August 18, 2005
Like a Virgin
Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee,
Lousy with virginity;
Won't go to bed till I'm legally wed,
I can't, I'm Sandra Dee. -- From the film "Grease"
What is up with virginity? First, there is the new movie, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which opens this Friday, and then there's the release of "Superstud, or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin," the book by "Freaks and Geeks" creator Paul Feig.
Allow me to point out the obvious: There is a world of difference between a 24-year-old male virgin and a 40-year-old male virgin, more than the 16 years might imply. One might be a normal kid who spent too much college time in study hall, and the other is a guy who spent too much time living with his mother. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Is virginity the new black?
In an era that seems to lack erogenous zones, is the only sexy thing left no sex at all?
This reminds me of my first year in Jerusalem. I was 18 and studying at a girls' seminary. Our school was in Ge'ula, one of the most religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem, adjacent to Me'ah She'arim, the most religious neighborhood in Israel's capital, which featured big bold signs in Hebrew and English: "WARNING! The Torah Prohibits a Jewish Daughter to Dress Immodestly, i.e. Mini-Dress or Slacks or Short Sleeves! PLEASE Don't Arouse Our Feelings by Being Immodestly Dressed!"
Needless to say, the sign provoked outrage, but we were dressing modestly anyway that year as part of school rules: We had to wear skirts that covered our knees (with no high school tricks like yanking your skirt down when teachers walked by) and shirts that covered our elbows and collarbones, as mandated by Orthodox law. We learned a lot about modesty that year -- about how a woman's true beauty is only within (kvod bat hamelech pnima), why a woman should not have physical contact with anyone but her husband -- and even then, only at certain times of the month -- and what are the most attractive ways cover your hair after marriage.
To the outside eye, or my later cynical one, that education might be called indoctrination more than education. But there was also something exceptionally comforting about the whole concept of ritual purity, modesty -- and staying concealed and untouched. In a way, it taps into the stereotypical female fantasy of any romantic comedy or Harlequin romance: to be adored and worshipped by one man, forever.
I tried the modesty/celibacy thing for a while. I really did. There were two basic problems:
1. I was nowhere near ready to get married. I'd started dating at age 19 (and you can see how well that worked out). You can only be shomrei negiah -- the religious term for avoiding touching between the opposite sex -- if you're headed down the aisle right around the time you reach legal drinking age.
2. I just didn't have the personality for modesty. I hated wearing skirts, and my whole demeanor decried the captivity of modesty. I liked to sing, not permitted in front of men; I liked public speaking and leading discussions. Simply put, I always seemed to stand out, as I realized at a religious cousin's wedding when I wore a perfectly modest dress that was bright red.
But the after-effects of my education held on for a while. At 25, I was chatting with three friends -- a Modern Orthodox "Sex and the City" -- about how long we'd hold out; what was the age we'd have to get married by to maintain our modesty?
One of my friends still hasn't changed. She's still a virgin, and she's almost 35. I don't see anyone making a movie out of that. Is this sad -- or beautiful, idealistic? We were all promised something sacred -- a husband who would cherish us, and especially value us because we were only intimate with him -- but the goods never came though. Not for my friend, and not for me either. Not yet.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that at times the debauchery of this free Western society can grate on me. Me! A person more comfortable in a bathing suit than any other outfit, a woman who has never ever been described as bashful. Yet I look at 10-year-old girls dressed way beyond their age; I hear statistics about teenagers and sex. And, sometimes, I pray that my own future daughter will have something more resembling my background, my choices, my possibilities of sexual restraint. A place where "Seven Minutes in Heaven" might just mean a peck on the cheek, where she didn't need to know the word "virginity" until she saw a movie like "Grease." And maybe her first lover would really be her first love -- maybe even her only love.
I suppose there's an unspoken question that arises from this sudden pop interest in virginity, especially when it comes to women (even though the book and film are about men): How do you balance between Madonna and the Virgin Mary -- for yourself, for your sisters, for your daughters? Religion never gave me an answer that was both ethically perfect and real-world practical.
A 24-year-old virgin -- now that might be something to write a memoir about. But a 40-year-old virgin?
Save it for the movies, because it's so sad you'd have to laugh.