The ‘V’ word
Published in Russh, March/April 2007. Copyright Rachel Hills 2007.
Sarah DiMuro was at the supermarket shopping for figs when it hit her. That little old lady standing next to her with the basket full of vegetables? She’d had sex. So had the man walking past with the carton of soy milk. So had everyone in the supermarket, in fact… except for Sarah.
“I was looking around thinking, ‘Everyone here has had sex or is about to have sex. What am I missing out on?’” says Sarah, a 30-year-old New York comedienne with blonde hair, a California tan and striking blue eyes.
An amusing story, but not an altogether unusual one. Keri Russell pondered the same question as she looked around her university cafeteria in the first season of Felicity. Sex (and everything associated with it) is everywhere you look – in celebrity home videos, in alcohol-fuelled dinner conversations, splashed across magazine covers in bold fluorescent type. With such a saturation of salaciousness, it can seem as though everyone is ‘doing it’.
Except they’re not. A recent report showed that 7 per cent of unmarried American women aged between 25 and 29 had never had sex. Nor had 5 per cent aged between 30 and 34 or 4.3 per cent between 35 and 39. And if the average Australian loses their virginity at 17, that still leaves a good 50 per cent of people the same age not getting it on.
Surprised? Put it down to talk, or lack thereof. While sex – when to do it, how to do it, who to do it with – is regular conversational fare, not having sex is… not so much. “Few people enjoy taking the social risk of being different,” says Hanne Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History. “So the people who are different simply do not talk about it publicly, or at least not very often.”
“People think that if you don’t have sex by the time you’re 22 there’s something wrong, that there’s a story there,” says Sarah. “And there is a story there – I went to an all girls’ school, I didn’t date a lot, but it’s not like I made a conscious choice.”
As a stand-up comic, Sarah plays with virgin stereotypes in her routines. “People have a picture in their heads of what virgins are like – they’re supposed to be religious, overweight, don’t want to meet guys. It’s funny to think how not having sex by a certain age is considered a bad thing. I don’t think it’s all that weird. I mean, eventually it’s going to happen.”
Since the supermarket incident, Sarah has gone more public still about her virginity –on an international scale, blogging for JaneMag.com about her quest to find someone to have sex with. Still, she is quick to point out that she’s not desperate. “I’m not embarrassed to be a virgin, I think it’s great,” she says. “I did it partly to force myself to get out there and meet guys, and I think it’s given me more confidence to that.” She hopes her blog will blast a few virgin stereotypes. “You realise I’m not a freak or a misfit, just a girl who happens to have missed out on a huge chunk of what most women go through.”
For some, those stereotypes create a stigma. “I think that while most people – virgins or not – tend to be a bit insecure about their sexual desirability, young people who have not yet had partnered sex often buy into a lot of the negative baggage about virginity being a marker of inexperience, undesirability, unappealingness and so on,” says Blank.
Corinne*, a 25-year-old party girl from Adelaide, didn’t have her first kiss until she was 23 and describes herself as “maybe, very technically” virginal now. “It felt like this invisible albatross,” she says. “To the outside world, I was attractive, successful, popular – but inside I felt unattractive and incapable of having normal human relationships. It was like this impossibly convoluted series of events that I couldn’t explain to anyone.”
Like Sarah, Corinne attributes her lack of sexual experience to an all girls’ school education, bad relationship experiences in her late teens and an unwillingness to have sex outside a committed relationship. “It’s just not something I’m into.”
The contrast with her chatty, outgoing personality has led to some awkward situations. She recalls a game of Truth or Dare where all the participants were asked when they last had sex. When the question got to Corinne: “My best friend froze and said I shouldn’t have to answer. The guys were like, ‘Why not?’ and I just blurted out, ‘I’m a Christian and I don’t believe in sex before marriage.’ I’m not religious, and I don’t have an issue with premarital sex, but it seemed like the easiest way to avoid an awkward conversation.”
Certainly, there’s no shortage of spunky Christian startlets ready to speak out on the merits of chastity: Adriana Lima, Hilary Duff, Katie Holmes (pre-Tom Cruise, at least), and Australian Idol’s Dean Geyer and Guy Sebastian among them. In an industry characterised by affairs and innuendo, publicly identifying as a virgin is a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Witness the sexy/chaste face off between Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears in the early 2000s.
Blank believes these public declarations of virginity do more good than harm. “When pop stars or pro sports players ‘come out’ as virgins, it makes it a little more evident that virginity is just another of the possible options for sexuality.”
Indeed, the Christian picture of virginity is very different to the secular one: compare the bright-eyed attractive teen and twenty-something ‘Faces of Abstinence’ on the online ‘Abstinence Clearinghouse’ with Steve Carell’s bumbling character in The 40-year-old Virgin.
Pro-abstinence phenomena like “purity balls” (where teenage and pre-teen girls vow to remain virgins until marriage before their fathers and communities) and True Love Waits rings might seem corny to the secular world, but amongst the devout, they’re making virginity cool. Abstinence Clearinghouse founder Leslee Unruh considers virgins revolutionaries in an oversexed world. “We want authenticity,” she says. “We want what’s real.”
But while these initiatives might make it easier for those who want to wait to do so, they’re no more about independent decision making than the girl who has sex in year 9 because ‘everyone else is doing it’. “Sexual freedom shouldn’t come with the price tag of promiscuity, but I also think there’s nothing wrong with promiscuity per se,” says Village Voice sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel. “Instead of dictating a single standard, we need to embrace each individual’s right to make sexual decisions based on his or her own values.”
In the United States, high school sex education has increasingly turned abstinence-only, and last year [note to sub: 2006] the US government expanded the program to include all unmarried adults under 30. Here in Australia, the religious right is less influential, but questions of abstinence and promiscuity have come into play in parliamentary debates over the availability of RU486 and the vaccine against HPV, which causes cervical cancer.
In some ways, secular and religious attitudes towards virginity aren’t all that different. It’s not that the devout are opposed to sex – they’re just opposed to it outside marriage. From the 1500s through to the early twentieth century, it was widely believed that women who went too long before having sex (or before marrying) would grow ill and degenerate. In some ways, today’s virgin is the equivalent of yesterday’s ‘old maid’.
Still, it’s worth asking whether – for the non-religious among us, at least – the idea of virginity loss as marking the end of innocence and entrée into adulthood still matters. Gone are the days when women’s social value or ability to make their way through life hinged on staying a virgin. And post-Clinton/Lewinsky, what differentiates a virgin from a non-virgin anyway?
Claiming virginity after probing tongues or fingers on a no-penis-in-vagina technicality wouldn’t have cut the mustard in the old days of maidenheads and bride price, and probably wouldn’t get you off the hook in the modern fundamentalist quarters of America or Iran either. Not to mention that it leaves anyone who isn’t heterosexual permanently pure.
Some contributors to the women’s health blog VaginaPagina.com say they think of their sexual awakening as a process over time, rather than a single act of virginity loss. A gay friend tells me he considers himself to have lost multiple virginities, one for each new sex act he experiences.
And for some, it just doesn’t matter. “When I was in high school, I got the impression from people who were keen to do it early that sex was life was about,” says Rebecca, 26. “But when I was in my early twenties and had a lot of friends who hadn’t had a first girlfriend or first boyfriend yet, it was kind of the norm. So it’s not like it’s just two people who can’t get a date, it’s a whole bunch of people who aren’t [having sex] whatever reason.”
In Greek mythology, a virgin was a woman who was independent, in control of her own destiny and not “owned” by another. If today’s virgin is symbolically on par with yesterday’s old maid, perhaps tomorrow’s virgin will take the form of today’s empowered single woman: as legitimate and valuable a choice as any other.