White men have no identities. Not until they earn them anyway. A woman always has a purpose, an inherent judgment on who she is no matter what she does. The view of a black man’s actions are warped by pre-existing assumptions. A white character is free to be who he is, judged solely by his actions and words alone, and can easily disappear into a crowd to be ignored by the world.
This is not always a good thing, and it is easy for the white man to be considered unimportant, valueless to society, and I do think the ramifications of this lack of identity is important, and is under the umbrella of sexism we should be concerned with.
As a human being, the way we identify people by race—white or not—or even gender, age, and weight, can be a huge psychological affliction to that person’s understanding of self and his/her place in the world. The restriction of other people’s assumptions is what racism is all about—and I include racism against white men, even though it is of a different breed.
But I bring this up not to discuss race, but as a contrasting example of my real point. Writing the white man versus the black woman has a major effect on perception of a character, and is a prime case of a “non-noticeable choice.” When you chose to have a non-white male protagonist you’re saying something. What that something is can vary: “Look how not racist I am!” to “I'm black and my character's black so it's probably me,” to “See the psychological ramifications of not being able to trust authority figures as protectors?” to “I’m a woman. I’m strong.” But you’re always saying something. When writing a white person, you’re not.
Writing a black protagonist makes a point and can be distracting. If, however, you wanted race to not define your character, you make them white. People don’t question, “Why is he white?” It doesn’t say anything about him, and he is free to be developed into the swarmy salesman or charming bachelor or smartass doctor or whatever niche you want him to be without it being a political statement.
Being white is “normal,” expected, unnoticeable.
Being a virgin, however, is not. And neither is having multiple partners. In fact,
When it comes to sex, there is no normal anymore. After the age of around sixteen, a character’s sexual history defines him. Boy or girl, the amount of partners he’s been with creates an image, end of story; it doesn’t matter if he’s never had sex at all, been only with his wife, a select number of girlfriends, or the whole damn drama department.
You don’t have a norm, a default, a culturally accepted view of what “most people are.” We are so widely different with how we chose to have sex that everything is saying something.
I have a pretty logically accepting view when it comes to sex. For my personal decisions, I’m a misanthrope and a romantic. I like the idea of “saving myself” for someone I truly care about with zero interest in being touched, or even around, someone I don’t know very well. But I also wasn’t raised religiously, and I am not particularly interested in the whole “Wait until marriage,” thing. I admire it. I find it difficult, beneficial, and an example of strong morals, but hell if I’m going to participate.
Same with multiple sex partners. I do believe in not being a moron about it—use birth control, protect yourself—but there is something to be said for being open to new experiences, the ability to get to know people and be aware of what you want. Being a horribly unsocial and fearful person, I also admire those who can put themselves out there.
And yet, no matter how I view other people, the same thing does not apply to my characters.
When I write, most of the answers are immediate to me. I don’t know everything about someone, but I watch the scene unfold, and when it comes time to expose themselves, they are usually natural and forthright. It’s obvious their opinion on something—I don’t even have to think about it. Some things don’t come so easily. Eye color, for instance, isn’t something I “see.” Virginity is another.
My protagonists are often outsiders and introverts. They tend to push people away, aren’t accepted by society, and are lucky if they even have one friend who understands them. They’re rarely moral people, without religion and in survival based situations. They don’t use, loyal, but untrusting. On the unlikely occasion they form a bond with someone, it is thick, nearly impossible to break.
They don’t seem like virgins. The older they get, the less likely that feels right. If they’re not “saving themselves” and the people they interact with aren’t either, then I can’t imagine that at some point it wouldn’t have happened. What? Does no one like them? Are they really just that uninvested in sex that they haven’t really tried? That rings false.
There’s a stigma in the back of my mind that if you’re not trying to be a virgin—boy or girl—and still are after about 23, it says something bad. I hate that, of course, because I don’t even believe it. Not logically. I could easily see myself as still being a virgin at 25. I don’t know for sure, but I was always the one to pursue the men in my life, and developed a dedicated relationship with them first. No drunken one-night stands, nothing that happened “in the heat of the moment.” Nothing was ever forced on me. I chose a guy, worked my ass off to get his attention, never been with someone who wasn’t respectful and willing to wait, and was always the seducer in the end. Even though I have no qualms with my looks or desirability, I do easily believe that I could have been a virgin without any pressure if I had not made the effort. I think highly of myself, and yet I think it is my choices—not my value in society—that could have easily left me a virgin. How much you have sex isn’t a direct correlation to your desirability, but is much more complicated.
Yet, I still have that judgment. Even if you’re a woman, there needs to be a reason you haven’t slept with anyone yet, or it’s just weird.
And even if being a virgin is off the table, then what are my other options? A one night stand? A whole bunch of one night stands?
I actually let my female characters off the hook on this one, at least more so than the men. It’s not a preferable choice in many cases, but if she’s a strong character who takes risks, there’s a decent chance I could see her as sleeping with multiple partners with no great connection. The issue is the idea of men “tricking” women into sleeping with them. Even in this day and age, having sex seems to be the man’s choice, and if you let them, you’re insecure. While my boyfriends have always been respectful, they will still say shit like, “I’m sorry I tricked you into thinking I was something I wasn’t.”
Tricked me? Try again. You are implying that you have a level of self-awareness that enabled you, not only to convincingly fake a personality trait, but know which personality trait to fake. Besides, when I said, “When I first met you, I thought you were…” that was just a matter of typical first impressions, not me saying I like you less now. It’s not what “got me into bed.” You didn’t design shit. If I have to do all of the work, the least you can do is not act like you manipulated me into it.
This idea of peripheral male characters looking down on my female because they think they had manipulated her when really it was her own volition annoys the living hell out of me. Of course, she doesn’t care what they think, but I hate the smug looks on their faces I imagine. Even decent, kind guys with no malicious intent can have that guilty (and somewhat self-loathing) attitude of, “I made you sleep with me.”
Unless we’re getting drugs involved, you can’t “make me,” do anything. I slept with you because I wanted to. Get over yourself. Or, think better of yourself. Whichever.
As for men sleeping around, this is where my own personal insecurities come in. I have a hard time writing a male character who treats sex as just sex because, while I logically see it being an acceptable mentality independently (the lying that usually accompanies it being what’s immoral), it still touches on a deeply entrenched idea that society has told little girls all our lives: You are replaceable.
“Men don’t care about who they’re screwing. You don’t even need to have a pretty face. If they’re looking for a wife, then yeah, a hot body matters too. But other than that, to men women are pretty much exchangeable.”
And, of course, as a little girl, your reaction is, “Um… bullshit,” because no one can be that callous, right?
Then you go on the internet.
I still maintain that if you were to walk up to a randomly chosen man, his desires for a sexual partner are far more complex than just, “WOMAN.” I attributed more to the secret fears placed on us girls more so than our actual experiences, yet you can’t deny that those men out there exist. Defining them in the real life is far more complicated than just how many people they’ve slept with (just because you’ve slept with a lot of people doesn’t necessarily mean I think you’re an asshole; you have to have other traits as well), but when I do find someone like that, I don’t like him at all. It seems to be the worst trait you can have.
You can be a good person and sleep around. How many partners you have may have nothing to do with being callous or insecure. And yet, whenever I consider writing a “player,” my admiration of the character drops drastically. Something about him having multiple partners with characters that I’ve never met before and probably never will, characters who are so unimportant they won’t come back in his life, or at least in the timeframe of the book, disturbs me, makes me question what kind of person he is. Even though it doesn’t mean he’s a user, and even though it is a hypocritical opinion of me (considering my above problem with men thinking they’ve tricked women into having sex), I still can’t stand the idea that he would be “that sort of person.” Whatever the hell that means.
So, fine. He/she has had a committed relationship or two in the past. Happy?
Not really. I like the idea of soul mates—a little too much unfortunately. Again, I intellectually believe that it’s important to take risks and therefore make mistakes, and just because you spent a good deal of time with someone that didn’t materialize into a lifelong relationship doesn’t even mean it was a mistake or a waste of time.
But it would also suggest that there was someone important in that character’s past life that ceased to be in their current one. A girl or boy who the protagonist doesn’t even talk about anymore, yet was once extremely important to him. Another fear of mine? Being forgotten by someone you cared deeply for.
And, in some ways, it almost trivializes the new relationship. In reality, you can love many people and have it not dilute your feelings for someone else later. But from a removed perspective, it can make it seem like you are just in love with love, or that you don’t know love when you see it. How could you be completely connected to one person—even if it was long ago—and have that maintain the purity of your feelings now? Anecdotally, I know that’s insane. A ridiculous thought, and yet common enough from a third-party’s point of view to mean something.
Sex is a natural occurrence, an expected part of life. So what is with the inherent judgment? No matter how you chose to lead your life, some anal redhead in the sky isn’t going to like what it says about you. Not discussing it, however, just lends to that judgment, creates false characters, and confirms biases I don’t want to have. I suppose we should be defined most by how we treat each other, and there’s a benefit in that, but it’s becoming very apparent to me why most people don’t want to discuss their sexual history. There’s nothing you can say to be beyond reproach.