times has done an excellent series on the selling of young Vietnamese girls (by their own families) into sex slavery in Cambodia. It even happens in the US, albeit under cover; since selling other people’s bodies is against the law, we only hear about it when there is a criminal investigation or a dramatization, like those surrounding the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.
But what if you want to sell your own body? And what if you want to define it as an act of free market rationality–“I have something of value, and I should be compensated for it.” Or how about framing the sale of one’s hymen as a feminist act, by keeping the profits rather than having them expropriated by men or older women, as was the fate of Moll Hackabout (see below)?
These are precisely the ideological claims of the lady–one Natalie Dylan, aged 22, of San Diego–who is being offered a live tiger in exchange for being sexually penetrated for the first time. Dylan’s reasoning, in her own words, is as follows (the phrases in boldface are my emphasis):
And the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with me. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism… And for what it’s worth, the winning bid won’t necessarily be the highest—I get to choose.
Bidding for this prize was up to a reported $3.8 million earlier this month. Natalie’s ability to construct a narrative of empowerment and autonomy around the auction stems in part from her training in Women’s Studies, in which she received an undergraduate degree from Sacramento State University. She says the auction started as a “sociological experiment” on the value of virginity, as well as a practical means of raising money to fund her graduate studies in marriage and family therapy. She was inspired in part by her older sibling, Avia, who earned enough in three weeks working as a prostitute at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch brothel to put herself through graduate school. Sisterhood is powerful!
The life-world, by and large, characterized by value-rationality, begins to be eclipsed and absorbed in instrumental rationality, making persons become means to political and economic ends not in their interest, nor under their control.
First, read about the colonization of the life-world by the market, using selections from Habermas, Marx, Weber, Kant.
Second, write a paper describing a world in which selling sex (or reproductive material) wasn’t the only way for a young woman to make a big pile of money quickly, just to see if she could imagine such a thing–and to help her begin to see what it means to be “colonized” by an idea (somewhat like the strategy employed by the high school counselor working with the white supremacist teenager in American History X).
Third, I would ask her to analyze her auction plan in relation to the valuation of other women’s virginity: what does it mean that she expects to command enough money for her hymen to put herself through graduate school, while the Vietnamese parents interviewed by Nick Kristof (see above) can barely clear enough from the sale of their virgin daughters into brothels to open a little hut selling rice and vegetables? Is it acceptable to her to profit from the same social system that led soldiers in Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, and many other war zones, to target virgins for rape in order to inflict maximum damage on the enemy?
Perhaps none of these exercises would have changed Dylan’s mind. But I think we’d be hearing a lot less from her about empowerment. Instead of claiming “I’m seizing control of the commodification of women’s sexuality for my own benefit,” I imagine she’d say something more like, “I’m willing to enter into this corrupt and unfair exchange because it’s the only way I can make a fortune in a few months.” I’d prefer unpleasant accuracy to pleasant (self)deception any day. And maybe a more accurate perception of herself and her actions would lead her to do something positive, like donate proceeds of her auction to help the women whose trophy-virginity was taken without consent or compensation.