When I was an up-and-coming newspaper writer, I was assigned to work with a high school intern who talked a lot about how she didn’t want to have premarital sex. Listening to her go on about why she was avoiding “the act” seemed harmless enough. So why did I get uncomfortable whenever she brought up the topic? Because, I later realized, that by talking about not having sex, she was really talking about sex — albeit in a backhanded way.
I get the same uneasy feeling when I hear performers these days alert the media to how they plan on remaining “pure” until marriage. Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson started this trend nearly a decade ago (next time someone says they’re not pioneers, note that they helped invent chastity as a career move). But now their crusade has been taken up by Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks and, most notably, the Jonas Brothers.
On the surface, the reason why these performers are taking virginity pledges has to do with religion. But why advertise this particular aspect of religion? Because by talking about how they’re not having sex, they’ve discovered a sly way to market their sexuality. There’s an unsettling exhibitionism in all of this. Since these artists are putting issues about their sexuality front-and-center, it’s hard to see them and not immediately think about their sex lives. Do we really need to know Joe Jonas isn’t getting any?
Then there’s the issue of hypocrisy. There’s a disconnect happening somewhere when performers slink around in schoolgirl outfits or whip their female fans into a frenzy, then make like they’re innocent babes off stage. Yup, nothing to see here folks — just half naked virgins writhing on stage! Move along! Two-faced presentations have always been the norm in American popular music, with performers like Prince and Madonna sexing it up on the one hand and then thanking God on the other. Now that’s being taken to a greater extreme.
If a musician wants to remove sex from his or her artistic persona, I’d say talking about it all the time isn’t the way to do that. Playing political music might be a better idea. Most people probably don’t picture Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg naked too often.
If you want to look at why we now have a subculture of sex-obsessed teen stars, look to the adults that have shaped the culture. We’ve given kids a too-much-information talk show culture, where stars regularly talk in detail about anything and everything for the sake of “confession” or “setting the record straight.”
Authors like Laura Sessions Stepp and Dawn Eden, both of whom appeared on a “chastity all-stars” panel, sell books that supposedly caution against wanton sexual behavior. But these books attract attention because they titillate with minutiae about the sex lives of women. They, and a passel of other supposedly conservative female writers, have made a literary cottage industry out of chastity. If you’re an author and you really want to warn people away from unmarried sex, why not pen a book about venereal diseases or the hardships of teen motherhood? We also now have the peculiar occurrence of college students getting in the New York Times talking about how “virginity is alluring.” There’s nothing like modesty.
Then there are helicopter parents. You know them — they’re the ones that are involved in areas of their kids’ lives that our parents never would have even thought about. Years ago, mom or dad would broach the topic of sex by sitting you down and having “the talk.” Now fathers “marry” their daughters by giving them “purity rings.” Its one thing to have helicopter folks do your homework; it’s quite another to have them (metaphorically) crawling into your bed.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both 20 years old when the Rolling Stones first toured America in June, 1964. Members of other groups back then were around the same age (Beatle George Harrison was 21) or younger (Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits was 16). No one thought of them as children. That’s the same age as the oldest Jonas brother, Kevin. When I recently interviewed Joe Jonas, he came off sheepish when I brought up the subject of their purity rings. This was after he gushed about how hot he thought Kate Beckinsale looked in person.
“Yeah, we all wear ’em and what they mean for us is that we’ll stay pure until marriage,” he said. When prodded he added: “My dad is a minister and of course he asked us if we wanted to be part of it. It was really our choice whether or not we wanted to do it or not.”
This all sounds nice on the surface, yet a recent New York Times article stated that chastity pledges are rarely kept. So why make these pledges in the first place? Religion is only part of it. The bigger reason is because Americans are all about goals and benchmarks for their own sake. Now virginity is starting to occupy the same space in our culture as running marathons.
All of this doesn’t mean that teens who want to make a personal choice about not having sex shouldn’t do so. But that has to do with, you know, personal choice. The celeb purity crowd seems to have mistaken the word “public” for “personal.” And like my former co-worker, they’re making their business my business. Maybe people involved in the purity racket might think to reread the parts of the bible where it admonishes those who make a show of their faith. Chastity begins at home, in other words.