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I am always amazed how often television serves as a mirror, reflecting the beliefs of our society.
A good example is the Fox animated series "King of the Hill." The main character of the show, Hank Hill, is a conservative father who has a difficult time discussing sensitive topics such as sex with his 11-year-old son, Bobby. After Bobby discerns his father's distaste of sexual matters, he tells his father, in an effort to please him, that he will not have sex. Hank replies that he would want that if Bobby was his daughter, not his son. Bobby wonders about this double standard, forcing Hank to respond that, yes, it is unfair that boys should have sex while girls should abstain from it, but "that's the way things are."
"King of the Hill" exemplifies our hypocritical stance toward virginity and sexual promiscuity. It is proper for a woman to be a virgin, but it is not desirable in a man. Our society considers a promiscuous man a stud, the picture of machismo, while a promiscuous woman is viewed as a whore, slut or harlot, the antithesis of femininity. With the help of feminist scholarship, we have come to recognize this hypocrisy and have slowly been making headway in eradicating this double standard. Our recent enlightenment demonstrates that recognition of these double standards is the first step in reversing them.
One double standard consistently ignored by most members of our society, including feminist scholars, is our attitude toward virginity vis-a-vis males. In our current age when the rate of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease (STD) cases is at its highest level ever, we have to defeminize virginity and make sexual abstinence an acceptable option for males as well as females. "The way things are," according to Hank Hill, means that our society sees virginity as correct for females and incorrect for males. As a virgin myself I have had to deal with the problems of being a male virgin ever since high school.
I remember once sitting in the men's locker room conversing with some of my teammates after track practice. As usual the conversation turned to sex. Most of the guys bragged about their sexual prowess, including who they had slept with, how often they had sex, and simply how well they satisfied their partners. The entire conversation was conducted with the unspoken understanding that all of us were sexually experienced. Those who weren't chose to lie about it, lest they be subjected to interminable ribbing from the others. Hence, when the boys tested me by inquiring what the extent of my sexual prowess was, I nervously blurted something that probably came out, "Yeah, man, of course I've had sex, what am I some kind a loser virgin?" Then when they begged for details, I pieced together a titillating narrative from what little sexual knowledge I possessed--from movies, romantic novels, and sex ed class--to give a convincing account of my nonexistent sexual escapades.
My experience was not unique. Many guys in my high school, indeed in high schools all across the nation, have found themselves in situations like the locker room scene where they have lied about their sexual status and have kept their virginity in a closet. When I got into Harvard I told myself I wouldn't have to worry about any pressure to have sex. I saw Harvard as an opportunity to live as a male virgin without worrying about the sexual peer pressure that would occur at other, less enlightened campuses. I was wrong: the overbearing machismo is very much alive at our fair campus.
As soon as I arrived here I got the sense that everybody was having sex or expected to have sex; I reached this conclusion from one of our mandatory study breaks. In one of my most embarrassing moments here, I was chosen by a Peer Contraceptive Counselor to put a condom on a banana and demonstrate the proper way to place a condom on the penis. Although the motivation underlying this exercise was positive (if you're having sex, use a condom), the message was ambiguous. Virgins like myself were told that a lot of our classmates were having sex and we probably would be soon. I was disheartened by this realization.
By gaining maturity and self-confidence, I learned to stop lying about my virginity, yet I saw many of my classmates continue the self-deception. I asked male friends, who were virgins, why they lied about their sexual experience. They gave me the obvious range of answers: "if everyone knew I was a virgin they will think I'm a loser"; "I won't get into that finals club"; "everyone else is doing it, I don't want to be the only male virgin on campus"; or "girls are not attracted to virgin guys, they would rather be with a guy who knows what he's doing."
Female perspectives about virginity couldn't be any more different than the male perspective. Women who speak about their virginity do so in very confident, positive terms: "Yeah, I am a virgin"; "it's the right thing to do"; "I'm waiting 'till I'm ready"; "I want to make love instead of having sex"; "I don't want to be with someone I have no feelings with"; "so far I haven't found that person." Most females see their virginity as good, while most males view it as an embarrassment and concoct elaborate tales to hide it. We have to ask ourselves why we disavow the possibility of "male virginity."
The answer to this question cannot be provided without a quick glance at the western historical preoccupation with female virginity. For most of Western history, and even in our current history, virginity has been an exclusively female phenomenon.
The Romans were known for their Vestal Virgins, six female virgins who represented the royal house and tended the state cult of Vesta, the goddess of hearth. Violation of their virginity meant being buried alive. With the advent of Christianity, the Virgin Mary became one of the central characters of the religion. Then in the Middle Ages, medieval gynecologists were interested in determining female virginity, while male virginity was consistently overlooked. Even in the colonial period, Queen Elizabeth was heralded as the virtuous and Virgin Queen and the state of Virginia was named in celebration of this fact. Thus, our view of virginity as a female phenomenon is grounded in history and the beliefs of our forefathers.
If we want to disseminate the idea that male virginity is acceptable, we have to move away from our historical obsession that defines virginity as a strictly feminine phenomenon. We must start defining virginity in a gender neutral sense. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the foremost authority on the English language, demonstrates the entrenchment of our association of virginity with females. According to the OED, a virgin is "an unmarried or chaste maiden, distinguished for piety or steadfastness in religion." The OED's second definition of virgin as "a woman (esp. a young woman) who is, or remains, in a state of inviolate chastity; an absolutely pure maiden or maid" is similarly gender specific. In fact, the dictionary does not refer to the possibility of male virginity until the sixth definition, when it admits that a virgin is a person of either sex who has not had sex.
It is time for male virgins to stand up for themselves and use their status as a measure of strength, not as a foible. In a culture that is rife with images of sex in advertisement, song, art and sport, it is difficult for male virgins to view their virginity as anything but a negative. But they must view virginity as positive, else they will rush into the sexual act because of pressure, not because of love, curiosity, or genuine interest.
Another step we can take to change our perception of male virginity is to understand why some males have not engaged in sexual intercourse. There are four reasons most guys retain their virginity:
1) Religious reservations. "I'm not going to have sex until I get married, in observance of my religious beliefs."
2) Fear of impregnating a girl or getting STDs: "I know a friend who got his girl pregnant and, anyway, I don't want to catch anything."
3) Lack of a suitable mate: "I'm going to wait for the right woman, even if I don't marry her, before I have sex."
4) Lack of opportunity: "I haven't even kissed a girl, so I haven't had the chance to release my sexual energy."
Most people, especially guys, cite the fourth reason as the primary explanation of male virginity. While many guys here at Harvard haven't had any intimate relationships with girls, there are plenty of male virgins, myself included, who can cite one of the other three reasons for their virginity. We have to stop picturing male virgins as unattractive, pitiful, unlucky losers. Our entire culture seem to think that, if given the chance, most virgins would choose to have sex. We have to understand that many males are virgins by choice, not by circumstance. As a result of our view of male virgins as losers who can't get laid, we mock them and give no moral value to their decision. On the other hand, we see female virginity as virtuous because we conclude that females are virgins by choice.
I'm not arguing that virginity is a more virtuous path than promiscuity. My more immediate aim is to rid us of the notion that virginity in males should be a source of embarrassment and shame. I ask that that the conception of virginity be reconsidered.
Virgin males should celebrate their status. They should not hide inside a closet. This liberation, as I call it, will make the decision to have sex, when the right time presents itself, an informed and conscious choice, not a result of peer pressure or the misplaced desire to reach manhood.
So to all you virgins out there, and I know there are many of you, let me say this: walk with your head up. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a virgin, despite what the media, popular culture, Wilt Chamberlain, some of your friends and even your father might lead you to believe. It took me a long time to arrive at this conclusion, but I hope you guys reach it sooner.
Sozi T. Sozinho is a senior living in Leverett House.
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