“There’s a dividing line between girls who have had sex, and girls who haven’t,” said Angela Chase, star of the cult ‘90s teenage drama “My So Called Life.” As melodramatic and myopic as Claire Danes’ Angela sounds, 21st-century popular culture still attaches transformative powers to sexual experience and views virginity (or lack thereof) as indicative of deeper character traits.
Take Lena Dunham’s viral video endorsing Barack Obama, called “Your First Time”. She uses the clichés associated with one’s first time having sex to describe her first time voting. A wave of conservative criticism attacked the analogy as sick and perverse. Ben Shapiro at Breitbart.com, for example, railed against Dunham for having “mocked virgins.” However, he himself mocked Dunham for having “actually saved herself for Barack Obama (she’s 26).” So, according to Cohen, abstaining from sex at the old maid age of 26 is super lame.
This problem is evident in other “first times” in the press recently. Twenty-year-old Catarina Migliorini sold her virginity for $780,000 in an online auction organized by filmmaker Justin Sisely for his documentary “Virgins Wanted.” Far less troubling than Migliorini’s decision to sell her sexual initiation is that someone could get funding to make a movie documenting and comparing every last second up to and immediately after the act. But that’s what TLC’s “Virgin Diaries” is all about. The series exploits the awkwardness of the participants to confirm the popular belief that virgins over 20 years old are wholly immature and romantically inept, but will be completely socially rectified once they have sex.
Indeed, virginity has always been placed on a pedestal. Just speak to Olympian Lolo Jones about her pride in being a 30-year-old virgin. She described maintaining her virginity as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life … harder than training for the Olympics.” For Jones, her virginity is a, if not the, defining factor in her life.
And that’s fine if that’s what she wants, but the media, politics and pop culture still promote sexual experience as not only some false threshold to adulthood, but as shaping the rest of your life. Despite sexual liberation and the (apparently) pervasive hookup culture, we still believe that a single sexual event can transform you into a mature, competent adult — or immediately deprive you of your purity, honor and innocence. By no means do I want to demean the importance of sexual decisions. But in a culture that over-hypes both the benefits and pitfalls of sex, it’s important to take a step back and put it in perspective.
When I was growing up in the ‘00s, I believed sexual activity defined a person’s character. Here’s the thing I didn’t realize: losing your virginity doesn’t change you from a girl to a woman. It doesn’t make you a slut or a vixen or even a good flirt. It doesn’t make you more worldly or knowledgeable; if you didn’t know how to pick a good pinot noir or understand the Dow Jones Industrial Average before, you’re not suddenly going to the next morning.
The problem is that with our obsession with virginity — and losing it, particularly when you’re female — has been mistakenly hyped as the defining moment that towers over all the other important initiations of our lives. Each one of us is a compendium of many first times, from the bedroom to the voting booth, and no single one should define us.