Before the premiere of MTV's Virgin Territory – which follows 15 young adults as they try, or don't try, to lose their virginities – Britain's Telegraph wondered whether it would represent a "new low" for American reality TV. I was skeptical as well: I figured an MTV show about virgins could only be insensitive (Hey, look at the virgins!) or moralistic (Hail the virgins!), or both.
Three episodes in, Virgin Territory is less crass than expected. When the cast members seem ridiculous, it's usually their own doing: "No ringy, no dingy!" chants Dominique, a 21-year-old who is waiting for the right guy (Dominique, if you're reading this, "rock" rhymes better). Still, the characters are mostly likable. Far from prude shaming, MTV has so far presented a relatively nuanced take on motivations, even while sensationalizing setbacks; and if the show opens a tempered dialogue about virginity, I'll call it smart programming.
The subject of virginity can seem anachronistic, harking back to a view of women as property and heterosexual relations as standard. But attitudes are changing: A study out of the University of Illinois, which surveyed students from 1990 to 2012, found virginity loss had become a better experience for both men and women, thanks partly to evolving gender roles.
In mainstream culture, female characters are at least demonstrating more agency over their firsts. In the movie Very Good Girls, released in select U.S. theatres last week, Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerri (Elizabeth Olsen) vow to lose their virginity before summer's end. One does, and while this leads to a feud with the other one, the film ends with the two of them dancing joyously in their underwear for no apparent reason. In last year's The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza plays an overachieving high-school graduate who applies the same determination to her sexual education.
The movie is refreshingly frank about female desire, as well as the ways in which desire is irrelevant to sexual initiation, which is just as often about ego and identity. The question of how we define virginity is seldom raised in sex comedies, but it seems increasingly significant as our view of sexuality evolves – as we recognize how expansive, how refracted, it is.
In her recent documentary. How to Lose Your Virginity, Therese Shechter takes a broader view of "sexual debut" (as she suggests we think of it), examining virginity not only as a cultural concept but also as a personal rite whose meaning varies for individuals. Judy Kang, a young violinist, believes "you can be just as impure" in thought as in body, despite having recently toured with Lady Gaga; a cheerful heterosexual couple in their mid-20s talk openly about their non-penetrative sex life. "He's gone down on me, I've gone down on him," says Brita. "We have watched each other masturbate on Skype." Dan interjects: "Skype sex is wonderful."
Both Brita and Dan consider themselves virgins (they plan to save intercourse for marriage), which shows how subjective the idea of virginity is, despite its heft as a collective notion. According to 73 per cent of those surveyed in a 2010 Kinsey Institute study on what constitutes sex, Dan and Brita have already had it. Virginity is both universal and radically specific, but no less meaningful for being undefinable in absolute terms. One of Shechter's most thoughtful subjects is Meghan, who is transgender; although she first had sex with a woman at age 19, she hadn't felt she'd lost her virginity. Meghan tells Shechter that she hasn't had a sexual relationship since beginning her transition a few years earlier: "And so what do you do when you're a 50-year-old virgin? What will virginity look like as a female for me? … I know I'll romanticize it, I'll fall into all the traps. But I want to know what it feels like."
In the late 1990s, Laura Carpenter, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, interviewed 61 subjects, across a range of sexual identities, about their attitudes toward virginity loss. She found that most of them conceived of virginity in one of three ways: as a gift for the right partner, as a stigma to be dispensed with; and as a process – not an event necessarily, but a rite of passage that might accumulate over several experiences. (Subjects who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer were more likely to think of virginity in the latter fashion.)
I raised this idea with Yuula Benivolski, a Toronto artist who has been collecting and publishing loss-of-virginity stories for nearly a decade (so far in a zine, with plans to publish a book in October). "A lot of people were like, 'I don't know what to send you, because I have five stories that were all like a loss of virginity of some kind to me,'" she said. Others identified a moment, but didn't consider it all that significant: "One of the first people who wrote to me said, 'I lost my virginity on MDMA at 17, with some sketchy guy in [Kensington] Market, and there were newspapers covered in mouse [droppings] on the floor … and that was kind of okay. But ask me about the first time I had an orgasm with someone, that was way more significant.'
"People tend to focus on the mechanics of it," Benivolski continues, "which is understandable, because in the heterosexual world, that's how you do it, I guess. But I don't think that's what's important."
What is important is how you felt and how you make sense of it – how you continue to make sense of it over a lifetime.