Sex, Lies, and Vampires: Rethinking ‘Twilight’ and Purity Rings
Without anywhere to talk about sex or process it, ‘Twilight’ offered an alternative space to unravel my own private desire.
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EclipseBreaking Dawn, The Twilight Saga
More than the other novels in the series, Eclipse portrays a teenage girl on the brink of sexual maturity, wrestling with complete desire coupled with fear. Bella is described as being specifically Edward’s type, his “own personal brand of heroin” as he tells her in Twilight. He’s never wanted to kill anyone for their blood as much as he’s wanted to kill Bella, but he abstains because he loves her. In Eclipse, Bella begs Edward to have sex with her, saying, “Obviously not that you aren’t physically able to hurt me, if you wanted to . . . More that, you don’t want to hurt me, so much so that I don’t think that you ever could.” The physical danger of sex between a human and a vampire is a palpable stand-in for teenage anxiety around a first sexual experience.
What Twilight understands and portrays perfectly is the enormity of a first sexual experience: the intensity that can weigh on a young person, the threat of danger, the prospect that love can deliver anyone from their darkest impulses, the potential for radical metamorphosis.
In my last two years of high school, I attended a local Bible college, and took my classes with college seniors to beef up my transcript before applying to East Coast schools. I was crossing my fingers for a scholarship, which could offer me an escape to a bigger world, one where I might fit in a bit more.
Sitting in the student cafe, I watched a college junior rock her newborn baby as she explained to a friend why she was dropping out so her husband, also a junior, could graduate on time. I hadn’t had sex by then, and it didn’t have anything to do with purity rings. It had to do with being stuck in a world where I would have to accept repercussions for admitting my own desire.
I did end up getting into an East Coast school with a scholarship. It was only thirty minutes away from Manhattan; I studied abroad in Paris for my entire junior year. I was in a different world, and the old narrow role I was given before evaporated. Eventually, I had sex for the first time. When we were finished, I simply walked across campus back to my dorm and took a shower. That was all that was demanded of me afterwards, and there were no trades I had to make, no taking on concessions to do what I wanted to do—like having a baby, getting married at twenty-two, or only having the option to be intimate with one person for the rest of my life. In the shower by myself, I felt amazed that no huge punishment was befalling me.
Twilight never quite delivers on how the build up of a first sexual experience evaporates the minute it’s all over. Having sex for the first time doesn’t actually transform you. Purity culture is focused entirely on the concept of virginity. I was taught if you followed the rules, your first sexual experience offered a direct path into a great, easy, blessed life, while premarital sex led to constant torment. For me, having sex for the first time was just another boring stepping stone into adulthood that didn’t actually have the power to dictate the rest of my life. How could it? It had only lasted ten minutes!
Bella’s passage into sexual maturity felt like everyone’s business. In Eclipse, she has to explain to her dad she’s a virgin, and then get through a big wedding for the honeymoon. Her entire high school class gossips about her marriage at eighteen. The enormity of her initial sexual experience makes sense in the context of the books, since having sex for the first time is literally the first move in Bella’s vampiric transformation. The mystique of Twilight died for me when it reiterated the same worldview I was constantly butting up against as a teenager. The worldview that I ultimately escaped.
For me, having sex for the first time was just another boring stepping stone into adulthood that didn’t actually have the power to dictate the rest of my life.
My waning interest in Twilight was bound to happen, since Bella herself is disinterested in a human future. She’s well liked at her new high school after relocating to Forks at the beginning of Twilight, but beyond Jacob Black, who remains a romantic interest, Bella doesn’t have very deep friendships. Her closest friend is Alice, Edward’s adoptive vampire sister who can see into the future. Their friendship always seemed like a dead end into the Cullen family more than anything else. By way of dating Edward, Bella seems to lose interest in the mortal world, even willing to give up relationships with her parents to become a vampire with Edward for eternity. But first, they have to get married.
Edward denies Bella sex in Eclipse, telling her that he wants them to be married since he’s “old fashioned” (as in literally over a hundred years old). In the most austere of terms, Bella must shed her identity as Bella Swan and become Bella Cullen in order to truly exit the mortal world and find immortality. Edward gets what he wants, a beautiful and traditional wedding, and then while honeymooning on the tropical Isle Esme, Bella finally gets what she wants—a life-altering sexual experience. In fact, Bella gets to have mind-blowing sex to such an insane degree that Edward fears he might actually kill her with passion. Instead, he gets her pregnant with the highest of high-risk pregnancies, a vampire/human hybrid fetus. As the intricate mythology of the series becomes more and more difficult to follow, its genre elements of YA fantasy start to become suffocated by marriage and a baby.
For Bella, the consequence of pregnancy and the addition of physical pain and danger tied to sex and childbirth are the result of her sexual maturity, inescapable no matter what world she eventually belongs to. Bella played by the same rules my purity ring wearing peers did, which kept us on the brink of expressing sexuality for fear of the consequences, which always tipped more severely toward girls and women.
After Bella survives her bloody childbirth ordeal, she’s granted immortality. As an eternal teenage vampire, and she quickly realizes she can have amazing sex: “He had the most beautiful, perfect body in the world and I had him all to myself, and it didn’t feel like I was ever going to find a point where I would think, Now I’ve had enough for one day. I was always going to want more. And the day was never going to end. So, in such a situation, how did we ever stop?” This is the hottest Twilight gets after stringing us along for four novels. The fulfillment of Bella’s sexual desires, after enduring the compromise of marriage and consequence of a painful pregnancy, allows her to get what she truly wants—amazing sex for all of eternity. Twilight follows exactly the trajectory of purity culture.
Abstinence only education puts emphasis on first sexual experiences making or breaking your life. In a world where contraceptives exist, where people are informed and educated about them, and where consent is the basis of a sexual education, sex loses some of its power and control. Instead, it becomes fun and playful. You can have sex for enjoyment, to get to know someone, to get to know yourself with someone you trust. Sex can become just one part of your life and your relationships, and your sexual desires don’t dictate the rest of your life because you don’t need to marry someone to have sex with them.
As an adult, it’s easy to see the pull Twilight offered me as a teenager growing up in a culture obsessed with sex but trying to contain it through rigid rules. The book portrayed perfectly the exciting potential of a first sexual experience, as well as how enormous and overwhelming it was. Rereading it, there are still fleeting moments where I can feel what Twilight offered to me as a teenager in an environment where sex was important, overwhelming, and powerful—but also tinged with feelings of shame and embarrassment, often directed at my body. The magic in Twilight remains in the incredible drama of a teenage girl waking up to her sexuality, and how this is so all encompassing it can only jump off the page through a fantasy world.
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her recent work has been published in Catapult, Pigeon Pages, Entropy, Pacifica Literary Review, and The Spectacle. Her reviews, criticism, and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Pen America, Split Lip, The Believer, The Ploughshares Blog, and Gulf Coast.