On Sunday, AKA the Lord’s Day, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson sat down for a one-on-one interview with Pastor Miles McPherson at San Diego”s Rock Church. Wilson, who has been linked to pop star Ciara for months, finally went public with the relationship. He went on to shock the church with the most painful-sounding and nonsensical announcement this side of the foreskin covenant: Russell Wilson and Ciara were doing it “Jesus’ way” In other words, not doing it.
The early aughts pop star behind “Goodies” is an unlikely abstinence champion (victim?). But Ciara’s celibacy brings us back to an era when the hottest celebrities were all zipping up their artfully faded Abercrombie low-rise jeans for Jesus. In the late ’90s, Britney Spears made a career off of her bubblegum vocals and much-lauded virginity. Much like her predecessor, the Virgin Mary, Spears’s hymen made headlines. In the iconic Rolling Stone cover “Virgin Britney with Old-Timey Phone,” Spears appeared in her panties, clutching a Teletubby and sporting a facial expression that made you want to cover that Teletubby’s plastic, lid-less eyes. The accompanying headline read, “Inside the heart, mind, & bedroom of a teen dream.”
Britney’s decision “to wait until I know I’m with the right person and I’m married” is in no way at odds with Rolling Stone’s implicit promise to get its readers in her pants (or at least between her silky, hot-pink sheets). In fact, the two opposing images, one of a good Christian girl, one of a sultry pop vixen, combined to create one endlessly alluring, ultimately untenable ’90s starlet. Remember that the ’90s were a complicated time to be a teen. The liberal debauchery of Bill Clinton and his naughty cigar set had given way to a conservative, religious political backlash. Bush’s America emphasized a return to wholesome family values, while the Internet in all its anonymous glory was busy pioneering new ways to be bad. The AIDS epidemic inextricably linked sex with death in the minds of millions of Americans. Sex was everywhere, and denial was constant. Virginity was a safe and comfortable alternative, and virginity pledges and promise rings flooded the teen market alongside chokers and Ring Pops.
Stars like Britney Spears made money by embodying a neo-conservative, Southern Belle ideal. Befitting the hypocrisy of the time, virginity became a new way of selling sex. The girl who wouldn’t give it up became an object of intense fetishization and fascination. Boys and girls (not to mention men and women) across America wanted what they couldn’t have, and Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson wanted to give it to them. And by “it” we mean coy answers, teasing bedroom photo shoots, and role model advice for America's abstinent daughters.
Unlike Cosby Sweaters (and, eventually, Cosby), creepy abstinence fetishization refused to stay in the ’90s where it belongs. Instead, the 2000s brought a brand new crop of sexy virgins, with an added dose of infantilization and the faintest hint of exploitation. We speak, of course, of Walt Disney’s early aughts army. Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and the Jonas Brothers all shared a moment of sex-less glory after their Disney Channel vehicles skyrocketed them to celebrity status. Like a group of toddlers on leashes, these tween and teen stars were tightly shackled to their parent company’s puritanical notions. While traveling (and dating) in a pack, these junior Jesus enthusiasts somehow managed to retain their public images as virginal, religious sons and daughters—which was crucial to promoting Disney fare as family-friendly.
Of course, much like Britney and Jessica before them, these Disney creations had to somehow uphold the values they were selling, while simultaneously selling the sex they swore they weren’t having. The Jonas Brothers, for example, were sex symbols. Their albums sold to millions of horny fans—girls and boys who would sweat, shake, and faint if one of the Jo Bro’s purity rings merely glinted past them in a crowd. A legion of tweens were driven to what Victorian doctors would have diagnosed as female hysteria; and yet, paradoxically, discussions of sex and sexuality were pushed to the side in favor of abstinence-heavy rhetoric. The nation's top producers of pre-teen sexual fantasies were publicly declared virgins; sex was bad, but it also sold billions of records and quietly subsidized four seasons of Wizards of Waverly Place.
Of course, nothing in the entertainment industry is ever quite as pure as it seems. Abstinence may have been a profitable marketing strategy for a handful of stars, but it came at a high cost for young women—and for the celebrities themselves. At the end of the day, the sexy virgin plays on old-school tropes, and emphasizes an anachronistic set of beliefs and priorities. In the late ’90s, Britney Spears was the good girl and Christina Aguilera was the fallen angel. You don’t need a Smith College degree to recognize a Madonna/whore binary when you see one. While Xtina’s bad girl makeover brought us “dirrty,” it also made us feel a little dirty for creating a celebrity market where young women had to choose between presenting as a virgin or a slut. Christina was able to monetize her position as the anti-Britney: a sexy star you could actually have sex with. But by maintaining her virgin status, Britney wasn’t rising above these sexual politics—she was also playing to a male fantasy, just one that required slightly less eyeliner.
Additionally, celebrity purity pledges inspired the media to keep an eagle-eyed watch on these stars’ sex lives, searching for even a hint of impropriety. Headlines accusing Spears or Gomez of premarital sexual intercourse (gasp!) likely made these women regret publicly declaring their sexually inactive status. The irony is that any famous woman’s sexuality is unnecessarily tracked and policed, regardless of her statements or intentions—presenting as a Madonna won’t stop anyone from calling you a whore.
The sexy virgin doesn’t just embody an unrealistic role, preening and posing for the male gaze. She also slut-shames an entire nation of sexually active (or even just sexy) women by virtue of her virtue. Virginity can be a personal choice, but it can also be a public weapon. After Russell Brand mocked the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings at the 2008 MTV VMA’s, noted no-sex-haver Jordin Sparks told the crowd, “It’s not bad to wear a promise ring, because not everybody—guy or girl—wants to be a slut.” In 2009, rapper Teyana Taylor echoed Sparks’ anti-sex sentiments, explaining, “The one thing people can never say is that I’m a hoe.” With the Jonas Brothers marking an important exception, the majority of celebrity purity ring-wearers have been women. This trend emphasizes the outdated idea that women are the victims of sex, and men are the perpetrators. In our *cue horror movie voiceover* hookup culture, women are losing their virtue left and right—which means that they’re sluts who will never be able to earn a man’s respect or commitment. Right?
At the end of the day, noted virgins from Britney to Demi played into the fears of abstinence-promoting parents, while simultaneously catering to the fantasies of their horny kids. Even more concerning, the sexy virgin held a cross-generational appeal that often went beyond their supposed role model prowess. As surely as Tyga wants Kylie, Dads definitely dug Britney—the whole virgin aspect just added an extra dose of creepy to their age-inappropriate fantasies. Ick-factor aside, the virgin sex symbol formulation plays into a misogynistic and exploitative system, selling sexy young bodies while shaming female sexuality. It’s also just too goddamn hypocritical and confusing. In Mickey Mouse’s abstinence-only world, women aren’t supposed to want sex, they’re just supposed to advertise it—and fans focus their natural, potent teenage fantasies on cherubic man-boys who act like they have Ken crotches instead of private parts, but simultaneously boast washboard abs and flirtatious song lyrics.
In addition to being exhausting, abstinence fetishization is just plain ineffective. According to The New York Times, studies have shown that most abstinence-only teens “end up having sex before marriage, and they are far less likely to use condoms than their peers.” Of course, it’s important to draw a distinction between deeply religious purity pledgers and fair-weather virgins. Bristol Palin is a very different beast than Miley Cyrus. Similarly, America's fascination with puritanical/evangelical Christianity should not be confused with the Lolita-inspired marketing strategy behind Britney Spears’s strategically placed Teletubby. America’s relationship with its own sexuality has always been nuanced and hypocritical. We are always moving forward while looking back, preaching purity while practicing various perversions, legalizing gay marriage but continuing to criminalize trans existence. Like our beloved Christian Grey, a sexual sadist who pursues a monogamous relationship with an innocent, we are all endlessly complicated, awash in contradictions. This cultural condition promises to extend far beyond the year 3000: A simple Google search for Purity Balls is enough to prove that abstinence-only is alive and well, despite widespread evidence of its inefficacy. Still, it’s safe to say that despite the deep-seated ideologies behind its inception, the figure of the sexy virgin star is a dying fad.
These days, sex is firmly on the menu, even for tween heartthrobs. Justin Bieber posts nude pics and frequents exotic brothels. Former purity pledger Nick Jonas is making a comeback, endorsed by a legion of gay fans. Selena Gomez just released a single called “Good For You,” and it’s not about getting your recommended daily dosage of fruits and vegetables. Long story short, we survived Y2K—Miley Cyrus discovered sexual intercourse (and women, and gender exploration, and weed), Bristol Palin is a born-again pregnant lady, and Nick Jonas is a fantasy bottom. Everyone’s box is open, Pandora’s included, and we can’t go back to a world where we actually thought that Britney Spears was a virgin. Not that we’d want to, anyway.
Celibacy and abstinence lost their appeal as a celebrity marketing strategy long before Russell Wilson went to church to talk about his sex life. While the famous duo has made their private life unavoidably public with this announcement, the important thing to remember here is that this was a decision made between two consenting adults. Presumably, it was a religious decision, not a PR move, and so far it seems to be working for them. Sure, abstinence sounds a little crazy to some of us, but as long as it’s not being used to monetize virginal jailbait, or marketed as an exclusive form of birth control, it’s not hurting anyone (except Ciara and Russell Wilson).