This article contains spoilers for Jane the Virgin through the end of season 4.
From the cluelessness of Steve Carrell's Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to all the virgin jokes in the most recent season of The Bachelor, movies and TV tend to treat adult virgins as a punchline. But from the very beginning, the CW series Jane the Virgin treated Jane's virginity with nuance — just one part of her multifaceted character. As Jane the Virgin enters its fifth and final season, we're looking back at how revolutionary this portrayal of adult virginity really was.
First, let's talk about adult virgins. According to a CDC report, the average age that Americans have sex for the first time is 17. But twenty-somethings who have never had sex are more common than you might think — another CDC report shows that 12.3% of straight women age 20 to 24 and 3.4% of straight women age 25 to 29 have had zero sexual partners. And new research suggests that twenty-something virgins are becoming more common — a 2018 study of 16,000 millennials found that around 13% of 26-year-olds have never had sex. Yet TV has yet to catch up with how normal adult virginity really is (just look at the recent promotion for the Bachelor, which featured a 40-Year-Old Virgin parody poster and the tagline "What does he have to lose?")
Jane the Virgin upended stereotypes about virginity from the very first episode, which aired back in October 2014. The pilot begins with a flashback to the origin of Jane’s virginity — when Jane was 13, her devout Catholic grandmother told her she needed to wait to have sex until marriage. The very next scene shows the now-24-year-old Jane enthusiastically making out in bed with her boyfriend, Michael — she might be a virgin, but she definitely has a sex drive (and later in the episode, it’s implied that she and Michael regularly have phone sex). The rest of the pilot shows us that Jane is very close with her mother and grandmother; loves grilled cheese sandwiches and telenovelas; works as a waitress, but wants to be a writer; and once kissed her jerky new boss, Rafael. By the time she gets accidentally artificially inseminated with Rafael's sperm during a routine Pap smear, Jane’s virginity is the least interesting thing about her.
Compare Jane to other examples of twenty-something virgin women on TV. On HBO’s Girls, Shoshanna’s virginity is presented as a character-defining trait, as well as a problem to overcome. "I'm like, the least virgin-y virgin ever," she memorably says in one episode — a statement no other characters (or viewers) believe. One love interest tells Shoshanna he won’t have sex with her because she’s a virgin — even though she’s only 20, an age at which around a quarter of American women are virgins. On Glee, guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury’s virginity is presented as being connected to her hypochondria and OCD — "the show has combined Emma’s germ-phobia and virginity into some sort of terrifying psychosexual pathology that doesn’t make much sense," as the AV Club put it. At one point, Emma's love interest Will Schuster literally sings Coldplay’s “Fix You" to her.
While Jane's virginity is discussed frequently during the earlier seasons of Jane the Virgin, there are many other plot points, both focusing on Jane and on other characters, that have nothing to do with Jane's sex life — such as Jane discovering her father is an international telenovela star. And the plot points that do centre on Jane's virginity — such as Jane's new stepsisters starting a viral blog called "Jane the Pregnant Virgin" — showcase other aspects of Jane's character, such as how she handles the newfound fame. And while, in other shows, virginity loss is often saved for a Very Special Episode or season-finale moment, Jane's first time having sex happens in the third episode of Season 3. She loses her virginity after marriage (and after Michael’s recovery from a post-wedding gunshot wound), just as she intended. The actual sex scene is true to the show’s combination of relatability and over-the-top, telenovela-inspired drama: it’s an awkward experience involving a faked orgasm and an accidental sex tape sent to Jane’s college advisor.
The episode also acknowledges that having sex, even within marriage, can bring up complicated feelings for people who promised sexual "purity" at a young age. “I don’t know, I feel weird, like I lost something. Like a part of my identity,” Jane tells her mother, Xo, through tears. (“You just gained something. A whole new dimension of your life, your relationship,” Xo responds.) And then the episode continues with its usual rapid-fire pace — Jane and Michael have better sex, Jane makes some edits on her romance novel, Jane’s abuela reveals a shocking family secret, Rogelio’s girlfriend dumps him, Lucia comes clean about what she knows about the crime lord (and her ex-girlfriend) Sin Rostro, and Rafael's estranged mother is murdered.
Because Jane’s virginity wasn’t the sole focus of the show, Jane the Virgin itself didn’t have an identity crisis after Jane was no longer a virgin. It simply replaced “the Virgin” in the title cards with new phrases — “Jane the Helicopter Mom,” “Jane the Long-Lost Friend,” and even “Jane the Horndog.” Now, as its fifth season begins, the show continues to treat Jane’s sex life with the same nuance it did her virginity. The end of Season 3 shows us Jane's emotions as she begins to date and have sex again after Michael's (apparent) death, and Season 4 shows Jane reckoning with her misconceptions about bisexuality when she dates a bisexual man, Adam.
Jane the Virgin isn’t alone in rethinking adult virginity. On the British comedy Chewing Gum, lead character Tracey is a sexually frustrated, 24-year-old evangelical Christian who decides she’s done with waiting to have sex — another twenty-something virgin with a sex drive and agency. And although Game of Thrones’ portrayal of Jon Snow as the inventor of cunnilingus is eye-roll-inducing, he’s such a complicated character that his virginity doesn’t even come close to the top 5 things that define him.
Portraying nuanced, complicated adult characters who are also virgins should be easy. And as Jane the Virgin leaves our TV screens, hopefully other shows will take up the mantle. As showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman told the Hollywood Reporter about Jane’s first time having sex, "She is a person with so many different identities and so many different things that make her character interesting.”