Last week on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Olympic track and field star Lori “Lolo” Jones confirmed personal details more shocking than steroid abuse or an extramarital affair: She was 29 years old and had never had sex.
Apparently, an adult woman’s choice to remain a virgin is such bombshell news that it makes next-day headlines on People.com, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. As evidenced by an incredibly unfunny TMZ segment that implies the Olympian should be humiliated by her chastity, there’s certainly a stigma attached to being a virgin in your late 20s. Jones deserves praise because no doubt, her announcement made many others choosing to abstain from sex feel more confident in their decisions.
However, Jones also ascribes an irksomely large value to virginity. In the Real Sports interview, she said maintaining her sexual purity is "the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s harder than training for the Olympics." For those who don’t know Jones’ remarkable racing history, she is essentially claiming that not having sex is more difficult than training to run 60-meter hurdles in under eight seconds flat; not only is that hyperbolic, but it insults the willpower, strength, and commitment Jones devotes to her sport—or any personal endeavor other than abstinence. Jones places virginity on such an impossibly high pedestal that even the greatest athletic event in the world could not compare with (marital) sex. It is completely understandable that Jones wants to combat the “uncoolness” associated with being a nonsexually active adult, but feeding into a mythical cult of virginity does not help matters. Rewarding chastity only serves to shift rather than resist the flak associated with adult abstinence.
That Jones makes her virginity into a prize is also problematic because it is not ultimately even a decision for herself. Jones stated during the interview that "It’s just a gift I want to give my husband." Really, something that supposedly involves more work and discipline than making the Olympics is for some person you haven’t even met yet? While Jones’ faith in her future spouse is admirable (especially for someone who has braved the online dating world) it’s disheartening that her choice to remain a virgin is not for her own sake, but someone else’s. If virginity is commodified into the “perfect gift,” it becomes about a woman pleasing a man rather than herself, and it is difficult to picture the determined and forceful Jones being that submissive in any other aspect of her life.
It is hard not to be a little cynical about any highly public commitment to chastity. The Olympian tweeted her virgin status herself, thus prompting the questions on Real Sports in the first place, and her followers have since risen by 40 percent.
We’ve witnessed the attention that many a young female pop-singer has garnered through claims of sexual purity, and we’ve seen them fall at the wayside, as well. Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus appeared to shrug off their vows of chastity as they aged, and Jessica Simpson married young (and promptly stopped worrying about sex out of wedlock post-Lachey divorce).
Jones is older and wiser than these women were when they made such declarations, but she still misses the point that (not having) sex should be neither ridiculed nor glorified. If it’s what she wants, I hope Jones will give her future husband her virginity. But she should keep the “medals” for herself.