In Defense of Virginity (Kind of)

A letter from Joseph Reinach, to his brother of Salomon Reinach, reads as follows:

“It is quite obvious to me that you have gone mad, and if you don’t lose double-quick the ridiculous virginity that is sending you down the bend, you will wind up committing some pretty bad sexual offence, which will lead you…straight to the magistrate’s court…I am talking to you crudely. But it is not really crude word you deserve, but a good thrashing and some cold showers. Let me tell you again, in all friendliness: Find yourself a hooker, or you will end up in court, unless I have you thrown into a loony bin, to avoid such a scandal….Lose your virginity. It’s better than losing your honor.” (“The Man On Devil’s Island”, Ruth Harris, p. 190)

This letter, exchanged between two Jewish men in France who were supporters of Dreyfus, is a precursor towards what has become a pervasive phenomena in our society: Virgin-shaming. You are probably thinking, “Wait, I thought slut-shaming was the problem!” The truth is, slut-shaming is a problem -but it is a problem that happens to be a hot topic in feminism. Virgin-shaming, meanwhile remains un-exposed. Think for a moment; Aside from some sort of Jewish sexual ethics class with your local rabbi, when is the last time you heard virginity referred to as cool, or even neutral? When was the last time you heard it referred to as anything other than the ultimate sign of loser-hood?

This phenomenon was explored by Carson Brown, in her article “The New Sexual Deviant: Mapping Virgin Territory”, which appeared in the Winter 2005 edition of Bitch Magazine. (For those of you who don’t know, yes, there is a magazine called Bitch, and no, it is not pornography.) In the article, Carson exhibits the feelings of shame felt by her virgin friends, as well as a visit to a gynecologist in which her doctor actually pressured her into losing her virginity – as if visits to the gyno weren’t unpleasant enough already!***
One of the prime actors in the cultural attack on virgins also happens to be one of my favorite movies: “The Forty Year Old Virgin”, starring Steve Carell. His character, Andy, is the stereotypical virgin: no friends or social life, no confidence, and complete inability to talk to or to woo women. The assumption is that were Steve Carell’s character to lack any of these qualities, he would not be a virgin – his virginity is the result of a social maladaptation. The concept of a virgin by choice – the attractive, capable, confident, person who choses to live a life of celibacy, or who is still saving the V-card for marriage/a long-term relationship, due to religious, political, or other values, is virtually non-existent in our society, unless they are transformed into a Christian extremist stereotype.
Virgin-shaming is a real problem, because it puts pressure on on people to make choices they are not ready for: I personally know more than one woman who has lost her virginity simply in order to avoid being a virgin past a certain age, including one who explained, “No one wants to date a virgin”- which is true. No one does want to date a virgin, because everyone wants someone who is “good in bed”, which comes with experience – which is why, in the movie, Andy is advised to practice sex with girls he does’t like before going for the one he does like, lest she dump him due to his sexual inexpertise.
This virginity pressure does not only affect women: If anything, it is more pronounced in the male world, where ability to get women is a major part of proving one’s masculinity. Yes, that is a heteronormative paradigm. We live in a heteronormative world.
Leaving aside the peer pressure to not be a virgin – something teens might be particularly susceptible to, at a time when society should be encouraging them to get to know their bodies, to set up sexual comfort zones and boundaries, to slowly keep expanding those comfort zones only at a pace they are comfortable with, with a person they are comfortable with, until sex becomes part of the territory – there is also the issue of how to define virginity. Our society commonly defines it as a penis penetrating a vagina – so what happens to gay sex? Even if you define losing virginity as having a bodily orifice penetrated by a penis, it leave out lesbian sex. Substitute the word “sexual object”, and you have an issue of how to define that phrase. So say, “penetration by an object designated by the penetratee as sexual”, and someone could lose their virginity from a fork.
As a post-modernist, I believe that you are a virgin if you define yourself as one, unrelated to any specific sexual act. Sure, this may cause a problem if you tell your date you’re a virgin, when you both have different definitions of that word, but really, one phrase, about virginity, can never be enough to sum up someone’s sexual history. Within the realm of virginity, there are a variety of reasons for being a virgin, as well as different types of non-intercourse sexual activity and types of romantic relationships a virgin might have had. A non-virgin too, will have had a variety of sexual experiences. The romantic history of two virgins may differ as sharply from each other as day and night. The same goes for non-virgins as well.
The entire concept of virginity is one that measures a woman’s worth based on whether or not her vagina has been penetrated by a penis. Thus, it is inherently patriarchal. First of all, why should a phallus have the power to determine a woman’s “status”? Second of all, that status was originally important in order to determing how much her male head of family would receive for giving her to her husband – in other words, it started as way of measuring the financial worth of a woman’s vagina, so that that worth could be traded from one man to another. Then, the phrase got expanded to apply to men who have not had (usually straight) sexual intercourse as well.
On days like this, I feel lucky to be part of a cultural tradition based on the Torah, which engages in neither slut-shaming nor virgin-shaming. True, the Torah has a lot of ideas about who you can have sex with (no family members – what would Frued say?) and when (during your period is a no-no), but it says nothing about the amount of sex or number of sexual partners one should have – for good, or for bad. True, there is a passage about not selling your daughter into prostitution, but that is not about sex, per se, so much as protecting women from greedy fathers who might take advantage of their daughters’ sexuality – a practice that was not uncommon in ancient times, and is still common in parts of the globe today. If anything, it is about pressuring those with the power in ancient times – i.e. the fathers/heads of households – not to use their power to force the weak – i.e. the women/daughters – into a profession that would objectify their bodies.
That is not to say that I take no issues with any gender or sex-related Biblical passages, but rather, that I recognize that the Torah offers neither extreme chastity nor extreme debauchery as a paradigm – as a matter of fact, it does not offer any paradigm, leaving sex, in it and of itself, as a morally neutral activity. In this case, I am grateful not for the Torah’s words, but for its silence, a silence that allows me the freedom to make my own sexual choices, unencumbered by guilt or shame.
 I consider niether virgin-slaming or slut-shaming to be cool, just as I consider each extreme in itself, to be rather neutral: A person is so much more than the sum of their sexual experience – or lack thereof. I do consider it cool however, to be part of a cultural tradition whose foundational text neither condones nor condemns either extreme, allowing me the freedom to choose my own paradigm.
I also wonder: In an era where virginity has become the epitome of un-cool, is choosing to maintain one’s virginity in fact the new form of sexual rebellion?
*** Here are a few excerpts from Carson Brown’s article, for those who are interested:
“My beau has assumed I was deflowed, and I let him….I was too old to be both a virgin and cool”.
“The stereotypes is that virgins are timid, old-fashioned, meek, boring, cautious, unattractive, repressed, narrow-minded and naive. They have low self-esteem or body image. They can’t participate in fun conversations about sex….How are companies supposed to market their stuff if people aren’t actually pursuing sex? How are they supposed to sell cars, beers, breakfast cereal, perfume….Businesses want virgins to feel horrible about themselves, because if virgins were happy to be virgins, they would be horrible consumers. As long as they are virgins desperately trying to ditch their vriginity, fine. But abstinence undermines economics”.
“But since the sexual revolution, she can also be slapped with the equally damning “prude” label. We’ve strayed from the original intent of women’s liberation, and limited women, once again, trading in the old perscription (sex will ruin a woman) for one that seems more modern (lack of sex will curdle her)….We’ve led a woman I know to plan, one drunken night, to seduce her twenty-six year old cousing rather than go to a boarding school a virgin at age sixteen. While virgins are not an actively persecuteg against group, the prejudice our culutre perpetrates against them is insidious.”
Carson Brown then describes a 1970s bestessller, “The Sensuous Man” that claims that virgins should have to wear badges so that men will know not to date them, because, according to the book “the term “virgin” has almost become a gross insult to a woman’s sexual attractiveness”.
Brown goes on to describe her friends’ reaction to her telling them she attended a Christian wedding where both bride and groom were virgins: “When I tell this story, it solicits unanimous outrage. …a woman responded, “What if the woman was allergic to her husband’s sperm and didn’t even know it?” The sex-positive brigade thinks my friend is doomed to a lifetime of unsatistfying sex, she’ll never have an orgams, she’s ashamed of her body, she’s repressed, she’s scared, she’s guilt-ridden, she’ll never masturbate, she needs to see a shrink, she wants attention, she’s a lesbian, her husband’s gay, its my responsibility to educate her, her father or preist molested her, she’s been brainwashed by evil forces…Sounds to me like she’s pretty deviant – these are the sorts of comments usually reserved for queers, trannies, prostitutes, porn aficionados, S&M enthusiasts, and the rest of the freaks. Sounds like a good Christian girl just became alternative. And where does that leave all the formulas?”
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