“Woman, 19, Claims She’s Sold Her Virginity for £1 MILLION to a Munich Businessman,” reads a 2020 tabloid headline. “Woman, 24, Claims She’s Sold Her Virginity to a ‘Tory MP’ for £1.3m,” reads another from 2019. Rewind 10 years, and you have yet another: “American Woman, 22, Auctions Off Virginity for £2.5m… But Waiting for a Better Offer.” There’s even a 2004 newspaper clipping with the headline: “Going, Going, Gone! Texas Gal Auctions Her Virginity Online.”
These sensational stories of so-called “virginity auctions” go viral every few years, each more buzzworthy than the last. The phenomenon is exactly as it sounds: It’s usually a cis, white woman selling her alleged first sexual experience online to the highest bidder. The “auctions” tend to take place on escorting sites, built-for-purpose websites, sites like eBay or Gumtree (though here the listings are typically flagged and removed) or through legal brothels. Except, according to this compiled list of the most publicized virginity auctions, many of them don’t actually take place, or were hoaxes in the first place. In fact, out of 15 widely broadcasted “auctions,” just two are said to have been “completed.” The others were either faked, unconfirmed or canceled.
This doesn’t mean that virginity auctions don’t happen — or, at least, that women don’t sell their virginities for money. It also doesn’t mean that sex workers don’t “auction” their “virginities” to gratify their clients’ fetishes. “Let’s demystify it,” says filmmaker Therese Shechter, who directed the 2013 documentary, How to Lose Your Virginity, and the forthcoming, My So-Called Selfish Life. “Once you get past this whole idea of hymens and their value, and the titillating clickbait headlines, it’s just about sex work. It’s a woman doing sex work, catering to a niche male fetish about being the first person to put a penis into someone’s vagina. There’s no virginity involved.”
To truly unpack Shechter’s latter point, you have to first define what “virginity” means, which — if you’re trying to generalize — is impossible. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, virginity is “the state of never having had sex.” But sex can mean anything, not just penis-in-vagina penetration. And even if you’re determined to define it that way — particularly physiologically — the hymen can be broken via non-sexual activities, meaning it’s not an accurate measure of virginity.
“[Virginity] exists because we say it exists,” says Laura Carpenter, a sociology professor and author of Virginity Lost. “All kinds of human experiences that are first times get treated as special, partly because we think about them as a transition from one state of being to another. Whatever the act that somebody believes results in virginity loss, somehow that’s treated as this on-off switch between ‘not at all sexual’ and ‘completely sexual.’ That’s not usually the case — people often acrue sexual experiences before, or have a virginity loss experience, but then don’t have sex of any kind for a long time afterwards. The idea that ‘you were all this, and now you’re all that’ doesn’t match up.”
Equally, what are you “losing” when you have sex for the first time? What is there to “take” or, in the case of auctions, to “sell”? Carpenter prefers the term “sharing” or, even better, “gaining sexual experience.” The latter is how it’s considered for men, whose virginity is something to “get rid off” as quickly as possible, and who are then encouraged to have as many sexual partners as they want. Women, on the other hand, should cherish and “save” their virginity — whatever that means — and once they’ve “lost” it, they should limit their sexual encounters, or risk being labeled a “slut” or a “whore.” Though this view is increasingly rejected by many parts of society — particularly younger people — it still prevails in most sex education, with many states in the U.S. continuing to teach abstinence-only sex ed.
When you look at it this way, the definition of virginity is more about a woman’s “value” to men than it is about anything physiological or psychological, hence the appeal of auctions. “But where virginity comes into this is that the buyer has to make sure that the product is sealed in its original packaging, so to speak, for various reasons — partly to do with paternity, but it’s also just an element of control,” says Shechter. It’s this, she adds, that “fuels the fascination with virginity auctions” because “men think that they’re paying for something of value to be the first person to put their penis into a woman’s vagina.”
This explains why many of the alleged virgins on escorting site Cinderella Escorts — which even has its own book about the phenomenon — are being auctioned with minimum bids of between $32,600 to $2.3 million. And they’re selling. One auction of a 23-year-old woman from Azerbaijan supposedly ended with an eye-watering winning bid of $2.6 million — the winner was said to be a politician from Tokyo, while the runners-up were a lawyer from London and a soccer player from Munich. On another alleged virginity-selling site, First Night, bids seem to range between around $50,000 and $500,000. Another site that claims to sell women’s virginities, My Pure Club, is a private members club, which you have to sign up for to see the girls. (None of these sites responded to my requests for comment.)
But not all virginity auctions or sales happen via escorting sites — and most of them won’t fetch tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many women selling their virginities may be doing it as survival sex. Penny (not her real name), a twentysomething from Los Angeles, first considered selling her virginity four years ago. “Money was very tight, and we had no help,” she tells me. “I found out through multiple sources how to sell and who to go to. I had several offers from different men, but I was very young and scared.” If Penny were to accept an offer, she would have to undergo a “test” to “prove” that she was a virgin, as well as a sexual health screening (she says the client was expected to do this, too). During the encounter, clients had to wear a condom, but, Penny says, they could offer more money to have sex without one. And, as is customary with most sex work, they had to pay upfront.
In the end, Penny decided not to go through with it. “No one in my real life knew what I was trying to do, but the reaction I got online [she talked about the idea on Reddit] was enough to deter me,” she says. “I was called shallow, lazy and easy. These people reacted in this way because they’ve never been in a position to consider it. I was young, couldn’t work and trapped in an abusive household with my mother as the sole provider. Anything would have helped — but most people don’t see it that way.”
One documented virginity auction that was allegedly “completed” was British 18-year-old Rosie Reid’s. In March 2004, it was reported that Reid — who’d been in the press for the past two months because of the auction — had sold her virginity to a 44-year-old man, who paid her close to 11 grand. Reid was in a lesbian relationship (again raising the quesion of how we define virginity), and after the encounter, her and her partner said they “cried and cried.” Reid told BBC News at the time: “It was horrible. … I felt nervous and scared. I felt obliged to please him as he had just paid all this money.”
But, as Shechter says, in this case — and all other sensationalized stories of virginity auctions — “the point is not so much, did it happen or not, but what did people think they were buying?” She continues: “It’s a transaction — did the transaction happen or not? We have to pull away from the whole titillating ‘he took her virginity’ storyline and just say, ‘Did sex work happen? Did someone pay for sex work?’”
Many criticisms of virginity sales — and of women selling sex in general — is that sex should be “special,” particularly if it’s your first time. A British talk-show host previously asked one girl who claimed to be selling her virginity: “Why would you want to sell something so precious?” One of the many problems with this argument is that placing such value on a person’s virginity can have a detrimental effect on their later expressions and understandings of their sexuality. “Many women who grew up in a really intensive purity culture are now saying, ‘I’m having trouble having sex as an adult, even as a married adult, because I was taught to be so protective of this part of me,’” says Carpenter. “These women have a really hard time getting comfortable in sex, and can even experience vaginal pain and contractions.”
Furthermore, your perception of sex and future sexual encounters aren’t just determined by one experience. “Having sex is really a big deal for a lot of people, and it’s not a big deal for other people,” explains Shechter. “So having intercourse for the first time might be a really big deal. But what might impact your impression of sex and later experiences [even more so] is all of the extra stuff that was piled on to the first sexual experience.”
Virginity does hold deep meaning for Penny, though, who says she’s still a virgin. “To me, virginity has always been special,” she tells me. “I only hold this thought for myself, not for others. This is because I understand that other people don’t view it as that, and that’s okay. But for me personally, it’s special. It took so much strength and desperation for me to consider selling it.”
Ultimately, virginity sales or auctions are just another form of sex work, which is a never-ending fascination for the mainstream press. In some cases, a person might sell their first sexual experience (for a number of reasons); in others, they might play the role of a virgin in order to cater to a fetish or even to earn extra money. Essentially, as Shechter concludes, virginity auctions are simply “playing on men’s ideas of what’s valuable, and what magical things they think their penises can do.”
One thing they can’t do? Define virginity for someone else.