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?

  • Aisha

    Salaam, came across your site via Baraka. Good post. At least for Muslims though its a struggle to stay chaste before marriage it’s at least an excuse to hide behind if you need one when talking to a Muslim man for marriage. My nonmuslim friends who’d rather wait have an even harder time b/c the men they date EXPECT sex and if they dont get it they move on making them almost have to give in to this expectation erst they remain single for all their lives.

  • eteraz

    damn, conscience.
    you’d disapprove of my latest post.

  • eteraz

    i forgot to mention this earlier.
    if you are 1) a woman,
    and you are 2) attractive,
    and you 3) openly declare you’re a virgin,
    the, conclusion: you’ll be incredibly popular.
    lots of opportunity for flirtation will come your way.
    i promise.
    but only if requirement 2 is met.
    man’s world.

  • Umm Yasmin

    Assalamu ‘alaykum,
    I think you’re spot on. There is still a perception that women who sleep around are ‘loose’ but men who sleep around are fulfilling their masculine destiny.

  • UmmZaid

    Salaam ‘Alaikum
    I think you’ve got it too. I think our culture wants our girls (and women) to appear sexy, but we still, to some extent, expect them to be chaste inside of those belly shirts and low riding jeans. Or at least, to be “chaste” with a man / boy she “really loves.”
    I’m sorry to tell you, if you and Shabana haven’t noticed yet, but by the time your girl is about six or seven, you will find it very tough to find modest, or even just — childish clothes for her. Cute dresses, or nice summer clothes that aren’t shorty shorts and spaghetti straps. My daughter is still a girl, but she’s also hijabi (her choice), so finding her a dress for ‘Eid is always a struggle that sometimes ends in tears (hers) b/c the girl’s dresses and junior’s dresses in her size are *completely* inappropriate, IMO, hijab or not. She still wants the big poufy skirts, but it seems that you only get that if you’re under the age of 10 now or something. BTW, of course, this is way off the topic… or is it? I don’t know.

  • thebeard03

    You use the 1982 movie to describe the freak status of a make virgin.. when I think there is a better movie tailored Exactly to this concept you talk of. The 40 year old Vergin.
    I dont think women have it easier so much so as different. Women, as I see it, face two double standards. On one side, men like to see women that they see more of. Like physically. No one likes hanging otu with a nun, and esp a muslim one. Someone who wears an abaya is seen as reserved, quiet, and unable to maintain conversation.. so no one talks to her. almost. The women who do wear short clothing and talk and laugh and club recieve male attention… but only for what seems a short time.
    Everyone wants a girl who is a lady in the streets and a freak in the bed… when in college. Come time to settle down, the tables turn, and now chastity is neccecisty (sp?).
    Thus, the girls who wear revealing clothing see male attention through one venue.. those simply trying to get inside their pants. The abaya wearing women, see attention through another venue.. the 6+ years older and looking for a girl to settle down with that is ‘clean’ (keep in mind, the male does not have to be a virgin, the female does).
    And then there is the topic I wont go into over wieght, and what a women should wiegh.
    I think in some cases men have it easy, and in other cases women… but on the whole, the pressure sounter balance, and the end result is a sexually frustrated youth in general who’s only apparent valid and accepted outlet it seems, is early marraige.

  • Svend

    Great catch, beardman3000. It’s funny I should’ve overlooked that movie, especially given how much I love the actor (including his TV series, “The Office”).
    You make a lot of excellent points about the pressures and doublestandards reserved for women. As I tried to make clear without getting sidetracked, I think the challenges facing young (especially American-born Muslim) women are often worse.
    Yeah, Umm Yasin, You highlight a problem that Shabana often complains to me about, how difficult it is to buy modest clothing in the US that isn’t terribly frumpy or medieval. At least without spending a fortune. Everything is geared to showing the figure (increasingly even in Pakistan,btw–last year she found it surprisingly difficult to find shalwar khameez’s that weren’t tight at key junctures).
    “Masculine destiny”. That’s exaclty how it’s presented.
    That’s true about Muslim women at least being able to invoke this ideal to ward off the Muslim guy. At least theoretically. I suspect a lot of young people are getting into trouble anyhow.
    (And we won’t even get into the “I can get it on with kafir girls but I expect Muslim girls to be pure as the driven snow” phenomenon among schizophrenic young Muslim men.)

  • TwennyTwo

    I just wrote a whole post about this on my blog. I think on the whole you’re right, but underestimating the pressure on women just a bit. Or maybe I’m hypersensitive to it.
    Great post.

  • Junaid

    Akram bhai, I agree with everything except for the part where you speak about it still being possible for “a child to remain a child for a while” in Muslim societies, as opposed to the hyper-sexualized (and I assume you may mean other “un-child” like effects) associated with living here in the US. My experience has been somewhat different.
    Each time I visit Pakistan, I am surprised at how cunning and sly and “smooth” more and more young people in the urban areas are becoming, particularly in terms of male-female interaction, including often very intimate contact. In fact, many cousins (who also live in the US) and I often remark that our Pakistani youth amongst family and acquaiantances here in the US “tho kuch bee nahin…BOHOTH SHARIF HAIN” (basically meaning are much, much more personally “righteous”/less crudely cunning in all types of matters, including sexual ones) than their contemporary counterparts in the urban areas of Pakistan (even in Pakistani medium-sized towns as well).
    Of course, this has a class component as well. Many a professional, middle and upper middle class Pakistani families in the US have been able to “protect” their daughters and, to a great extent, sons from larger social “corruption” by buying/condoning for them all of hyper-capitalism’s fruits EXCEPT for the actual “sex thang.” And often that bargain has worked, if not completely then almost so.
    In Pakistan, the middle classes in the urban areas are consumers, but simply can’t afford the consumption level for their kids possible here. Those middle class youth, particularly speaking about males here, have exposure to a street culture with obscene language and very hyper-sexualized innuendo. And today, the actual fruition of some male-female intimate sexual contact is perhaps more possible than a previous generation in Pakistan (where the same type of male sexualized culture persisted, but fewer opportunities existed).

  • ayesha

    is it really bad that it’s me who’s correcting your spelling of “britney” spears and snoop “dogg”? :)
    i think your post was spot-on, and excellent to read particularly in conjunction with my cousin’s. but i agree with junaid on how much things are changing in the “old world”. my hubby told me stories about being quite obviously “flashed” by women in abayas in saudi, which his friend explained was an attempt to start a hookup of some sort… but then again, maybe saudi isn’t the best example of a “chaste” country going bad?
    i do think the pressure to actually have sex, while tremendous on both sexes growing up, can be higher for boys/men, but the pressure on women to be sexy is just mad here. with or without hijab, finding “modest” american clothing is a drag… but i’m not much of a shopper and haven’t two clues about fashion so i guess it works out for me :)