MTV’s ‘Virgin Territory’ Treads Too-Familiar Ground

What could have been a fascinating insight into strangers' expressions of intimacy is instead a tableau of stereotypical sexual narratives already prevalent in mainstream media.

What could have been a fascinating insight into strangers' expressions of intimacy is instead a tableau of stereotypical sexual narratives already prevalent in mainstream media. MTV

MTV, infamous for its intimate onscreen explorations of teen pregnancy and young motherhood, has made a new foray into strangers’ personal lives with Virgin Territory, a reality show that follows 15 self-identified “virgins” wrestling with sexual decision-making. Yet over the course of the ten episodes aired so far, the series has not yet bothered to interrogate the definition of virginity or present the drama of “losing” it as something other than a source of potential trauma—meaning that what could have been a fascinating insight into varying expressions of intimacy is instead a tableau of stereotypical viewpoints already prevalent in mainstream media.

Despite this, Virgin Territory isn’t totally unwatchable, especially as an opportunity to examine just how deeply ideas of heteronormativity and sexism have taken root in many young adults’ lives all over the United States. Again, no one in the cast has shared their idea of what it means to lose one’s virginity: As viewers, we’re all just supposed to assume that it refers to the traditional, heterosexist definition of the moment a cis dude uses his penis to break the (assumingly intact) hymen of a cis woman. Even the show’s only non-straight virgin thus far, Alec, doesn’t explain the specifics when he says, “I want to come out … so I can openly have a relationship with a dude and maybe lose my virginity.”

Although most of the show’s participants are in their teens and early 20s, Virgin Territory centers on each one’s conviction that they must be the last virgin on earth, or at least among their friends. According to a recent piece in The Atlantic on “late in life virgins,” the average American first has vaginal sexual intercourse at age 17. That being said, 12.3 percent of women and 14.3 percent of men ages 20 to 24 are virgins—far from an overwhelming minority.

Still, the insecurities voiced by the subjects of Virgin Territory aren’t uncommon, especially if you’re surrounded by peers talking about the sex they’re supposedly engaging in. John, who appears in episode eight, says, “It’s difficult to be a virgin when everyone you know is having sex. It’s weird to be a virgin at 19. I don’t want to be a 35-year-old virgin.”

This struggle is particularly evident for the young cis men on the show, who must negotiate being sexually inexperienced with the aggressive masculinity constantly asserted by their friends. Kyle, a 19-year-old from Florida, informs his friends he’s a virgin on camera, then must face their ridicule as they instruct him to “Stop being a pussy, dude.” He does decide to lose his virginity with a friend at home, although he later learns that his father was older than he was when he lost his virginity. About this revelation, Kyle confesses, “I wish I knew—I would have felt better.”

Another 19-year-old, David, admits that he hasn’t kissed a girl and, because he’s nervous about making moves, is “permanently stuck in the “friend zone.” People have accused him in the past, he says, of being gay, and he isn’t. Though his fraternity brothers urge him to be more sexually forward, David’s female friends, too, contribute to the sense of urgency, asking, “What didn’t happen, David?” when he goes on a date with a girl without kissing her.

For the young men on Virgin Territory, it’s not the exploration of sexuality that seems to matter; rather, it’s the performance of demonstrating one’s sexual accomplishments publicly through flirting, dating, kissing, and penetrative sex. Alone with the camera in his dorm room, John says of losing his virginity, “I’d like it to be special and not drunk sex … I don’t want to act like that’s all I care about. It’s not.” Around his friends, however, John, who describes himself as “awkward as fuck” around girls, manages the gumption to approach a young woman on the beach and ask her to go to a party.

One can’t help but wonder what sex will be like for these young men when it happens. There’s yet to be a conversation among them on camera about consent, reciprocity, or even what the act of intercourse is like. Virgin Territory’s efforts to make space to talk about virginity—and, by extension, sexuality—in public are valuable, and it is important for other so-called late virgins to know they’re not alone. Given the concealed control reality shows often take of their series’ story lines, though, perpetuating bro attitudes by avoiding group conversations about feelings and logistics isn’t exactly a helpful contribution to the wider dialogue.

In a recent blog post, documentarian and activist Therese Schechter posits that the panic many young adult men face over the pressure to have sex is a result of the predominant cultural narrative of virginity loss as a signifier of adulthood and sexual competence for men. Because there are no real alternative points of view, she writes,

When the vacuum gets filled with sexist, judgmental and usually inaccurate pop culture, porn, and abstinence-until-marriage classes about what ‘real men’ are supposed to be like, it’s no wonder 17-year-old guys think life is over because they haven’t yet had intercourse. … I believe that becoming sexual is a long and gradual process. It’s not some race to the finish line where the money-shot is the end goal.

On Virgin Territory, the young men do see losing their virginity as something that’s vital to their masculinity. It’s about fitting in among peers, becoming confident, and reaching a perceived milestone. It’s not that their lives are over because they’re virgins, so much as it won’t really start until they aren’t virgins anymore.

Meanwhile, as far as the young women on the show are concerned, the main concern about losing one’s virginity is not the fear of being left behind, but the fear of not waiting long enough. This, too, is consistent with wider trends. A recently released study from Illinois State University Professor of Sociology Susan Sprecher reveals that when it comes to virginity-loss in the United States, “women’s pleasure has increased over time, while their feelings of guilt have decreased. Both pleasure and guilt remained virtually unchanged for men, while anxiety, which has increased for women just slightly, decreased for men over time.” Still, Sprecher notes, women are more likely to feel more guilt than men about their sexual explorations.

Although there’s not much talk about guilt among the women on Virgin Territory, there is a widely reported dread of regret. While Mikaela, 20, is “actively” looking for someone to lose her virginity to, and says she doesn’t think that “being a virgin should be made out to be such a big deal,” she concludes her time on the show still a virgin: “I want to know I won’t regret it (the person).” Mikaela’s friends talk about sex constantly (admittedly, being in a show that’s about virginity makes it hard to discern if this is normal or not), but at a party Mikaela throws where she decides to make out with a guy she likes, a friend reminds her that “you don’t have to do anything.”

Meanwhile, Dominique, 21, is committed to remaining a virgin until she’s married for myriad reasons, including that she wants to break a cycle among the women in her family of being young, unmarried, and pregnant. In an interview with Cosmopolitan published after her episode aired, she claimed that sex “is a spiritual connection, it’s very remarkable, and I believe it’s something you should share with your husband. It’s something that you don’t want to regret.”

And among both genders in Virgin Territory, there’s little discussion of pleasure. There’s never an outright statement about wanting to have sex because it feels good, or even concern for one’s partner’s feelings. Lisa, 23, confesses to never having masturbated; she’s engaged to Nick, who, since having sex at age 14, “has fought tooth and nail to keep himself pure.” One of the most heart-rending moments of Lisa’s segment is when she asks her pastor, “What takes the least amount of work? Which way will make it done the fastest if I’m tired?”

We don’t hear the answer from her pastor, but I think it’s safe to say it’s probably not, “You don’t have to have sex whenever your husband wants to.”

Ultimately, Lisa admits that losing her virginity wasn’t breathtaking, but is happy that now it’s okay for “us to express that we love each other.”

In theory, giving folks the chance to tell their own stories, at least to whatever degree is possible on network reality TV, is a great idea in terms of trying to dispel popular tropes about virginity already common in our culture. Overall, though, the people showcased on Virgin Territory have thus far used the opportunity to regurgitate those same clichés.

So in that sense, despite the first-person style, it’s not that different from many other things we’re already seeing on television or movies. In fact, one could say that it’s slipping behind the dominant narrative, at least as far as the Internet is concerned. After all, Cosmopolitan’s Anna Breslaw recently published a piece that pointed out, “The person who took your virginity could mean nothing to you.”

“We’re brought up to think that we’ll have mutual virginity loss with our high school boyfriend, Chad the quarterback, in a Model T overlooking Lover’s Point after winning the homecoming game, and afterward cry together, or whatever the hell,” she continued. “Actually it might just be a rando or someone you barely know. And that doesn’t mean anything’s wrong with you.”

Still, these stereotypes endure for a reason; as Schechter notes above, the lack of alternative rhetoric leaves many adolescents vulnerable to influences that outweigh their own desires. Given MTV’s ubiquity among teens and even adults, Virgin Territory could be a prime opportunity to introduce such differing perspectives.

The series’ first season is scheduled to run through the fall. Hopefully, some taboo-shattering—or at least -cracking—will occur eventually. Until then, though, I’m not holding my breath.