As I’ve been watching Glee and devouring Greek for reasons which still remain obscure to me, I’ve been struck by the characterization in both shows of people who choose abstinence and belong to organizations which promote abstinence. I can’t help but note that, in the world of television, being abstinent is viewed as laughable and pathetic, and if you’re a virgin, it’s something to be ashamed of.
It’s kind of interesting. We live in a hypersexualized, but also deeply conflicted, culture. Boys and men are supposed to be very sexual, while girls and women are supposed to be “pure” and are penalized for their sexuality. We are constantly being bombarded with sexualized imagery, much of which is also contradictory; the female body as property on the one hand, the prizing of female purity on the other. The highly sexual man being viewed as a figure of respect and awe, the sexual older woman as a pathetic and tragic figure.
Abstinence-only education is heavily pushed in this country, and that’s something I am opposed to. But abstinence itself is not something I’m opposed to. I think it’s a really difficult choice, thanks to the culture we live in, and it’s interesting to see it so heavily promoted by the “family values” types while it’s considered a figure of mockery and fun in pop culture. I can’t think of a single example of a “cool” abstinent character, let alone a virgin, on television.
Abstinence organizations are mocked, as they are in Glee, with suggestions that they aren’t really about abstinence and shared religious beliefs at all. It’s all about the teasing, not about the pleasing, as we are informed in “Showmance,” and the implication is that people in such clubs are really using their bodies, and denial of such, as weapons. Indeed, the implication even seems to be that the consequence of the teasing may be rape, which they deserve, for not providing the pleasing.
Virginity is viewed as a tragic problem which must be rectified as soon as possible. In fact, entire films have revolved around a plot of taking someone’s virginity. American Pie and The 40 Year Old Virgin come to mind, but there are many others. All of which seem to involve a nerdy character who isn’t conventionally attractive (because nerds aren’t attractive and ugly people never get laid), and this character is sometimes quasi-forced into losing his virginity (oddly enough, none of these stories seem to center around a female character on a quest for her first sexual experience).
What’s so funny about abstinence and virginity? I went to high school with a few people who were committed to saving themselves for marriage, and I respected that, even if it wasn’t a choice I was interested in. They certainly avoided a lot of the heart ache and generalized hormonal challenges of high school, although I’m sure they dealt with problems of their own. But I certainly didn’t think of these people as laughable or pathetic, and I wouldn’t have mocked them if they had belonged to abstinence clubs.
I recognize that we live in a society of contradictions, but it’s sometimes really galling to see people being mocked for something which is being pushed as a value. If people choose to be abstinent, with the benefit of all of the facts in hand, that’s a valid choice for them, just like choosing to save yourself for a special person or event, or choosing to take control of your sexuality and to engage in sexual behavior. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with choosing abstinence or preserving virginity, personally, if that’s what someone wants to do. I don’t even see anything particularly funny about it.
And if you choose to associate with people who share your particular goal or interests, to use those people as a support network to help you stay on track, I don’t see anything particularly funny about that, either. A lot of abstinence groups are religious in nature, but they don’t have to be, and even if they are, sharing a mutual religious connection is hardly something to be ashamed of. After all, lots of people like to gather with groups of people who have similar interests. It’s hardly a remarkable thing.
What worries me is not abstinence, but abstinence which is thrust upon people. What worries me is sexual education which isn’t sexual education, but rather a series of lectures about purity and saving yourself which leave people lacking basic knowledge, like information about human anatomy or resources to turn to if you need advice. What worries me is shaming for non-heterosexual sexuality. What worries me is a lack of information about how pregnancy happens and how to avoid it, a dearth of information about how STIs are passed on. All can be passed without having penetrative sex, and graduates of abstinence-only programs are sometimes not aware of this.
What worries me is the use of religion to abuse people, and the heavy and sometimes extreme focus on female purity in particular, paired with shaming of girls who have not chosen abstinence, along with shaming of rape victims who may have very much wanted to remain abstinent. Father-daughter purity balls creep me out. Getting together with some co-religionists over lunch does not. But neither is funny, and it makes me uncomfortable to see abstinent individuals consistently made fun of in popular culture. I think it’s tragic to see the virgin/whore dichotomy being pushed on everyone from high school girls to young women in pop culture like singers and actresses who are simultaneously supposed to appear pure while also being highly sexualized.
The mockery and shaming of virginity is really damaging to people who have chosen abstinence, or who haven’t found the right person yet, or aren’t interested in sex, or value their virginity for personal or religious reasons. The 40 Year Old Virgin features a character whom we are supposed to view as pathetic, because he’s still a virgin, and how does that make actual 40 year old virgins feel? Or 30 year old virgins? Or 20 year old virgins? On the one hand, these people are told that sexuality is shameful, especially for women, and on the other, they are informed that their rejection or lack of sexuality is laughable.
I think it’s been pretty clearly shown that shaming people for sexual behaviour or lack thereof has very real consequences. Yet, we persist in doing it as a society. Evidently we value amusement over the real world consequences of our actions; consequences like rape, violence to women, and murder perpetrated by people who have found the shame unendurable.
Why is it that mainstream television and films can’t portray the decision to choose abstinence or to retain one’s virginity without making it into a big joke? Would it really be so terrible to see am abstinent fictional character in mainstream popular culture as a serious person? We could see a person struggling with the choice without making fun of them. We could see a person reaching out for help without it being pathetic. We could see a person making an informed choice and respect that.