|The 40-year-old virgin, played by Steve Carell
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.
The tale of the 40-year-old virgin also speaks to the division in society between the virginal exterior, the air of propriety you see in polite society and moralizing politicians, and the deeply erotic interior. In therapy I have come to understand that it is the most contained and morally polished man or woman who, inside, has the kinkiest dreams and the most passionate desires. As a psychotherapist, I can't help thinking that the moralism against sex--with many targets, from gays to Bill Clinton--is a defense against denied passion.
It is sometimes said that America is too full of sex. I don't think so. The extravagant eroticism in the media betrays, Freud would say, a lack of sex. This sex-obsessed nation has yet to discover the depth of its sexuality. In the meantime, it is symptomatically obsessed with glands and organs and orifices, as personified in a 40-year-old virgin and his disbelieving buddies.
I can laugh at this film and enjoy its crudities and sophomoric simplicities, but I also sense the anxiety, my own and my society's, just beneath the surface. Some are thinking: Wouldn't it be great to have more sex in my life? Others are thinking: Wouldn't it be great to be a virgin, free of all the complications and the feeling of being used up and soiled?
The ancient Greeks proposed a way out of this dilemma in the figure of their great Mother Goddess Hera. She and her husband enjoyed a 300-year honeymoon, and yet she could renew her virginity once a year in a spring-fed pond. Imagine that! Discovering your virginity all over again. It can be done, if not physically, then in the deep pools of your imagination and feeling.
I've counseled people who feel dirtied by many relationships and divorces and by tawdry affairs and dangerous escapades. Often they feel as though that their innocence has gone for good. There is nothing they can do about past mistakes. But the story of Hera is good news. It suggests that maybe we can be reborn into a new life and not be stuck with the past. Maybe we can recover a subtle emotional virginity, if not the physical kind.
In another sense, even when we have our first, second, and hundredth sexual experience, we don't necessarily completely lose our virginity. The eternal virgin remains with us, as part of us. If you look at life only on the surface, literally and materially, of course you're either a virgin or a person of experience. But deeper and more subtly you can be both sexually savvy and a virgin. No human being is ever only physical. We always have our psychological and spiritual dimensions. There, virginity can indeed be renewed.
That means that the 40-year-old virgin isn't so odd after all. There is an element of charm in his emotional stupidity. Maybe he has something we don't have. Maybe we can laugh at him from the sheer joy of innocence--something we may have lost but can regain.