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In France, The Stigma Of Virginity In A Hypersexualized Society

A group of French 20-somethings share their different reasons for choosing chastity, and discuss the difficulties their choice entails.

In France, The Stigma Of Virginity In A Hypersexualized Society
Madeleine Meteyer

PARIS — It doesn't come up in conversation, except maybe when we lose it and become sexually active. But on its own — as a state of being — "nobody talks about it," says Chloé, 24. It's like there's just no room for virginity in a society where everybody is encouraged to "jump on everything that moves," she adds.

In France, the average age for first sexual intercourse is 17.4 years old for men and 17.6 for women. Beyond 20, it's becoming extremely rare to have, among your friends, people who've not given in to the pleasures of the flesh. And yet, there are some for whom the moment never materialized, either by choice or by happenstance. They are discreet about it, though. They don't shout it from the rooftops. They're aware that they don't fit in the "mold."

But they you've people thinking to themselves, "Oh, poor little thing, nobody wanted to sleep with her."

Chloé is one of them. She defines herself as a "circumstantial virgin." Chastity isn't something she officially chose. Nor is it based religious convictions. Rather, like "the maiden" in the La Fontaine fable, she just passed on the different opportunities that presented themselves. "You say no, and then no again, and there you are. But they you've people thinking to themselves, "Oh, poor little thing, nobody wanted to sleep with her,"" the young woman explains.

Over the years, Chloé"s anxiety has grown, making her less and less comfortable with the idea of losing her virginity, though when she was younger, she didn't necessarily see it as something so precious. She's now worried about the reactions her "status," if revealed, might provoke. She admits she dreads "sex scenes at the cinema and games of "Never Have I Ever" at parties." Most of the questions in such games (which tend to involve alcohol) revolve around saucy topics, and Chloé is so concerned about "creating discomfort" that she's already made up an entire story about her supposed "first time."

Virginity may no longer be a normal topic of conversation, but sexuality, according to Marion Maudet, a sociologist specialized in sexuality and religion, is still very much codified. Being chaste, by choice or not, is perceived as "nonstandard practice," she explains.

The 1970s and the sexual revolution jettisoned the strict principles of a conservative society. Bombarded by subway ads for dating sites, or romantic comedy scenarios based on sexually-charged love stories, virgins can feel suffocated by what they perceive as incessant injunctions to pursue unrestrained carnal pleasure.

Rebecca, 24, even speaks of a "stigmatization of virgins," and says she's already heard friends call girls in her situation derogatory names. As such, she finds it increasingly difficult listening to her girlfriends talk about their romantic adventures. She fears turning into a "sour old maid" and says she hopes to know the ecstasy of love before her 27th birthday.

Why this seemingly arbitrary age? "Because it corresponds to the moment when I imagine I'll have a job and everything that goes with it — a companion and a love life," she says. And if it doesn't happen by then, the young woman plans to leave Paris and "dedicate" her life to "a charity," anything as long as she can flee from the love stories of others.

For me, it doesn't make sense to live just for the pleasure of the moment if there is no common project.

This feeling of isolation comes up regularly in our interviews. "It even happened to me in philosophy class," recalls Julie, 25. "I was 21 and the professor was telling us about the feeling of fulfillment after love. He concluded by saying, "I mean, you've all been there." But no, not her. Julie isn't traumatized by her virginity, but it definitely makes her feel out of step. She remembers another time, for example, where her classmates were "counting out loud the number of days since their last sexual intercourse."

Julie says she wants to "be in love" before having sex, and that so far, she hasn't been. "For me, it doesn't make sense to live just for the pleasure of the moment if there is no common project," she says. Julie says she's happy that sexual liberation has led to a society where "women are no longer subjected to men" but criticizes "the excessive emphasis placed on sex."

Marie, 25, shares that point of view. "We all want it. We're all human. But for me it shouldn't just be a mindless thing like drinking or eating because it's fundamental but not necessary," she says.

Chloé says that her friends encouraged her "not to be fussy and to accept the first man that comes along." In a world without religion, virginity is perceived as a flaw that we should relieve ourselves of as soon as possible, something for which "people have no particular respect." The figures confirm this. Because the age of sexual initiation differs according to religion, the importance attached to the first partner is also different. A study Marion Maudet published in 2006 found that 25% of women claiming to be Catholics had had sexual relations at 16 or before. Only 14% of Muslim women were sexually active at that age, while for atheists, it was 40%. Among men, 23% of Catholics, 38% of Muslims and 30% of atheists had begun having sex at 16 or younger.

Photo: Zach Guinta/Unsplash

Held in great esteem before the 1960s, virginity is no longer popular. "Women's chastity has always been seen as a way to prevent bastardism, to prevent birth from escaping the community," explains body historian Jean-Marc Albert. This is what would later be called "social control of the female body." In contrast, the man — who doesn't risk getting pregnant — was encouraged to educate himself about the things of love.

Later, under the influence of Saint Francis of Assisi, around the 13th century, the Church Fathers became more concerned about the needs of the flesh. That, in turn, led to the teaching of "modesty" as an ideal, a cultural imperative that still guides young girls of today, regardless of how many bras were burned in the 1970s.

Pre-marital chastity for women is no longer considered a common thing, but a certain "moral virginity" is always observed, according to Maudet. In other words, these young girls "postpone the moment of their first intercourse" so that it means something but "without going so far as to wait for marriage." A remnant of this modesty emphasis, which seems to have affected girls only, is boys being encouraged to "show that they're capable," Jean-Marc Albert explains.

But that view is inconsistent in Joseph's view. This 26-year-old man has chosen only to have sex with the woman who will be his wife. "I want to be able to tell her that I've never had sex before. Otherwise, I'd feel like I'd cheated on her," he says. "In the meantime, we can love differently." The young man, who has been in a relationship for six months, doesn't understand why there are different chastity expectations for men and women. "It's the same act with the same purpose," he says.

Côme, 20, agrees. He's had several girlfriends and was in love with each of them. But he never went beyond kissing. "At first it was a religious prohibition," the young Catholic explains. "But then, after adolescence, it became a choice. Not all my friends, even among the practicing Catholics, have done so. I think it's nice and beautiful." While Rebecca is waiting to be in love, and Chloe for a moment when she'll feel "at ease," Côme is waiting for his wedding — or at least for the certainty of a long-lasting future with his partner.

What emerges from these testimonies is the need to be understood. Some, like Joseph, avoid talking about it. That's because the conversation often turns into a "dialogue of the deaf," he says. Others, like Côme, are happy to answer questions so that they can defend their point of view. "And I find that people are quite understanding when I explain my motives," the young man says. Still, he admits he prefers broaching "this embarrassing topic" with friends or strangers than with his family.

For the interviewees, the most important thing is to have made the choice, one way or another. They say that they don't judge people who haven't followed their "same path," as Marie puts it. What they'd like in return is that people be equally open-minded about their choices.

"It's worse for a sexually active girl who's treated as a slut. But being a virgin, with people thinking of you as an inhibited, repressed girl, isn't easy either," says Julie. When asked how she would like to discuss this topic with her future children, she replies, "I will say the same as my mother told me. Listen to yourself. Respect yourself. Don't force yourself in either direction."

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