The 40-year-old virgin, played by Steve Carell
I was once a 26-year-old virgin, happy and content with my life.

Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy that virginity was only a phase. I love sex and think of it as the heart and soul of an interesting life.I was a virgin because I entered a Catholic seminary when I was just a kid and left at, yes, 26. I lived as a monk for many years, bound by a vow of chastity. Not many people do that these days, but it wasn't so strange in the 1950s.

I still carry around a mass of guilt and shame in relation to sex, but most of it is unconscious and comes out when I blush or feel awkward at having my erotic nature revealed. I can laugh at a movie about a 40-year-old virgin, but for me it's the kind of laughter that hides some anxiety. I wonder what the joke means for people today who don't have my unusual background. I suspect that even for them the laughter masks some deeper anxieties, too.

Today people are subjected to a new moralism and a new pressure: the expectation to have sex in your teens. I've heard it said that many people think it's positively unhealthy, maybe neurotic, not to be sexually active early in life. How else could they make a comedy about a man who is still a virgin at 40? If you showed this film at my seminary high school, where all the teachers were celibate monks and all the students emulating them, I don't think the audience would get the joke.

Again, don't get me wrong. I love comedy. I love irreverent sexual comedy. I even enjoy sophomoric sexual comedies sometimes. But I still wonder how the premise of this movie could strike so many people as such an obvious joke.

So the guy is hilariously awkward, ignorant about sex, and naïve. Strange. The virgins I know today are just the opposite. I know a woman thoughtfully and comfortably choosing to be celibate until she gets married, not for religious reasons, but for a sense of order in her life. I know a man choosing to be celibate--technically he's not a virgin--because he's about to become a doctor, and he wants a period of serious personal preparation. These people are not the kind of guy presented in the film. They're intelligent, self-possessed, and confident.

Most people seem to want and enjoy sex, but many are also anxious about it. How can I say this? Because I counseled many men, women, and couples in therapy over 20 years, most of them presenting some issue with sex: not enough sex, too much sex; constant sexual desire and constant fear of pregnancy and disease; loving partners, violent partners; good sex at home, great sex in forbidden zones.

I'm tempted to think that this movie about the 40-year-old virgin is funny because it comes so close to our anxieties, and not just my peculiar ones. It's a burden to have to be sexually experienced, knowing, sophisticated, cool, casual, and erotically hyperactive. Life is complex and challenging for all of us, especially around sex. Where is the anxiety in those who are so smooth and at ease with their sexual hyperactivity? It must be underground. Hence, the laughter.

In the psychological theory I have adopted, we consider a guy in a movie like this as an image, a figure who may dwell in the hearts and minds of millions. He is archetypal. The 40-year-old virgin, like the nurturing mother or the wily trickster, lives in many of us. The movie shows him to be an extreme dolt so he can serve as a cartoon of sorts, a mythic figure. Not a whole person, but part of a person.

Too much or too little sex in America?

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