There are two kinds of virgins: the willing and the unwilling. We are used to regarding as anomalous the willing virgin, the young adult hopped up on hormones who nonetheless mindfully, often religiously, forsakes intercourse—even though his peers, pop culture, and own libido are encouraging him to do otherwise. But if willing virgins’ faith and self-control are remarkable, their relationship to sex is in one key way not all that different from that of people fornicating daily: Sex is available to them. Sure, they are constantly warding it off, turning it down, guarding against it, because sex is something they could be having, albeit with the wrong person, at the wrong time, in a way that is disrespectful to God.
The unwilling virgins, the young adults who absolutely want to be having sex, but somehow aren’t, may not have a set of beliefs that set them apart, but unlike both the sexually active and the willfully not sexually active, sex feels totally unavailable to them. If sex is the ocean on a very hot day, willing virgins are standing on the shore, maybe occasionally dipping their toes in. As soon as they allow themselves, they can get as wet as everyone else. The unwilling virgins keep trying to dive in, only for the ocean to retreat beneath their feet. There is water, water everywhere—everyone keeps saying so!—but not a drop for them to sleep with.
MTV’s new reality series Virgin Territory, premiering Wednesday night, takes on post-high-school virgins both willing and unwilling. The series showcases four virgins, who, over the course of the series, tap out as they finally tap that, to be replaced by others. Lisa, one of the participants in the first episode, is a 23-year-old Christian days from getting married. She has sex on her wedding night, and so is replaced in the second episode by the 22-year-old Luke, a devout Christian and Jonas Brother lookalike. The three other participants—Mikaela, a 19-year-old college student eager to have sex, but not with just anyone; Kyle, a musclebound 20-year-old secret virgin who has never seen a vagina; and Dominique, 22, who repeats “no ringy, no dingy” like a mantra—carry over from episode to episode.
For all of the participants, as for the show, sex is front-of-mind. But Lisa and Luke have support systems helping them think about sex in clarifying black-and-white terms—it’s not something you do until you’re married. At her bridal shower, Lisa is given lingerie—lingerie, she jokes, from a bunch of virgins. Unlike the friends of Mikaela, Kyle, and Dominique, who, with good intentions, treat virginity like an embarrassment, Lisa’s friends share her sexual status. She and her husband-to-be, who have been dating for three years, go to see their pastor, and he warns them that their joyous wedding night sex may not be all that good. Luke, though he’s received some blow jobs in his day, talks often with his brother and his father, a pastor, about the difficulty of warding off girls who keep throwing themselves at him. If it takes a village to keep kids from having sex before marriage, both Lisa’s and Luke’s villages are up to the job.
The sexually secular world that Mikaela, Kyle, and Dominique inhabit is much, much more confusing. Sex is all around them, but not exactly in the way that they want, are comfortable with, or can control. Out at a club, Mikaela’s friend gets groped by a stranger, an experience she finds discomfiting but not night-ruining. Mikaela keeps making out with boys who disappear soon after. Dominique, who is fun and flirty and likes to dance, is often accused of being a tease. Kyle, who has no game at all, is tattooed and very buff and gets propositioned regularly at bars—we see it happen on camera. He is mistaken for a kind of predatory meathead, but is too nice, too scared, too clueless, too abashed to act like one. The girls he does like are barely interested in him. He takes one on a romantic carriage ride, and she hates every single minute of it.
Their friends are supportive—about helping them lose their virginity ASAP. Dominique, a more willing virgin than Kyle and Mikaela, still has a friend instruct her, “Just have sex once.” Mikaela’s friends are constantly, condescendingly bringing her virginity up like it’s a fun project, a makeover they can help her with. Upon hearing he’s a virgin, Kyle’s friends are both much nicer than he expects—they don’t make fun of him, they promise to keep it a secret, they assure him it’s not that big a deal—and also flabbergasted, insisting he can get laid that very night if he wants. “Tell me you’re not all sensi [a spectacular abbreviation of sensitive] about it,” a friend says. “A little bit,” Kyle replies, which, his friends think, is part of the problem.
Virgin Territory tries to get into psychological explanations for all of this unwanted virginity, because like the participants’ friends, MTV thinks it’s weird. Kyle’s father died when he was in high school, and he self-diagnoses that the loss caused him to miss out on many a formative experience with females. He also says his mother is a nurse and his stepfather a doctor and they successfully freaked him out about STDs. Dominique’s parents got divorced when she was in high school, and her mother left, a turn of events she’s still reeling from. (When she finds out her mother is getting remarried, she says it’s too soon: Her parents only got divorced six years ago.) She wants control, she wants a marriage that won’t end. Mikaela does a lot of theorizing about how uninterested she usually is in boys who actually like her.
Watching these three fret about their sexual status, I was reminded of the stress of being a pubescent girl who gets her period late: Until it arrives, you are embarrassed that you don’t have it. And then one day it arrives, and all that worrying was for naught. The ocean is really big. If you’re trying, it’s hard not to fall into it eventually. And the loss of your virginity, symbolically and emotionally resonant as it is, is just the first step. The morning after Lisa’s wedding night, she seems extremely underwhelmed about what happened the night before. “It wasn’t breathtaking,” she says. She may no longer be virgin, but what happens next would make a great subject for a reality show.