The War Against Abstinence: Blockers, American Pie, and the Last Great Sexual Taboo

There may be no greater social shame today than the humiliation young adults feel when they are discovered to be virgins.

The last great sexual sin of our time is not related to any specific sex act or forbidden partner. The greatest sexual sin of our time is not a sin of commission but of omission: the sin of not doing it at all. The last great sexual taboo is the taboo of virginity.

 

With a growing number of high schools and colleges offering courses in “porn literacy” and influential thinkers like Alain de Botton arguing that instead of getting rid of porn we should instead be making “better porn,” the cultural taboo against consumption of pornography is crumbling before our eyes. What sexual sins are left?

Adultery has not been taboo since the days before Lady Chatterley’s Lover,homosexuality since the days before Ulysses, and masturbation since the days before Portnoy’s Complaint. TV shows and movies from Star Trek to The Shape of Water have made the prospect of interspecies sex seem innocuous, if not downright wholesome. Stories of swingers, couple-swapping, and multiple partners hardly make us so much as blink any more. And, thanks to Game of Thrones, even incest has become prettified.

The last great sexual sin of our time is not related to any specific sex act or forbidden partner. The greatest sexual sin of our time is not a sin of commission but of omission: the sin of not doing it at all. The last great sexual taboo is the taboo of virginity.

The Shame of Virginity

There is a very good reason why movies like American Pie and the recently released Blockers, both of which center on a group of teenagers trying to lose their virginity by the time they graduate from high school, keep getting made. There may be no greater social shame today than the humiliation young adults feel when they are discovered to be virgins.

There is a kind of stigma attached to never having had sex by the age of eighteen—or twenty-one, twenty-five, or whatever the prevailing standard happens to be. It rivals the stigmas that used to be attached to lepers, bastards, and heretics. A person who is still a virgin by the age of thirty is thought of as some sort of sexual pariah, cast out of concupiscent company because of his or her repellent looks, repulsive manners, substandard salary, or other unmentionable defect. A person who is still a virgin by the age of forty is thought of as so pathetically laughable—or laughably pathetic—as to deserve to be the subject of a Judd Apatow movie.

The social mores of our post-sexual-revolution society easily lead non-participants in the rebellion to feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with them. “If there is so much sex out there and so many people having it so frequently,” virgins tend to ask themselves, “then why I am not having any?” Remaining a virgin past a certain age can be experienced as a confirmation of one’s worst suspicions about oneself: that one is unloved because one is unlovable, unkissed because one is unkissable, untouched because undeserving of affection. A young adult virgin can come to view him- or herself as irremediably repugnant; one who reaches middle adulthood without having engaged in one of the most elemental human activities can come to feel as if he or she has failed to become fully human.

Christianity, Chastity, and Sexual Freedom

All of this would come as a considerable shock to almost any pre-twentieth-century citizen of the West, for whom chastity was regarded as a cardinal virtue and fornication a cardinal sin. In the pre-First World War West—in a society whose predominant religion, Christianity, linked virginity to sainthood—it is not surprising that some of society’s greatest political and literary saints, from Queen Elizabeth I to Henry James, were also lifelong virgins. When Christianity still colored the general culture, those who abstained—even if they were doing so not out of choice but because of continual rejection—were able to feel spiritually and socially superior to those who succumbed. In the Christian world of the pre-war West, to be a virgin was not to be a subhuman social outcast; it was to be on the same plane as the mother of God.

Read More