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Guest Post: Yes, TLC's 'The Virgin Diaries' is an exploitative tragedy, but there may actually be something productive in the stories its reality-show virgins tell us


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Guest Post by Jonathan Allan

The Learning Channel (TLC) recently showed another episode of its new program The Virgin Diaries. The premise, virgins who have somehow passed the normal age of initiation, is interesting. The result, however, has often left me speechless.

In the initial episode, we met Ryan and Shanna, two virgins about to marry, who had never kissed. The highlight of their story, the wedding and its triumphant kiss, became a media sensation, because this was one of the most uncomfortable kisses ever watched on screen. In another episode, we met Skippy (who now has a Facebook fan page),­ a virgin who lives with his mom, and collects bellybutton lint. Skippy takes his 'wing-mom' to the bars with him, all in hopes of finding a potential love. And most recently, we met Julie, a 'super special unicorn,' a Lesbian Christian virgin, who insists that while she hasn't had sex, she is nevertheless 'supergay' (as though being gay requires having significant or even any amounts of sex). With respect to another engaged couple, Dan, a 36-year-old white male virgin, and Patrice, a black non-virgin woman, we were presented with a tired stereotype about black female sexuality. The perpetual and numerous double entendres throughout the program speak volumes, from the unicorn and her date eating "fish tacos," to Dan struggling to control a champagne bottle as he attempts to open it.

All these virgin narratives begin with an admission of virginity or a declaration of identity (i.e. I've never had sex, or I'm a virgin), an explanation for virginity (How I ended up a virgin? It was easier to say I was a Christian), and then a concerted effort to come to terms with virginity and/or lose virginity. [I recognize the problematics of framing virginity as something to 'lose.']

While the narratives are admittedly endearing at times, they more often seem to be about the hilarity and ridiculousness of these virgin stories. In a word: schadenfreude, 'malicious or smug pleasure taken in somebody else's misfortune.'

What is being lost in these narratives is an entire identity, each virgin is above all: A Virgin. Whatever else they may be seems less important than their virginity. They are innocent, not just in terms of sex, but in terms of life–as though life is measured by sexual performance. Their life experiences before their television appearance seems irrelevant not only to the program, but to their own identities, and all of this leads to a very uncomfortable, almost tragic, viewing experience.

While it would be easy to dismiss the program as exploitative or as perpetuating myths, it does seem that there is something productive to be found in The Virgin Diaries.

Through the three episodes that have aired thus far, we've been introduced to about a dozen virgins. Putting aside the freak-show quality, there is something quite telling about how these virgins frame their narratives. We see that virgins are different and must define for themselves their identities and their relation to virginity. More often than not, they learn, at least by episode's end, that virginity, though initially reified, is not really that important or not really that defining. In other words, though the program is about virgins, the virgin ultimately learns that he or she is much more than just a virgin.

In addition, while the show introduces us to religious virgins, we are not always presented with the 'Pure Virgin' discourse. The discussion is not about a virtue now lost, or a need to reclaim purity, or about the importance of abstinence; instead, it is about the confusing, conflicted, and complex nature of human sexuality, and that seems like a discussion worth having.

Jonathan Allan received his PhD from the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. In the fall, he will begin teaching in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at Brandon University. He last contributed to a post on Edward Cullen’s virginity.