When the cable network VH1 planned a news special called "The New Virginity," an abstinence backer might have felt optimistic that teenagers and young adults were going to get a refreshing jolt of publicity about the option of premarital celibacy. That is, unless you looked at the network's promotional fine print.
Words have meanings. So when VH1 promised to explore the "roots of our current obsession with chastity" as it's advocated by popular teenage celebrities, you knew the fix was in. They suggest these stars just cannot be sincere. Instead, playing to "virgin mania" is just a marketing scheme: "Virginity doesn't stop celebs from looking and acting provocatively -- playing both sides with impressive marketing results."
Now, I suppose it's possible that some parents and agents of teen stars are in fact conducting crass marketing exercises on the side. But those really aren't the ones who bother today's sexual libertines. It's the sincere virginity campaigners that truly drive them crazy -- so nutty that channels like VH1 are out there warning the public that every purity pledger is a fraud, or weeks away from becoming a fraud.
Virginity "appeals to parents who feel that their kids should only buy books, TV shows, movies, or CDs from stars who have good morals," said jaded New York dating columnist Julia Allison. Speaking of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, Jared Shapiro from Life & Style magazine added, "There was several hundreds of millions of dollars in sales waiting to be sold to children all across America and all you had to say was 'virgin.'"
Aw, come on. Not everyone is as callous as the guardians of today's pop culture. Parents whose children adore the pop stars on the Disney Channel are not hit over the head with "virginity" lobbying in Disney-produced TV shows, movies and CDs. These products are simply made safe for pre-teen children, with the subtle assumption that perhaps the whole teen sex vs. virginity debate is best left to the rest of the entertainment universe. And somehow, there's something ... wrong ... with that?
VH1's designated experts on virginity included Jessica Valenti, the feminist author of a book called "The Purity Myth," which neatly matched the channel's assumption that purity can't possibly be reality. Biology is destiny. Lust always wins. "There's now an iPhone application that's a purity ring that you can have on your phone to show that you're a virgin. I guess it's actually kind of useful because once you lose your virginity -- like most kids who take virginity pledges do -- you can just trash it."
Why wouldn't VH1 match the cynicism of Valenti with an author who has sincerely championed chastity? Take Dawn Eden, the author of "The Thrill of the Chaste." She would make a wonderful spokeswoman for -- and defender of -- chastity.
Here's the surprise: They did interview Eden last fall in New York. Here's the end of the surprise: They left her on the cutting room floor. She was informed with the usual cliches from producers that "the big guys above us" took the show "in a different direction," as they say. Translation: You were too good.
"I'm not surprised. This also happened the last time I did an interview for this type of program," she told my colleague Tim Graham. "It was clear that they were looking for a caricature of an ultra-right-wing evangelical, not a three-dimensional woman who had discovered a happier lifestyle choice."
Eden is not a caricature of an "ultra-right-wing evangelical." She came to the idea of chastity at age 31, after working in her 20s as a rock journalist. She was born in a Reform Jewish household as Dawn Eden Goldstein, dropping the last name when she became a writer. Chastity came naturally -- or as VH1 would insist, anything but naturally -- as a new spiritual commitment as she came to embrace the idea of Christianity and the Catholic faith.
She found the questions she was handed suggested a clear bias, like this one: "Teenagers have been horny since the dawn of time, no?" And "Critics say abstinence-only sex ed leaves kids clueless about sex. ...Talk about the agenda of abstinence-only education groups. What dangers does this kind of teaching pose?" Then there was: "Is it creepy that young girls are pledging purity to their dads until they are passed on to a husband?"
Even as they thanked her for participating (and getting censored), VH1 producers marveled at the "obsession" they could find in the media on the topic of virginity. So who's speaking honestly and prayerfully? And who's just cynically exploiting the topic?
VH1's whole concept should be turned around: Why should the advocates of premarital virginity be accused of insincere marketing? Especially by Viacom's "music video" channels that have long made their billions by selling the coolness and inevitability of sexual corruption to teenagers?