What’s So Funny About Abstinence and Virginity?

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.

19 Replies to “What’s So Funny About Abstinence and Virginity?”

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I am a virgin in my 30s (technically still a virgin) and I have made this choice first because my religious beliefs indicated that I should and secondly because I have found that when I am too physically intimate with someone and the relationship is not lasting, it makes my heartbreak SO MUCH worse. For me, I think that waiting until I get married to have sex makes sense. This does not mean for everyone, and I would never put that value on everyone. So why do I have to watch people being ridiculed for it? Why should ANYONE be ridiculed for a choice they think is good for them?

  2. If they’re wrong? Not the virginity issue; I’m with you on that — it is possible to think that, say, eating Vaseline every day will prolong your life. (The inventor of Vaseline really did think that, and acted on it.) Ridicule is probably not the most useful reaction even then, though.

  3. Well, to be fair, the inventor of Vaseline did live to 101, so he may have been on to something.

    And I am hesitant to promote correcting people about their personal life choices when I think that their choices may be “wrong.” Right and wrong are not static things, and they may shift depending on personal values and available information. Many people who are smug in their confidence that they are “right” turn out to be disproved later, after all. This aside, as long as someone’s choices do not impact my life, they aren’t my business. Someone who wants to eat Vaseline for breakfast or pursue professional hula hooping or go swimming in Arctic waters isn’t impinging upon my existence, so what they do is not my dog, and it’s not my place to correct it.

  4. Oh aye, things are disprovable, to the point where nothing is certain but for a rudimentary sort of existence, a la Descarte (ahaha). But if someone (unknowingly) bases their life on something that is obviously untrue as far as day-to-day, let’s-assume-the-world-exists provability goes… then isn’t it rather cruel not to at least tell them that they’re barking up the wrong tree and why?

  5. The John Larroquette Show has a character, played by Chi McBride, apparently, link, who, the day of his wedding confided to John’s character that he had never had sex before. It was apparently season 2, episode 22 (from my research).

    It’s been a very long time since I watched it, so I might not be recalling entirely correctly, but it didn’t seem to treat Chi McBride’s character as the butt of any jokes. The bride was not a virgin, there was no apparent element of slut shaming for that to my memory, just the insinuation that the groom was better off for that because she’d be able to teach him.

    It hadn’t come up before that episode, and it didn’t seem out of place that it hadn’t. After all, how regularly do people talk about whether or not they’ve had sex? I mean, I haven’t had sex. Not for lack of wanting, if I met someone I could trust and felt passionately about again, I’d be excited to try it. I look forward to it, to that level of intimacy. If it’s anywhere as fun as making out, I’ll enjoy it a lot. But none of my friends ask me “so, have you had sex yet?” and I certainly don’t want to bring it up. It isn’t something they need to know. Yes, when I met someone else that I’d like to have sex with, I’ll have to broach the subject with her, but that’s it.

    A well written television show with an abstinent character, there really shouldn’t be any way to know that the character is abstinent until it’s a plot point.

  6. But, Aoede, has it occurred to you that people have probably already told that person? I view this in the same sense as people who constantly feel the need to tell fat people that they’re fat. If, as in your hypothesized situation, a particular fat person really doesn’t realize that ou is fat, plenty of other people are informing ou on a regular basis that ou is fat. Therefore, I don’t really need to add to the chorus.

    And what about people with mental illness or people who are neuroatypical? Who am I to tell them what’s true or not? Maybe in their truth things really are the way they think they are. The compulsion, the need to tell other people that they are wrong, well: someone else said this better than I can. If someone’s truth or someone’s choices do not impact my quality of life, why do I need to make them my business?

    As for Ben, who actually commented on the subject at hand, interesting point; I wonder if there are any abstinent characters on television shows right now that we don’t know about. Something tells me no, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

  7. So if other people have already told them, then presumably they would have already realized it or formulated a way to deny it. One of my fandom friends, who is an excellent writer, put up a fic recently with a blatant spelling error in the title. Literally thirty comments later, nobody had mentioned it, probably because everyone assumed it was intentional. I brought it up as a question, since I wasn’t sure either, and found out that yeah, it was an honest midnight typo.

    The world is full of more clear ignorances than any people can ever remedy, myself a generous owner of more than I know, but where it hasn’t hardened to defensiveness I think it’s kind to inform.

    [Not really related to the core of the matter: I don’t find it very likely that (especially here and now) someone would be unaware of being “fat”…? It’s such a physical thing, all societal issues aside.]

  8. Ok, so there is a big difference between “hey, I think you spelled something wrong” and “what you are doing with your life is wrong because I think so/science seems to say so.” Furthermore, I would argue that a spelling error does intrude upon your quality of life, because it obscures your comprehension and enjoyment of the piece. Additionally, making a spelling error is not usually a choice. It is perhaps ignorance, perhaps a mistake, and correcting a spelling error hardly suggests that someone’s entire way of life and belief system is wrong. (And in the process, one may learn that an archaic or deliberately weird spelling has been used on purpose, but that’s another story altogether.)

    But I am very wary of arguments which suggest that we should correct people “for their own good” because we believe that they are wrong. Or even because a large part of society thinks that they are wrong. Or even because we think that they are ignorant. Not least because, surprisingly often, the people doing the correcting are actually the ones who are ignorant. Fat people are told all the time that they are fat (as though they didn’t know, which, yes, a lot of people seem to believe), that they are disgusting, that they are unhealthy, etc, as though shaming them will suddenly cause them to lose weight. This despite the fact that the people doing the shaming obviously haven’t read a lot of the scientific data on fat. Oh, they can muster up outdated studies linking obesity with a laundry list of diseases, but they, themselves, are unaware (deliberately or otherwise) of more recent scientific work arguing pretty much the exact opposite.

    Thus, I stick to my original assertion, which is that if the choices someone makes or the beliefs that someone has do not impede on my quality of life, it is not appropriate for me to correct them. If I sense that something is the result of ignorance/an honest mistake (a misspelling, citing the date of a historical event incorrectly, etc) I can ask for clarification, but, as I say, there’s a substantial difference between saying “uhm, I don’t think World War Two ended in 1967” and “I think it’s completely gross and disgusting that you choose to…”

    For example, I don’t think that herbal medicine will cure cancer. Or that tinfoil hats protect you from radio waves. Or that the moon is made of green cheese. But, you know, if someone really wants to believe that, I don’t really think it’s my place to try and correct that person. Those people already endure shaming and mockery on a daily basis from people “correcting” them and, yes, that only reinforces their beliefs. As long as someone doesn’t try to give me herbal medicine to cure my cancer, to shove a tinfoil hat on my head, to decide the NASA budget, their beliefs do not affect me, and therefore, again, are not my business.

    Americans in particular have a mania with “correcting” people and what sometimes feels like a desperate desire to be right all the time. I don’t really engage with that because it doesn’t make any sense to me. I will be the first one to stand up when someone’s beliefs and choices are harmful and do have an impact on my life or the lives of others.

    Put it this way: you identify as a Christian (I think?). I identify as an atheist with some agnostic tendencies. I don’t believe in God. You (presumably) do. Does this mean that I should correct you? Does this mean that you should correct me? I think we both know the answer to these questions.

  9. I believe that if someone takes action based in a false premise, and is unaware of the fact that it is a false premise, then I ought to tell them regardless of whether it harms myself personally — and especially if it might harm them. There sometimes is and sometimes isn’t a way to tell, right off the bat, whether it’s an informed decision (a “nevertheless” choice, as I think of it) or if it’s just out of ignorance (as with spelling errors).

    Think of it in terms of literature. If a grammatical rule or stylistic convention has been broken, there are at two broad possibilities: that it was a “typo” kind of one-off, unknowing mistake; or that the author deliberately broke the rule/convention in order to create an effect. The second possibility can be further subdivided by general effectiveness. It is effective if many people, upon reading the piece, react to the difference in an intended or desirable manner (e.g., at the beginning of “Flowers for Algernon”, the spelling and sentence structure cause the reader to infer that the narrator is not well-lettered, right from the very start). But it is ineffective if most people react in a way that the author did not intend (e.g., boredom where the author wanted intrigue because the author was under the impression that loading up on adjectives will make it more intriguing). It’s this latter situation that I’m talking about, where the expected result (intrigue) did not or will not materialize because the underlying assumption (more adjectives–>intrigue) is incorrect.

    …that was really long.

    Yes, I identify as Christian. And I accept your nonbelief in God. As a rule, I don’t try to convert atheists or challenge their atheism if their atheism is a product of thought. But that’s because I recognize that God’s existence (and the validity of Christianity) are not provable or disprovable by science or logic. But if I meet — in a situation that allows for such discourse — a Christian or atheist who strongly identifies as such simply because their family does, without ever having thought it over, then I feel that it’s very important for me to at least give them some thought-provoking questions.

    Most of the time, I haven’t dared, being rather a coward socially. But on some occasions, others have brought up the topic, in which case I do indeed dare — I will correct false assumptions: “atheism is a philosophy of despair”, for example, or “Christians all hate science”. One of these directly impacts me and one does not, but neither of them is true, and therefore neither of them is a good basis for a worldview.

    So.

    Why? I think everything affects me, maybe. Or maybe I’m just a no-good meddler. In any case: while I don’t think values — the fundamental principle of worth on which one’s entire moral system is eventually based — can be “corrected” in any sense, I do think that since the specific application of a value system involves the integration of principle and reality, then it’s good to correct errors on the “reality” side.

    I think your values on this issue and mine diverge. Feel free to continue correcting me on any errors of fact, however!

  10. This is a complex issue and there are a lot of fine lines. I think that we are actually probably more in agreement than we realize.

    You make a strong (and valid) point when you discuss informed choices and beliefs. I clearly did not articulate myself well, because I will challenge a personal choice/belief if I believe that someone is not making an informed choice. If someone hasn’t thought about an issue, they aren’t making an informed choice. (For example, if an entire family buys Volkswagons because “we’ve always bought Volkswagons,” I might challenge someone in that family with ou purchases a Jetta.) But if a choice is informed, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to challenge it (“Well, yes, the family has always bought Volkswagons, but I researched and drove a number of different cars and I really do think that the Jetta is the best choice for me”).

    I even made this distinction in this post when I talked about abstinence which is forced on people; if someone is abstinent because they have been told it’s unacceptable not to be, or because they have not been provided with information about sexual health, or because they have not thought about the issue, they are not making an informed choice, and I think that’s terrible. I think it’s doubly terrible when shaming is used to force people into false choices (“Good Christian women remain virgins until marriage!” “If you have sex, you’re a whore!” etc).

    I just think it’s important to recognize that “reality” differs for some people. And, you know, I know some people with beliefs that I think are totally not grounded in reality (like that the 11 September attacks were a government conspiracy), but they have done their due diligence and research and they genuinely believe their conclusions. Indeed, I would say that their conclusions are informed, because they have considered all sides of the argument. I don’t agree with them, but, you know, I can’t say that they haven’t thought about their conclusions. Two people can look at the same evidence and interpret it wildly differently; does that necessarily mean that one is right or wrong? Or does it suggest that there may be elements of truth on both sides? Especially when some evidence on both sides is fabricated and manipulated?

    You also raise an interesting point when you bring up situations in which blatantly erroneous statements to support a belief are made, in which I do think it’s appropriate to issue a correction. “Abortion prevents you from getting pregnant again,” for example, is straight up wrong and this can be clearly demonstrated. I want to make it clear that I have no problems with correcting factual errors, especially if those factual errors are supporting a belief which is obviously not well informed. My difficulty lies in correcting beliefs which I disagree with because I think they are “wrong.” “Abortion is harmful to women,” for example, is a complicated statement and there’s a lot of evidence on either side of that statement which would make me hesitant to correct someone who said it, although I might engage with them and ask why they believed that to learn more about their position. In part to see if the belief is informed, and to see which facts are being used to support it.

    Unless I am being specifically asked for my opinion and insight, I am not in the habit of correcting other people’s beliefs if their beliefs do not harm me or others. If I was asked, for example, by a Christian to discuss why I don’t believe in God and to provide evidence to support my argument, I would do so, although I would not do so in a corrective way. Just as you will provide insight about Christian topics when you are asked to do so. Neither situation is rank proselytization, because you are specifically being asked to weigh in on an issue. If someone asks me to advance a persuasive argument to support a belief or position with the specific goal of correcting them or changing their mind, I’ll do that too. (“You should be a feminist because…”)

    There’s a very important distinction between engaging: “ah, your belief is contrary to mine, why do you feel that way, can you tell me more” and correcting: “ah, your belief is contrary to mine, and therefore wrong.”

  11. I think you’re right wrt personal choice; I also though think that primarily the show is targeting the obnoxious Christian Right campaign to enforce “abstinence only” sex ed in schools, for instance; and the rest of the culture (the “Father-daughter balls,” which do happen, are alluded to, for instance). I mean, yeah, it’s broad with the “teasing/not pleasing,” but the show is pretty broad satire overall.

    Also, given how gay the show is, I’m not surprised the Christian Anti-Sex league comes in for extra lampooning, seeing as how it tends to be the same people who’re the most virulently homophobic policy-wise.

  12. That, and it -is- true that the rates of pregnancy where abstinence only is taught (as opposed to a fully informed personal choice-remember the “Don’t mention the (contraceptives) C-word!” business) really are demonstrably higher.

  13. I think that most shows/films which satirize abstinence are indeed taking a dig at the abstinence only movement, not really trying to belittle abstinence, but I wish it could be a little more nuanced. Like, in Glee, we had a character thinking that he could get his girlfriend pregnant by ejaculating in a hot tub due to bad information/implied abstinence-only education. That was a great way to satirize the movement without making fun of people who choose (as in making an informed choice) abstinence. Whereas in Greek, we have a Christian abstinence group being a figure of fun, as in “who would be so pathetic as to do this,” and that made me uncomfortable.

  14. Also, when you’re noting (correctly) our deeply contradictory messages about sex and virginity, you have to take things like age, gender and orientation into account. I mean, I don’t think “Glee” is targeting virginity or abstinence per se as funny, as I’ve said. I also think that the idea of a high school age girl not having sex generally isn’t seen as -funny-, in itself; yes, there’s peer pressure; yes, there’s the idea that you’re a “loser” if you don’t, but it wouldn’t be a comedy in the same way that “40 year old [male] virgin” was. For that matter, “the 40 year old [female] virgin” just wouldn’t have been the same movie: the double standard is still in effect.

    And then, going back to “Glee,” consider the flip side: involuntary abstinence based on what’s considered desirable and who’s available. The femmey gay boy says he’s never kissed anyone, and presumably neither has the (fat, WoC, generally un-Barbie/cheerleader looking) girl who has a crush on him; this isn’t all that uncommon. The “desexing” of people who don’t fit the cultural standards of beauty is a subject I haven’t seen tackled much on TV. Also the fact that, y’know, gay folks go through puberty/adolescence with all its attendant desires like anyone else, but because of cultural homophobia, particularly in a suburban high school, it’s a lot likelier that you’re going to end up “delaying” your sexual coming of age by default. Less so these days (god, I wish there’d been a show like this when I was in high school…) but, still in effect, I expect.

  15. It’s true that when virginity/abstinence are lampooned, it’s done in the context of white, conventionally attractive people, because viewers assume that those kinds of people have sex/are viewable as sex objects. Quinn, as a cheerleader, is the kind of character we would expect to see sexualized, while Mercedes, as a fat Black character, is assumed to be sexless. Just as Kurt is; I hear people praising the show for having an out gay character, and I say I’m holding out on praise until I see whether or not he is also allowed to be sexual.

    I also agree that Glee isn’t trying to make fun of abstinence/virginity, it’s very clearly making fun of abstinence-only education and evangelical Christian culture (to some extent, although I have noted that the Christianity is more implied than overt for the most part). However, I think there’s a clear trend in film/television in which being a virgin or choosing abstinence is viewed as peculiar, funny, or ludicrous, and that’s pretty undeniable, and it troubles me. Not because I necessarily think that people should all be choosing abstinence/virginity, but for people who do choose it (in an informed way and not by default because they can’t be sexual), it is a valid choice, and I see nothing particularly ludicrous in that.

    Glee has, I think, done a reasonably good job of mocking bad education, as opposed to abstinence itself, but that’s pretty rare. Even rarer would be a show in which we see characters who are abstinent-not-by-choice struggling with that.

  16. ” I hear people praising the show for having an out gay character, and I say I’m holding out on praise until I see whether or not he is also allowed to be sexual.”

    Agreed.

    I was kind of encouraged by the whole, he hasn’t kissed anyone, “but I want to.”

    Also hoping all the other ensemble members get a sexuality too. Mercedes, Tina and Artie especially.

  17. Yes! I love that he hasn’t kissed anyone yet, because it overthrows that whole “well, how do you know you’re gay if you haven’t had any same sex sexual encounters yet” line of thinking.

    If Artie is given a sexuality, I will be extremely impressed. Sexuality for people with disabilities is pretty much the final frontier in television world.

  18. Yes, I was thinking the same thing. They could start by fleshing out his character a bit more, so far he’s mostly been a symbol/punchline, which I don’t love. I’m expecting they will do (ep 4 of 22 this season, and i saw he has a Thematic Solo somewhere in the pre-released tunes out there), but yeah, teh sex. Well, they included (very crudely) mocked fellatio in the “Push It” number, I guess…

    the latter, the Push It number, btw, being one of the places where the show strained credulity for me: I was like: sweetie. Sex, maybe, but Salt-N-Pepa aren’t any more hip than disco these days…and it was a bit naff. But what the hell, we’re not exactly going for naturalism, here…

    I would’ve liked to see Artie’s audition. And I do hold out some hope that Tina’s rendition of “I Kissed a Girl” might pay off in plot somewhere down the line…and that the message isn’t the same as the song’s…

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