Good Girls go to Heaven, Bad Girls go Everywhere: The Demonization of Female Sexuality
What does it mean for a woman to truly represent societal ideals of femininity? What makes one woman “good” and another one “bad” within the rigid and gendered culture that we live in? Historically, social expectations related to women have maintained the idea that above all, a woman’s sexuality is the aspect of her character that will either confirm or deny her femininity. Society adores and fetishizes innocence and virginity in a woman and often condemns those that are openly sexual and embrace their sexuality. This condemnation relates to having multiple sexual partners and even to having an appearance of engaging in frequent sexual activities. Along with sexuality, most cultures assess a woman’s poise, charm, submission, and general attitude toward men when labeling her “good” or “bad”. The phrase good girl can be used to examine why and how society values women who appear virginal over women who are sexual, and how we demonize women who are assertive and favor women who are “soft.”
Urban Dictionary defines good girl as “a girl, usually a teen or young adult, that is still a virgin by choice...overall they rarely curse, are super respectful, kind, courteous, and usually intelligent. They want to try and wait until marriage to have sex or, at the very least, until they are in a committed relationship for a relatively long period of time” (Urban Dictionary.com). Note that this definition is laced with emphasis on sexual purity. To understand how deeply rooted this idea is in everyday culture, we must visit its origins. The sexuality of women, going back to androcentric theory in the Middle Ages, is perceived as being centered around two central ideas: “First, the sexuality is perceived as an activity linked exclusively to reproduction and not to sexual pleasure. Second, female sexuality is projected symbolically as a phenomenon endowed with negative connotations and even destructive defined in terms of greed, insatiability and animality” (Martin 48). These ideas have pervaded popular culture, constructing the powerful notion of the virgin-whore dichotomy, where you are either one or the other. This has resulted in words like good girl that are then used to further draw the line. The function of this phrase is to uphold the patriarchy because it idolizes women who meet these certain standards and demonizes women who don’t. Those women who don’t are considered bad, therefore women are incentivized to behave a certain way, a way that reinforces male dominance and female submission. Sustaining the patriarchy is successful by creating skewed perception of women in efforts to penalize transgressive behavior, creating more “good girls.”
In my personal experience, men around me have spoken about girls that are not promiscuous, or girls that are virgins as “good girls.” A man I know was threatened by the fact that his ex-girlfriend had had more sexual partners than him, and was expressing interest in a new girl solely because “she was just a good girl.” Knowing that she was a virgin clearly made her more desirable to him, especially since his last partner was not. This is a clear example of the patriarchy becoming uncomfortable with a woman who steps outside its confines with the “radical” act of being more sexually experienced than a male counterpart. I experienced something else on a college campus: A man walked past me on the street and said to me in passing “you look like a good girl, I’d fuck you” and then continued down the street. I don’t know what about my appearance that day made me look like a “good girl” but it somehow made me more appealing. If that man on the street knew that I was not in fact, a virgin, would I suddenly be less desirable to him? This behavior is not only harmful to women with more sexuality than men have deemed acceptable, but it fetishizes women who are in fact virgins. Their virginity is theirs to apply meaning to, or not to. When we stop to notice the pervasiveness of virginity in our everyday lives, we see things like the simple act of a father “giving his daughter away” to her husband for marriage, and we realize we may be immune to a relevant example of how women’s bodies are commodified when we dress them in white, symbolizing virginity, and treat their virginity as the object of the transaction. According to Anke Bernau, a professor in medieval literature and culture at The University of Manchester, this act “seemingly transfers ownership of her body from her family to her husband. A virginal daughter is proof of the father’s (or brother’s, or other male relative’s) ability to exert his authority over her. A chaste wife is often considered evidence of the husband’s sexual, moral, and spiritual authority" (qtd. in Bachai).
Another way to dissect the good girl manifestation is to look closely at the actual structure of the phrase and the specific words that are used. The word choice in this phrase raises red flags regarding what it truly means. The use of “girl” in itself is patronizing, because it uses juvenile language to refer to grown women. This speaks volumes to the implications of women’s inferiority, where we aren’t even willing to grant them attributes reflecting the fact that they are adults. Dogs and children are referred to as “good girls,” grown women should not be. We may also note that “good girl” is somewhat of a micro-aggression; it does not scream out in the same way that “slut” or “whore” does, and in this way some women could possibly take it as a compliment. Very rarely are grown men referred to as a boy in the same way we call women girls in everyday conversation. The instances in which we see men being called boys are usually in criminal cases like sexual assault, when the desire is to downplay their responsibility for their actions. Convicted rapist Brock Turner, although met with warranted dislike from most of the world, had sympathizers who used the classic “boys will be boys” expression to minimize the severity of his crime. His father wrote an impassioned letter, asking for sympathy, which prompted this response from the Washington Post’s Ijeoma Oluo, who stated “Turner and other elite students are living the American Dream. Parents raise them in a world of winners and losers, victory and defeat, and expect them to be victors. They mythologize this behavior as natural order. From “boys will be boys” to “he was a born champion,” young men like Brock Turner are taught that they should aspire to be talented, successful winners.” Visible here is theconcept that calling women girls is a form of oppression, while calling men boys is a device used to prevent them from facing any real consequences by taking advantage of the innocence that term brings.
As the examples cited in this paper have shown, the virgin-whore dichotomy continues to thrive, and phrases like good girl further construct the narrow-minded box in which we place female sexuality. To truly rid ourselves of these boundaries, one must look to erase the double standard that surrounds the way we look at sexual relations and what specific behaviors we deem appropriate for each gender. As women navigate their lives, hearing this phrase pressures them to fit cultural ideals that oppress them, and the backhanded implications that arise from the use of good girl make it hard to identify what it is truly saying. Through all of this, good girl proves itself to be one of the hundreds of phrases used to strengthen patriarchal attitudes in our society. Its patronizing, oppressive, and domineering insinuations do a disservice to all involved, and the sooner its use is restricted to children and animals, the better. Until that point, the conflict persists for the woman who does, or the woman who does not.