Twilight: Chastity Culture

[Content Note: Purity Culture]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 14, Edward and Bella spend the night together.

Twilight, Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

Today we're going to dip our toes into some abstinence porn (which is 8 parts longing to 13 parts Not Doing It) to go with last time's creepy over-protectiveness by fathers of their daughter's sacred hymens. And if all goes well a side conversation about pacing in relationships (particularly ones where neither has been in a relationship before).

When we last left Twilight, in a post that seems like a lifetime ago, Bella had rushed through dinner and dishes while Charlie stared suspiciously at her and wondered why she was in such a hurry to leave his presence despite the fact that it's been well-established that Bella doesn't enjoy hanging out with people in general or her father in specific (minus a few ball games she sits through with him without the text bothering to inform us if she enjoys the game or the time spent together, as I recall).

   I worked to make my tread sound slow and tired as I walked up the stairs to my room. I shut the door loud enough for him to hear, and then sprinted on my tiptoes to the window. I threw it open and leaned out into the night. My eyes scanned the darkness, the impenetrable shadows of the trees.
   “Edward?” I whispered, feeling completely idiotic.
   The quiet, laughing response came from behind me. “Yes?” [...]
   “Oh!” I breathed, sinking unsteadily to the floor.   “I’m sorry.” He pressed his lips together, trying to hide his amusement.
   “Just give me a minute to restart my heart.”
   He sat up slowly, so as not to startle me again. Then he leaned forward and reached out with his long arms to pick me up, gripping the tops of my arms like I was a toddler. He sat me on the bed beside him.
   “Why don’t you sit with me,” he suggested, putting a cold hand on mine. “How’s the heart?”
   “You tell me — I’m sure you hear it better than I do.”

I've said before that I both like and dislike Chapter 14 in part because it feels realistic to me. And now I want to explain why that is.

Chapter 14 feels realistic to me partly because it's so rushed in terms of the evolution of Bella and Edward's relationship. I've been a teenager in purity culture and abstinence culture and while I wouldn't for a moment think my experiences are typical of every teenager living in that environment, it wouldn't surprise me if S. Meyer and I share a lot of similar experiences. Certainly I see a lot of the teenager-I-was in Bella at times.

This day started out with Bella and Edward still on unsure footing with each other. She knew what he was, but hadn't viewed physical evidence of it; he knew that she intellectually understood his nature, but he wasn't yet reassured that she wouldn't run when it became clear just how alien he is. Now she's seen him in his most vulnerable moment -- the sparkling that he has to hide from every other human -- and she's accepted and loved him for it. They've declared their love for each other, with Bella even stating that she'd rather die than be apart from him. Now they're going to spend the night together because she can't bear to be separated for even a moment, and he reveals that he's felt the same way about her for so long that he's been literally breaking into her bedroom at night.

Absolutely none of this is, as a general rule, healthy. But it is something that I understand.

I want to be clear here: I am not advocating a one-size-fits all approach to relationships. There are some people who know within minutes of meeting that they are meant to be together for life, and they then set about making that work. There are other people who can be together for decades and still not be certain that they want to be together forever. There are all kinds of healthy relationships in between. And "destined forever" relationships can legitimately happen even at young ages, with romantically inexperienced people. I am not disputing that. People are unique and their relationships are not my business. I am not on-board with "minimum engagement lengths" or "minimum sexual partners" or similar universal fiats used to shame people (most frequently women) for supposedly not being relationship-savvy enough. None of that here.

But I also recognize that I, personally, was a young person who thought I was "destined forever" with lots of people I barely knew, and the reason I thought that was because I was romantically inexperienced in a culture that pretty much required me to be and stay romantically inexperienced. So the going from Crush to Love to Together Forever to Never Apart For Even A Moment stages of longing in a relationship in a single week, or even a single day, is something I'm very familiar with.

And one of the reasons why I really strongly dislike abstinence literature -- or, let's be more specific, chastity literature, because Edward and Bella aren't just abstinent with each other, they're also Explicitly Virgins, which is thematically different from a romance novel about sexually-experienced people needing/desiring to be abstinent for some reason -- is that I have long held the strong and abiding belief that if I'd just felt comfortable fucking some of my True Love Forevers in my late teens / early twenties, then my relationships would have been infinitely more healthy and would have probably ended a lot sooner once I was able to work out the difference between Love and Lust. That I was not given the tools to do so safely and without self-shaming is something that I blame, and blame with no small residual anger, on my childhood culture.

So. Now we have Edward and Bella longing for each other longer than the day is long on the bright side of the moon. And a very strong question in my mind is how much of this longing is based on actual True Love Forever and how much of it is based on the fact that they're both very new to this whole relationship thing and, to a certain extent, each has found for the first time someone who Understands and Accepts them. Those are very important and fundamental things in a healthy relationship, but it's also easy when you're young and in a culture that discourages personal-or-vicarious experience with relationships to think that NO ONE ELSE will ever Understand or Accept you in the way that this person does right now.

To a certain extent, I wonder if Bella gets this on some level. A lot of ink will be spilled later over how much she doesn't want to marry Edward despite wanting to be with him forever as a vampire. To a certain extent, this seems like a strange distinction to draw in the sand, but in addition to (1) injecting some form of drama (will she!? won't she!?) along with (2) underscoring how much Edward rilly-rilly wants to be with her forever and isn't just in this for the blood-snack as well as (3) getting the wedding porn into the novel without it being all Bella's idea since Good Girls Don't Want, I think there's also (4) some suggestion that Bella has issues with marriage precisely because Renee and Charlie's marriage ended with so much hurt feelings on both sides.

Yet what is interesting about this is that Bella would take to heart the object lesson that marriages (especially rushed teen marriages) can end, sometimes badly, without recognizing that relationships (especially rushed teen relationships) can end, sometimes badly. For all that she rushes Edward -- spend the night! have sex! get married! have sex! be vampirized! have sex! -- forward, propelled by her own fear of mortality and becoming older than he, it doesn't apparently occur to her that their relationship is eerily paralleling the relationship of her parents: teen marriage, teen pregnancy, ... and then what? Some of you have predicted that Bella and Renesmee might well leave Edward a few years after Breaking Dawn, and it's certainly possible.

To a certain extent, I think it's a powerful thing that Twilight shows Bella in a proactive, sex-positive light because I do think it is important for teenage girls to be told that wanting sex does not make them bad people. But when Bella's sex-positivity is (from a literary perspective) nothing more than a way to inject desire without actual sex occurring, I don't think that there's a net gain over purity culture. Even I, growing up in a profoundly oppressive culture, was taught that women were supposed to want sex -- we were just supposed to want sex with our husbands. Female sexual desire wasn't demonized in my childhood purity culture just as long as it served patriarchal interests.

I see that token nod to "acceptable" female desire in Twilight: Bella desires Edward, but not in ways which subvert his power, nor in ways which damage her "purity". Every page where Bella and Edward don't fuck is a page that is conveying to the reader that it's alright to want sex, but it's still not right to have it. Even Edward ties premarital sex to the salvation of Bella's soul, despite the fact that he's a murderer several times over and he believes she will probably become one as well (at least a few times! while she's learning!) after becoming a vampire.

Which creates the strong impression that despite her acceptable female desire, premarital sex is still quite possibly the worst thing Bella could do to damn her soul. This is a highly problematic message to send to teenagers already struggling with Purity Culture messages, and I think the positive message of female desire in Twilight is outweighed by the over-arching requirement of chastity from its characters.


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