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Recently, two friends of mine opened up to me about their virginity. "Roger," a writer, confessed that at 31 he's still waiting for the perfect girl to give it up to, while Lianne Stokes, a comedian, divulged that she only just popped her cherry at the ripe age of 30. Roger insisted on using a pseudonym, worried about the potential social damage revealing his virginal status might bring. "You'll never be considered normal; it's a label you don't want," he says.
For these "hidden" virgins, who are fearful of being treated like freaks, watching sex from afar can be lonely and alienating. "It can be really hard; it feels like you're the only one," admits Roger. "It's all over TV; characters get made fun of because they haven't had sex for two months." he adds.
I'm certainly not immune from looking at virginity as a flaw; it's like a human daiquiri that's missing an essential ingredient. I struggled to phrase my questions to these pure ones as something other than "Why? Why? Why?" Yet that's ultimately what I wanted to know when I heard their surprising confessions .
Roger's decision to hold on to his virginity dates back to his college days. The casual sex prevalent on his campus wasn't right for him. "I get emotionally attached to people very quickly, so I don't know that I could date a lot of people in succession and be comfortable," he says. Roger assumed he'd meet the right girl at some point, but when she never materialized, his chastity belt remained fastened. He recently started dating a woman he really likes and got up the courage to tell her about his virginity. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that his 24-year-old girl is also a virgin. This was a huge relief for both of them, and Roger is finally ready to go all the way. But she still has doubts. He's fine with waiting, even if they never have sex. "I like her so much as a person that it's OK. We can just spend time together," he explains. "If she weren't a virgin, there'd be a lot of pressure on me to make it happen." While male and female virgins are treated differently, it's clear which sex has the better hand. "Women are still assumed to have valid reasons for holding out," says Roger, "but for a guy my age, it would be seen as a failure."
Virginity has been a hot topic in the news lately: In England, 18-year-old Joe Burns hanged himself because he was still a virgin, while Lori Rose Cannizzaro, from Buffalo, dedicated her virginity to Jesus in a rare Catholic ceremony. Meanwhile, Janemagazine hired 29-year-old Sarah DiMuro to blog (janemag.com/memos/blogs/sarah) her search to find someone to deflower her (and is currently luring readers with "Read Up to See If Sarah's Still a Virgin!"). She's been posting about her dates and letting readers (including her dad) vote on which man she should go out with. Also weighing in on the virginity beat are a wave of social commentators who argue in favor of a more modest, less sex-obsessed lifestyle.
Three major advocates are trying to instill in both religious and secular audiences the need to reassess sexual standards. Dawn Eden warns readers about the dangers of premarital sex, offering lessons she learned through unsatisfying liaisons before converting to Christianity, in her forthcoming memoircall to arms The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. In 2005, Jason Illian (jasonillian.com) went on The Bachelorette to promote his message of purity, urging readers to save sex for marriage, which he elaborates on in Undressed: The Naked Truth About Love, Sex, and Dating. "There's nothing difficult about taking some girl's clothes off," explains Illian. "The hard part is getting into her heart and finding out her goals and dreams and what she wants." The 31-year-old motivational speaker is a virgin by choice, a distinction he feels is important in terms of acceptance from his peers.
A third voice for virginity is Wendy Shalit, whose book A Return to Modestyurged wo-men to form a "cartel of virtue ." Her next book, Girls Gone Mild, explores why women are staying away from the "wild" ethos. Shalit has been busily building an empire at modestyzone.net, where 21 bloggers post about issues such as Janet Jackson's breast, nude art, and moral quandaries over clothing, sexual practices, and values. Shalit's heard from women whose parents have urged them to get sex over with, especially if they're past 18, A female commenter blogging at feministing.com lamented, "During my teenage years, I was constantly made to feel inadequate for not being sexually active."
Shalit claims, "Being hostile to virginity is the ultimate misogyny. It means sneering at the innocence of children, and laughing at women who want sex to mean something more than just a hookup." But men suffer from these negative stereotypes as well. Gender roles are so ingrained that men like Roger don't feel manly if they haven't had sex, whereas women want to fit in but don't feel like a failure as women simply because they're virgins. "We need to get back to a single high standard for women and men," argues Shalit. "Right now we seem to be going for a single low standardlet's all imitate the most adolescent male, and make him our ideal."
For those who don't have a lofty reason for holding on to their virginity, their peers' opinions loom large. Stokes says she never thought about the subject much until her friends made it an issue. "I was always very open about it, but ended up regretting that. They all made fun of me. Half the time I found myself looking at them thinking, 'You're having sex and you're no happier than I am.' " Nobody should be made to feel ashamed of bedroom adventuresor lack of them. Sexual freedom shouldn't come with the price tag of promiscuity, but I also think there's nothing wrong with promiscuity per se. Instead of dic- tating a single standard, we need to embrace each individual's right to make sexual decisions based on his or her own values.
When to lose your virginity, if ever, is a very personal and nuanced decision. We need to respect that some will be ready at 18, some at 28, some even later. Rather than mocking virgins or assuming everyone you know has popped their cherry, realize that your virginal best friend or co-worker may be waiting not just for sex, but acceptance.
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