It occurred to Colby Fleming, a sociologist at Westat, that as a guy he’d likely never be slut-shamed (or “stud-shamed,” as he calls it), since excess boning is expected — and even encouraged — of guys. So he asked himself, “what would men be shamed for regarding sex?” Thinking back to films like The 40-Year Old Virgin, American Pie and The Breakfast Club, the answer seemed clear.
As Fleming explains, virgin-shaming is present in any social space where having sex is an implicit requirement for being considered “a real man.”
“It seemed like an interesting and helpful thing to research,” he tells me. “Considering how harmful toxic masculinity is, I think we can learn a lot by looking at how men treat other men, and how men construct that kind of masculinity together.” Similar to high school kids hurling the word “fag” at each other regardless of their actual sexual orientation, Fleming says the virgin status is ascribed to someone and, when used as an insult, implies a failure of masculinity.
Fleming’s paper tries to illuminate how certain groups subscribe to a dominant form of masculinity requiring men to objectify women and explains that being a virgin in this context means disobeying the rules of masculinity. (After all, you can’t really claim to be objectifying women if they’re not even letting you have sex with them.)
To investigate this phenomenon, Fleming and his coauthor Dr. Shannon N. Davis, an associate professor in Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University, interviewed 10 men enrolled at a public mid-Atlantic university.
In the recently published study, Fleming and Davis frame virgin shaming as a “manhood act,” one which allows men to be seen as belonging to the more privileged gender. One of the primary manhood acts, he says, is having heterosexual sex — and bragging about it.
I asked Fleming to share with me what some of his study’s participants told him about virgin shaming and offer his explanation as to what it all means.
Micah: I was usually just listening to other guys [talking about sex] and would try to give advice and they would say, “This is coming from a virgin?!” Not having any such experience myself, what could I really contribute to that conversation?
Chuck: I always felt uncomfortable adding to the conversation. In the background there’s this, “Oh, this is coming from a virgin, you’re not proven” or whatever.
Explains Fleming: When guys are in a group together, there’s a good chance they will talk about sex. But what happens when all your friends start talking about sex and you’re still a virgin? A male virgin can effectively be locked out or outright shamed. Within the group itself, this means virgins get victimized and ostracized. More broadly, virgin-shaming has the effect of suppressing alternative forms of masculinity that don’t necessarily place a high value on scoring with chicks; Men who act differently or hold a different kind of masculinity don’t get the opportunity to express that masculinity as much, while the dominant “hegemonic” kind endlessly gets repeated, putting down those competing masculinities. That repeats the cycle of men experiencing stigma for being virgins.
Clarence: [Losing your virginity is] kinda like being a cowboy — proving you can shoot a gun well and get the ladies. If you take a guy and he’s done a lot of random stuff in his life, and now one of his almost goals or fixations is like I want to try dating now, I don’t know what kind of experience he takes with him except his knowledge of classic masculine images, because that’s all he really knows.
Explains Fleming: The images we see in the media set the bar for what is normal and desirable. A large part of masculine protagonists in films, for example, portray an almost effortless ability in courting women. These sorts of images very easily become a model of what the pinnacle of manliness looks like, reinforcing the notion that, to be manly, one has to be “scoring” with chicks.
Zach: We have a shed in our back yard to hang out in and there are all these terribly misogynistic pictures of women all over the walls. I feel like none of us even like them, we just put them up there to assert our power and assert our dominance and assert the need to be like, “Aww yeah, women, they’re so great.” It’s everyone’s goal to have sex in the shed and I’m just like, “Whyyyy? How is that an achievement?” It’s disgusting in there, that’s the least romantic place you could ever bring anyone, it’s cold, it’s gross, and smells like weed one hundred percent of the time. Why would you want to have sex in there? It’s supposed to make you a man or something.
Explains Fleming: Zach identified as transgender during our interview, which turned out to have a somewhat negative effect on his experience as a fraternity brother in Beta Rho. According to him, this was due to his lack of a penis. The penis is, of course, fairly central to heterosexual penetrative sex; lacking this meant that he was unable to (naturally) perform a particular sex act with women. In some sense, this made Zach unable to objectify and dominate women in the same way that would have been possible otherwise. As such, though Zach wasn’t a virgin, he was put into a somewhat similar category, where he was considered to not necessarily be capable of fulfilling the dominant masculine expectations around having sex. So, when the frat brothers are chiding each other into getting laid in the shed behind their frat house, Zach is left out of this discourse, leaving him in an unequal standing within the fraternity.
Carter: I think the fact that [a friend with a small penis] was getting sex regularly meant he couldn’t care less. He was racking up higher numbers than any of the other guys, so he would just fall back on that all the time. You know, “It gets the job done, who are you sleeping with? No one. Exactly.”
Explains Fleming: Ultimately, the whole penis size thing rests on the assumption that bigger equals better ability to have sex, and better ability to objectify women because they just can’t help but feel pleasure from your huge embodiment of your manhood. In Carter’s case, he didn’t have that sort of blessing; but, ultimately, he had a better claim on masculinity than did people who were having less sex than he was. Having a big penis isn’t a manhood act, after all; doesn’t matter how big it is, since if you’re not using it, you’re not satisfying that requirement of being a man. Clearly this football player was very much satisfying that requirement, regardless of the equipment he was using, and so had a better claim on being masculine based on his having fulfilled that requirement to a greater extent than others.
Interviewer: When you’ve seen people in your frat get made fun of for not having sex, was there ever a sort of coercion of, like, hey, you need to come out with us, or something?
Zach: Mmhmm, but also things like, I’ll give you her number, I’ll invite her to the party, I’ll leave you guys alone…
Explains Fleming: One of the ways virgin-shaming was used was to silence virgins in conversations around sex. Another way involved trying to get the virgin to do something, like going out to a party. In some sense, this was an invitation for the virgin to try and fit in with the group. Sometimes, this sort of invitation would come with a further suggestion: going to this party might get you laid, we can set you up with girls, etc. What virgin-shaming could be used for, besides simply a way to look manly in comparison to someone else, was to actually bring the male virgin into conforming with the norms: essentially, to get him laid so he’s a man like the rest of the gang.