Society

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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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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