Last year I vowed to abstain from reality television but three weeks ago I broke that vow in order to indulge in MTV’s Virgin Territory. The show documents the lives of young people who are virgins, most of whom are struggling with their virgin status and looking for someone to lose their virginity to. Each show features four college-aged people trying their hardest not to come off as stereotypical virgins. This means that many of the girls will dress immodestly–according to their perspective of what virgins look like–and many of the guys will spend time in the gym and perform the “playa.” Beyond external appearances these young people roam the streets of their respective cities looking for someone to take their virginity because, you know, virginity is this heavy burden to bear and it gets in the way of so much in life. Talk about a first world problem. On last week’s episode of VT one of the young people finally lost his virginity–the second to lose it during the show’s run–and it broke my heart.
This is Kyle and, as you can see by the open empty condom wrapper in his hand and his foolish grin, he just had sex. On the show’s first episode 20-year-old Kyle indicated that no one could tell that he was a virgin by looking at him–because he stays in the gym. Moments later he would tearfully explain that he remained a virgin for so long because of the emotional toll his father’s death took on him. All of Kyle’s friends are sexually active and confident about it so much so that Kyle didn’t tell them that he was a virgin until well into the friendship. Young Kyle had a few crushes who he wanted to lose his virginity to; one was a girl who works at the gym and another was a classmate. Both of these crushes fell through but there was a ram in the bush for Kyle, a friend back home by the name of Amanda. They were good friends with some chemistry despite the fact that Amanda was always in a relationship, until now. Fresh on the market, Amanda kept tabs on Kyle and sent him subtle messages about her desire to have sex with him. Unfortunately it seemed that Amanda’s impetus for having sex with Kyle was more about taking his virginity than it was about her burning desire and love for him. So last Wednesday’s episode focused on Kyle’s trip back home and his reunion with Amanda which was wrought with the kind of sexual tension you’d expect from a virgin and a potential serial devirginizer. Their conversations were full of sexual innuendos–including cliche big foot jokes, Kyle’s nervous laughter, and Amanda’s persistent questioning him about being a virgin. All of this came to a head within the last ten minutes of the episode.
Kyle and Amanda sat on the couch and she once again asked him why he was still a virgin then, in an instant, she invited him into her bedroom. Kyle realized that this is probably going to be it for him and he nervously laughed and told her that he needs to go to the bathroom to “freshen up.” She jokes and says, “What, do you have to shave your legs?” Kyle goes to the bathroom and it appears that he is not ready for what he is about to do, but there is so much pressure on him to do it. Pressure from Amanda, from his friends–who, the night before, were tutoring him on how to test her readiness by caressing her legs and other regions, from a society that largely frowns upon virgins, and of course from the MTV cameras. Finally Kyle got himself together for long enough to take the condom out of his wallet and head toward the bedroom where Amanda was waiting. He laid on the bed, full of nerves, blushing and still looking not quite ready to swipe his “V-card,” but finally he relented and asked her if he could turn the lights off. The last thing virgin Kyle says is something about being anxious to which Amanda responds, “It’s ok.” Post coitus we see a grinning Kyle holding the empty condom wrapper–pictured above–saying, “Once you do it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re gonna want more,” and then he walked back into the bedroom. Cue my heartbreak.
Seeing Kyle just moments after his first time having sex say, “Once you do it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re gonna want more,” was a big disappointment. I thought to myself, “How dreadfully ordinary, like talking about a bag of your favorite potato chips.” It was yet another moment of extolling the virtues of sex for pleasure’s sake, a message that I think is problematic for MTV’s younger demographic. Kyle’s waving around of his empty condom packet, his Cheshire cat grin, and his base articulation of sex indicates one of the problems with sex in our culture, it’s relegation to a pleasurable event, primarily. Indeed sex is pleasurable but there is more to it at every stage. In his book, “The Meaning of Sex,” J. Budziszewski puts it well when he states:
…although we find pleasure in exercising our sexual powers, pleasure is not their purpose; it only provides a motive for using these powers, and a dangerous one, too, which may at times conflict with their true purposes and steer us wrong. Besides, to think of pleasure as the purpose of intercourse is to treat our bodies merely as tools of sending agreeable sensations to our minds. They are of inestimably greater dignity than that, for they are part of what we are.
I believe that we err by treating sex, particularly in this context and to this age group, as primarily a pleasurable event independent of cultivating a desire for lasting union–whether it is a long-term monogamous relationship or marriage–and–dare I say it and sound a little Catholic–procreation. That is creating a safe space where a sexual relationship can flourish and being open to the possibilities that every sexual interaction proffers. But I won’t get into cultivating the desire for union and the procreative possibility of sex because that is beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here. Instead I want to focus on two points of contention; the objectification and commodification of the virgin and the external pressures society and church culture place on young people who are virgins.
If you were raised within the church, your virginity and the indefinite keeping of it was established for you before you even learned to write your own name. When you are young you are marked as a virgin which makes you inexperienced but pure. If you are still a virgin when you get older you are inexperienced and awkward. At every turn the virgin is made aware of their status whether negative or positive–even the flood of articles from the Evangelical community harping on the virtue of purity and virginity border on idolization of virginity. All of this focus on the virgin and virginity bolsters the objectification of the person and their sexual status and catalyzes desire to lose virginity by any means necessary. Furthermore, an entire capitalist system has been built around the selling of purity, chastity, and abstinence to young people, their parents, youth group leaders, and so on so forth. There are are rings, mobile apps–see image on the left, t-shirts, books, conferences, and now this show can be added to the list of people who profit off of virgins. These young people may not be making money but MTV/Viacom is, so these young virgins have symbolically sacrificed themselves at the altar of capitalism and will have nothing to show for it except for a casting credit and a video clip.
But aren’t these young people and young people on general more than a virgins or more than a sexually active person you can create a show around and sell stuff too? Is a show about young people who are virgins really a worthwhile and, more importantly, healthy endeavor?
We may be sexual beings, as is exhaustively stated and a bit cliché I might add, but sexual beings are not all we are. Furthermore, far too often we misunderstand what it means to be sexual beings and interpret it to mean that we have a right to have sex when, where, and however we want it. That is not (fully) the case. I suggest that there must be another way that focuses not on virgins or virginity but on the power of these young people and their ability to form an identity for themselves not beholden to anyone or anything. This is not to ignore sex and desire but to rightly order them in the life of the individual for the individual’s sake. What “Virgin Territory” would lead many to believe is that losing virginity is a focal point in the life of a young adult over say, arriving at knowledge of self and construction of identity. It makes “virgin” the constructed identity of cast members until they are so consumed by it that (some of them) grasp at straws to erase that identity. They are constrained by their desire to lose their virginity so they forge relationships for sex and play into prescribed roles in order to appear favorably before their peers. But all isn’t lost on this show because some of the most fruitful and powerful stories come from those who have cycled through their thinking on the matter. They start as people who believe in virginity in the traditional sense, became people who try to lose it by any means necessary, and land at the place of people who abstain for their own sake and no one else’s. These are the stories that give me hope not because of their decision to abstain but because of their thought process in making that decision. Thinking through rather than acting out is an admirable virtue regarding sex and young people.
As I’ve thought about sexual ethics for teenagers and college-aged young adults, I’ve always fallen on the side of abstinence not for religious reasons but because of that population’s lack of knowledge of self and–more often than not–their inability to make decisions that aren’t influenced by external factors–peers, media, etc. This is not to say that young people are incapable of making healthy decisions regarding their sex lives but it is to acknowledge that there are competing interests for their attention that can cloud their objective decision-making ability. For example, a group of young people in a predominantly Christian setting will abstain from sex until marriage because that is the normative ethic of the group. Likewise, another group of young people may make the decision to have sex before marriage because that is what most of their peers are doing–such is the case of the participants on “Virgin Territory.” In both cases, these decisions are always influenced by external factors and not by the individual’s critical thinking process. This is what Lawrence Kohlberg would call, “Conventional Morality,” located on level two of his Stages of Moral Development. This stage’s focus is on conformity and playing “nice” with an eye toward how decisions affect interpersonal relationships. The key question here is about social acceptability, “What must I do to be seen as a good girl/boy?” We are deluding ourselves if we believe that we foster anything other than a conventional morality regarding sex and sexuality among our young people and this must be unlearned. We must give our young people better spaces to make decisions–which probably also includes allowing them to make mistakes–but we can’t decide for them. The church can’t decide, nor can their parents/guardians, MTV, or culture. This is not to condone reckless behavior or establish a false sense of sexual liberation–and this will surely be a post, but it is to allow young people to decide for themselves, apart from external influences, what’s best for their lives. It’s about trust. We must help them move away from the thought that virginity is a burden to be traded or a sacred object to behold and move them into critical thinking through their identities and core needs.
Virginity is not just something to lose but it is also not something to keep the traditional views on that haven’t served us well for a long time. It’s time to take off the kid gloves and help our young people THINK through their lives and sex–not just their sex lives. Allow them the space to think through who they are and what they want and need in this life and not just cheaply sell them the, “We are sexual beings” line. We ARE sexual beings but that is not all we are and for that reason it’s time to stop holding people’s sexual status over their heads and pressuring them with expectations to maintain a certain sexual status or sexuality. It’s their sex lives but, overall, it’s their lives. Let’s give them the proper space to figure things out. Preferably without the cameras…