The power virgins

Why is pop culture so darn fascinated with virginity?

  • Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow (Getty Images )
January 24, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

Tim Tebow has not cashed in his V card. Neither have most of the people featured on TLC's "Virgin Diaries."

The reality show, which premiered last month, thrust the topic of virginity back under the pop-culture microscope and has only fueled ongoing conversations initiated by athletes such as the Denver Broncos quarterback—who is in the spotlight now for just about everything he says or does—and stars like Miley Cyrus and Jordin Sparks. All of them in the past few years have publicly proclaimed their decision to hold off on sex until marriage. "Diaries" made headlines when cameras captured the first – and awkward – kiss by a couple at their wedding and it went viral.

Of course, sex always has piqued the public's interest, but why is America so fascinated with the idea of virginity right now?

"It's a huge milestone in the life of an individual and in the life of a human being," said Jennifer Bass, director of communications for the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. "Virginity is important to people and always has been."

From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" in the '80s to "American Pie" in the '90s to "Superbad" in 2007, sex has been at the center of coming-of-age movies for the past three decades, often with teens on a quest to lose their virginity as a rite of passage into adulthood. It's also been the cornerstone of shows such as MTV's"Jersey Shore,"HBO's "True Blood"and CW's"Gossip Girl."

Despite all that, there's a significant number of young adults who don't hook up at all. A report issued last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics found from 2006-08, 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men ages 15-24 had had no sexual contact with another person, up from 22 percent in 2002.

Count Kevin McClure, 24, among them. He chooses not to have any sexual contact when dating. Hand-holding is fine, but he stays away from making out or even going into a room alone with a girl and closing the door behind them.

"I'm saying no to short-term, empty pleasure," said McClure, who graduated from Chicago-area Wheaton College a couple of years ago.

A devout Christian, he said he is "not anti-sex" and looks forward to being sexually intimate with his future wife. McClure defies society's stereotypes associated with being a virgin, such as being boring, socially awkward and unpopular. In high school in Southern California, he was captain of the football team and homecoming king.

"It's a recognition of my weakness and my lack of self-control that makes me avoid situations whenever possible that would lead to sexual intercourse before marriage," said McClure, who is attending Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minnesota to be a Protestant pastor.

His story illuminates the long histories of complexities and attitudes surrounding any individual's sex life.

When sex researcher Alfred Kinsey released a 1953 report finding that 50 percent of women had premarital sex, for example, it challenged traditional views on relationships. Since then, there's been a shift in what age people engage in sex and whether they do it outside of marriage, Bass said.

These days, many people are delaying marriage and not waiting until marriage to have sex. Census data showed the median age to get married in 1953 was about 20 for women and about 23 for men. In 2011, it was about 26 for women and 29 for men.

When it comes to having sex for the first time, nearly half of 17-year-olds have had sex by the time they reached that age and the percentage dramatically jumps after that, Bass said.

Amid trends showing an uptick in sex before marriage and a fascination with it in pop culture, certain celebrities such as Disney stars Cyrus and the Jonas brothers, buck the trend. They're seen as the "antidote" to the problem of a hypersexualized pop culture that parents complain about, said Jessica Valenti, author of "The Purity Myth," which examines how society tends to judge young women based on what they do or don't do sexually, rather than by who they are as a person.

Andrea Nelson, 27, of Downers Grove, waited until she married her husband to have sex.

Initially, she held off on sex because of religious reasons, but she also saw how it was beneficial to her relationship. Delaying sex allowed time for the relationship to develop, said Nelson, program director of Amplify Youth Development, a nonprofit that teaches healthy relationship education with an emphasis on abstinence until marriage to DuPage and Kane County students.

The couple did kiss in their dating relationship but there was no touching under clothes and no sex of any kind. Sharing that sexual experience with her husband, she said, solidified them as a couple when they married three years ago.

"I'm just glad that all those potentially awkward moments are going to be with the one person with me for the rest of my life and we can keep our stories to ourselves," Nelson said. "I'm thankful I get to treasure all those with one person, and they don't become memories I am ashamed to think about because it was with that ex-boyfriend who I don't want to bring into my new relationship." | @lvivanco

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