copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Sexual innocence and film: a look at scholarship on virginity

by Susan Ericsson

Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film, edited by Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010. 304 pages. $27.97.

As the 1961 Elia Kazan film Splendor in the Grass underscores, the issue of loosing one's virginity has been a dicey topic that adults have attempted to regulate for many decades. In this case, the film was made during a time when movies had to conform to the Production Code, yet many narrative developments pushed at the code’s boundaries. Splendor in the Grass’ diegetic events express cultural tensions about social and personal expectations surrounding adolescents having sex. As protagonist Wilma (Natalie Wood) is confronted with peer pressure, her own longings and parental control, she has a mental breakdown and is institutionalized for two and a half years. Love, desire and social demands overwhelm her ability to navigate adolescent sexual development, leading to hysteria that must be contained by the asylum walls. While the film properly punishes youth sexual desire, as the code required, it highlights a gendered double standard and indicates the rising tensions of the soon-to-explode feminist movement and sexual revolution, which was partially fueled by the uncontainable fervor of the growing teen population.

Frequently the topic of pop culture and academic analysis, sexual representations in the media have a long history of being under the microscope, particularly those depictions which substantially show sex. The 2010 anthology Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film edited by Tamar Jeffers McDonald provides an interesting contribution to these analyses by looking at the converse of explicit sex—addressing instead sexual inexperience.

Historical changes and youth

One of the anthology’s strengths is its focus on U.S. films from the decades surrounding the 1950s. That the book contains several essays dealing with this period is not surprising given the association of the 50s with tales of sexual repression. Yet as the authors indicate, films of the era also reveal sexual tensions that would soon culturally erupt into the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Gaylyn Studlar reflects on Elizabeth Taylor films of the early 1940s in “Velvet’s Cherry: Elizabeth Taylor and Virginal English Girlhood.” Studlar analyzes Taylor’s performances in relation to their wartime context as well as Victorian art conventions; she highlights the contradictions often used to mark girls as innocent yet alluring. In “Postwar Virginity and the ‘Marjorie’ Phenomenon,” Rebecca Sullivan dissects Marjorie Morningstar (1958) and the issue of virginity in relation to the heterosexual couple, comparing the film to the novel by Herman Wouk on which it is based. Alisia G. Chase in her essay “One Very Chic Hell: Revisiting the Issue of Virginity in Bonjour Tristesse,” considers American sexual ideology in shaping the U.S. filmic adaptation of the French novel of the same name — Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Chase examines how director Otto Preminger shifted the novel’s frame by punishing adolescent Cecile for her sexual behavior. In addition to such dramatic works, two authors address depictions of virginity in horror film. Nina Martin in her essay “Don’t Touch Me: Violating Boundaries in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion” looks at Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion, released in the era when women were publicly seeking independence. And Pete Falconer in “Fresh Meat? Dissecting the Horror Movie Virgin” considers films released during a period of feminist backlash and investigates how some depict bodies of both virgin and killer as impenetrable.

A film such as the 1957 Peyton Place emphasizes the contradiction between parental advice to children and their own sexual behavior and calls attention to the era’s conflicting ideologies. Peyton Place recognizes the reality of adolescent sexual behavior and how adults try to tame it even when they themselves are unable to refrain from acting on their own desires, often adulterous. As in Splendor in the Grass, Peyton Place’s teen protagonist has a mental breakdown, caused by her mother’s heavy-handed, controlling behavior towards the girl’s developing sexual curiosities, which leads the mother to confess that she was borne out of wedlock. The mother espouses ideals for her daughter that require suppressing information about her own past choices, but the truth melodramatically emerges. Paralleling one dominant cultural discourse that was attempting to deny the research results of Alfred Kinsey published in the 1940s and 1950s about the population’s real sexual practices, the mother generates ideologies for her daughter’s sexual behavior that seek to counter reality.

Like the court case in Peyton Place where the truth of the whole town’s sexual practices dramatically erupts and alters the course of events, Kinsey’s publicly disseminated information changed social history, contributing to the development of the sexual liberation and gay rights movements. Beyond Hollywood, the 1950s saw institutional forces more generally attempting to construct new ideological frameworks of nationhood, labor, domesticity, gender and sexuality in order to reroute people’s behaviors in the workforce and at home. Public attempts to regulate youth sexual practices strengthened in the 1950s in part due to national postwar shifts. These changes included the development of a suburban middle class, the explosion of “baby boomer” teenagers, and the medical development of the birth control pill. Now teens had more leisure time, money to spend and new means of “getting into trouble” than their predecessors did. The development of the birth control pill particularly produced widespread concern in the 1960s about the deterioration of American values, a cultural discourse centered especially on the female teen.

Read together, the essays begin to sketch a history of filmic depictions of moral and ideological tensions surrounding virginity in the United States, with much attention paid to the liminal situation of adolescents. In “Virgin Springs: A Survey of Teen Films’ Quest for Sexcess,” Tim Shary addresses historical changes in filmic depictions of adolescent virginity and attends to trends in “sex quest” movies where youth seek to loose their “state of innocence” — a subgenre of films that develops and peaks in the early to mid-1980s. Shary argues that prior to the mid-1950s Hollywood films avoided the topic of adolescents loosing their virginity. Then in the late 1950s and early 1960s movies begin to touch upon the topic of teenagers having sex, employing frameworks where adolescents were punished or their experiences lacked “sexual enjoyment or empowerment” (Shary 56). In the 1970s, film trends that indicate the dangers of teenager sexual desires decrease and few deal with losing virginity; instead films from this decade tend to situate the characters as having lost their virginity prior to the film’s story.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Shary’s observation — that 1970s films do not depict the loss of virginity but recognize that teens practice sex — is one that could spur more investigation of 70s Hollywood’s avoiding depicting first time sexual encounters. Shary’s work raises questions such as, “Is depicting teen loss of virginity more controversial than representing teenagers as sexually active?”

It is not until the 1980s that films focus on loss of virginity for teens again as they did in the late 1950s and 1960s. Shary demonstrates here that from the early 1980s through 1986 there were at least fifteen sex quest films made (54). The raunchy 80s teen comedies show teens on quests to lose their virginity and experience intercourse, but these films also evince a marked difference from the 1950s and 1960s ones: teens now “lost their virginity in carefree ways” (Shary 61). Yet while the films may show overcoming virginity as lighthearted, they also tend to show negative results. Few of these film consider medical outcomes but instead look to emotional consequences, almost never portraying the sex act (as opposed to the quest) in positive ways. In addition, rarely do films of the period show love and sex co-existing in one relationship.

After 1986 few sex romp films were released. Shary speculates that the AIDS crisis, perhaps along with teen pregnancy rates peaking at twelve percent in 1990, and the repressive discourse of the Reagan years changed the cultural climate (58). One of Shary’s contributions is to provide insights into large scale shifts in how film depicts adolescent sexual behavior in film. His work indicates a useful direction for further in-depth textual analyses on how the contradictions of the 80s sex quest films are worked out. They add a new element of carefree attitudes toward teenage sexual exploration yet maintain the earlier trend of showing negative consequences for youth once they have intercourse.

When teen sex romps reemerge in the later 1990s, Shary argues, teens exhibit more awareness of pleasure. Now films use two dominant methods for depicting youth libidinal pursuits — framing them as either sinister, such as with Cruel Intentions, or lighthearted, as seen in the American Pie trilogy (65). Shary’s work points to another area of research that needs further exploration — close analysis of teen centered films released during the 1990s and 2000s.[2] Particularly noteworthy of attention is the American Pie trilogy and its refreshing inclusion of female pleasure and on-screen depiction of female orgasm as a new central part of the narrative.[3] American Pie shows teen sex as “celebratory” and marks safe sex as something of “common acceptance” (Shary 65). Continuing the trend established by earlier sex quest films, Shary asserts, many teen pics in the 2000s show sex in negative ways, choosing either sinister or cautionary tales — marking the American Pie trilogy as having an unusually positive attitude towards teen sex.

Another significant 90s film takes a disturbing cinema vérité look at youth sexual practice. Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) portrays a depraved adolescent male who knowingly spreads AIDS to virgin girls. Shary touches upon Kids as adding to the “context of so many vilified images of teen sexually in the 1990s” (62). Many critics believed Kids represented a major historical marker. The anthology could have been strengthened by having more essays providing in-depth textual analysis of key U.S. youth films such as Kids and the American Pie trilogy, helping to add to the important historical overview Shary provides and the substantial look at the 1940s and 1950s several of the authors contribute.[4] One such example that expands the anthology’s historical scope is Lisa M. Dresner’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost? Early 1980s Representations of Girls’ Sexual Decision Making in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Little Darlings.”Another is Carol Siegel’s consideration of 2000s films in “Irreconcilable Feminisms and the Construction of a Cultural Memory of Virginity’s Loss: À ma soeur! and Thirteen.” Siegel analyzes Catherine Breillat’s 2001 French film in relation to the 2003 U.S. film, embracing À ma Soeur! for its brutal frankness over Thirteen, which re-inscribes values of virginity for female adolescents and denies them sexual awakening. In general, as the first anthology on virginity in film, Virgin Territory could have been significantly expanded to broaden the context of the existing valuable essays in order to provide a more thorough overview of representations of virginity.

Gender and genre

Given our culture’s gendered ideological differences regarding virginity, it is not surprising that most of the essays focus on females, the group particularly marked by moral judgment in relation to their sexual practice. Where some of the essays in the anthology consider virginity from the perspective of overcoming, or losing, virginity, Illana Nash’s essay “The Innocent Is a Broad: American Virgins in a Global Context” analyzes young women’s maintaining virginity in 40s films; she carefully dissects the narrative and discursive frameworks of youth who remain chaste. Her work provides an important discussion of gendered notions of virginity and sexuality in relation to the ideology of nationhood. Similar to Nash, Shelley Cobb looks at the female virginal body used metaphorically in relation to nation, analyzing Elizabeth (1998) as it presents the life of the virgin Queen in “Was She or Wasn’t She? Virginity and Identity in Critical Reception of Elizabeth (1998).”

When teenage girl comedies were a regular part of Hollywood domestic comedies in the late 1930s and early 1940s, one key pattern is using girls to make them symbols of national ideals, so that their status as virgins is central to the subgenre (Nash). Nash considers two World War II era films — Janie (1944) and Kiss and Tell (1945) — where at first active female sexuality is depicted as threatening to the social order, but later the girls’ status as sexually innocent is clarified. A girl whose sexual state and youthful ideals are intact comes to represent the perfection of citizenship during a time of international conflict (34). In the wartime films, the girls affirm their virginity but explain their sexual contact with men as acts of patriotism — selling kisses for wartime relief fundraising, for example. Nash dissects the visual paradox for female sexuality: the teen girl is expected to stave off sexual activity yet be sexualized by the culture’s gaze, these two contradictory positions expressing the paradoxical double bind where teen girls “embody patriotism” by being “physically, though not morally, capable of sexual activity” (3). Nash’s analysis is discerning yet also humorous as she makes apt comparisons such as how the fathers’ fear of their daughter’s sexual activity is quite similar to the patriarchs’ worry about Soviet enemies — rupturing of the girls’ hymen standing in for “‘penetration’ on a larger scale” (35).

In the 1950s, an era popularly characterized as the moment when teenagers landed on the cultural front, has few films in the “girl-centered domestic teen comedy” subgenre (44). Now, films and girls’ magazines instead framed issues of “marriage, family and the rituals of dating and romance” as giving girls “obedient, domestically focused identity” (45). In the 1960s the subgenre reemerges. Nash argues that as the threat of Communism intensified in the early 1960s, teen girls were yet again shown in film as domestic threats, their chaotic life choices threatening domestic containment — just as Communism endangered the United States and had to be contained. Female virginity in the early 1960s thus once again began to “symbolize good citizenship and the health of the national ‘family’” (46). Nash considers two films from the early 1960s — One, Two, Three (1961) and Take Her, She’s Mine (1963) — when fear of Communism was quite alive, and the girls’ hymens, like national boundaries, needed to “be protected against invasion by foreign bodies” (36). As Nash analyzes, 1960s films encouraged viewers to identify with father’s fears for their daughters’ sexuality and U.S. patriarchy more generally. One of the insights Nash provides is noting how virginity mobilized for nationhood changes between the 1940s and 1960s. While the 1940s films preserve female virginity, the 1960s films “compromise by shooing their just-barely-legal heroines into youthful marriages” where sexual activity can occur in culturally sanctioned fashion (46). Sexual desires of the 60s heroines were less containable than their 40s counterparts, their virginity impossible to maintain.

Various essays in the anthology attend to genre — such as Falconer’s work on horror and Shary’s attention to sex quest comedies — so that the anthology nicely integrates scholarship on a range of genres. In “The New Road to Sexual Ecstasy: Virginity and Genre in The 40-Year-Old Virgin” Celestino Deleyto discusses trends in the romantic comedy, describing it as a genre where sex is both central to the narrative yet absent, where films rely on sexual tension for comedy though the culminating act does not occur until the films’ end. Sex, in other words, “has more often than not been a structuring absence,” such that even though there is an “inevitability of sexual fulfillment,” it is integrated in coy ways (256). Deleyto concludes about the romantic comedy genre: “therefore virginity both is and is not what the films are about” (257). Citing Jeffers McDonald’s work, Deleyto recognizes the modification Woody Allen makes in the 1970s with films that “incorporate sex openly” but his stylistic move does not change generic trends more generally. Considering The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) within romantic, gross-out, and teen-pic comedy genres, he argues virgin-protagonist Andy is framed in better light than his adult-aged, yet juvenile-behaving friends, the narrative valuing Andy’s inexperience over his mates’ sexual behavior which occurs outside of a love context. At the same time, within the narrative frame, there are many humorous digs at the virgin protagonist that implement “gross-out macho mockery of his failure to measure up to received standards of masculinity” (260). Representing the friends’ attitudes toward sex as having “arrested their psychological growth,” the film, Deleyto concludes, “appears to affirm that, in today’s intimate climate, virginity is not just better than casual sex: it is the best form of sex” (262, 267).

Key aspects of The 40-Year-Old Virgin which make it ripe for comedy are its focus on the male gender and a person who is well beyond the age when people typically shed their condition of virginity, providing a collision of circumstances to parody. Deleyto’s essay is the only one in the anthology focused on male chastity. In the future, more work could be done on how narratives frame men and virginity. For example, much the same as academic scholarship has been addressing whiteness as a racial category in narrative, considering how the unmarked race is represented racially, research on virginity could further analyze how films frame the presumed lack of importance of virginity for males or dramatize masculine pressures to overcome virginity. Additional work could also be done on how female virginity is eroticized — how the condition of virginity is mobilized to create a particular charge. This is an area that deserves more attention in the study of fictional narratives, particularly in light of the erotic use of virgins in pornography (nuns, innocent school girls, etc.). Two striking absences in the anthology are the lack of attention to gay, lesbian and bisexual youth and inadequate consideration of virginity in relation to race and class.

Conceiving virginity

As Hanne Blank describes, when writing her book Virgin: the Untouched History, conversations about virginity often turn towards the loss of virginity rather than remain on the state of virginity itself. Reflecting on this, Blank concludes:

“Virginity is invariably defined in terms of what it is not, and is believed to be proven most incontrovertibly by whatever signs … become obvious only in the moment of its obliteration … In retrospect I realize that the tendency to speak of virginity loss rather than of virginity itself should not have surprised me. Virginity is because it ends.” (96-7)

Some of the essays in Virgin Territory look at moments of overcoming virginity, such as Shary’s work on first-time intercourse. Others, like Nash and Jeffers McDonald, analyze films where virginity is maintained.

While most of the essays take the definition of virginity for granted, Greg Tuck questions it more thoroughly. In “Orgasmic (Teenage) Virgins: Masturbation and Virginity in Contemporary American Cinema” Tuck scrutinizes the notion of virginity and repartitions the concept into subcategories, with interesting results for film analysis. Absolute virginity is a state that Tuck believes applies to pre-sexual beings, an ideal equated with children, a state that presumes no sexual knowledge or experience (some might contest this perspective on childhood). On the other hand, adolescents who are completely sexually inexperienced possess a mix of carnal knowledge and carnal ignorance; they feel desires but have not yet acted upon them. Teen sex comedies play on the tensions between bodily feelings and pursuing sexual activities. Many teenagers in sex comedies have experienced some form of sexual pleasure, just not normative sexual intercourse —Tuck coins a name for them, “orgasmic virgins.” Orgasmic virgins have experienced genital stimulation and orgasm — receiving pleasure from themselves or others. As the young protagonists strive to eliminate their virginal condition, Turk argues, they cannot be thought of as “sexually innocent or ignorant,” associations attributed to the concept of virgin, but instead “transitional” or “liminal”; such youths have had a range of sexual pleasures but not the normative penetrative sex act of intercourse (158). Contrary to popular belief, Tuck asserts that the “virgin/nonvirgin boundary is not traversed in a single moment through a single act” (158). Instead, the shift away from childhood absolute virginity is a route involving the attainment of various combinations of sexual knowledge and actions.

Like others who write on sexuality, Tuck points out that the dominant conception of virginity is based on the notion of intercourse as heterosexual and procreative. Furthermore, Tuck confronts the idea that the virgin/nonvirgin boundary is passed in one instant. If we consider heterosexual adolescents who experience corporeal pleasures as “virgins,” such an assumption reinforces the idea that they have not yet had “actual” sex since “the act of ‘losing’ one’s virginity is usually coded by mainstream texts as the moment the subject learns (in principle) how to reproduce” (Tuck 159). A heterosexual frame dominates conceptions of virginity, such that same-sex couples can experience a range of penetrative acts while still being considered virgins by cultural definition. If we preserve that popular conception of virginity, it makes procreation the goal of “real” sex and upholds “an ideology of reproduction” (160). Retaining a traditional conception of virginity maintains the heterosexual, procreative frame and allows the cultural discomfort with separating sexual pleasure from reproductive function to remain in place.

Within teen sex comedies, masturbation is placed within a particular framework — a state reserved for potentially healthy adolescents but not affirmed for male adults. Tuck asserts that masturbation in such films as American Pie (1999) “affects the subject’s virginal status in one of two ways: being perceived as either learner sex or antisex” (160). Most films, according to Tuck, frame masturbation as ”infantile/immature sex, merely a stage that must be passed through before one may adopt one’s ‘proper’ adult sexuality” (160). In U.S. cinema adults who masturbate are mad or extremely neurotic — as in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Happiness (1996). For males, Tuck asserts, the framework reinscribes the reproductive imperative for males, refusing to allow adult men to masturbate in ways embraced by the narrative. For example, the masturbating moment for the hero in There’s Something About Mary (1998) shows the protagonist as pathetic and duped. On the other hand, there are a few celebratory filmic depictions of masturbation for females, since “it is not in itself a negation of a potential procreative event” — no seed is wasted (Tuck 171).

Looking at Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), Tuck creates another category for female nonorgasmic, nonvirgins – highlighting one adolescent who experiences orgasm through use of a vibrator but does not achieve such pleasure via heterosexual intercourse (162). In horror comedy Cherry Falls (2000) female orgasm and intercourse are shown to be nearly mutually exclusive with masturbation discussed as the path to orgasm (162). In contrast, in American Pie a female friend advises a boy to give his girlfriend oral sex to bring her to orgasm so that she may then be open to intercourse — here intercourse promising penultimate sex for the male, beyond orgasm by other means (163). In addition, as Tuck notes, there is a lack of psychological satisfaction for both partners after coitus in American Pie.

Similar to Tuck, in Virgins: A Cultural History Anke Bernau complicates attempts to easily define virginity, pointing to a number of physical acts and asking if such behavior indicates loss of virginity. She concludes, “its meaning has never been fixed or ‘found.’ Thus, while virginal purity epitomizes order, it is also fundamentally unstable” (xii-xiii). Like Tuck’s and Bernau’s refining of concepts, more of the essays in Virgin Territory could theorize the notion of virginity and consider how film narratives complexly function within broader cultural ideologies. Siegel’s work is one of the few essays that explicitly articulates an ideological framework. She analyzes the cultural moorings of feminist theories about sexuality, preferring what she regards as the French path of sexual expression over what she characterizes as the anti-sex path of U.S. feminists. Siegel, however, fails to recognize the diversity within U.S. feminism and neglects pro-sex U.S. feminist work, such as that influenced by queer scholars, sex performers and activists.

Representing absence

A few of the essays consider how virginity — the absence of sex — can be represented. Tuck highlights the problem in how our culture conceptualizes virginity, stating that it arises because virginity is typically “an attribute associated with what we do not do” (158 emphasis his). Tuck, in response, promotes re-conceptualizing virginity, not just within the realm of media representations but the culture more generally. Andrea Sabbadini discusses the difficulty in representing virginity in audio-visual narrative form. Defining virginity as “the absence of the experience of genital intercourse,” Sabbadini argues that “absence” thus “implies that the phenomenon is as such un-representable” (224). He continues:

“Films can show virginity only indirectly, either through its contrast with the presence of other related phenomena (for instance, the character’s sexual activities other than genital intercourse, or his or her feelings about virginity such as desire, fear, guilt, or shame) or, and more emphatically, by representing the very act of genital penetration that puts an end to it.” (224)

Rather, according to Sabbadini’s framework, “virginity itself could never be directly represented in films” (234).

Yet other authors contest the idea that virginity is un-representable. For example, Jeffers McDonald in her essay “Performances of Desire and Inexperience: Doris Day’s Fluctuating Filmic Virginity” looks to the acting choices and star persona of Doris Day as indicating sexual inexperience. Analyzing two of Day’s films released during the Production Code era when the word “virgin” was not allowed in films — Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961) — Jeffers McDonald states, “virginity was a status that Day consciously adopted for her character” in the 1961 film but not for its predecessor (8). Pointing to Day’s vocal inflection and bodily expression, Jeffers McDonald indicates how the state of virginity is represented through acting style. Chase also considers how mise-en-scene conveys sexual meanings. She asserts that Preminger makes Bonjour Tristesse more palpable for repressed U.S. sensibilities by changing the plot of the French novel. Yet the film’s lush aesthetics allow for a double-read across generations, affirming sexuality for youth viewers as they ingest the sensual seething of the mise-en-scene, despite the punitive repercussions of the youthful female protagonist’s actions. Some of the most interesting contributions to the anthology are those that discuss how virginity can be depicted beyond verbal assertion or moments when the condition of virginity is overcome.


1. Shary considers a few exceptions, but concludes that virginity was a non-issue in films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), Halloween (1978), and The Wanderers (1979). [return to text]

2. Shary identifies films with negative frameworks toward youth sex such as The Virgin Suicides (2000), Cherry Falls (2000), Thirteen (2003), Saved! (2004), The Door in the Floor (2004),and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005).

3. Coming Soon also attends to female orgasm (Shary).

4. While a few of the essays consider international films, the anthology is focused on U.S. films and seems to make U.S. film culture its target topic. 

Works cited

Bernau, Anke. Virgins: A Cultural History. London: Granta, 2007.

Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Jeffers McDonald, Tamar, ed. Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010.

To topJC 53 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.