Respecting virginity in a hypersexualized culture

TV shows like Jane the Virgin have been fueling a new spectator sport in our culture in recent years: ‘virgin shaming.’ We spoke to several women about their personal experiences and how they stayed strong to their beliefs in a culture that consistently encourages weakness.

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Sex is a normal part of the human experience, and it can be beautiful and transformative. For many women, sex is most meaningful and enjoyable when shared as an act of love—even if that requires waiting years for love to come. They uphold it as a sacrifice of the body for the good of the heart and mind. They have faith that the right person is waiting for them, too. For those who choose to wait until marriage, the decision is one rooted in faith (often religious but not always) and the knowledge that there are psychological and relationship-oriented benefits to holding off. Unfortunately, this deeply personal choice is one that critics often consider their business.

The era of virgin shaming

Just watch the television show Jane the Virgin and it becomes instantly obvious that popular culture does not respect a woman’s promise to herself. While this satirical romantic comedy-drama telenovela is highly entertaining, its premise could only exist in a culture that does not respect waiting. Fans and reviewers alike cheered on the protagonist in Season One and collectively sighed in frustration when Jane held steadfast to her promise. After her wedding in Season Two, a tragedy prevented her from consummating her marriage. Now there’s speculation that Jane will have sex in Season Three, which will premiere on The CW on October 17. While that’s not too shocking now that the character is married, the hubbub over this (fictional) intimate matter has been huge.

We often hear of the crass and cruel term “slut shaming,” but virgin shaming exists, too. It may not be as discussed because the idea of waiting past college age and for marriage has waned in popularity. As mentioned in this Atlantic article, the average American is 17 when they have sex for the first time; of Americans aged 20 to 24, 12.3 of females and 14.3 percent of males are virgins. This makes virgins in the 21-plus category a rare find. While that rarity doesn’t mean virgins should be shamed, it does explain why older virgins are misunderstood, criticized, and sometimes even ostracized.

Lauren, 32, of Indiana was already married the first time she experienced virgin shaming.

“When I got my first job and got out of my small bubble and into the real world, people were shocked at the decisions I’d made,” she says. “When I told people I had waited until marriage, they thought I was crazy. I remember several coworkers—including my manager—tell me, ‘You’re going to regret it. You’re way too young to be married. You should have just had sex.’”

No one should ever make you feel bad for making a choice that is deeply personal and only your business.

Lauren did not appreciate the criticism or lack of support, but reminded herself that her choices were her own. She believes other women facing virgin shaming should find the strength and confidence to do the same.

“No one should ever make you feel bad for making a choice that is deeply personal and only your business,” she says. “We shouldn’t let people have power to pressure us either way—virgin or not. It doesn’t mean you’re broken or weird. It would be worse to live your life according to what other people think than live your life the way you want to live it.”

Yet critics push the ideas of a virgin’s “weirdness” because they can. Jasmine*, 30, of Kansas is still waiting to have sex and says that she routinely deals with virgin shaming as a so-called weirdo.

“I often get criticism from non-religious friends for waiting for marriage to have sex, especially when I’ve made it clear that if I never get married then I just won’t ever have sex,” she says. “The criticism is anywhere from mild to downright hateful. So I get a range of responses of ‘Oh, you’re crazy, haha’ to ‘It’s so stupid for doing this.’ I think it’s frustrating especially because I don’t criticize their choice not to wait and I’ve always been clear that I understand my choices are not for everyone.”

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But Jasmine holds strong by focusing within and reminding herself of her faith and the reasons why she’s waiting. She resorts to a whole arsenal of techniques, yet falls back on two time and time again: teasing friends back when they are being playfully mean but not truly malicious, or firmly telling sterner, less compassionate critics that she disagrees with their opinions and then swiftly moving on from the conversation.

“I don’t usually respond to people that are being trolls,” says Jasmine. “At the end of the day, my relationship with God is more important to me than the opinions of others.”

The benefits of waiting

Dr. Greg Bottaro, psychologist at the Catholic Psych Institute in Greenwich, Connecticut, says that science—not just religion—agrees that there are benefits to delaying sex.” There’s a chemical hormone, oxytocin, that is released during intercourse,” he says. “It interacts with certain parts of the brain responsible for memory. There’s a sense of closeness and bonding that develops in a person’s brain as a result of having intercourse with somebody. As that process occurs with multiple partners, it loses its effect.”

That’s why, from a neurophysiological perspective, delaying sex works and helps prepare for lasting intimacy in marriage.

“Waiting until marriage allows you to have that experience with someone you’re going to spend the rest of your life with,” he says. “It really lets you develop a sense of bonding, closeness, and intimacy.”

He explains that intercourse outside of marriage can be problematic from a psychological perspective before young people often experience “confusion about one’s sexuality and identity.” As they sleep with more partners, they develop “defense mechanisms to lessen the effect of loss and pain from not being with the person they want to be with.”

“A lot of heartbreak and horrible feelings kick in,” he says. “The devaluing of sexuality, cynicism toward relationships, obsessing over people—it’s really unhealthy.”

For women experiencing virgin shaming, Dr. Bottaro says to make friends who are “supportive” and strengthen their faith in life in order to remind themselves of the real reasons they are waiting.

“It’s about nurturing those areas where she gets that support,” he says.

One faithful woman’s story

Mary, who is originally from the Midwest and has lived in New York City for the past 15 years, says that her Catholic faith influenced her decision to wait until she was married. The mother of four says that the psychological and relationship-oriented reasons to wait greatly benefited her personally and her marriage.

“I believe that waiting until I was 23 freed me up in a lot of ways,” says Mary. “I was a full fledged adult when I decided to have sex.”

Mary believes that waiting allowed her to concentrate on her studies and develope her self-esteem.

“I think waiting to have sex gave me more confidence in myself and more faith in my relationships,” she says. “The good guys, without exception, stuck around and wanted to wait for me to be ready. That’s not to say that a number of them didn’t pressure me. But my unwillingness to have sex didn’t make them stop asking me out.”

I knew there were plenty of ways to get to know each other that did not involve sex.

The fact that Mary’s boyfriends respected her decision confirmed, in her mind, her self-worth.

“I came to realize that I could draw a line in the sand, stand up for what I believed in, and still have a boyfriend. I could retain a sense of self and still have a boyfriend,” she says. “That was pretty important.”

Mary thinks that this reaffirmed her sense of agency, which has positively affected her marriage, as well.

“Just as a man should have a say in the relationship, so should I,” she says. “And that’s carried over into marriage. I wound up marrying a partner—an equal. I’m not afraid to express my opinion. And I think all of that goes back to my decision to wait.”

Mary trusts that delaying sex with her now-husband strengthened their bond, and that she is happy she waited for him.

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“I knew there were plenty of ways to get to know each other that did not involve sex,” she says. “Because I knew there were guys out there willing to wait, who wanted to know my mind just as much, if not more, than my body, it bolstered my confidence and sense of self. And that heightened confidence, in turn, helped attract some really great guys. When I eventually met my husband, everything was perfect.”

Of course, virgin shaming was also part of Mary’s experience before she married her husband.

“People just couldn’t believe I hadn’t gone all the way,” she says. “Some called me a tease. In fact, a lot called me a tease. Men and women. They didn’t understand that I could flirt and go to dinner—and let my date buy me dinner—and not ‘give’ him something in return.”

Mary knows that today she would respond very differently to her shamers.

“Looking back, that whole argument from the teasers and the critics was so crazy—that I owed a man my body because he had bought me one (or more) dinners,” she says. “Now I would know precisely what I would say to such a thing, but at the time, I was unprepared and didn’t know how to explain that I had a right to ‘save’ myself and my body for the right man and the right time, regardless of how many dinners anyone had bought me.”

“I’m really glad that I waited as long as I did,” she says. “Waiting led me down a path that enabled me to get great grades which led to a great scholarship and a wonderful career. Waiting enabled me to meet guys who loved me for my mind and spirit—not just my body and what I did with their bodies. Waiting enabled me to finish growing up inside and out before I took the big leap.”

The non-religious women who wait

Religious beliefs are not the only reason someone may wait until they’re older to have sex for the first time. For other women, the right person simply has not come along. Pure, romantic love and a desire to better understand themselves is what motivates them to wait.

Nikki*, 26, of Illinois said she waited to have sex because she wasn’t interested in dating anyone she knew in high school and wanted to focus on better understanding who she was before she became intimate with anyone.

“Remaining a virgin wasn’t a ‘moral’ or religious choice for me,” says Nikki. “I also started reading feminist literature around 14, so I was confident in my decision to be myself and not to date or seek out relationships. I was lucky to be armed with that knowledge at such a young age.”

There were plenty of times I’d look around at everyone in the room and think to myself, ‘I’m the only person here who has never had sex.’

Nikki explains that while nobody ever shamed her for her choice, she dealt with a lot of personal conflict.

“I think I shamed myself. Not for being a virgin necessarily but for not having any interest in dating,” she says, adding that she was curious about her peers’ seeming obsession with sex, but she stuck to the promise she made to herself. “Honestly, I was probably more interested in sex than dating but that’s only because of the sex-positive literature I read and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I’ve been fascinated by sex and human sexuality since I was really young.”

Nikki adds, “There were plenty of times I’d look around at everyone in the room and think to myself, ‘I’m the only person here who has never had sex.’ And I was bothered by that. So even though I knew, rationally, that being a virgin was no big deal, I couldn’t completely get away from the mixed messages of society telling me that if I wasn’t interested in sex or dating that something was wrong with me.”

Nikki overcame any negative feelings she had about waiting by finding like-minded friends and relying on self-care. “Knowing that there were other people who were virgins as long as I was or even longer helped,” she says.

Mary*, 29, of Washington, waited because she wanted to have sex with someone she trusted, but until that happened, she said virgin shaming came from the men she dated.

“I was shamed by guys I made out with. We would be kissing and they’d want to have sex and I would say no and then qualify that with the reason being that I was a virgin,” she says. “They would say they didn’t believe me. Clearly if I was going to be making out with them, then I couldn’t possibly be a virgin.”

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Mary says she never used her virgin status as an excuse to “get out of having sex,” as some men accused her of doing. She legitimately had no interest in taking their physical encounter beyond kissing.

“Sex should always be a choice,” says Mary, adding that she was shocked by how multiple men tried to pressure her into having sex when she was content with just making out. She states that women should never settle for a man who doesn’t meet their standards, even or especially if he is being tactless, mean, or forceful.

“I regret making out with a lot of guys, but I am sure relieved I did not give up what I held sacred just because they tried to manipulate me or make me feel ashamed,” say says.

For women, the double standard of the virgin dynamic can make the choice to have (or not have) sex an agonizing one. But as these women attest, the decision to wait is personal, and is one you should confidently own. Whether you are waiting for God or more worldly reasons, the decision to wait is always your own.

As Gretchen*, 26, of Maryland says, “No one is entitled to information about my sexual history, so why would I share that?”

Fortitude in a hypersexualized culture

Even women who promise themselves they will wait may fall to peer pressure because delaying sex in a hypersexualized culture is a hard promise to keep. But it’s not impossible, either. That’s why the women who uphold their commitment are so strong. They stand up to criticism, as people of faith often have to do in order to uphold their beliefs, and they want to wait because they believe in the value that lies ahead. Waiting until marriage isn’t an arbitrary rule—it’s one with real-life value and implications that strengthen marriages and families. For some women, it is the only possible choice they can imagine themselves making, and they have the fortitude to follow through on their personal promise.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

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