“Hey dude, I heard you’re going out with [name redacted]! Did she take your meat??”
I was asked this sincere question when I was a sophomore in high school. It wasn’t done quietly, either. We were out in front of the school of 3500 students, and he (obviously) and his friend were standing about seven or eight feet from me with many an ear nearby. I, luckily, was on my way: I managed to mutter something incoherent, and I left.
The culture described in the above situation is one that I have been trained since birth to submit to. This is the straight male sexual culture of “the chase.” This is the male end of the double-standard set by gendered sexual norms, where the female end is slut-shaming. Straight men are conditioned in this sexist culture to be hunters, to be the alpha figure of sexual championship, the ultimate conqueror of the mysterious “vagina.”
I, in the language of this culture, would be considered a “virgin.” In other words, I am, in the eyes of the person who asked me that question and many others like him, a failure. And indeed, I saw myself that way for a long time. I bought into the idea that because I hadn’t had sex, I was somehow socially beneath those who had, that I was being kept out of an exclusive club which was reserved for more attractive people.
To tell you that I feel entirely different now would be a lie. We proudly talk about sex in the open air here at Vassar, though in entirely different contexts and terms than the sexist rhetoric described at the beginning of this article. I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t. Talking about sex, sexual health, and sexual culture in realistic ways is extremely important to a close-knit social environment like ours. Still, for those of us who have yet to partake, it stings a bit when our friends advertise and discuss their sex lives in such overtly casual ways. It stings when CHOICE (which, again, is a vital part of keeping our community healthy) announces their newest selection of condoms for anyone who realistically expects to need one. And it stings pretty much any time in pop-culture/fiction when we try to associate with a character, and we do, until they pass that great milestone of basic human existence, and we are left to be the outcasts of a culture saturated by sexual imagery.
The absolute low point for me happened earlier this year. A friend was going through some serious emotional trouble, and was confiding in a room full of us that they were having a number of different problems (the nature of which are private and entirely not the point). They mentioned off-hand that they had had sex, and immediately my sex-obsessed mind discredited all of the other problems I’d heard. The thought actually crossed my mind: “Well, at least you got to have sex!”
The culture of sexual hierarchy was back. I was attaching value to human life based on sexual experience. I was devaluing my friend’s real problems by competitively placing myself in what I deemed to be a more pathetic place.
I have so much to be thankful for. In the scope of everything that I have going for me, sex should be so unimportant. I don’t need it on a practical level (though I do want to have kids someday, but that’s not what this article is about). But somehow, in the most adult form my mind has ever been in, its primal parts are still horrified by this notion of being a “virgin” in the real world. The post-college world. The world that trapped Steve Carell in a terrible electronics store job where he turned 40 without ever having sex. As graduation looms closer, my rational mind has slowly grown more and more accepting of the idea that I will most likely not have had sex by that time. Still, every time I have that thought, my subconscious inner sixteen-year old says, “BUT IF YOU KEEP PUTTING IT OFF IT’LL NEVER HAPPEN AND YOU’LL HAVE TO GET ALL YOUR CHEST HAIR WAXED OFF JUST LIKE STEVE CARELL.” And I respond to myself by reminding myself that just “trying” won’t magically make it happen, and sixteen-year old me screams in frustration and puts on a Yellowcard record.
This inner dialogue seems to go on in a fairly constant loop of pseudo-anxiety over a simple three-letter word.
So how can I, and anyone else who feels the same way, try to cope with this frustration? A recent article by a fellow straightwhitemale senior at Northwestern tries to answer that question. He makes some good points that I think people like me (anyone not experiencing their first time between the “normal” ages of 16 and 21) should be wary of. Namely that, once we have sex, we “will still be the same old me, warts and all.” At the same time though, he talks about people of our experience as a “secret society,” in a kind of tongue-in-cheek effort to paint virginity in the language of the fraternity system, in what I think amounts to a less-than-effective attempt at social progress.
Using a bit of word-frequency analysis, I think I’ve found that he answered an entirely different question than the one he set out to. The word “virgin”, or some form of it, appears in that article fifteen times. How many times does a form of the word “sex” appear? Six. In an article about sex, the word appears six times. This is indicative, I think, of the nature of how those of us who share this similar experience feel. On one level, it’s about satisfying a sexual desire. But I think it’s safe to say that the real pressure of the concept of virginity is simply to get away from that label.
When I find this pressure creeping up on me, I try to remind myself of where the concept of virginity comes from. The answer is not complicated: virginity is a patriarchal label that was used to oppress women who opted not to be “pure,” to have sex before submitting to the social obligation of marriage. It functions similarly to this day, where more “traditional” parts of American culture still value virginity and premarital “purity” among women while paradoxically stigmatizing the same qualities in men. This is how people like my non-friend from high school are born. No one should want to be like that. People like him and the attitudes they carry are why rape culture exists.
So if I and those like me are to take any lesson from this cathartic ramble, I suppose it would be this: If sex is something that plagues your seemingly permanently teenage inner conscience, do what everyone who has ever sympathized with you has told you. Be patient. Be kind. Enjoy the parts of life that do require clothes. It’ll happen when it happens, and when doesn’t matter to anyone.
And for those of you who are lucky enough to have experienced sex in a healthy way, try to avoid hurting those of us who haven’t.
Note: I am a straight, white, privileged-in-more-ways-than-I-can-count, cisgender male. I recognize that the following article discussed sex from my own perspective, and used heteronormative language.