(This post first appeared on Rhyme et Reason.)
I wish I could forget about TLC’s new reality show, “Virgin Diaries.” I should have been winding down a busy weekend last night reading one of the many books I’ve started but not finished and thinking ahead to what I need to do this week.
Instead, I caught the last few minutes of “All American Muslim,” when it suddenly segued into the premiere of “Virgin Diaries” and I was thrown unprepared into the strange stories of 20-and-30-something year-old virgins: a trio of roommates – Lisa, 30, Danielle, 29, and Tamara, 30 (a “reclaimed virgin”); mortgage banker Carey Ahr, 35; and a devout Christian couple, Ryan and Shanna, who had never kissed each other on the lips before their wedding day. (Side note: Carey Ahr, who lives in Frederick, Maryland, was featured in the hometown newspaper over the weekend.)
I couldn’t stop watching, even if I wanted to. I cringed through the awkwardness of seeing Ryan madly devouring Shanna’s face during their first kiss after the minister pronounced them husband and wife. I felt uncomfortable, anxious and sad for Shanna as she blissfully described her unrealistic expectations of how wonderful sex was going to be on her wedding night and then in the next scene with tears in her eyes, nervously asked her married girlfriends what do to.
I smacked my forehead in disbelief as Carey admitted on a first date in downtown Frederick that he was a virgin and inexperienced with women. And the trio of roommates? They’re waiting for their “rock star” and Prince Charming to whisk them away to married bliss so they can have hot sex and babies.
I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for these virgins, but that’s exactly what TLC is going for in “Virgin Diaries.” In our sex-obsessed culture, these women and men are portrayed as freaks and extreme exceptions. But the embarrassment and awkwardness is specifically reserved for the two men in the show. After all, our society prizes women’s virginity and mythologizes it until their wedding day with the man of their dreams.
The “Virgin Diaries” outlandish stories reveal gendered narratives of virginity and sex. For example, Carey’s mom is surprised and chuckles a little when her son comes to her for first-date advice and tells her that he is still a virgin. In her view, he should have gotten laid a long time ago. On Ryan’s wedding day, his dad shakes his head and laughs at his son’s naivete and inexperience. For the viewer, Carey and Ryan’s virginity stories are awkward but they describe anticipation, excitment and the possibility of no-strings-attached fun. In one scene, Carey’s friends urge him to “seal the deal” with a flirtatious woman who climbs into his lap and caresses his face at a downtown Frederick bar. In another scene, Carey mulls the idea of having a one-night stand with any willing woman, then decides against it.
In contrast, Shanna’s breathless talk about how excited she was to have sex and how great it was going to be was all the more painful for me to hear when at the end of the show, she quietly described how the real moment was physically painful. Danielle and Lisa’s stories were fraught with anxiety of not being married by a certain age, the fear of not knowing what sex is really like but having the expectation that it will be the greatest experience of their life and worth waiting for.
The source of my anxiety and uncomfortable feelings didn’t come from watching Carey and Ryan figuring out when to have sex or the mechanics of kissing. It specifically came from hearing the undertones in the women’s stories of intense anxiety, societal pressure and damaging expectations and myths of what sex is and isn’t.
Putting aside the bizarre, freak-show overtones of “Virgin Diaries,” these gendered narratives are way more real than TLC could have ever hoped for when network executives decided to create a show about virgins. But don’t look for a real and honest portrayal of sex and sexuality in the “Virgin Diaries.” See Our Bodies, Ourselves for that.