Two curious facts surrounding sex are that those who are virgins even after their teens and twenties are deemed pathetic by virtually everyone else, while those who make a living in the sex industry, whether as prostitutes or as porn stars are likewise despised by most people. But not all is what it seems…
Virgins and Sex Workers
There are a number of pretty obvious reasons for each of those attitudes. Most people assume that older involuntary virgins can’t find a sex partner because there’s something wrong with them: they’re physically unattractive, impoverished, and/or mentally ill. Thus, virginity would only be a symptom of the underlying cause of people’s disdain for these dregs of society. Those who want sex but are unsuccessful in their efforts to attract a mate seem to have lost out in life so badly that their loss becomes offensive. This is because sex seems such an obvious good while also being relatively easy to have. After all, animals--including humans--are compelled to want sex, so all people have to do is go with the genetic flow. If someone finds a perverse way to paddle upstream, against this force of nature, that failure seems almost miraculous and so certainly worthy of ridicule. Moreover, for the same reason, those who claim they prefer not to have sex, whether for religious reasons or because they’re opposed to sex in general, are suspected of hiding some personal defect that’s the true cause of their virginity. The genetic floodwaters flow so freely, as it were, that virginity in an older person, say one in his or her twenties or thirties, is more likely caused by a monumental personal failure or character defect, as opposed to being a choice.
Thus, screwball comedy movies, featuring young people possessed by their sex hormones, typically ridicule the pathetic loser who emerges from puberty with no sexual accomplishments. The movie The 40 Year Old Virgin is exceptional in being more sympathetic to the older virgin, criticizing the characters who mock the virgin, Andy, for the deficiency of their sexual relationships. The movie explains Andy’s plight as being the result partly of his decision to wait for the right partner to come along, meaning one to whom he feels an emotional connection. But Andy develops into someone who’s unlikely to find a partner without help; he’s depicted as being frozen in his teenage years, collecting comic books and action figures, and of course he’s unskilled in the art of wooing women.
These movies typify Western society’s attitude towards those who should but don't have sex. Whether on a street corner, in a restaurant, an office, or anywhere else, were an older virgin to admit his or her sexual status, the virgin would be either immediately ridiculed, shunned, or pitied, depending on the situation. Even those who have some sympathy for the weaknesses that cause the virgin’s failure will condescend to the virgin, treating that person as inferior and perhaps even as literally beneath contempt. The feeling is that someone who’s lost out so tremendously can no longer be taken seriously as a competitor in any walk of life.
As for reasons for hostility towards sex workers, there are the assumptions that they desecrate that which is sacred, that they spread diseases, break up families (in the case of prostitutes) or, like their virgin counterparts, have personal deficiencies forcing them to enter this despised industry. For example, porn stars may be addicted to sex, while a prostitute may be forced to earn a lot of money quickly to pay for drugs or to feed her child whom she had at too young an age. Just as a known older virgin’s embarrassment makes any social situation a hundred times more awkward, a sex worker’s shame or presumed filthiness sullies nearly any occasion on which the porn star or prostitute turns up. Prostitutes, for example, typically reveal themselves only at night and in taboo areas such as a red light district, and were they to wear their sexy clothing outside of those contexts, they could expect to be glared at with palpable loathing, if not more aggressively ostracized. The movie Pretty Woman depicts this hostility, when the prostitute character is refused service at a boutique.
Of course, there are exceptions, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. For example, there are sex conventions in which thousands of people emerge to worship porn stars as celebrities. After all, the porn industry thrives because a great many people avail themselves of the sex worker’s services. But the expectation is that this celebration of pornography be kept relatively secret, because sex workers are so revolting that you shouldn’t be proud even to be in their vicinity. Thus, the people who frequent sex conventions, strip clubs, or a prostitute’s street corner must conceal their identity as they tread upon these profane grounds and live with the burden of knowing that were their dealings with sex workers made public knowledge, the sex worker’s loathsomeness would transfer to them like cooties.
The Self-Loathing of Sexual Normals
So much for what I assume would be the standard defenses of these attitudes towards virgins and sex workers. In either case, the sexually normal folks would claim to be disgusted merely by evident personal weakness, failure, or depravity. But none of these defenses will do, as they stand, because of a third curious fact about sex which is that all of these normal folks would be humiliated were their sex life exposed to the light of day. If sex is so great that not having sex when you should be able to is pathetic and worthy of open ridicule, why also be so ashamed of having sex that you’d sooner jump off of a bridge than show a stranger a recording of your sex act? And if sex is so sacred that sex workers are disgusting defilers who must be shunned by all decent, upstanding citizens, why are these same citizens so obviously ashamed of that allegedly sacred act that they must hide their sex life at all costs? As I argue elsewhere, Christianity doesn’t fully account for this shame. Indeed, Christianity’s opposition to sex falls out of pre-Christian ascetic traditions which respond to the disturbing existential issues that sexuality makes plain.
I submit, then, the following hypothesis for your consideration: hostility towards virgins and sex workers is the sexually normal person’s projection of his or her self-loathing. Even a normal, sexually active man, for example, must keep his sex life secret, just like a virgin or a sex worker, because the sex act itself is contemptible, disgusting, and profane rather than sacred. The sex act attests to our finitude, contingency, and animal heritage; to our spiritless, mechanistic nature and the self-deception behind all politically correct, feel-good myths. The sex act realizes our worst fears about ourselves and our position in nature, about the lack of God and perfect justice or morality, and so those creatures that are sufficiently intelligent to understand sex’s implications naturally preserve their sanity and peace of mind--despite the Darwinian necessity of sex--by making sex itself taboo. So a sexually normal person has self-respect in public only when no one else is thinking of that person’s sex life. To reveal, say, that you’re picturing a waitress naked or to present to a taxi driver a photograph of him in the sex act is to humiliate and to dehumanize either person. Nevertheless, with their drapes drawn tightly closed, normal people do have sex and so the average person’s self-respect must conceal a deeper layer of self-loathing. If sex is embarrassing and awkward, because of what it reveals about our existential predicament, we must forget about our sex lives to preserve our dignity.
But now older virgins and sex workers come along and disturb this fragile compromise. Virgins, after all, aren’t tainted by sex; that is, they haven’t earned their stripes by confronting the horror of natural life under such traumatic circumstances. Thus, despite their alienation from sexually normal society, older virgins are unburdened by direct experience of the horrors of sex. Sexually normal people seem to envy what’s sometimes tellingly called the “innocence” of virgins, even while the trauma of facing our existential plight of being self-deluded animals, by engaging in sex, is obfuscated by talk of the “maturity” of sexual normals. The notion that having sex is a prerequisite of human maturity presupposes a normative construal of our biological function, as though the wandering of genes from one generation to the next--not to speak of the genes’ purpose since they have none--ought to automatically govern how we live. Just because we’re genetically pressured to have sex, and sex is--on one level at least--highly pleasurable, doesn’t mean that the normals fulfill the Form or Ideal of humanity, so that they can be called more mature than older virgins. There may be some such ideal, but this will derive from philosophy, not from biology or psychology. Meanwhile, sex workers are secretly envied for the opposite reason: they have altogether too much sex without mentally breaking down, despite their familiarity with such abundant evidence that our politically correct self-assurances are comically amiss. Sex workers demonstrate fortitude and great mental agility when they can live most of their waking hours as animals in the pejorative sense, and then turn around and pretend to be members of a socially advanced species in their off-hours.
This envy mustn’t see the light of day, however, since this admiration complements sexually normal people’s contempt for themselves, for wallowing in such animalistic endeavours while typically ignoring the existential ramifications in their public life as “responsible,” “mature,” “adult” citizens of an “advanced civilization.” Thus, the normals use virgins and sex workers as scapegoats, taking out the contempt they have for themselves onto these others. All sex is a degrading business for those who think of themselves as more elevated than the animals we keep as pets or as spectacles in zoos, or that we exterminate in the wild. The standard reasons for hostility towards older virgins and sex workers are untenable because of normal people’s embarrassment regarding the very practice that’s supposed to endow us with more respect than that enjoyed by the losers and deviants. So the normals must despise themselves for having sex, sometimes even disgusting themselves while they’re in the throes of passion and possessed by hormones and lusts. But because they tend to have no philosophical inclinations, especially in a postmodern society, they can’t address this response to their animal nature with much existential authenticity, and so they direct their contempt that they themselves deserve to those who, in their own ways, deserve less of it. To be sure, virgins and sex workers likely have their personal flaws and these may even be related to their dealings with sex; moreover, these outsiders may even be contemptible for those reasons. But this doesn’t change the fact that the sexual normals hardly cover themselves in glory with respect either to their attitudes towards the abnormals or to their own sexual behaviour in the first place.
The Need for our Hourly Ridicule
All in all, sex makes for a degenerate, awkward topic of discussion, but that’s also why sex is so revealing and thus eminently worthy of rants. Sex is so obviously compromising to our conventional self-image, to what Freud called our persona, that of all the inspirations for our comforting myths, sex is the most in need of such mental gymnastics. Generally speaking, the way we deal with sex is so ludicrous that we ought to be mocked hourly for the lies we tell to endure as such misguided animals, let alone for the compromises we make when we betray our principles and actually indulge in instincts we’d be fired or arrested for expressing at work or elsewhere in public. Sex must be kept secret because sex makes us all pathetic, and that fact is intolerable to such proud beasts as us who believe we’ve tamed most of the planet. Sex is our Achilles Heel, the tragic fault that humiliates us all, casting doubt on every optimistic myth, on every politically correct delusion we entertain to avoid our existential, philosophical responsibility as creatures cursed with excess reason and awareness.