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.