Adult Virginity and Other Things
I've realised that my main irritation was not really because I felt personally insulted, but rather due to the fact that the setting and situation made it difficult for me to debunk the stereotypes being perpetrated. Likewise, a particular reason for junking the email wasn't because I felt it wouldn't be right for me to bring up the discomfort, but rather out of concern that discussing the issue in this manner after the fact would potentially encourage my bosses to judge me by their preconcieved notions.
So what are these notions and why do they exist? Why do adult virgins get such a raw deal? Judging a person based on their status as a virgin is reducing them to but one experience (not even a character trait) -- one which (in my observation) has little bearing on personality. Though sex is an important part of life, with responsibility and consequences attached, I do not believe the choice not to have sex makes one any less a normal, well-adjusted human being in our society. In my opinion, that is comparable to saying that I am a different person because I have not had the common and important life experience of purchasing and owning my own home. People usually do not fundamentally change when they become non-virgins. I suspect if I suggested this viewpoint to my bosses, it might be a somewhat novel idea -- because they are operating with the impression that there is something fundamentally different about a voluntary adult virgin other than the lack of sexual experience.
Ultimately, this is the root of adult virgin stereotypes and myths: There is something essentially wrong and different about adult virgins and about their desire to remain adult virgins. It is a stigma because adult virginity is perceived to have an undesireable Otherness.
But why is this Otherness assigned to adult virgins, aside from the simple fact that we are a minority in society? Everyone is a virgin at some point; it is the default status. I don't think adult virginity is stigmatized because people think virginity is inherently unnatural, wrong or bad. Virginity in children and teens is generally looked upon favorably from the adult community. However, once a person reaches a certain age -- once they are fully consenting "adults" -- the previously good or at least neutral state of being a virgin becomes a liability, and becomes more and more so as the age of the virgin increases. Again, why?
Part of this may be attributed to the fact that sex is in some ways a rite of passage to adulthood and bespeaks of one's experience with others on a different level than standard social interaction. An adult virgin who is lacking this experience is lacking a social milestone. On the other hand, there are other social milestones that do not cause the same sort of stigma if left unfulfilled by an adult. Getting married and having children are both similar, important, and frequently expected milestones in our society, but the unmarried and the childless or child-free do not receive the level of stigmatization of adult virgins. These choices are more likely to be respected as valid life choices, not regarded as Other.
What might make an adult virgin different? The average age of first sexual activity is 17, and 60-70% of people have sex by age 18. So, something near 70% of American society has sex before they are even out of their teen years. The adult virgin demonstrates in many cases a purpose and deliberateness (often skewed to the negative as shyness or hesitance) with regard to her sexuality, which, while not necessarily desired by the non-virgin, is probably a definite contrast to the average citizen's experience of crossing the threshhold from virgin to non-virgin as a teenager.
I did a little Googlesearch, which as we know is like regular research only 40% less filling. I searched three terms: "adult virginity," "adult virgin" and "adult virgins." The results for these search terms (783 for "adult virgins," 39,600 for "adult virgin" and 1,290 for "adult virginity") have almost exclusively porn on the sponsored ads. In the case of "adult virgins" and "adult virginity" the results turn largely pornographic about 100-150 results in. I opted not to click on them, but a big theme of the summaries is defloration and the novelty of sex with an adult virgin. This isn't particularly surprising, given the search string, but I think it indicates something here: adult virginity is suitably Other to be fetishized. In turn, this "virgin fetish" in my opinion further marginalizes adult virgins as an Other, and enourages the social stigma.
All three terms also brought up reviews of the fairly recent film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and some of the media coverage that accompanied it. Several magazines, newspapers, television shows and even NPR came out with features about adult virgins after the film was released.
On the surface this seems like this would be a positive step toward neutralizing the stigma and Otherness of virginity. That is not so.
A Jane Magazine article which was the subject of many of the hits for my search terms, was all about Sarah, a vibrant, normal 29-year-old virgin. But of course, the article is quick to point out that this is entirely unexpected. What the article author anticipated was a shy, "hesitant" girl, certainly not a "veritable hot chick" with a "nice rack".
To add insult to injury, the subject of the article was primarily centred on setting Sarah up with a suitable man to be her "first".
Likewise, Tyra Banks featured several adult virgins on an episode of the Tyra Banks Show. Again, the general focus, judging from the recap, seemed not about discussing adult virginity as a normal and valid choice, but rather getting rid of the offending status. One couple agreed to let the show videotape their moments before having sex for the first time, and their morning after. Another man was set up with a celebrity guide to go out on the town and pick up a girl. Reality show virgins discussed how their virginity was a contributing factor in getting them quickly eliminated (and in one case, was the primary factor in being selected in the first place).
I propose there are two things evidenced by these kinds of examples. One, that virginity in healthy, normal, pleasant adults causes cognitive dissonance; there's both a knowledge of the virgin's Otherness and the experience of the virgin's social normalcy otherwise. Two, that a way to resolve this dissonance is to foster the removal and dismissal of the Otherness, as opposed to exploring or accepting it.
So, people who are both "normal" and "virginal" are subsequently marginalized or dismissed, either by writing off their mental, physical, or emotional state, or by removing the offending Otherness. If they have sex, they are fully integrated into the majority and can continue to be well-adjusted adults, complete with nice racks and hot bodies, without disrupting anyone. Hence you have Jane Magazine and Tyra Banks. Hence you have teasing and hazing, especially toward male virgins, and "peer pressure" (to use that loathesome buzzphrase) to have sex. Hence you have long rants and rationalizations from voluntary non-virgins expounding upon why adult virgins should stop perpetuating their "romantic" notions.
I should note that even adult virgins themselves are not immune to the stigma and dissonance of virginity's Otherness. One method compensation for this internal conflict is the concept of "involuntary virginity": that adult virgins are only virgins because they have not had the time, the circumstances, or the partner to become non-virgins.
This is not involuntary virginity. With the exception, perhaps, of people who truly have physical problems, or social and anxiety concerns, there is no such thing as "involuntary virginity". I posit that a person, in this "liberated" day and age, can find someone to have sex with if they really want to. They might not be the most nice or attractive partner, but someone can be had (for money, if nothing else) if a person is truly bent on having sex for the first time.
Adults who claim "involuntary virginity" due to lack of time, circumstance or potential partners are, in fact, voluntary virgins. They choose to focus time on other activities than sex. They choose not to actively seek circumstances amenable to having sex. They choose not to have sex with a potential partner who does not meet their expectations, or with whom they are not in a serious relationship.
The willingness of adult virgins to cling to the subcategory of "involuntary virginity" further validates the Otherness of virginity. "Involuntary virginity" is sort of a limbo of denial: It isn't Other if you don't want it and don't choose it, right? Well, no. I think this accomplishes the opposite goal: instead of making virginity less Other it strengthens the perception. If so-called "involuntary virgins" regarded their state as a valid choice, a matter of priority and standards rather than unlucky happenstance, perhaps then they would be able to combat it.
I mentioned that the other method for coping with the cognitive dissonance caused by "normal" adult virgins is the stereotyping which allows such people to be written off as somehow defective -- mentally, physically, emotionally.
These are the specific manifestations of the general fear and dislike of the Other of virginity, and I would like to take some time to explore five of what I consider the more prevalent ones:
1. Adult virgins are super-crazy super-Christians.
2. Adult virgins are exceedingly shy, nerdy, antisocial dorks who can't get dates.
3. Adult virgins are physically very ugly, very fat, or have bad hygiene and habits.
4. Adult virgins don't want sex/have no sex drive/think sex is evil/have other hangups about intimacy.
5. Adult virgins are naive about sex, and it's not a good idea to stay a virgin until marriage because you won't know if you are sexually compatible with your partner.
6. Adult virgin women are just submitting to a continued demeaning patriarchy in which her sexuality is "owned" by the men in her life (father, then husband).
I think I stand as a couterpoint to all of the myths outlined above. Every adult virgin or former adult virgin that I am presently acquainted with -- and I can think of at least six -- likewise seems to shatter these stereotypes. So, unless I have been so lucky as to befriend so many minority members of an already-minority social group, I think the stereotypes are kind of misleading.
More than misleading, actually; I believe they are methods of discrediting the lifestyle and viewpoint of an adult virgin.
The super-crazy super-Christian is the easiest stereotype to apply, since lots of adult virgins do remain so because of their religious convictions. Furthermore, there is a greater tendency to be vocal about and even proud of it -- the trappings of Christian virginity (promise rings, "True Love Waits" and so forth) are frequently obvious. Unfortunately, there are some negative aspects associated with this as well; Christian virginity, to many, implies a fear of sex, a lack of knowledge about sex, and a repression of sexuality. As such, Christian virgins are easy to dismiss as unrealistic, naive, and blindly complying with faith against their "natural" desires.
As for the antisocial and ugly virgins... I am sure that there must be some people who may fit this description -- but I have met enough unattractive, shy and antisocial non-virgins to suggest that the stereotype doesn't hold water. I don't think I'm out of place to suggest that many adult virgins are probably introverted, but to imply that all introverts are incapable of dating and relationships is quite a leap.
From a personal standpoint, the suggestion that adult virginity is due to intimacy hangups or a lack of sexual desire is a foreign and ire-inspiring concept. One of the things I discovered from my first serious relationship is that I have a rather high sex drive, and physical intimacy is incredibly important to me. The reality of these factors can, in fact, coexist with the state of virginity. As I said, the very idea of anything otherwise is entirely foreign to me -- and I likewise suspect it would be foreign to most non-virgins who think about how they felt toward sex when they were virgins.
Being perceived as sexually naive is likewise frustrating; inexperience does not necessarily equate to naivete. Furthermore, an adult virgin who has experienced a relationship cannot be said to be fully inexperienced. A physical relationship of any kind is going to open up some window into the realm of sexual intimacy: an abstinent relationship which involves some level of physicality is in some ways just an exceedingly prolongued bout of foreplay.
As such, it seems likewise ridiculous to assume that one cannot determine sexual compatibility without having sex; I believe the physical chemistry of a relationship is going to be detectable before any pants come off. "Sexual compatibility" is also something rather fluid; partners who discuss their physical relationship are, simply from open discussion, more likely to be happy because they can discuss frankly what they like or don't like. At least one study suggests that adult virgins who regard their virgnity not as a stigma, but as a gift or as part of a process, are more likely to communicate with their their partner.
The final stereotype is directed mostly toward adult virgin women. There are more adult virgin women than men, but men are typically the more stigmatized by peers. However, I wanted to touch on this particular stereotype because I feel it applies more universally when pared down.
The opinion that adult virgin women (especially those who are waiting until marriage to have sex) are submitting to the patriarchy and denying their own sexuality is ridiculous to those women who believe it is the opposite. I fail to see how choosing not to have sex is less valid and valuable as a decision for a woman. A woman need not "give" or "lose" her virginity (terms I have actively sought to avoid when discussing this subject) to a man, but rather conscientiously choose when, where, how, and with whom she can share that aspect of herself for the first time. An adult virgin woman exhibits, to my mind, not a passive submissiveness but an active strength. If she has willfully chosen to maintain her virginity, and has successfully resisted society's insistence that virginity is an undesireable Otherness and a sign of inferiority, and decided to exercise deliberation and selectivity in choosing a romantic partner, then how is this not a form of assertive control over her own sexuality?
I think, no matter whether adult virgins are men or women, there is an impression that they do not control their sexuality (either repressing it or denying it, or being unable to pursue it). I think this is truly unfortunate because not only is it a gross generalization, it paints a picture of virginity as not just the lack of sexual experience, but as a lack of sexuality.
Perhaps this is a larger source of the Otherness of adult virginity: the fallacious concept that virginity "lost" is sexuality gained, and an adult virgin is missing part or all of this aspect of humanity. But this notion entirely misses the point, not only about virginity but about sexuality as a whole. Human sexuality encompasses a wide spectrum, of which virginity -- even adult virginity -- is one part.
ETA: Whoa, comments! I'm thrilled with all the dialogue and the recs from other LJs (thanks!), and I fully intend to reply to comments, though it might take me a little while here. :)
Also, people asking about friending: New friends welcome. Have a party.
Revenge of ETA: Still working on replying to comments. I'm getting to them, really!