Abby Carney got a call from MTV to be in a docuseries about virgins in August. The 23-year-old Austin freelance writer caught the attention of producers for a still-untitled virgin-themed show after she wrote a piece about waiting to have sex for XOJane, but she didn’t make it past the screening process.
“Essentially I think it was just going to be them trying to make me look crazy,” she told BuzzFeed. “I could just tell by tone of voice the woman who was interviewing me was making fun of me.”
The interviewer asked Carney “detailed, graphic questions,” including questions about sexual “gray areas,” which she didn’t feel comfortable answering. “They were like, ‘Either you get detailed with us or we don’t want to talk to you.’”
It wasn’t anything new for Carney, who said she feels she has been, at times, virgin-shamed.
“When people find out, they want to know details,” she said.
Like slut-shaming, virgin-shaming involves making fun of someone for their personal choices regarding sex. But while slut-shaming has become increasingly frowned upon, virgin-shaming remains fairly acceptable, and can be a form of veiled religious bigotry.
“In today’s culture, you’re looked down upon for choosing to wait,” said Jacob Levi, a 23-year old from Nampa, Idaho, who is a Christian and a virgin. “Specifically, as a guy, you’re not viewed as a man. You get a lot of crap.”
Levi said he originally wanted to wait until marriage for religious reasons, but today it’s much more personal.
“For me, it’s more about I don’t want to throw it out there for anybody,” he said.
Virgin-shaming isn’t just always about sex; it can be about pornography too. A video uploaded by the Brigham Young University-Idaho Housing and Student Living Office about pornography addiction in December recently went viral. Titled “Wounded On The Battlefield,” the video includes audio from a 2008 devotional given by BYU-I President and former Harvard Business School Dean Kim Clark in which he compares temptation, sin, and repentance to war, a common Christian metaphor, and encourages students who know about their roommates’ or friends’ addiction to pornography to speak up and help them overcome it.
Some bloggers described the video as “creepy,” “hilarious,” and “propaganda,” and characterized it as an “anti-masturbation video,” although masturbation is never mentioned. (BuzzFeed also wrote about the video.)
In a statement, the university told BuzzFeed the sole purpose of the video was to illustrate a belief that “we have a Christian obligation to watch out for the spiritual and physical well-being of those around us”:
Brigham Young University-Idaho adheres to the doctrines and practices of its sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As such, we regard addiction to pornography as a harmful and destructive vice. We also regard each other as brothers and sisters and believe we have a Christian obligation to watch out for the spiritual and physical well-being of those around us. The sole purpose of the video is to illustrate those principles for BYU-Idaho students as well as to encourage them to reach out in a spirit of love and concern if someone they know is struggling with any form of addiction. Any other interpretation of the video is inaccurate and unwarranted.
Each story also called the video a “Mormon video” or a video at a “Mormon university” in the headline and opening sentences.
Virgin-shaming often occurs with public figures who are open about their religious beliefs. At a 2009 SEC press conference, then-21-year-old University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was asked if he was “saving himself for marriage.” The room nervously laughed before Tebow answered that he was. It’s a question other athletes are not asked.
“I think it’s totally unfair,” Craig Gross, founder of XXXchurch, a Christian group that helps people overcome addictions to pornography said. “If you say, ‘I’m not religious and I’m single,’ people aren’t going to ask you if you sleep around.”
Public figures have also been asked how they “deal with temptation,” as the Jonas Brothers and Jordin Sparks were in separate interviews following the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards where comedian Russell Brand made light of the band’s promise rings symbolizing abstinence until marriage. It’s a question that typically invites awkward answers (“Isn’t it hard?” Barbara Walters asked the Jonas Brothers. “Of course, um … it’s hard … doing that … for sure,” Kevin responded) and again, is not something that would be asked of someone who chose to have sex before marriage.
Gross said he believes virgin-shaming is made easier because while there are many who quietly live their faith or believe in abstaining until marriage and avoiding pornography, attention is only paid to a few, like Tim Tebow.
“There’s some better ways some guys have shown their faith on and off the field, but we’re just honed in on Tim Tebow,” he said. “I know a number of guys on the Seahawks who love the Lord. They’re not drawing attention.”
This means attention is especially drawn to more peculiar or stereotypical depictions of chastity, like the bizarre first kiss of the recently married couple on TLC’s Virgin Diaries, the immature and uptight Shoshanna on HBO’s Girls, and the BYU-Idaho video, which Gross and a number of Mormons online have said was overly dramatic and a little weird.
“The stuff we put out is often goofy,” Gross said. “It’s not good. It’s outdated … We need better spokespeople.”
Meenakshi Gigi Durham, professor in the University of Iowa Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and author of The Lolita Effect, said she views virgin-shaming and slut-shaming as similar. Both are forms of social shaming that create “an arbitrary value system where we’re using sexuality as a way to value people.”
“People should be free to make consensual sexual choices if they’re adults,” she said.
This social shaming also reinforces gender roles and reveal a double standard.
“[Women] either have to be virginal or they’re denigrated as promiscuous,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be a similar response for men. In movies like 40-Year-Old Virgin, men are mocked … There’s always been a double standard.”
Carney, the freelance writer passed over by MTV said she doesn’t like talking about virginity, but feels like it’s important to help the public understand something often misunderstood.
“I get kind of sick of people making a big deal out of it,” she said. “It’s a big deal to me, obviously, but I don’t think it should be a big deal to anyone else.”