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The V word

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Here’s how that remark appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly:

Sex before marriage
“I would say to my daughters, if they were to ask me this question, I would say … it is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that is what I would say.”

And here’s how the remark appeared to those who reported and commented on it:


As the Opposition Leader yesterday defended an interview he gave with The Australian Women’s Weekly in which he referred to a woman’s virginity as a “gift”, he came under fire from Australian women, including Julia Gillard, many of whom found his comments old-fashioned, unwelcome and obtrusive. Ms Gillard - once criticised by Mr Abbott for lacking “broader lifetime experience” - said Australian women, “don’t want to be lectured by Mr Abbott”. “These comments will confirm the worst fears of Australian women about Tony Abbott. Australian women don’t want to be told what to do by Tony Abbott,” she said. In The Australian Women's Weekly article, Mr Abbott said he would advise his three daughters not to give away their virginity “lightly” and try to adhere to the “rules” on sex before marriage.

Unaccustomed as I am to defending Tony Abbott (it almost certainly won’t happen again), I think it is important to criticise people for what they have said and done, not for what they haven’t said.

The remark at issue does not constitute a lecture to Australian women about what they should do. It is simply a reply to a hypothetical question. Moreover, that question seems to be one that his daughters are unlikely to ask, given that one of them, according to Abbott, called him a “lame, gay churchy loser” after he talked to her about drugs.

But there is also no suggestion in the remark that Abbott is talking about “giving away” virginity. The V word doesn’t appear in the remark, and the remark is about sex before marriage, not about “losing” one’s virginity. If the V word is not extrapolated into the remark, it seems a rather straightforwardly commendable comment to make about the importance of caring and respect for the person with whom one makes love. Or, as Abbott added later:

“I think all of us should act in ways that value ourselves. I’m trying not to be prescriptive here, I am trying not to be a preacher, but if someone asks my advice I would say don’t do anything you will live to regret if you can possibly help it.” Asked to reveal his advice to his daughters, Mr Abbott told Neil Mitchell on 3AW: “They shouldn't give themselves away lightly.” His advice to males? “Much the same - treat people with respect and don’t act in ways that demean other people.”

Even as Abbott repeated his remark without any reference to virginity, his clarification was reported as: “Abbott stands by ‘virginity’ comments”.


Why this dogged misreading of Abbott’s remark? His critics seem determined to link not only Abbott but also the views that he holds to a medieval economy of sex.

So perhaps the most strident attack on Abbott came from Virginia Haussegger, who managed to link Abbott’s comments on “virginity” to Islamic fundamentalism and the price exacted upon women who are unable (publicly) to present an unbroken hymen on their wedding night. Haussegger claims to have “recently witnessed” the “despair and angst” of a Muslim woman whose daughter failed to stain the sheets on her wedding night. As reprinted on her blogspot, Haussegger’s article about Abbott is accompanied by a picture not of the Opposition Leader but of an apparently Muslim wedding (unattributed and undated, and without any indication of its location).

Haussegger asserts that Abbott “has raised the very ugly spectre of female virtue as a tradable, marketable, sellable commodity. By telling his daughters their virginity is ‘the greatest gift that you can give someone’ and ‘the ultimate gift’, he’s unwittingly reduced their myriad talents, strengths and capacity to love to mere crumbs, compared to the single act of deflowering. Abbott’s logic suggests a female’s most precious and important asset - above all else - is her sex. And that asset is most highly prized when it's presented new and unused.” This interpretation can only be sustained if Abbott were indeed focusing on the “gift” of the unbroken hymen, rather than the gift of oneself in the act, and practice, of loving another person.

More broadly, however, what arguments like that of Haussegger do is to suggest that the main danger to young women today is a kind of sexual fundamentalism identified with religion of one sort or another. Her argument suggests that the main obstacles to enjoyable and responsible sex among young people today are repression, guilt, fear, and shame about sex and sexuality. Perhaps these were once the obstacles. Perhaps these were the obstacles that faced Virginia Haussegger, or Tony Abbott for that matter, in their own youthful sexual explorations. But repression has very little if anything to do with the sexual dilemmas and difficulties faced by young women, and young men, today.

The sources of sexual risk and danger in our society these days are not to be found in any lack of openness about bodies and their sexual use. Those sources are not to be found in the notion that virginity is a gift by women to those who “deflower” them (to use Haussegger’s rather twee word). In thinking about risk and danger, we should look rather to the early and premature sexualisation of girls, and increasingly of boys. We should look rather to the brutalisation of sex, and the glorification of sexual violence, throughout our culture. To focus instead on a view that Tony Abbott did not express is simply a distraction from the real dangers to the erotic lives of our children.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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