Gwynne Watkins

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.

Scenes From a Blasphemous Marriage

To many people, Peter Manseau's parentage -- his mother a nun, his father a priest -- represents yet another embarrassing example of the Catholic Church's many recent transgressions.

But Manseau's parents never saw it that way. When they met in a Boston storefront ministry in the spring of 1968, the world seemed on the cusp of a progressive rethinking. Vatican II was injecting the Church with a charismatic new sense of modernity, and the age of priestly marriages seemed finally to have arrived.

Today, the social revolutions of the '60s seem quaintly anachronistic, and Manseau's parents' marriage -- now in its thirty-sixth year -- remains a minor scandal. Though his father still considers himself a priest and continues to minister to the poor, because of his marriage the Vatican basically denies his status as such.

This act of definace has kept he and his wife on the fringes of the Church leadership, though they've never been entirely excommunicated, and they continue to lobby the Church to change its rules about marriage. In his deeply personal memoir Vows, Manseau details the love triangle that has inextricably tied his mother, his father and the Catholic Church for nearly forty years.

Many people don't realize that priests, and even popes, haven't always been celibate. When and why did that change, and why hasn't it ever turned back the other way?

There's always been a tension between the ideas of sex as sinful and sex as sacramental. In the twelfth century, it was ruled that priests couldn't marry, partly because too many priests' sons were inheriting their churches and the bishops couldn't control who had authority. As to why it hasn't changed back, there's no reason for the power structure to want that. They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

But priests continued to have children after it was outlawed. There's a history of illegitimate children born to popes.

Yes. The "double monastery," which was a connected monastery for monks and convent for nuns, was a common phenomenon in Medieval Europe, and that practice ended because there were too many pregnant nuns.

Your father advocates allowing priests to marry as part of the solution to the sexual-abuse problem. Why doesn't the Church agree that this solution is viable?

In the aftermath of the sexual-abuse scandal, the church went after priests like my father. They thought that priests who expressed any sexuality, whether it was marriage and consensual relationships or the abuse cases you've heard about, were all the same thing. There's even a phrase for it in canon law: a "carnal sacrilege," which is a sin against the priesthood and against the Church itself.

Your father confessed to you that he'd had a sexual relationship with his elderly mentor, Father Tom. How did that conversation come about?

It was really slow coming to the surface. The more I learned about my father's seminary training, the more I would ask him if he'd ever noticed any kind of homosexuality, and he would always say, "No, no, no." Then he would start to admit, "Well, there was a little bit that I saw here and there at St. John's Seminary." He finally told me about Father Tom, and I think he was able to do that because in his post-ministerial life, he's become a psychologist.

When he finally told me the story, he finished by telling me what a wonderful man [Father Tom] was. He still tells me that. He wanted to make it clear that he feels this man was a mostly positive influence in his life. It's such a complicated relationship, the relationship that the Church creates between young men and priests. And I think [my father] has only started to realize that now.

When your father was training to be a priest, he'd go on dates with girls after seminary. He was living a double life.

Well, I think that we have to remember that dating for my father in 1953 was different from dating now. And he's always quick to point out -- and this is a distinction that only someone like him would care about -- that "it was just in minor seminary." But he wouldn't exactly announce to these girls that he was in seminary at first, and when he finally told them, they would be sort of scandalized. Because they were, of course, Catholic girls.

I had never heard the story of priests putting their mother's wedding ring in the Communion chalice. Your interpretation is that it's "a mingling of the sacrifice the woman had made to bring a potential priest into the world (her virginity) and Christ's sacrifice (his life)." It literally equates the loss of virginity with death.

That's how they think of it. That's the interesting thing -- now the Catholic Church puts itself forth as this great defender of family values, but historically, the Church has been no great defender of marriage. Marriage in the Church's eye was second-class status. Virginity was the way to God, and if you couldn't have virginity then, well, I guess you'd have to be married. To be a mother is a great Catholic thing, of course, but it's only because she made the sacrifice of a greater thing, which is her virginity.

What your father comes to believe is that being married will make him a better Christian and therefore a better priest. Can you explain?

This came about while he was working as a street priest in Roxbury, in the inner city of Boston. He felt like so long as he was defined by this separateness, he couldn't really be Christ-like in the sense of living among the people who most needed him.

Ironically, you became attracted to the celibate life that your parents rejected. You considered becoming a monk. You write, "I had been raised to think of the celibate religious life as an unhealthy perversion of the Christian ideal -- an artifact of medieval politics, a papal power play designed to keep subordinates in line -- and yet the attraction I felt to it was real." Did you eventually pick a side?

Did I pick a side? [laughs] I came to realize that as far as I explored the celibate life, looking back, I see now that I was trying to live a story. I was really taken by the idea of being this young intellectual who was going to chuck it all and find real peace. But as far as the reality of it went, what I found inside the monastery wasn't the romance that I hoped for. As much as I liked all the men I met there, it just felt like a much more sterile environment than I'd ever imagined it would be. And looking back on it now, of course it is. It's part of the institution. And I'm lucky it was like that. I think if it had been a more spiritually fulfilling place, it might have been harder to leave.

Even when I was exploring this idea of celibacy, I was still going to bars and whatnot. So I was living a double life the same way my father had when he was young. Except that, I don't know, his double life -- it might have been more honest than mine. When I was at the monastery, I always felt like I was lying. I didn't want to admit that maybe the bars in Northampton were my more authentic place to be.

What was it like for your college girlfriend when you were considering being a monk?

I kept it kind of secret. In college, I was a bit of a spiritual snob. I didn't have much respect for people who actually went to church and believed things. My girlfriend just didn't really fathom what I was going through, and I wasn't really good at expressing it. Although it was the beginning of a time in my life when I had a religious obsession with monasticism, I also began to have a sort of sexual obsession with the idea of religious women.

It sounds like college. College spirituality is a very particular thing.

I spent a lot of time in college going to a lot of different kinds of religious things. I was really into Jewish things for a while, which had me going to a lot of synagogues. At the Jewish Community of Amherst I met this girl and we both discovered, in talking, that neither of us were Jewish. She was this Texas Mennonite or something, this blond girl who looked so far from belonging at the Jewish Community of Amherst, and when I found out that neither of us were Jewish, that we were both just going to synagogue services, she became my romantic obsession.

She was your soulmate.

Yeah, except that she was a Smith lesbian.

Sexual repression is so much a part of what Catholicism is. What do you think would happen to the church if it changed its attitude about sex?

I don't really know what it would look like, honestly.

Even one small step. Let's say they allowed priests to get married.

That's the thing. My father thinks that's almost a cure-all. But I don't think it is, because there is this deep-down worry about sexuality in the Church. In some ways, it's the foundation of the Church because it's been there from the beginning. And I think it has to be there, in some ways. But there's always been a specific kind of Catholic sexuality that's existed on the margins. And so I think that's likely to continue. I do think eventually the Church will allow its priests to marry, but I'm not sure when it will happen.

Do you think that will happen before or after it allows the ordination of women?

It will happen before they allow the ordination of women. That's for sure. So that's just another part of the problem. I don't know. I don't know why more people don't leave the Church. I mean, honestly, the fact that women remain the driving force of the Catholic Church, the real passion and the heart of it, without being members of the hierarchy -- I don't know how you can go to church each week and be insulted by that fact. And that's what it really comes down to, is a lot of double-talk about why they won't ordain women. But it's fear of the feminist, it's fear of the body. It's medieval. And as far as I'm concerned, it's indefensible. But it's not really my fight. It's my parents' fight, and I'm happy for them if they're able to win it.


Happy Holidays!