On the most recent episode of Big Little Lies, Madeline's 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, was caught working on a "secret project" to auction off her virginity and donate the money to Amnesty International to raise awareness for sex slavery. The scheme was all part of her plan to get noticed in college applications. Her parents got pretty riled up about her unconventional philanthropic efforts, and shut it down (in the book, Celeste secretly casts the highest bid to stop the whole thing, but they don't show this on the episode). Abigail's idea might seem bizarre and misguided, but virginity auctions are actually a thing.
Just the last few years have shown us a few high-profile examples. Back in 2014, a 27-year-old medical student tried to sell her virginity and told The Huffington Post that financial independence was part of her motivation. She also wanted to challenge norms about virginity. Of course, nobody should have to explain why they're a virgin, because deciding to have sex is a personal choice and totally different for every person and relationship, but in her interview with The Huffington Post, she said she was still a virgin because she just "had a busy life" and "guys were never the priority." She also said that she had researched how she would execute it, and she was "educated about prostitution, virginity and slut-shaming."
And last year, a 21-year-old named Katherine Stone was auctioning off her virginity to help her family buy a new home after it was destroyed in an electrical fire. Stone told CNN she was doing it because she loved her family, saying, "I have the right to choose what I do with my body... And in this troubling economy, do you blame me?"
In these examples, the women in question were consenting adults who chose to have someone pay to have sex with them, but this isn't always the case. While people who choose to be sex workers have consented to the sex they're having, it's considered human trafficking when anyone under the age of 18 is performing sex work — regardless of whether or not they've agreed to it. "I see the cultural (and intersectional) issues surrounding selling 'virgin sex' at a premium, but I also value and respect personal agency," says Jessica O'Reilly, PhD, a sexologist based in Toronto. "If you choose to sell your 'virginity' and you’re an adult, that’s your prerogative."
But framing virginity as a special asset that makes someone more desirable to a potential partner is troublesome because it reinforces the impossible expectation that women must be both "sexy" and "pure" — which is a double standard that sets women up for failure. Dr. O'Reilly believes that our everyday language about sex reflects our obsession with purity. "We use words like 'nasty,' 'dirty,' and 'sloppy seconds' to describe those who embrace multiple partners, and we overvalue so-called modesty," she says. "Virginity's high value isn't the problem; it's a symptom of greater erotophobia and a culture that enforces a dangerously narrow definition of 'good sex.'"
Not to mention, the belief that someone who's a virgin is "pure" or "untouched" is antiquated in itself, particularly because there are so many different definitions of virginity that go beyond the heteronormative concept of penis-in-vagina sex. What does it even mean if someone's a virgin? Technically, there's no medical definition for "virginity," and some sociologists and scholars won't use the term, because they don't think it has a solid definition, according to the 2009 book The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti. "The definition of virginity itself isn’t universal — it’s far too limiting to be applied across the board," Dr. O'Reilly says.
So if these experts all agree there's nothing really to "take," why are people still selling virginity? Some people believe that the allure of a woman's virginity has to do with having power over her, and it's worth noting that you never hear about a woman buying a man's virginity. There's a part of culture that is "fixated and obsessed with owning and controlling a woman's sexuality," sexologist Shan Boodram told Vice in 2016. "They must think they're taking something if they're going to pay that much money to do it." Dr. O'Reilly says passing judgment about or fetishizing a woman's virginity is a byproduct of being uncomfortable with your own sexuality. "We project our own insecurities and uncertainty onto others in the form of sexual judgment," she says.
Of course, Abigail is a fictional teenager in a fictional world who was just contemplating the whole thing in order to get attention from colleges. But it is interesting that she had the wherewithal and social conscience to know that this would make a splash — at the age of 16, she already recognized the impossible double-standard women are forced to conform to. This show has done a remarkably good job at portraying the realities of domestic violence in relationships, so it's not surprising that they're delving into the complexities of how one teenager comes to terms with her virginity.