I miss the days before Monday nights were reserved for wine and virgin-shaming.
Colton Underwood, the new Bachelor, is a 26-year-old virgin—and it’s all anyone is talking about. In fact, this entire season of the Bachelor revolves around Colton’s virginity. And it’s really screwed up.
I’m not the only one disturbed by this. Thousands of viewers have raged on Twitter about the show’s focus on Colton’s lack of sexual experience. There are two main complaints: that virgin-shaming is trite, and that Colton’s virginity is irrelevant.
Though pathetic, the well of virgin-shaming jokes seems to be bottomless. Why, though, do we find these comments funny in the first place? To answer that question, we must turn to the root of the other complaint: why are we so interested in virginity?
The argument for the irrelevance of virginity is a tricky one. Of course, definitional virgins—people who have not had sex—must exist. (I’ll address how the ambiguous definitions of sex and virginity exclude the queer and trans communities another time, because that’s another issue entirely.) But as a social concept, virginity had to be created.
The concept of virginity was constructed to serve the institution of marriage. According to the rules of this institution, the only women fit to be married were virgins. Pure. Untouched. Any unmarried woman who was not a virgin was tainted, making her a worthless possession.
Thousands and even hundreds of years ago, the purpose of marriage was primarily social, another way for men to raise their status by acquiring a new asset—a virginal wife. Because a man’s virginity was socially meaningless, he was free to engage in whatever sexual pursuits he might desire, regardless of his marital status. This solidified a crucial distinction—sex as masculine, virginity as feminine.
Fast forward to today. Virginity is no longer a necessity. There are, for most people, no institutional consequences to having sex or to not having it. It shouldn’t matter. But it does, for two main reasons.
The first is more obvious: we’re obsessed with sex. Of course, not all of us actually experience sexual desire. But because most do, it’s hard to evade its consideration. To some degree, this is in our nature. Whether or not we consciously want to have kids, now or ever, our bodies and our minds are evolutionarily primed to desire sex. As college kids, we know this all too well. Our hormones are running on high, and we’re finally allowed to act on them.
The fact that sex is a taboo topic makes its discussion even more enticing. Regardless of whether you’re doing it, you want to know who is, and with whom, and all the juicy details in between. You want those details both because their private nature makes them even more compelling, and because your neurons start firing at any mention of the one action completely integral to humanity’s survival.
But there’s another reason we still exploit the concept of virginity. It no longer serves the institution of marriage, but it does serve another social system: sexism.
Even though it’s often impractical, virginity remains the ideal for women because it is deeply ingrained as a feminine trait. Of course, this makes no sense—how do men expect to have heterosexual sex (the only “manly” form of sex) if women are expected not to have it?
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Luckily for men, women are finally beginning to fulfill their desires, but at a cost: the creation of a double standard. Women are both expected to have sex and not to have it. Female virgins are simultaneously pure and prudish, while female non-virgins are both sexy and slutty.
There is no winning, and that’s the point. At every turn, the social ideals of sex and virginity are designed to degrade women while supporting men. That dynamic is intentional.
But men aren’t immune entirely from the consequences of this sexism. Because virgins are presumed female, male virgins are shamed. Not merely because having sex would make them explicitly more masculine. But because their lack of sexual experience makes them explicitly more feminine. And to be feminine—rather, to be a woman—is shameful.
The core of virgin-shaming jokes isn’t sex at all: it’s sexism. We justify these quips by assuming that sex jokes, in general, are funny. But in reality, we’re ridiculing what we see as an inferior trait—femininity.
Virgin-shaming is trite. Colton’s virginity is irrelevant. But to address these problems, we can’t merely say that “being a virgin doesn’t make you any less of a man.” We must seek to remove the concept of virginity from gender entirely. Otherwise, it is only when women are not seen as weak that virginity will not be seen as weakness.
Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.