Commentary Media

Virgin Diaries: TLC’s Latest Cringe-Worthy Program on Sex

Martha Kempner

In its latest entry into the circus freakshow form of reality television, TLC invites viewers to gawk at five not-so-young people who have never had sex. 

TLC’s early forays into reality television included entries like A Baby Story, A Wedding Story, and A Dating Story.  These half-hour shows introduced viewers to a couple about to embark on a big moment (or in the case of the dating show a pretty minor moment except for the cameras) through a series of earnest interviews and clips of preparatory events like wedding dress fittings and baby showers.  Though some of these scenes seemed staged or at least exaggerated for television, for the most part the shows read as real and the people were likable enough to make you (or at least me) root for them during their ceremonies or c-sections.

But in the post-Paris Hilton age of the Kardashians, such sweet fare must seem tired and dull to viewers or at least schedulers. So, the network is now home to a new brand of reality television. It’s current line-up includes weekly check-ins with 19 Kids and Counting (featuring Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their quiverfull of children which is scheduled to reach 20 early next year); Toddlers in Tiaras (an inside look at the pint-size pageant circuit focusing on toothless moms and their heavily made up 4-year-olds); and Sister Wives (a peek at the lives of a polygamist and his multiple families). And of course, we can’t forget the recently cancelled Kate + 8, the show that started out being about a loving couple raising two six-year-olds and six two-year-olds and ended up being about Kate Gosselin’s 15-minutes of fame. There’s also the freak-of-the-week shows such as Extreme Couponing, My Strange Addiction, and the now-casting Strange Sex.

While we are meant to care about these “real” families who put their stories out there for us each week, I think these shows share a little bit in common with the circus freak shows of yesteryear. We can’t help but look. Seeing preschoolers in $4,000 dresses and blue eye-shadow makes us cringe, but we look. The heartfelt discussions between two blond women “married” to the same man make us cringe, but we look. Michelle Duggar telling us in her baby-girl voice that all children are a gift from God even if this latest pregnancy is super risky for both her and Dugger-number-20 makes us cringe, but we look.  And in looking, we can’t help but feel a little superior to the main characters.  As my husband reminded me last night; the purpose of nearly all reality television is to congratulate the viewer on being smarter than the subjects. 

He said this while we were cleaning the kitchen after putting the kids to bed and I was begging him to watch the premier TLC’s latest cringe-worthy program, Virgin Diaries.  He agreed to watch the first ten minutes but like any good train-wreck he got hooked and sat through the entire hour (though he spent part of it with his head behind a pillow hiding from the painful awkwardness on screen and another part of it hitting me with the same pillow for forcing him to watch said painful awkwardness in the first place).  This first episode was devoted to three stories:  Shanna and Ryan (31-year olds who were saving their first kiss for their fast-approaching wedding day); Carey (a geeky 35-year-old man who said he was more than ready to lose his virginity); and the roommates (a threesome of 30-something virgins who were desperately searching for Mr. Right).

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Shanna and Ryan’s story is the one that I most expected. They met in a Christian Halloween party and were saving sex for marriage for religious reasons. The show paid a lot of attention to the fact that the couple (who seem to have been together for a while) had never kissed though it did not ask them to explain why they had taken their vows of pre-marital abstinence quite so far. Comments by her father (cut together in such a way as to make them as creepy as possible) suggest that this was not a family value with which she was raised.  

In the interviews leading up to their wedding day, the couple stand close to each other and talk about what they expect their first kiss and their wedding night to be like.  As they walk around the backyard in which they will get married they admit to being nervous but describe the upcoming event—the sex not the wedding—in detail. 

“I think that you should take a shower first,” Shanna tells Ryan “and then I’ll take a shower and then I will put on my lingerie and I will come into the room.”  Ryan interrupts, “and I’ll have a surprise for you.”  “Yeah, but I’ll have a surprise for you,” Shanna says launching back into her vision: “And we’ll both have our robes on and we’ll slowly take our robes off and then do foreplay and then have sex.”  The producers, having a little fun with this, use that last bit as a voice over to a scene shot later in which the couple is on a see-saw and Shanna yells “ouch” at being dropped suddenly to the ground. 

The actual first kiss has been making the rounds on the Internet since last week, no doubt leaked in advance because of its memorably clumsy nature. He lifts her veil, they tilt their heads toward each other, and then start basically pecking at each other mouths open, tongues out, looking more like hungry ducks than a loving couple.  The producers clearly knew that they had struck reality show gold at that moment—they replayed the kiss at least three times and dedicated quite a bit of air time to the couples’ subsequent dance-floor make-out sessions. Obviously, it’s not fair to make fun of this couple for being inexperienced kissers.  Kissing is an art that takes know-how (my best friend and I bought a how-to guide out of the back of Seventeen Magazine so we’d be prepared) and practice, and I’m sure most first-time kissers are comically inept.  Of course, most of us do not invite television cameras to record the moment for the masses.

While I question their decision to make their first kiss and wedding night the subject of public broadcast, I promise I am not making fun of them for their decision to wait.  Everyone has the right to make their own decisions when it comes to sexual behavior and if abstinence is the decision that best fits with their values and convictions, they were right to stick to it despite it being an uncommon choice in this day and age.  What disturbed me about this couple’s story, however, was the heightened importance that they seemed to be placing on the first kiss and their first night together. They were about to commit to spending every night together. Marriage is about so much more than the wedding night; for the next 60 or so years, they will have to be each other’s friend, therapist, partner, and nurse. They will have to work together to make big decisions and tiny ones; to fold laundry, do dishes, buy cars, choose paint colors, and raise children.  Sex is an important part of any relationship but it’s only one part. Yet it was the only thing that the two of them talked about on screen. 

Every conversation—whether it was an on-camera interview or a talk with a friend—started with “I can’t believe that I’m getting married tomorrow” and turned into “I can’t believe I’m really going to have sex tomorrow.”  And every guest at the wedding was discussing not the start of their life together but the start of their sex life.  I’m willing to believe that some of this was a result of being the subject of this particular reality show—the producers’ unheard questions were likely all about sex and any discussions of other parts of marriage may have ended up on the cutting room floor.  Still, I fear that in not having sex Shanna and Ryan actually elevated its importance in a way that couples who make it part of their early relationship do not. 

That exaggerated sense of the importance of sex is what I worry about for the other individuals portrayed in this “documentary” as well.  Particularly for Carey who claims that his status as a 35-year-old virgin is “not entirely by choice.”  He is an awkward man though no more so than many men I know. He has a shaved head, hip enough black glasses, a beard, and just a slight double chin.  He is neither thin nor fat but says he recently lost 17 pounds and started jogging because he thinks this will help him with his sex drive.

“Running helps me get in shape with my heart and lungs and hopefully from what I understand sex involves a lot of cardiac and cardiopulmonary exercise. So I recently stepped up the jogging,” he explains breathlessly while the cameras follow him on a loop around his townhouse development.

And there-in lies the problem.  His entire identity seems wrapped up in the fact that he has not yet had sex. 

In clearly staged-for-television events, he makes his mother dinner to ask for her advice on the matter (she pretty much suggests he hire a prostitute but then looks at the camera and says that’s not what she meant); goes out with a gang of friends seeking advice about how to handle an upcoming date, his first in eight years (his inexperience seems to be a common topic of conversation among the friendly gang); and goes on that blind date with a nice enough woman who, upon hearing about his virginity over desert, suggests that he needs to just get hammered with a girl and get it over with (she does not offer to be that girl).  In a follow-up scene, Carey’s friends take him to a bar on a mission to get him laid.  He becomes an instant celebrity—the cameras following him around no doubt help—and at least one woman makes him an offer. 

We later learn that he said no—not inadvisably, she was extremely aggressive and extremely inebriated. He explains that he is not waiting for the perfect opportunity but for a good one and he’s right to think this would not been very good. But, one has to wonder if this is the first time he has turned down such an offer and what is really preventing him from being intimate with a woman. There are some self-esteem issues that are very clear but I fear there is something deeper going on that would benefit from talking to a therapist rather than a TV camera. (And he should do it soon as I’m sure that TLC’s offices are being inundated today with women who want the honor of being his first.)

As for final story of the three roommates, I admit they are the least interesting to me.  They are very wrapped up in the romantic notion of a man coming to sweep them off their feet (they call him their Rock Star) and saving sex for marriage is all part of that fairytale. They are shown primping, going on dates, and singing silly songs about love.  In one odd and clearly staged scene, they are sitting on a bed giving each other massages while discussing their experiences/inexperience with sex.

Their stories would be more interesting if we learned why they had decided to save themselves for marriage—a sign on their front door declaring their home “a blessing” suggests a religious background but this is not explored.  And, it would have been particularly interesting if we had learned why one of them calls herself a reclaimed virgin. She admits to having sex with all of her past boyfriends (at least seven guys) but says she feels like a different person now and has made a commitment to save sex for marriage.  I would have liked to know why she changed her behavior and why she considers herself a reclaimed virgin rather than say a non-virgin who is now practicing abstinence (even her roommates seem skeptical of her label).  But instead we just see them on a triple blind date with three male virgins (no doubt unearthed by a team of producers) and further explore their fantasies of having Prince Charming ride in on a white horse so they can hurry up, get married, and have babies. 

Most people in this country have sex as teenagers but that does not make it the right choice for everyone.  And we all know how hard it is to make choices that go against popular culture.  A look at well-adjusted individuals who are choosing to save sex for later in their lives (be it marriage or a better relationship) could have been interesting and maybe even helped viewers make critical decisions about their own sexual behavior.

But Virgin Diaries did not do that— nor was it meant to.  Instead, as promised, it gave us an hour to point and stare at some pretty awkward people from the comfort (or in some moments, discomfort) of our own high horses, I mean couches.    

Analysis Politics

Timeline: Donald Trump’s Shifting Position on Abortion Rights

Ally Boguhn

Trump’s murky position on abortion has caused an uproar this election season as conservatives grapple with a Republican nominee whose stance on the issue has varied over time. Join Rewire for a look back at the business mogul's changing views on abortion.

For much of the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump’s seemingly ever-changing position on reproductive health care and abortion rights has continued to draw scrutiny.

Trump was “totally pro-choice” in 1999, but “pro-life” by 2011. He wanted to shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood in August 2015, but claimed “you can’t go around and say that” about such measures two months later. He thinks Planned Parenthood does “very good work” but wants to see it lose all of its funding as long as it offers abortion care. And, perhaps most notoriously, in late March of this year Trump took multiple stances over the course of just a few hours on whether those who have abortions should be punished if it became illegal.

With the hesitancy of anti-choice groups to fully embrace Trump—and with pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and EMILY’s List all backing his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—it is likely his stance on abortion will remain a key election issue moving into November.

Join Rewire for a look back at the business mogul’s changing views on abortion.

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Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

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