Let’s Talk About 40 Year Old Virgins

Recently a friend pointed me towards a documentary called 40 Year Old Virgins that she had watched on iView – not to be confused with the film The 40 Year Old Virgin. Though the idea interested me, as many sexuality-related topics do, I was initially sceptical of watching it: surely it was just going to be some hyped-up message of sad adult virgins discovering that true happiness and fulfillment are dependent on sex? But in the end my curiosity as an asexual person won out.

The documentary features Clive (45) and Rosie (29), two adults who have never had sex and decide that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. They travel to the US to pursue a two-week therapy program with a sex surrogate, during which the goal is to have and become comfortable with sex. Because of the nature of the topic, the documentary has attracted a lot of controversial media attention, from people saying that it’s too graphic to that it’s too voyeuristic. Neither of these are things I’m particularly concerned about: the depictions of sex and nudity are frank and far from pornographic, and as an asexual activist who has talked about her personal and sex life to the media, I can understand why people don’t mind sharing their intimate experiences on television.

All that aside, I found 40 Year Old Virgins deeply uncomfortable to watch. I don’t have problems with the nudity and the sexual scenes, but what I do have a problem with is the way that the documentary buys into the culture of compulsory sexuality that says sex is everything and virginity past a certain point is shameful and a problem that needs fixing. It starts from the very first voice-over (‘sex is the most natural thing in the world’) and continues all the way to the end, and though it touches on the stigma and feelings of shame associated with not having had sex, it never questions why this is so.

In one of my previous posts calling for a re-thinking of the concept of virginity, I explain how sex-positivism has changed the way we think about losing one’s virginity from something shameful (or only appropriate once properly grown up and married) to something natural, inevitable and positive. However, sex-positivity has done very little to address the culture of compulsory sexuality: the idea that sex is natural, inevitable and desirable, and a key factor in happiness, self-fulfillment and proper ‘humanness.’ This is the most evident line of argument in 40 Year Old Virgins. Not once does it suggest that maybe sex just isn’t desired or needed by some people, or that you can live a happy life without it.

There is quite a substantial difference between the two stories in 40 Year Old Virgins. Clive seems genuinely upset and frustrated by his inability to connect to women sexually and go ‘all the way,’ which has ruined relationships for him in the past. In the course of the program, he progresses quickly and willingly: in one instance, his surrogate partner asks him whether he would like to kiss her, which he does and proceeds to do. Throughout the documentary, I got the impression that Clive didn’t lack desire for sex, just confidence and some basic skills, which he was able to work with and overcome in order to successfully reach his goal.

It was Rosie’s story, on the other hand, that I found deeply upsetting and uncomfortable. She describes herself as never having been interested in boys when she was younger, and she really wants to get married and have children. Throughout the documentary she is visibly uncomfortable with many of the exercises in sensual touch that her surrogate partner gets her to do, and freely states that she isn’t attracted to him at all, which she sees as a major issue for her success. For instance, when she tries touching her surrogate partner’s face, she stops after a few seconds because she doesn’t find it pleasant, but overwhelming and sometimes even repulsive. The documentary links this to childhood abuse, but I wonder whether that also accounts for Rosie’s lack of desire and attraction.

Watching Rosie’s struggles throughout the show made me upset, because unlike Clive, it seemed to me that Rosie genuinely didn’t desire sex, but was trying to make herself into a sexual person so that she would be more ‘normal’ and so that she could get married and have children. And although she ‘progresses’ in the sense of becoming more comfortable with touch and activities such as foot rubs and naked cuddling, none of those activities seem to become sexual or even desirable to Rosie. I felt like shouting at the documentary that neither of Rosie’s actual desires (marriage and children) are dependent on sex; that maybe, Rosie isn’t just repressed and broken but something else: asexual. And that maybe, it’s OK that way.

Obviously, it’s not my job to decide that Rosie is asexual, or even potentially asexual. But it frustrated and upset me that the idea is not even considered or mentioned, that the narrative of sex as intrinsic, natural and fun is never questioned. Throughout the whole documentary, the emphasis is on sex as the ultimate goal, and sexual pleasure as something that people ‘need’ to enjoy and experience. Not once is there a mention that some people don’t experience sexual attraction, that some people don’t like kissing and touching and sex. Not once is it suggested that people can be happy, or have meaningful relationships, or even have children without sex.

40 Year Old Virgins struck too close to home for me, because  I could imagine myself in Rosie’s shoes, being twenty-nine and a virgin, and being seen as a prude, broken, needing to be fixed. Although I’m not touch-repulsed and enjoy things like cuddling, I can see myself in Rosie’s situation when she tries to be sexual but just can’t make it work. But unlike Rosie, I don’t see myself as broken or needing to have sex. I know that people (including myself) can have wonderful lives and relationships without needing to be sexual. And I think the makers of 40 Year Old Virgins could do with figuring that out as well.

You can watch the full documentary here.

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10 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About 40 Year Old Virgins

  1. I saw that same documentary on Australian TV earlier this year and thought exactly the same way as you did.

    I was also troubled by Rosie’s surrogate’s response (perhaps a result of unfortunate editing) to her telling him that she wasn’t attracted to him. He said something like, “I want you to know that I’m okay with that,” as if his feelings in all this were more important than they should have been.

    1. Yeah, that was a bit odd. I guess it makes sense in the way that people might be nervous that they’d be insulting the surrogate or something, or think that not being attracted means that the therapy won’t work, but you’re right, that shouldn’t really be the focus.

  2. I saw the documentary a while ago and got a completely different response to you, Jo. This documentary wasn’t about asexuality or necessarily the importance of sex. Both Clive and Rosie had been traumatised which in turn blocked their sexual desire. Clive experienced bullying as a child which made him uncomfortable with the size of his penis. Rosie had experienced child sex abuse which, from what I could gather, blocked her desire for sex, and may have even enoforced past trauma. So,in terms of Rosie, I think there should’ve been more emphasis of her getting healing from the abuse she suffered, rather than the sex.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sara! You’re right, of course, when you say that the documentary isn’t about asexuality (I don’t pretend that it is, and asexuality doesn’t cross it’s radar at all). I do think that Clive can be seen as someone who is attracted to people and wants to be sexual with them, but his issues with his body and bullying inhibit him from doing do. On the other hand, I don’t so much see that with Rosie, because I didn’t see the attraction coming across to start with. I feel like if Rosie had said ‘yes, I actually want to have sex with people, but I’m scared/uncomfortable/traumatised about it,’ it would be a different issue. But Rosie didn’t seem to be attracted to people to start with, so I’m not sure her childhood abuse (which I agree needed to be dealt with first and foremost!) was really the underlying issue in her not feeling attraction.

      I have thought about this a lot, because for a while when I started identifying as asexual I thought that maybe I was just asexual because previous bad experiences have messed me up. However, after a while I realised that the fact that some things about dating etc make me uncomfortable and scared doesn’t actually change the fact that I’m just not attracted to anyone. It’s not like I want to do things with people and my experiences are holding me back. I just don’t feel the basic attraction to start with that makes people want to do those things. That’s kind of what I saw going on with Rosie. Of course, my guess is as good as yours, really, because it’s all just hypothesising about someone I don’t know the way they came across on a TV show. Like I said in the post though, I wish that there had been a voice-over saying something like ‘while some people see themselves as asexual and don’t experience sexual desire or attraction (and that’s ok), other people want to have sex but have real problems with it.’

  3. I watched this same documentary and had a lot of the same thoughts that you mention here. I really felt that while Clive was terribly shy and struggling with his confidence, he clearly wanted to experience sexual contact, but Rosie just didn’t seem to want that, which is totally OK. I kept thinking “I wish that she wasn’t being pushed so much to want sex.” when it was clear to me that she really didn’t. I felt they were really unfair to Rosie, trying to shove her into this compartment that she really wasn’t comfortable with.

  4. Just a few thoughts, after watching the documentary. I also felt uneasy with Rosie’s story. It could be that, with editing, they left out some important points. Maybe Rosie really wanted to feel more sexual, but they didn’t depict that too well; after all, she did make the huge step of participating in what could be a very uncomfortable experience. Some of my thoughts about Rosie:
    1. I felt she needed much more time with the psychiatrist than with the sex therapist, having lived through childhood sexual abuse.
    2. Regarding the sexual abuse, it could be that she was uncomfortable with the sexual therapist because of his age (almost twice as old as her!), not just that he “wasn’t her type.” If she was sexually abused by a man when she was a child, this could be a contributing factor to her not really bonding or feeling trustful of the therapist.
    3. Besides the possibility of her being asexual, there was no mention of the possibility that maybe she has same-sex attraction. If she has feelings of sexual shame (common with sexual abuse victims), she may also be uncomfortable with considering homosexuality. Who knows what kind of background she comes from, what social/familial pressures she’s experienced, how she or her family/friends view homosexuality. (BTW, I am a happily-married, heterosexual woman, with a satisfying sex life and not a sexual abuse victim – so I’m not projecting here).
    4. I do agree that you don’t need to be sexual or married to have children, but she did seem to want those things. She really seems like she just wanted to have a “normal” happy life, but until (or even if) she can work through the trauma of the abuse, having sex/marriage/children will not make her happy.

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