“THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF SEX IS ALSO THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF RELIGION, ECONOMICS, POLITICS, KINSHIP AND HUMAN RIGHTS”
(Donnan and Magowan, 2010)
Glad we’ve cleared that up.
The next topic I wanted to cover in a blog post about the value of the body was about touch, and whether bodily contact with other bodies was essential forcollective and individual human experience, with the intention of citing psychology and physiology amongst other scientific arenas to really get to the bottom of why and how and if touch is so important to us. But then my friend told me about a documentary called Virgin School, and my premise for this post quickly changed. And then after I watched Virgin School, I did that thing where you stay watching the credits for too long and they suggest other things for you to watch and then four days later you come out of your hypnosis two stone lighter and a whole world smellier, and watched 40 Year Old Virgins, too.
Note: don’t watch these in a public library. You’ll create a lot of confusion and unease for those around you.
“From the part of the body which it especially occupies, sexuality spreads forth like an odour or like a sound”
Both documentaries, and please note I’m playing far and loose with the word ‘documentary’ here, follow the journeys of sexually inexperienced adults, who are searching for sexual intimacy and experience for the very first time. Beneath, ultimately, the procrastination, it made me think about the performing body, the body in activity, and how sex is portrayed as the ultimate activity of ‘humanhood’ (coining it). This is how you can productively procrastinate, people.
The narrator of 40 Year Old Virgins began our quest to the ‘virginity-losing’ of our two forty-something protagonists, Clive and Rosie (actually Rosie was 29 at the time of filming but the title A 40 Year Old and a 29 Year Old Virgin doesn’t really pack the same punch), with saying that “sex is the most natural thing in the world”. Which I immediately baulked at, because this show wasn’t about Clive and Rosie seeking sexual activity within a reproductive capacity, in order to continue the human population (although what even is the most natural thing in the world? Alas, I have no definitive answer). Clive and Rosie were on a journey to perform the social ritual of sex, to engage in normative behaviour which meant they would be accepted in society and accept themselves. Sexual activity, in this context, is a social rite of passage, not for reproductive aims.
26-year old James, our main man in Virgin School, spoke of how experiencing sexual intimacy for the first time would make him “feel more man”, more “adequate”; that he was “never gonna be a real man” if he remained sexually inexperienced. Which drags into this discussion the idealised notions of what, in fact, it means to be a “real man”, thus calling upon Butler’s theory that gender is performative (Butler, 1990). For protagonist James to become a true man, thevery embodiment of masculinity and all that encompasses this, he must complete the ritual of sexual activity (Gennep, 1960). Notably, within modern British discourse, and also emphasised by the absence of emphasis during the two shows, there was no clarification on the kind of sex James, and the other two people we followed, were on a journey to engage with. But in our modern society, unfortunately this is never necessary. It was of course going to be straight up, heterosexual, heteronormative penile-vaginal penetration. That was the end goal, to fully enact out the “violent sexist etymological roots” (Rees, 2005:7) of the original Latin word ‘vagina’, a sheath, or scabbard. That’s right, a sheath for which a sword may rest. Feminist trivia of the day: check. The point is that this documentary paints a very limited view on what involves sexual activity, and what constitutes becoming a fully functioning, gendered member of society. It reflects how heterosexuality is perpetuated and reiterated as the normative roles we must play. As a normative benchmark, in order to lose your ‘virginity’ one must have penetrative sex.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the two documentaries, and I can imagine for many people watching it, these programs will have mirrored aspects of their own experiences navigating the act of sex. And it didn’t half cause controversy. as the media attention showed:
The one thing worse than promiscuous teens? 40-year-old virgins, Beverley Turner, The Telegraph
Grace Dent on TV: 40-year-old Virgins, Grace Dent, The Independent
No Longer Like a Virgin, James Riley, This Is Local London
Some liked it, some didn’t. Regardless, it was talked about. Why was that?
Merleau-Ponty argues that “sexuality is neither transcended in human life, not shown up at its centre by unconscious representations. It is at all times present there like an atmosphere” (1962:195). Arguably, this rings true for Britain and other Western countries. Sex sells – an ex-colleague told me how a previous manager (retail, male) used to work by the “tits on tills” rule; women sell more, as long as they use their perceived and culturally constructed sexuality/femininity/powers of seduction in order to do so. So it is no surprise that programmes like Virgin School and 40 year-old Virgins are increasingly popular.
Other points of interest in the programmes for me were that the sex therapists were not only coaching our protagonists about the use of touch in a sexualised context, they were also teaching them how to be physically and bodily engaged with other bodies, through hugging, and holding hands. Studies have shown the psychological and physiological effect physical touch can have on a person (Bush,2001; Crusco and Wetzel, 1984; Willis and Hamm, 1980), and how important it is for human interaction, communication and connection. Campaigns like Free Hugs are testament to the power that simple hug can have.
As an afterthought:
There is a wealth of literature centred around the word ‘virgin’, debating, dissecting, crushing, reforming the word in all its entirety. The murky waters surrounding this word make it incredibly difficult to use in any context without it being heavily value-laden. Quite a hefty quote is to follow, but one not easy to ignore:
“Curiously… virginity is a matter between men, in which women merely play the role of silent intermediaries. Like honour, virginity is the manifestation of a purely male preoccupation in societies where inequality, scarcity, and the degrading subjection of some people to others deprive the community as a whole of the only true human strength: self-confidence. The concepts of honour and virginity locate the prestige of a man between the legs of a woman.”
The point is that our use of language, ourunderstanding of language surrounding sexuality– including the assumption that heterosexuality is normal, that for a man to be sexually inexperienced is to negate his status as a man and to naturalise the word virginity so it is idealised as a biological fact, is to do us all an injustice. Programs like Virgin School and 40 Year-old Virgins may be light entertainment for us, and may have been an avenue for the protagonists to gain their own self-confidence, and alter their lives for better or worse, but it is always necessary to take one step back, and look at the value we place on certain bodily activities.
Bush, E. (2001). The Use of Human Touch to Improve the Well-Being of Older Adults: A Holistic Nursing Intervention. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 19(3), pp.256-270.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble, feminist theory, and psychoanalytic discourse.Feminism/postmodernism, 324-340.
Crusco, A. and Wetzel, C. (1984). The Midas Touch: The Effects of Interpersonal Touch on Restaurant Tipping. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 10(4), pp.512-517.
Donnan, H. and Magowan, F. (2010). The anthropology of sex. New York: Berg.
Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Mernissi, F. (1982). Virginity and patriarchy. Women’s Studies International Forum, 5(2), pp.183-191.
Rees, E. (2015). The vagina. New York, NY [u.a.]: Bloomsbury Acad.
Willis, F. and Hamm, H. (1980). The use of interpersonal touch in securing compliance. J Nonverbal Behav, 5(1), pp.49-55.
Chloe Harrison is a second year anthropology student at UCL, most interested in concepts of the body, and with this how structural violence is played out within, between and from bodies