With a growing number of high schools and colleges offering courses in “porn literacy” and influential thinkers like Alain de Botton arguing that instead of getting rid of porn we should instead be making “better porn,” the cultural taboo against consumption of pornography is crumbling before our eyes. What sexual sins are left?
Adultery has not been taboo since the days before Lady Chatterley’s Lover, homosexuality since the days before Ulysses, and masturbation since the days before Portnoy’s Complaint. TV shows and movies from Star Trek to The Shape of Water have made the prospect of interspecies sex seem innocuous, if not downright wholesome. Stories of swingers, couple-swapping, and multiple partners hardly make us so much as blink any more. And, thanks to Game of Thrones, even incest has become prettified.
The last great sexual sin of our time is not related to any specific sex act or forbidden partner. The greatest sexual sin of our time is not a sin of commission but of omission: the sin of not doing it at all. The last great sexual taboo is the taboo of virginity.
The Shame of Virginity
There is a very good reason why movies like American Pie and the recently released Blockers, both of which center on a group of teenagers trying to lose their virginity by the time they graduate from high school, keep getting made. There may be no greater social shame today than the humiliation young adults feel when they are discovered to be virgins.
There is a kind of stigma attached to never having had sex by the age of eighteen—or twenty-one, twenty-five, or whatever the prevailing standard happens to be. It rivals the stigmas that used to be attached to lepers, bastards, and heretics. A person who is still a virgin by the age of thirty is thought of as some sort of sexual pariah, cast out of concupiscent company because of his or her repellent looks, repulsive manners, substandard salary, or other unmentionable defect. A person who is still a virgin by the age of forty is thought of as so pathetically laughable—or laughably pathetic—as to deserve to be the subject of a Judd Apatow movie.
The social mores of our post-sexual-revolution society easily lead non-participants in the rebellion to feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with them. “If there is so much sex out there and so many people having it so frequently,” virgins tend to ask themselves, “then why I am not having any?” Remaining a virgin past a certain age can be experienced as a confirmation of one’s worst suspicions about oneself: that one is unloved because one is unlovable, unkissed because one is unkissable, untouched because undeserving of affection. A young adult virgin can come to view him- or herself as irremediably repugnant; one who reaches middle adulthood without having engaged in one of the most elemental human activities can come to feel as if he or she has failed to become fully human.
Christianity, Chastity, and Sexual Freedom
All of this would come as a considerable shock to almost any pre-twentieth-century citizen of the West, for whom chastity was regarded as a cardinal virtue and fornication a cardinal sin. In the pre-First World War West—in a society whose predominant religion, Christianity, linked virginity to sainthood—it is not surprising that some of society’s greatest political and literary saints, from Queen Elizabeth I to Henry James, were also lifelong virgins. When Christianity still colored the general culture, those who abstained—even if they were doing so not out of choice but because of continual rejection—were able to feel spiritually and socially superior to those who succumbed. In the Christian world of the pre-war West, to be a virgin was not to be a subhuman social outcast; it was to be on the same plane as the mother of God.
The ethos of sexual freedom celebrated today could not be more different. The narrative is by now very familiar: the automobile, the pill, the declining belief in Christianity, and the shattering of all certainties (and consequent questioning of all values) in the wake of two horrific world wars changed everything. The fear of dying as an unconfessed fornicator was replaced by the fear of dying without ever having fornicated, as Marcus Messner fears in Philip Roth’s Indignation.
The secular priests of our age—everyone from Sigmund Freud and Betty Friedan to Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Hugh Hefner, and the Beatles—preach release, not repression. Those who have never tasted the pleasures of the flesh are no longer described as “holy” or “blessed” but as “unlucky” or “deprived,” as if they had never tasted chocolate, smelled roses, or seen a summer sunset. Novels like Roth’s Indignation and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead imply that there is no greater misfortune than dying a virgin, and magazines like Maxim and Cosmopolitan insinuate that there is no greater shame than living as one. In today’s sexually liberated world, the word “virginity” has become the scarlet letter of our time, and most young adults will go to nearly any lengths to avoid the humiliation of having to wear it.
The Benefits of Virginity
Yet there are many valid reasons that it may be a good thing to remain a virgin until later in life. Forgoing sex proves that one is disciplined enough to delay gratification for the sake of a greater good. It allows one to concentrate one’s efforts on one’s work and perhaps achieve greater professional success than one would if one were constantly scheming about how to bed one’s next partner, and it virtually guarantees that you’ll never catch an STD. If you’re a believing Christian, Jew, or Muslim, it gives you the security of knowing that you’re protected from committing any number of soul-damning sexual sins. If you’re an intellectually oriented atheist or agnostic, it frees you to live a life of the mind without becoming enslaved to the passions of the body. If you’re a human being with a living, beating heart, it saves you from the messiness, tedium, and soul-crushing heartbreak that so often accompanies romantic relationships.
Linking sex to lifelong, committed, married love—the very bond that much of the sexual revolution was intent on severing—can make sex truly wonderful. Yet it also makes the loss of love all the more devastating.
Where, then, can an abstainer who has lost this love find solace? There is the life of the mind, of course, but philosophical consolations in the vein of Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy and Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World may not prove very consoling; using spirituality to compensate for a lack of amatory fulfillment can be like using music to make up for the lack of furniture in my living room. The psyche does not accept this ineffectual intellectual substitute; the broken heart refuses to accept the placebo of professional accomplishments when what it really wants is the indispensable cure of true love.
There may be literary and artistic consolations as well. At a librarians’ conference some years ago in California, a woman, blushing, asked the writer Isabel Allende if the erotic scenes in her novels were based on her own experiences. “De experienca” [from experience],” she answered, “nada. Sólo una investigación y fantasía [nothing. Only investigation and fantasy].” Recounting this interaction in her book Amor, Allende writes, “a la hora de escribir, cuenta más la imaginación que la memoria [when writing, imagination is more important than memory].” For those who have yet to have erotic experiences in their lives, Allende assures them that they still have their imaginations—which will serve them better than any experience ever possibly could.
But can art and literature truly compensate for the loss of love? Is the cure for heartbreak simply to up one’s dose of Joyce and Proust? Even the most ardent literature lovers can be forgiven for being skeptical of the notion that consuming works of literary creativity—or creating them oneself—can console a jilted lover. If art and literature aren’t sufficient for making a person feel as if one is a fully realized person without sex, then what is? Here is where religion and theology come back into play.
A society that has lost its faith is a society in which the loss of human love is shattering. Without the belief in a God who loves us, the loss of a human being who loves us can be soul-crushing. But a society that maintains its faith in a passionate biblical God who loves us is a society in which the loss of human love can, perhaps, be overcome; the erotic can be found in religion, as Song of Songs demonstrates, and divinity itself is suffused with eros, as Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism teach.
The Bible teaches that every human being is created in the image of God—every human being is a full being, regardless of whether he or she is still a virgin. Every human being, the Bible teaches, is embraced by divine passion, regardless of whether he or she has experienced human passion. Art, literature, and philosophy all have potentially consoling insights to offer, but they are only that—consolations. Only religion and theology can offer something more than consolation—confirmation. They confirm that the abstainer too is fully embraced by divine passion—and, as the abstinence traditions of Catholicism and certain sects of Jewish mysticism (most prominently Bratslav Hasidism) teach—comes closer to the divine than a non-abstainer ever could.
When one spends enough time in secular society, one can come to feel as if the only way to become a fully realized being is to become a sexual being. Religion teaches that one is already a fully realized being regardless of whether or not one ever has sex. This kind of confirmation—above and beyond consolation—is yet another reminder of why a society that loses its religion loses so much more than just rituals and dogmas. It loses some of the most important emotional and psychological sources of uplift in the entire humanistic canon.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, rabbi, and Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is studying English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His nonfiction has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Tablet, and Haaretz, and his fiction has been published in over a dozen literary journals.