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The latest season of The Bachelorette is upon us, and with it, a reminder of how our media, and culture at large, portray casual sex as the default standard of relationship behavior. Within this worldview, anyone who doesn’t have sexual “experience” is seen as an aberrance, instead of as someone making a valid lifestyle choice.

The Bachelor / Bachelorette series usually features a sexually-active man or woman looking for love among a crowd of potential suitors, during which the series profits from the combination of drama that results from basically dating a few people at once and in close quarters, and the steamy scenes that mark a growing physical attraction. But when the series seemed to take a new tack in 2019 by presenting viewers with virgin bachelor Colton Underwood, his virginity was obsessively discussed across episodes.

In 2020, Bachelor contestant and frontrunner Madison Prewett felt the burden of sharing the personal information of her virginity with bachelor Peter Weber on screen. As a 2020 Refinery29 article noted,

The news of Madison’s virginity isn’t posed as the simple—and possibly boring—subject of a conversation between two adults or a small part of her story. Instead, it is the late-breaking threat to one of the Bachelor 2020’s healthiest relationships and the twist in her narrative that could ruin her relationship forever. That’s a painfully overwhelming attitude around sex, and likely only makes viewers at home who are still waiting to do the deed more anxious—or, even ashamed—about a small part of their personhood.

This Refinery29 piece nods to the disproportion with which sexuality can sometimes be treated on-screen, and this treatment can translate into plots where virgin or celibate characters must conform by eventually engaging in sexual activity, and to the objectification of such characters (or in the case of the Bachelor / Bachelorette series, real people!).

How our sexualized media is affecting us

It could be argued today that access to second-hand sexual “experience” is more widely available than ever to people of all ages, thanks to the slew of media that feature sexual relationships. It has been found that many teens utilize the “sexual scripts” provided in films to guide their own sexual behavior. According to a 2018 study that examines casual sexual scripts in modern films, “Cultural sexual scripts are the societal norms and narratives that provide guidelines for sexual behaviors such as the number of sexual partners that is appropriate, the variety of sexual acts, motives for casual sex, and suitable emotions and feelings.” The casual sexual scripts that guide the hookup culture, though widely popularized, do not always translate well off-screen, as the study notes: “these casual sexual scripts might not be the ideal way to find a romantic partner, as researchers found that the sooner relationships become sexual, the greater their odds of failure.”

Meanwhile, the pressure to get sexually involved early in life permeates our cultural experience. A 2017 report from the CDC states that by age 18, as many as 55 percent of U.S. teenagers have had sex. Perhaps this is why there’s a fascination with—and very little cultural understanding of—those who are not sexually active. Representation of celibate (not sexually active) characters in film / TV waffles between nonexistent to negative, bringing into question the healthiness and soundness of such a choice. Characters who don’t engage in sex often need some explanation, as though a reason is needed to legitimize their non-activity—all contributing to a default perception that every person desires, and therefore pursues, sexual activity.

What actually good sex lives are made of

Deep down, I think most people don’t want sex that’s a commodity, skill, or performance. Within the experience of sex—as with all our interactions with others—each person’s dignity should be honored first and foremost. And it is for this very reason that any amount of sexual experience does not necessarily prepare a person for other sexual experiences. Though the hook-up culture might tempt us to think otherwise, many people who’ve had both casual and committed sex say the best sex is an expression of a relationship between two people within a highly personalized context. It is a context so personal that it will differ with each sexual partner and in each experience within encounters with one sexual partner.

“One of the biggest advantages to not being sexually experienced is the ability to work with one’s partner to discuss what ‘works’ for the other person. It’s another avenue to communication,” one of my married friends recently shared with me, when I told her I was writing on this topic. “Having less experience altogether means more vulnerability, which is frightening in a way, but more importantly, it sets one up for the need to communicate because it’s not just advocating for oneself but for the marriage as well,” she said.

My friend’s perspective suggests that sexual encounters are another way of being in conversation with one’s partner, that the thrill and uncertainties of such an encounter are as varied as there are people experiencing them.

With all the media depictions of sex, and especially sex outside the context of a committed relationship, we risk losing perspective on how sex is not the only kind of intimacy. I’m always struck by the fact that British author John Milton’s standard for compatibility was not sexual prowess, but a couple’s ability to engage in “apt and cheerful conversation,” which he felt would bond the couple together, through the ebb and flow of their sexual relationship.

Further, those who have decided not to be sexually active (either temporarily or permanently) are not relegated to a loveless life. Self-identified lesbian and celibate author Eve Tushnet highlights the fact that passion is found not only in romantic relationships but in friendships as well:

Friendship is sometimes contrasted with sexual love by comparing the images of a romantic couple gazing into each other’s eyes and a pair of friends facing outward toward a common goal or project. This imagery distorts both friendship and sexual love…friendship can nonetheless be as personal and as deeply interested in the friend for his own sake as any romantic love. 

In a culture that accepts so many lifestyle choices, the decision to forgo sex for a season or even for a lifetime is still considered by some to be puzzling at best and damaging to one’s physical and mental health at worst. I don’t believe sexual activity is the ultimate experience of our humanity, nor can any movie, book, magazine, or described or lived sexual experience (which may serve as means of getting the “experience” the culture says we need) really impart the most meaningful aspects of sex, which comes from the relationship by which it’s contextualized.

That’s why I’ve come to think that talking about sex in terms of “gaining experience” cheapens it. In the profundity of what it means to be human, one can never be fully proficient in knowing another person; it’s an ongoing journey.