Symposium

The romanticization of abstinence: Fan response to sexual restraint in the Twilight series

Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, and Melissa A. Click

Department of Communication, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Feminism; Gender norms; Girl culture; Postfeminism; Power dynamics; Sexuality; Teen fans; Virginity

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, and Melissa A. Click. 2010. The romanticization of abstinence: Fan response to sexual restraint in the Twilight series. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5. doi:10.3983/twc.2010.0216.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series is a rich text for scholars interested in mediated messages about gender, sexuality, and romance, and the reactions audiences have to such messages. At the center of the young adult book series turned record-breaking franchise is the romance between sparkly vampire Edward Cullen and average high school student Bella Swan. The two are instantly and fatefully attracted; their love is intense and passionate, yet Edward, who has lived as a 17-year-old (virgin) for more than a century, insists they wait to have sex until they are married.

[1.2] As of November 2009, the series, which includes Twilight (2005), New Moon (2006), Eclipse (2007), and Breaking Dawn (2008), has sold more than 85 million copies worldwide and been translated into 37 languages (Adams and Akbar 2009). Despite its popularity with teen and adult fans alike, the series has been regularly criticized for containing regressive gender representations (Seifert 2008; Siering 2009), particularly Edward's controlling nature and Bella's willingness to submit. Like many fans, we quickly devoured the series, but as feminist scholars, we questioned the series' pull. To understand Twilight's appeal, and specifically the appeal of Edward and Bella's romantic relationship, we decided to study Twilight's fans using a large-scale online survey, focus group interviews, and ethnography.

[1.3] In this essay, we provide a brief overview of how the themes of abstinence and romance emerged in responses from teen Twilight fans, recount the ways in which the media responded to and framed our research, and problematize the abstinence and romance messages in Twilight. We conclude by contextualizing fans' responses to Twilight with discussion of postfeminist culture.

2. Studying Twilight fans and the emergence of the pro-abstinence theme

[2.1] Through an online survey of 627 teen female fans and focus group interviews with 24 teen female fans, we examined their interest in and interpretation of Edward and Bella's relationship (Behm-Morawitz, Click, and Aubrey 2010) (note 1). From these data, what struck us was teen girls' recurrent references to and discussion of Edward's insistence that he and Bella not have sex until after they were married—especially because we never directly asked them about this. For example, a 15-year-old girl reported on our survey that she felt "a draw towards a romantic and passiona[te] relationship that is safe like sex after marriage and takes things slow." Andrea, an 18-year-old girl, discussed in a focus group interview that she sees Twilight's message about abstinence as one she could apply to her own life, "so I think it's kind of cool how it's like an interesting story and behind there's also something that you can actually learn. That you can follow in life."

[2.2] Other teens, like 19-year-old Justine, expressed that messages about abstinence in Twilight were more persuasive than messages from their parents: "I get that message a lot from my mom. Like whatever, but just to see like a young couple kind of like doing it, it's just like, you know, not a lot of my friends do that." In a focus group discussion, 16-year-old Kourtney and 15-year-old Shana similarly noted that Twilight's portrayal of abstinence resonated differently with them than discussions with their parents had:

[2.3] Kourtney: Yeah. Because that's what my parents always tell me, and to actually read a book that says the same thing, that's good.

[2.4] Shana: Like usually, you don't want to listen to your parents and you're just like, "Oh, whatever. They're just being stupid." And then whenever you read it, you're like, "Oh. Maybe that's not such a bad idea."

[2.5] At first, we were shocked by the interest in and praise for Twilight's message of abstinence. We thought surely teens would find this message irrelevant and puritanical, especially against the backdrop of the hypersexualized American media landscape in which teen characters typically engage in hookups and other sexually permissive activities.

[2.6] Nevertheless, as we have reflected more on the fans' interpretation, the draw to Twilight's abstinence message makes sense. In general, the girls idolized Edward Cullen as a romantic hero. We must connect this idolization to where teen girls are developmentally. In adolescence, girls become interested in romance and dating. Not surprisingly, at the same time, they become more aware of social norms that suggest that they should have romantic feelings for someone of the opposite sex (Simon, Eder, and Evans 1992). Typically, young girls develop crushes on teen idols (and we see Edward here as fulfilling the role of the teen idol, albeit a fictional one) as a way of acknowledging their emerging sexual feelings in a safe, nonthreatening way (Engle and Kasser 2005). In this context, Twilight's Edward is a powerful exception to typical teen boys, who are often viewed by girls as only interested in sex (McRobbie 1991). In contrast, the teen idols to whom girls are typically drawn project a feminine form of masculinity that is sexually nonthreatening and thus accessible (Engle and Kasser 2005; Karniol 2001; McRobbie 1991; Sweeney 1994). Edward represents a "safe" sexuality: his simultaneous passion for Bella and his protection of her virtue result in a romantic hero who is both sexually charged and chaste.

[2.7] The appeal of Twilight's abstinence that we discovered by interviewing and surveying fans was not the most frequently mentioned topic by our sample, yet it was perhaps one of the most eye-opening themes that we uncovered. We went into the project thinking that teen fans would roll their eyes at Twilight for not containing enough sex. Instead, Twilight appealed to some of the fans we studied precisely because it was not oversaturated with sexual permissiveness.

3. Picking up on the message of abstinence

[3.1] Excited by our research, and finding ourselves in the unusual situation of actually having a news hook (the premiere of the second film of the Twilight Saga), we sat down with a public-relations representative from our university to share with her the many themes our research uncovered. For example, we discussed the antifeminist themes within Twilight, the intergenerational appeal of the series, and the pro-abstinence message that appealed to some of our teen fans.

[3.2] On November 16, 2009, the week of the premiere of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the News Bureau at the University of Missouri sent out a press release featuring our work on fan responses to the Twilight narrative. The headline read, "Bitten by Twilight: Younger Fans Embrace Abstinence, True Love" (http://munews.missouri.edu/expert-comment/2009/1116-bitten-by-twilight-younger-fans-embrace-abstinence-traditional-love/). Though the press release highlighted our finding that some teen fans found the message of abstinence in Twilight appealing, it contained the many other themes that we discovered in our research. The result of the press release was a brief but intense media storm.

[3.3] Initially, we were excited that the popular press would communicate that "girl culture" like Twilight was culturally important, legitimate, and worthy of study. We quickly discovered, however, that media coverage of our research greatly oversimplified it, and we were dismayed by the way the media framed the phenomenon. To be clear, we were not necessarily surprised that the media simplified our work, but we were surprised that abstinence quickly became the hot-button issue. Noticeably absent from the media coverage were the broader, more complicated messages about gender, love, and romance in Twilight. The headlines of news stories that covered our work read, for example, "'Twilight' Makes Abstinence Popular?" (Bartyzel 2009), "The 'Twilight Saga': Is It Promoting Abstinence?" (Denberg 2009), and "Romance and Abstinence Attracts Teen Girls to Twilight Series" (Stone 2009). In short, the media seemed most interested in talking about Twilight as the tool parents and educators have been seeking for abstinence education. Many reporters jumped on the story looking for proof that abstinence is indeed the popular choice for American teens today and that Twilight may be the key to promoting that message. For example, on November 20, 2009, the day of the premiere of New Moon, we were interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The lead question of the interview was: "An endless line of parents and groups have tried to preach the message of abstinence and has essentially gotten nowhere. Why do you think this movie has resonated on that message?"

[3.4] When we were interviewed by CNN International on November 19, 2009, the reporter asked us if we thought Twilight was causing a "sexual revolution" in the United States—a revolution wherein abstinence would become the choice most popular with teens. Try as we did to complicate the abstinence message by grounding the fans' interpretation within the larger themes of the series, the news media simplified the message by turning our interviews into sound bites that supported their angle.

4. Situating the abstinence message within the text of the Twilight series

[4.1] Although some of the fans reported that the sexual abstinence themes were appealing, we cringe at the idea of using Twilight as the basis of a healthy sexuality education. Indeed, we observe some problematic messages about female teen sexuality that complicate the abstinence message. In particular, we identify three themes pertinent to contextualizing the findings from our fan data.

[4.2] First, Twilight promotes a sexualized abstinence. Edward and Bella share a strong physical attraction, and throughout the books, they often let their sexual desire progress, until Edward puts the brakes on the situation. Edward and Bella thus continually put themselves in circumstances that test their commitment to abstinence. At the same time, they share an obsessive focus on each other, so in the books, they are hardly ever apart. Perhaps the most salient evidence of this is Edward's tendency to stay in Bella's room at night, watching her while she sleeps. Further, although sexual intercourse does not occur in the series until after the couple gets married, there is a lot of sexual contact in the books in the form of elaborate descriptions of kissing, intimate details about the look and feel of Edward's body, and Bella's narrative of her own sexual feelings.

[4.3] Thus, to endorse Twilight as a model for sexual abstinence is to unrealistically assume that young people will be able to carry on similar sexual relationships. Research documents that girls, not boys, typically act as the sexual gatekeepers in romantic relationships (Cohen and Shotland 1996; Knox and Wilson 1981), regulating the progression of physical intimacy. It is unrealistic to presume that girls can sustain physical relationships with boys that are sexual without crossing the line to sexual intercourse. Further, in Twilight, the tables are turned: Edward takes on the gatekeeper role, and it is Bella who tests his restraint. This reversal in roles does not reflect girls' real-life experiences, nor does it prepare them for navigating the sexual boundaries of real-world romances.

[4.4] The second theme that contextualizes the pro-abstinence message is Edward's role in policing Bella's sexual desire. Throughout the series, Edward chastises her for trying to push past the limitations he has set on their physical relationship (Siering 2009). The decision to maintain a chaste relationship is not one that Edward and Bella have made together; rather, Bella's sexual desire is consistently squelched by Edward. Twilight is thus one example from a long history of cultural texts, including romance literature and young adult literature, in which women's sexuality is censured, limited, and controlled (Christian-Smith 1993).

[4.5] The third theme that contextualizes the pro-abstinence message of Twilight is the connection of sex and violence in the series. In the series, Edward and Bella practice abstinence because he could literally kill her. Edward does not trust himself to maintain the kind of vigilance over her safety that would be required of him in the passion of the moment. The narrative ties together sex and violence in a way that is reminiscent of a long history of sexualized violence in our culture (Malamuth and Check 1981). According to the script of sexualized violence, women are the potential victims of male sexualized aggression, and men are the potential predators, teetering on the edge of giving in to their aggressive sexual impulses. Additionally, the script portrays sexualized violence in ways that depict the victim as secretly desiring and eventually deriving pleasure from the violence. This is similar to Bella's experience, as she eventually decides that even if Edward's passion proves too much, the sacrifice of her life would be worth the fleeting pleasure of being with him. For example, after Bella learns that Edward is a vampire, she reflects on whether she should risk being with him:

[4.6] I didn't know if there ever was a choice, really. I was already in too deep. Now that I knew…I could do nothing about my frightening secret. Because when I thought of him, his voice, his hypnotic eyes, the magnetic force of his personality, I wanted nothing more than to be with him right now. Even if…but I couldn't think of it. (Meyer 2005, 139)

[4.7] Bella willingly enters into a sexual relationship that could result in her violent end. Clearly, the power dynamics here favor Edward, and Bella deliberately submits.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Although we cast a critical eye on the text, we still validate fans' view of sexuality in Twilight. For some of the fans we interviewed and surveyed, Twilight can be viewed as a shelter in a hypersexualized media environment. Our data suggest that at least some of the fans want media messages of romance rather than explicit sex. Further, we are sensitive to girls viewing Edward as the ideal romantic partner because he epitomizes the conflicting needs of adolescent girls who have sexual feelings but are nervous about acting on them. It also appears that Twilight connects with this particular generation of girls because many of them have grown up in a time when abstinence-only sex education was commonplace in their schools and communities. Like some of our focus group participants told us, they had heard their parents and teachers preach abstinence, but reading Twilight was the first time that it appeared to be a desirable option.

[5.2] Still, reducing Twilight to a straightforward tale about abstinence is an oversimplification. That this particular love story, so infused with problematic messages of male overprotection, restraint of female sexuality, and sexualized violence, is romanticized by many Twilight fans, is also telling of our current cultural moment. But to shed the problematic aspects of Twilight and to suggest that it constitutes the moral fiber of abstinence education is dismaying.

[5.3] Further, we wish to stress the importance of contextualizing fans' perspectives both in the text and in the larger culture, a longtime goal (albeit a sometimes elusive one) of cultural studies work. Doing so in this case reveals that teens recognized the general theme of abstinence in the series but disregarded the ways Twilight frames abstinence. Likewise, the media were titillated by the possibility that this seemingly conservative message in Twilight would spark a reverse sexual revolution (note 2). Both groups overlooked the complexity of abstinence in Twilight (although to be fair, some fans—particularly older ones—recognized it), ignoring the patriarchal assertion that sex is dangerous and that female desire must be controlled by men. Comparing fans' interpretations against a critical reading of the text helped bring this discrepancy to light.

[5.4] Twilight's messages about gender and sexuality and the fans' responses to these messages may be further contextualized within the politics of postfeminist America. This generation of teens is coming of age in a culture that largely accepts the belief that gender inequality and feminism have been transcended. We see this postfeminist thought reflected both in popular culture texts and audiences. As McRobbie (2004, 255) argues, popular culture contributes to the "undoing of feminism" through the presentation of texts that oppose goals of equality while simultaneously masquerading as enlightened and contemporary. We see Twilight contributing this undoing through the framing of Bella as being empowered via traditional notions of "feminine devotion" (Levine 2010, 297). Further, Meyer (n.d.) uses the rhetoric of choice when she explains to fans why Bella is not antifeminist. Her argument is that Bella's choices mark her as empowered: "In my own opinion (key word), the foundation of feminism is this: being able to choose." This rhetoric of "choice" is used to construct Bella's experience as one reflecting the postfeminist themes of individualism and empowerment (Gill 2007a) that are had within the bounds of normative femininity (Gill 2007b).

[5.5] Our analysis of Twilight's fans and messages suggests that the series is influential in teens' understanding of sexuality. Because "the media [have] become the key site for defining codes of sexual conduct" (McRobbie 2004, 257), they are an important site of investigation of gender and sexuality norms. Not only does Twilight reflect current postfeminist culture, but it also helps create it—and Twilight's message about abstinence should be interpreted within this framework.

6. Notes

1. The first phase of the study involved distributing an online survey of Twilight fans. A Web link to our survey was posted on two major Twilight fan sites: Twilight Lexicon (http://www.twilightlexicon.com/) and TwilightMOMS (http://www.twilightmoms.com/). Additionally, we recruited from other Twilight fan sites, blogs, and groups on Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal. In accordance with the guidelines of our institutional research board, the supplied link directed potential participants under the age of 18 to an online consent form, where they were instructed to have a parent or legal guardian e-mail us for the password to enter the site. Once participants under the age of 18 had access to the survey through an adult guardian, they were asked to consent to participate in the survey before they began. The second phase of the study involved conducting focus group interviews with Twilight fans, most of whom were recruited from the survey. Participants under 18 years of age were required to have written permission from a parent or legal guardian on our consent form to participate in the interview. In addition, written consent was also solicited from each participant.

2. This is particularly ironic given the media's sexualization of Twilight fans lusting after Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, who play Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, respectively, in the Twilight Saga films. The media are simultaneously fascinated by and derisive of female fans' lustful response to public appearances of the male Twilight stars, yet they are also titillated by the possible use of Twilight to produce chaste teen girls, and thus to contain teen female sexuality. This simultaneous representation of the chasteness and lustfulness of Twilight fans in the media yields an interesting contradiction in the discourse of female sexuality.

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