America’s Most Endangered Species: the Virgin

In "single and chaste: the yearning", Shabana writes about the challenge of loneliness for singles and the need for them to approach marriage carefully and without unrealistic expectations of their spouse or themselves.

In a similar vein, I suspect it’s hard for those born in less sexually charged times or in more religiously conservative lands to understand the incredible pull of sex for people who’ve come of age recently in America.  Regardless of one’s values, class, race, or religious background, if you grew up anywhere in America over the last 30-40 years, you’ve probably been inundated with a constant barrage of sexual titillation and propaganda for promiscuity since the minute you left your mother’s womb.  Forgive the nerdy comic book metaphor, but we’re all sexual mutants born of a childhood bathed in the "gamma rays" of a libertine culture.  We’re transformed from mature, balanced Bruce Banner’s to, well, Incredibly Horny Hulks. (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

I don’t think to make this observation is in any way prudish or pessimistic, nor am I holding myself up as an exception (quite the contrary, alas).  That’s the way America–and, alas, increasingly, the rest of the world–is, and we’re all a product of it, willingly or not.

Let’s face it:  Sex (and materialism, a topic for another time) permeates the air we’ve breathed for generations.  When it comes to sex, we’re living in a modern-day Babylon.  Now, part of this stems from the fact that many people, including people who would consider themselves religious, no longer think there is anything wrong with Babylon.  I don’t have a problem that, so long as they’re honest about where they’re coming from.  If you don’t have a problem with that kinky state of affairs for philosophical reasons–e.g., if you believe that traditional sexual mores are psychologically unhealthy or inherently patriarchal (there are serious arguments)–that’s fine with me, so long as you do not employ pseudo-religious rhetoric to justify Babylon, the anti-thesis of traditional values. 

If you think I’m overreacting or exaggerating, take a look at popular culture.  Anybody with eyes can see how sexually charged movies and TV programs are for adults as well as teens. And observe cultural  programming for children–sometimes even on relatively culturally conservative media, like the PAX cable network–and note not only how quickly traditional (and, I suspect, instinctive) inhibitions about gender mixing are invalidated but how quickly even the youngest of children are introduced to the notion of dating.  The list goes on and on.

One way I think that the burden is especially heavy on men is how ruthlessly the concept of virginity is delegitimized and how men are conditioned to measure themselves by their sexual expertise and "success" in the dating game.  I don’t mean to imply that women are free of burdens, by any means, so much as discuss something I know from my own experience as an American man.

I suspect that Americans born in an earlier era or people born abroad are unlikely to grasp how deadly the combination of good old American machismo with a hyper-sexualized, increasingly secularized society is for the self-esteem of young men who abstain from sex. When you’ve grown up with bed-hopping heroes like James Bond and Captain Kirk as your icons of masculinity; and when you’ve grown up in a cultural mileu where the concept of male virginity is so relentlessly mocked that a movie like "The Last American Virgin" –a 1982 high school comedy about the quest to finally deflower America’s lone remaining male teenage virgin; stop and think about the implications for societal norms there and consider what an incredible rupture it is with the past–is comprehensible it’s impossible for your inner compass not to be warped to some extent, no matter how much you may aspire to live up to traditional values.    [Update: Someone was kind enough to point out in a comment that I overlooked a pretty obvious and more recent example of this phenomenon,  "The 40 Year Old Virgin".   Very true.]  Occasional sermons or khutbahs about family values are unlikely drown out those omnipresent influences when the hormones kick in late on a Friday night.   

It’s one of the few arguments I can think of for hijrah.  This is a reason why, for all my various radical/liberal streaks, as I look ahead to the birth of my first child I can relate to the instinctive desire of many immigrant parents to send their children abroad to be raised in a more conservative environment.  Muslims societies have all sorts of  serious social, cultural, and political problems–with serious gender hang-ups and injustices often being foremost among them, I hasten to add–but at least there’s a chance for a child to remain a child for a while. The same can’t be said for America today, when young children are learning far more every day about life from Brittany Spears or Snoop Dogg than their parents thanks to the media.  With apologies to the United Negro College Fund, a childhood’s a terrible thing to waste.

There is no question that young women are put under enormous pressure to "put out"–and then, ironically, punished for not remaining pure (a la the Madonna/Whore complex)–and there are all sorts of other kinds of unhealthy pressures on young women vis-a-vis their appearance, but I don’t think women in this society face the same internalized *psychological* pressures to be promiscuous.  Women are pressured in a myriad of ways, but I would argue that they tend to be more external (e.g., social pressure) and the price paid for not giving in to this pressure is milder.  In a nutshell, from a very early age men are conditioned to base their most profound sense of manhood on their sexual resume, as it were.  I do not think the same can be said of women.  There may be every manner of pressure and enticement to get women to be sexually active, but they are not taught to hate themselves for not being sexually active or for "conquering" men. 

I submit that in American culture today, an adult female virgin is treated as a quaint oddity, but not as a clinical disorder.  She might even occasionally get an iota of respect.  An adult male virgin, to the contrary, is treated like a freak of nature, something that I consider incredibly harmful to young men’s psychological development.

I’m not implying one is less of a problem than the other, so much as addressing what I consider to be important differences.  It’s still "Man’s World" that marginalizes women in so many ways, great and small, but this is problem that I think is specific to men.

What do people think?  I’m especially interested in hearing from women on this.  Am I way off base, ladies?  Are you compelled (noticed that I didn’t write "encouraged") to measure yourself by the number of notches on your belt, too?

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