Not That Innocent

Laura M. Carpenter's landmark study, Virginity Lost, appears at a time when being a virgin, incredibly, might be a marker of coolness.

Pro-abstinence programs like Silver Ring Thing, marketing virginity to teens the way Adidas markets sneakers, are building a critical mass of popularity and appeal. But the salience of virginity has moved beyond the teenage have-you-or-haven't-you gossip mill, becoming a cultural touchstone debated in the halls of Congress and pages of Us Weekly. Can virginity really swing elections, boost Nielsen ratings and be sold for several thousand dollars on eBay? We spoke to Carpenter about the state of the American cherry.

Gwynne Watkins: Let's talk about Britney Spears. Why did we as a culture care if she was a virgin?

Laura M. Carpenter: Partly because she symbolizes our daughters and sisters. But we also want to see hubris come to a bad end. There's been such a love-hate relationship with her. The idea of hypocritical innocence -- that's how she gets interpreted. You don't believe she's really pure at heart because you think it's a marketing ploy, so you want to see her get her comeuppance.

GW: For progressives who are against abstinence-only sex ed, has her downfall been particularly appealing?

LMC: I think for progressives, that's what it's been about. All the people who invested themselves in her, and were like, "We hope she stays this role model [for virgins], otherwise our kids are all going to run out and have sex when they find out that she has." That's if you believe that celebrities have that direct an affect on behavior. I don't think they do.

GW: But you do write that mass media reinforces beliefs that are fostered by friends, family and social groups.

LMC: That's pretty much the finding on a lot of things, drinking and smoking and so forth.

GW: Has television's portrayal of virginity changed in the past twenty years?

LMC: I think so. Like that TV show "Family" that was on in the mid '70s. Kristy McNichol was on it. Lief Garrett played her boyfriend. The characters thought about having sex together, but didn't. And now you've got all these teen shows, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" being my favorite of the genre. It has a great virginity-loss story. The "gift" metaphor loomed large in that show.

GW: Right, you write that people tend to see virginity loss in three ways: as a gift, a stigma or a learning process. Is there a type of person you associate with each? Can you look at someone in a restaurant and think to yourself, "Definitely a learning processor?"

LMC: [laughs] Wouldn't that be great?

GW: You talk about "gifters" giving it away gradually, in stages -- a very capitalist method of stretching your dollar (your virginity) as far as possible, much like Britney did.

LMC: Yeah. Sociologists who study gift-giving have often pointed out that we talk about gifts as if they're voluntary and entirely different from economic transactions, but are they really?

If I give you an iPod for Christmas and you give me a box of paper clips, what does that mean about our relationship?

GW: And because the price of the gift of virginity is so high, gifters are the most likely to stay with an abusive partner who they lost their virginity to.

LMC: Yes. If you've transferred a precious part of yourself to somebody, then in leaving them, you've left behind this special thing that you could only give to one person.

GW: "Learning process" virgins, on the other hand, treat their first time having sex as an intellectual exercise and tend to be from middle-class, well-educated families. Why?

LMC: The "processors" are pretty curious about sex. Whereas the "stigmatists" are so desperate not to be virgins that they're not willing to wait for someone who might be, you know, pleasant to do it with, the processors can wait. They're not desperate. If their parents have been to college, they were likely exposed to the sociological idea that losing your virginity is a rite of passage. They went to really good schools that had progressive sex education.

GW: And as you were saying before, teen virginity loss in the media has definitely become more progressive, albeit in a very carefully constructed fashion.

LMC: Now, you've got "Dawson's Creek," "The OC" and that whole ilk of shows. They're much more matter-of-fact about sex. It's like the producers think, "Well, we know the virginity-loss episode is going to get good ratings, so we have to have one per character." It almost seems to be the rule now. I think "90210" was the watershed.

GW: Donna Martin was huge.

LMC: We remember her name, right?

GW: And she wasn't even that major a character. But that was her defining trait. She was the virgin.

LMC: As opposed to the other characters, who had other stuff.

GW: Teen movies also come up a lot in your study. You seem to like American Pie.

LMC: I do like American Pie. You've got this range, from girls who talk about virginity as a gift to the band-camp girl, who just wants to find an easy lay. Even though, ultimately, in the third movie, she gets married, which is kind of disappointing. It "rehabilitates" her somehow. She's not just allowed to want casual sex, right? That's bad for women.

What I like most about it is this sub-theme, about women figuring out what gives them pleasure, and making sex contingent on that. Discussing female orgasms, particularly through cunnilingus, really makes female pleasure prominent. There are movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I think is a great film -- I mean, it's very good for 1983 -- where you see girls talking about sex, having sex, but not enjoying sex. And wanting it to be better, but not knowing how the hell to go about that, and just hoping that someday they're going to find a better partner.

GW: So it seems like by the '80s, mass media had become comfortable with teens losing their virginity. How about in real life? When did "wait for marriage" become "wait for the right person?"

LMC: In the late '60s, early '70s, there's really a big shift as a result of a bunch of things. For the first time, decent contraception made it possible to have sex with people you wouldn't intend to marry in a million years.

Sociologists start calling it "pre-premarital sex" -- sex with people you don't intend to marry. And that's really when it starts becoming common. There was quite a lot of premarital sex with people you expected to marry back between the '20s and '60s.

GW: It seems like we're moving back toward that era today, with programs like Sex Respect and Silver Ring Thing.

LMC: As sex education programs have moved toward abstinence-only, the programs often talk about born-again virginity and tend to have a Christian subtext. I heard from people who spoke about virginity as a way to honor their relationship with God.

GW: What makes virginity such a powerful political tool?

LMC: Culturally, we have a "preserve the innocent" ideology that you see in the "innocent unborn children" arguments of pro-lifers. You see it in "women and children first," as if they're somehow more valuable than everyone else. Protecting women, protecting innocents.

GW: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that was blamed for an alleged epidemic of teenage oral sex.

LMC: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal made it visible to parents in a way nobody had forced them to look at. There's very little data on oral sex before the late '90s, partly because it's been so difficult to conduct a study on that grade level. It's tough enough to ask, "Have you had vaginal sex?" There's the idea that talking about sex will give kids the idea they should be having sex. But I don't think we give kids enough credit for being as smart as they are.

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