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Patriarchy, Pop Culture, And The Taboo Of Adult Male Virginity

a red rose laying on a wood table
flickr/Carol Von Canon

Why is it still so ridiculous to think straight, cis men might wait to have sex?

In many respects, Colton Underwood is the ideal Bachelor. He’s a former NFL practice squad member, a conventionally handsome Colorado native whose abs are more ripped than a pair of jeans from 1993. He fits in perfectly with the cast of other Bachelors who have appeared on ABC’s show, now in its 23rd season. But while Underwood never succeeded in his goal of becoming a world famous football player,  the 26 year-old has become famous for not being another kind of player; he will go down in history as the franchise’s first “virgin bachelor.” Sadly, Underwood’s sexual inexperience has made him the butt of many jokes.

Watching this season of The Bachelor is an illuminating case study in how society associates manliness with heteronormative sex. This truly toxic notion of masculinity marginalizes any man who hasn’t had vaginal intercourse, whatever his reasons might be.

The part of Underwood’s virginity currently receiving the most side-eye is his the reason he’s given for keeping it. No, Underwood’s not abstaining because of religious beliefs. In his words, “I’m waiting to be in love.” It is this dream of having sex with someone he loves that the world seems to find hilarious. It also has fans champing at the bit to see if Underwood finds someone he’s willing to let deflower him in The Bachelor’s famed Fantasy Suite.

On The Bachelor’s January 7th premiere, the 30 women competing to marry Underwood made a plethora of not-funny barbs. There were references to “virgin cocktails,” and oblique references to “first times.” On the second episode, Billy Eichner made an appearance. He also snatched the opportunity to mock Underwood, implying he had yet to get laid because he was actually gay. Of course, having a gay Bachelor would be an awesome victory for TV diversity. However, the implication was that no straight man would willingly postpone vaginal intercourse.

The virginity jokes aren’t just taking place on the show itself. In an episode of The Ringer’s Bachelor recap podcast, Bachelor Party, host Juliette Litman expressed sheer confusion about Underwood’s virginity. The podcaster quipped there were only a few things she was certain of in this world, “Death, taxes, and professional athletes having sex all the time.” The fact that Litman was pushing stereotypes didn’t seem to be a problem for her.

We need to call out the jokes for what they are—virgin-shaming, slut-shaming’s chaste but equally problematic cousin. It is time to stop deriding Colton Underwood, and all men, for not having coitus.

This truly toxic notion of masculinity marginalizes any man who hasn’t had vaginal intercourse, whatever his reasons might be. Click To Tweet

The stats reveal there’s nothing remarkable about a man being a virgin in his twenties. The average age for a cisgender American man to lose his virginity is 17, if virginity is defined as penetrative vaginal sex. But average does not define normal. There are plenty of guys (14.3% of them, in fact), who remain virgins between the ages of 20 and 24. Between the ages of 25 and 29, 5% of American men have still not engaged in penetrative sex. And of course, there are gay and asexual people who aren’t interested in vaginal intercourse.

The data shows twenty-something virgins are actually pretty common. To put things into perspective, it’s estimated only 5% of Americans are natural blondes, but no one balks when a natural blonde pops up on TV. As is true of every aspect of human existence, there’s a lot of diversity when it comes to sexual activity. Regrettably, Hollywood has all but erased the existence of male virgins over age twenty.

When adult male virgins do get portrayed by Hollywood, they’re usually represented in one of two ways—as tragic misfits, or complete rubes. For the former trope, an excellent example is Michael Ginsburg of Mad Men. Ginsburg is a prodigious ad man whose status as a twenty-something virgin is presented as the symptom of a severe mental illness, which culminates in the character cutting off his nipple. On the comedy side, we have Steve Carell in 2005’s The Forty Year-Old Virgin. As the film’s on-the-nose title suggests, the middle-aged protagonist’s virginity is the entire plot of the movie, though it turns out his reasons for waiting are much like Colton’s—he wasn’t ready until he met the right person.

In my real-life experience, adult male virgins do not fall into a reductive binary. I personally know a number of smart, funny, attractive men who didn’t have sex until their late twenties. My friend Calvin was 27 when he lost his virginity. A personable entrepreneur with an active social life, Calvin was never tragic, nor was he a buffoon.

When adult male virgins do get portrayed by Hollywood, they’re usually represented in one of two ways – as tragic misfits, or complete rubes. Click To Tweet

While Calvin has always been a cool person, that didn’t make him immune to the effects of virgin-shaming. He tells me the trope of older virgins as weird and inept took a toll on his self-esteem. He recounts a sense of “shame” surrounding being a virgin: “I worried I would be bad at sex.”

Today, Calvin is a happily engaged thirty-something with no complaints about his sex life. Losing his virginity at a later than average age did not derail his life. However, he still takes umbrage with the portrayal of Colton as the “first virgin Bachelor.” As Calvin sees it, The Bachelor is turning Colton’s virginity into a spectacle, making his virginity into his entire personality. Calvin contends, “They’re presenting him as a one-dimensional character to gain ratings.”

Obviously, virgin-shaming hurts people. And the worst part is that virginity is an entirely social construct. The idea that people who have had coitus are fundamentally different from those who haven’t is a patriarchal idea created by men as a means of controlling women’s sexuality. Not to mention how it marginalizes any sex that isn’t penis-in-vagina sex by suggesting it somehow doesn’t count.

Historically, the idea of a sexual purity that could be sullied by penetrative sex has been applied more to women than men, a double standard that was a strategy for safeguarding paternity. After all, how could you trust your wife’s kids are yours unless you’re certain she’s never slept with anyone else? Hence, the creation of a long list of epithets used to other women who’ve had sex outside marriage, and the idea that a woman who has had vaginal sex before marriage is impure, “damaged,” or otherwise unsuitable.

The idea that people who have had coitus are fundamentally different from those who haven’t is a patriarchal idea created by men as a means of controlling women’s sexuality. Click To Tweet

By contrast, dudes have pretty much always been given a free pass to have copious amounts of nookie, and are considered more “manly” the more sex they have. Look at the case of, Henry VII, the British king who executed multiple wives on grounds of infidelity. Henry killed these women despite himself siring multiple children outside of marriage. Rather than condemning sexually voracious men as wanton or out of control, society has naturalized the myth of men as hypersexual beings. Even today, the idea that men’s uncontrollable sex drives cannot—and need not—be contained is used to justify toxic behavior. And if a man is not having sex, he becomes less of a man—which in a patriarchal society is never what you want to be.

Male virgins like Colton Underwood threaten the patriarchal logic that underpins the sexual double standard. By waiting to have sex, Underwood is publicly defying the toxic logic that redblooded men are somehow at the mercy of their sexual urges. He is a walking refutation of the adage that “boys will be boys,” that their innate desires are somehow beyond their control. Perhaps that’s why adult male virgins make society so uncomfortable…

Choosing a dashing virgin as this year’s Bachelor could have been a valuable opportunity to fight virgin-shaming. Underwood’s casting had the power to normalize the existence of twenty-something male virgins. Next time a man in the public eye proclaims he’s a virgin, let’s hope society doesn’t reduce him to a poorly written punchline.