If you have grown up Greek, traditionally Greek, no doubt you have heard the injunctions, some loud and clear, some subtle and under the radar, about the tantamount importance of preserving your virginity. How many times did my Baba stalk us to and from school just to make sure we weren’t being threatened by male advances? He stood guard outside the restrooms of the ferry to Mykonos just in case some apateona was trying to flirt with us. My mother never mentioned anything close to the “deed”. So clueless and unspoken was the “s” word that I remember confessing to my neighbor Vicky who had asked us whether we had gone over the subject of the birds and the bees with my parents, “I don’t think my mother knows anything about it.” Vicky scowled her face and said emphatically, “Oh I’m sure she knows, she’s got three kids. Believe me, honey, she knows. She very well knows.” But gathering from what my mother gave me to understand, it seemed to me she was a virgin.
In church when the priest goes over the lists of virtues, virginity is what is harped on over and over again, especially for the girls. Having sex before marriage is by far the greatest crime a girl can commit. Getting labeled a “putana” is by far the worse sentence for a girl, as it not only extends to her honor but that of her family. Of course, we are blatantly aware of the double standard when it comes to sex in Greek diaspora culture. Your brothers and male cousins are allowed to run amok, but you, you dear creature of innocence and purity, are supposed to keep your raging hormones under constant lockdown. You go through adolescence with an 8 foot block of ice on your lower parts and an eraser that gets rid of all dirty doodles from your brain. And the obsession to keep your virginity and deny that you are a sexual being is not only your task; it is your whole culture’s. The crusade to keep you honorable is even more intense growing up in a transplanted Hellenic culture because that culture tends historically to come from immigrants from poor villages in Greece that have brought with them much more stringent moral codes. Ironically even while I grew up in 20th century New York City, inside the confines of my home, with a very patriarchal, even tyrannical father, it was like growing up in a xorgio on a goat island. Not only for me but for the girls I grew up with.
This transplanted Chorgio culture, however, the kind that resembles the village in the Anthony Quinn version of “Zorba the Greek” (remember the one where Irene Pappas, the widow who has sex with the English writer gets her throat slit as revenge for breaking the heart of Andonis by his patriarchal father) stands in schizophrenic contrast to the city, the city where you grow up. Let’s face it growing up in a Greek community in a progressive city and the mixed messages you get can make you crazy. On the one hand, you have Rebecca in “Sex and the City” showing you what to do with her vibrator, and on the other, you have Papa Manolis warning you that playing with yourself will get you on the express lane to hell.
This newer generation has it even worse because the laxness in sexual mores has extended to the university as the “hook up culture.” According to an essay I recently read which literally opened up my eyes to the sexual culture of the American university:
“Hooking up can consist entirely of one kiss, or it can involve fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse or any combination of those things. It can happen only once with a partner, several times during a week or over many months. Partners may know each other well, only slightly or not at all, even after they have hooked up regularly. A hookup often happens in a bedroom, although other places will do: dance floors, bars, bathrooms, auditoriums or any deserted room on campus. It is frequently unplanned, though it need not be. It can mean the start of something, the end of something or the whole something. Feelings are discouraged, and both partners share an understanding that either of them can walk away at any time.” (Laura Sessions Stepp, “The Unrelationship” from Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, 2007).
Hookup culture not only involves anonymity but even expects it. American youth hook up without knowing each other’s names or even wanting to. They are not discreet or shameful about their sex acts, openly disclosing how they “tea bagged” a guy last night or how he “gave me a roast beef sandwich.” This stands in direct opposition to our patriarchal culture where it was until recently common to have brides checked for the intactness of their hymen before the marriage ceremony.
So what is a good Greek girl to do? Does she deny that she has sexuality literally paralyzing herself from waist down? Does she berate herself for having sexual thoughts? Does she grow up as a woman with frigidity and problems of physical intimacy? Does she stay celibate for what seems like eternities and dry deserts? Or does she go the other extreme and embraces the freedoms of sexual liberation that knows no bounds engaging in all kinds of debauchery so as to make the ancient nymphs seem conservative?
Now for the sake of example I’m willing to bare myself. As an adolescent whose festering sexuality was either denied or repressed, I went through my coming of age completely denying my sexual self. Until of course I moved out and went away to college. In the dorm of a state university with a reputation for booze and partying I made up for lost time. It was as if the beast I had crouching deep within me was unleashed to devour all those in its wake. Which goes to show you can keep the beast hidden in the dungeon for only so long until it breaks through the shackles with a fury that leashes unimaginable destruction. After getting into a passionate illicit affair with a man 18 years my senior (who incidentally was also married to a close member of the family) which led to my rebounding from one set of bodies to another until my sexual streak of self-destruction came to a halt when I had some kind of nervous breakdown. I had become more sexual, but it had not made me happier. In fact, I was miserable, unfulfilled, lost and with an aching emptiness that no sexual act could consummate. I went on a strict fast for a long long while. I started getting counseling; I embraced the mystical teachings of the best of what Orthodoxy had to offer.
It was at this point that I realized that sex was not a substitute for intimacy. It was not something to be trivialized and instrumentalized. Sex had incredibly creative force. It was in fact holy. After going through the extremes of the virgin whore female duality, I settled on a happy medium the “metron ariston.” I also incidentally came to a fuller richer understanding of the Orthodox position on sexuality.
There is nothing wrong with sex or for a woman to feel sexual. As women we should revel and celebrate our unique sexual nature. And that sexuality should be celebrated in and of itself and not just as a sanction for motherhood and procreation as the Catholics believe. We were fashioned in God’s image and that image includes a female sexual anatomy. God, and by extension our culture, recognizes the beauty and power in our sexuality and the transfigurative potential of our bodies. It is precisely because of this power and beauty that we have to honor it. We can’t become nymphos when we leave our father’s house. We can’t to usurp a male metaphor allow any seed to spill on our hallowed ground. That land is holy and can sprout into verdant valleys and abundant orchards.
No, it is not good to go around fooling yourself into thinking you are a chaste parthena when at night you are squirming and sweating within your bed sheets. But it is not right or healthy either to have no respect in yourself and go around screwing every Nick, Basili and Harry.
It would be preferable to find a suitable husband and enjoy the pleasures of conjugal bliss without a nagging conscience or an over active super ego. Don’t cut off your sexuality, but like a good gardener prune it cultivate it so that it grows in right measure.
Now as a mother of two daughters, I try to instill in them first a proper understanding of themselves as women, to get comfortable with their burgeoning sexual selves, and then arming them with the strategies for self-control and self-release when the time and circumstance permit. I first try to encourage a healthy sense of their own body image and body. Sort of what the mother of a bride might do before her wedding night, but instead of talking to them only one night, I try to talk frequently with the same message so they can have my voice in their heads when it is time for them to decide. I talk to them about sex with the same sense of reverence and beauty you would talk about a gem of rare design.
What do you think women out there? Write us your thoughts share your stories. How should Greek women of the Diaspora negotiate the extremes of sexual expectation in their culture?