Virgin Territory is a refreshing look at modern relationships

I know what you’re probably thinking: a show about virgins? On MTV? Yikes. That was my initial reaction when I heard the network responsible for the likes of Jersey Shore and Teen Mom would be airing a reality show that follows a rotating cast of young adults who have not yet had sex.

I expected the show to not only feel forced, but for MTV to present these hard-working young people as freaks, as those who have waited too long and just want to “lose it” as quickly as possible. And, while some obnoxious MTV-isms certainly remain, I have been pleasantly surprised by the show’s refusal to put these complex people into boxed categories or present them as walking clichés. The show shares with us the lives of those seeking real, authentic relationships, whether they include sex or not, and I think my generation especially can learn a great deal from them in a culture that, as one cast member says early on in the show, “throws around sex like a basketball.”

As anyone who has called themselves virgins for any significant length of their adult life can attest, Virgin Territory contains a great deal of talk about sex and very little of the actual deed. In fact, in the first five episodes, only two have actually “lost it.” Somewhat ironically, the first one to lose it on the show was the one who waited until her wedding night.

Lisa, a Christian who waited until her wedding night, is the first to actually "lose it" on the show.

Lisa, a Christian who waited until her wedding night, is the first to actually “lose it” on the show.

Lisa is a strong Christian who is waiting for her upcoming wedding night to have sex with her fiancé, Nick. Hers is the most traditional religious outlook on the show so far, and it’s refreshing to see that MTV took her story seriously in all of its glorious complexity. To put it simply, waiting for the wedding night is difficult even for a committed Christian. Lisa and Nick are both excited and apprehensive; in a wonderfully candid scene, Lisa asks Nick if he’ll want to do it “20 times a day;” his prototypical male response: “Why not?” Lisa’s story also first reveals the show’s complexity when it comes to sharing the cast members’ full lives, and their struggles outside of relationships. Lisa’s father has recently fallen ill and she’s not sure he will be able to make it to the wedding. A scene where she chats with her father about her anxieties while he lies in a hospital bed is a tearjerker, but it never feels emotionally manipulative.

Lisa’s wedding does come, and it is a lovely affair. When she describes the “morning after,” it is both adorable and a little gross (let’s just say there was lubricant involved). Lisa’s story is over after the first episode, but many other cast members don’t have it quite so easy.

Next we are introduced to the glorious enigma that is Dominique, an energetic 19-year-old black woman from Maryland. She loves the nightlife, is a bit of a party animal and is constantly hit on by guys. But her motto remains, “no ringy, no dingy.” Her reason for waiting until marriage involves the type of family life she grew up in. She comes from a broken home and is still dealing with the repercussions of her parents’ divorce. Her cousin is also a single mom, and she has seen her fair share of unstable and broken families as a result of sex being taken a bit too casually. “I don’t want to repeat the cycle,” she says.

But she has her own relationship issues; she’s “too picky,” and seems to cling to her romantic ideals of finding the perfect guy. I love Dominique’s story because she shows that people are saving their virginity for marriage for reasons other than religion. There’s no indication that she comes from any sort of Christian household, but she is seeking authentic relationships and a stable family life. That includes reconnecting with her increasingly distant mother and avoiding turning away a new romantic interest who seems very respectful of her decision to wait. Her story ends with her still a virgin, but she leaves us with a finishing line worth reflecting on. “I’m very comfortable in my sexuality,” she says, “but that does not mean I’m sleeping with anyone.” Our culture broadly paints adult virgins as people who are insecure with their sexuality in some way, but Dominique shows us that we can be confident in our bodies regardless of our sexual status.

My favorite long-running story so far, and the one I most readily connect with, has been that of Luke, a 22-year-old Christian attending Liberty University and getting ready to graduate. His story covers all the beats of going to a Christian university; the impossibly attractive women and the incredible temptation that comes from the casual college hookup culture that permeates even a college as religiously grounded as Liberty. It helps, perhaps, that Luke’s father is a pastor, and is constantly encouraging him to stay physically pure in his relationships. Luke talks about his “future wife; I don’t know who she is, but I’m excited to meet her.” But Luke is a bit of a commitment-phobe, and has a reputation as a player, because he’s kissed a lot of girls. “If I wasn’t a Christian, there’s no way I’d be a virigin,” he says. He does admit he has had blow jobs that he has “regretted.”

Luke is a Christian committed to saving sex until marriage, but that doesn't mean the road is easy.

Luke is a Christian committed to saving sex until marriage, but that doesn’t mean the road is easy.

Luke’s story is refreshing for several reasons, the major being the fact that he is a MAN who is abstaining from sex until marriage. Our culture puts a high value on female virginity, but not on male virginity. Luke also shows us how important religious convictions can play in fundamentally altering the way we live our lives. It seems people like to paint Christianity in particular as something that has little impact on our behavior, but if we look past the hypocrisy, we see people like Luke, who is seeking a truly God-centered relationship, even as multiple girls have offered to “take” his virginity. His adherence to his convictions is de-stigmatized and given the full weight and respect it deserves. Bravo, MTV, for showing us that, indeed, real men can be virgins too.

Luke does overcome his tendencies as a “player” and finds himself in a stable three-month relationship with Madeline, who writes him letters expressing her excitement over being “the future Mrs. Luke Conger.” Yes, Christian kids tend to move fast when it comes to serious relationships. Really fast. Luke buys her a “promise ring,” expressing his commitment both to her and his decision to abstain from sex until marriage. But his story is not over, and I really do hope he can fight his tendency to play the field and the temptation that seems to surround him; he’s done a good job so far. May he continue to follow the Bible verse from 1 Corinthians 6:20 that he has tattooed on his back: “Do you not know that you were bought with a price? Therefore, honor God with your body.”

No one else on the show seems particularly interested in honoring God with their bodies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re keen on following their peers by treating sex as no big deal. Kyle, the other male featured on the show, takes his virginity seriously, though he does want to lose it. A 20-year-old built weightlifter going to school in Florida, he plays along with his friends who seem to exemplify the “men think about sex every 3 seconds” cliché. Kyle’s conflict is unique because he has never told his friends that he is a virgin. Unlike them, he “wants it to be special.” He describes himself as a more romantic type of guy, but he really has no idea what to do around women. In a hilariously honest moment, he describes buying condoms and “making balloon animals out of them.”

Kyle tries to take a girl out and “treat her nice,” but his romantic tendencies clash with his awkwardness, and a moonlit horse carriage ride does not go as planned. Dating can be really awkward, especially someone who desires to be intentional in his relationships, and many conversations and feelings can remain uncomfortably unresolved. He says he’s waited because he had to take care of his dad, who was ill and eventually died, and he’s had a hard time dealing with his dad’s loss.

I initially found Kyle’s arc one of the more engaging ones, but I think he betrays his character by the end. He had hoped to have sex with a girl from back home, Amanda, for some time. He eventually does, and his morning after confessional is kind of adorable, but then he drops her like a hot potato and takes off back to Florida. It admittedly tears him up to do this, but he tells her he doesn’t desire a long-distance relationship, and wants to go live his life. He says his first time was “extremely special,” but it apparently wasn’t with a girl special enough to keep. It’s disappointing that Kyle seems to have given into peer pressure just so he could “have a real story” to tell his friends.

Kyle in one of his candid webcam confessionals.

Kyle in one of his candid webcam confessionals.

Mikaela is the kind of girl you want to hug and tell that everything is going to be okay. She is “actively looking” to lose her virginity, and her friends (none of them virgins) talk about sex quite a lot. But she is continually disappointed by her relationships. The group takes a road trip from their home in Oregon to L.A. where Mikaela hopes to meet someone, but the fake, sex-obsessed guys they find at the L.A. party scene are a huge turnoff. Maybe it’s the obnoxious MTV-style over editing and slow-mo designed to try and convince us that everyone is having so much fun, but I wouldn’t want to run into any of these creeps in the supermarket, let alone a dark, booze-soaked club. It really shows the caliber of people that frequent these places, and it’s probably not the best place to look for someone interested in a serious, respectful long-term relationship (though I’m sure it has happened).

Mikaela’s story ends relatively uneventfully, with nary a boyfriend in sight, and I can’t begin to describe how awesome that is. Hollywood and the porn industry have conditioned young people to expect a satisfying climax to all of our story arcs (pun definitely intended), but Mikaela’s story feels so real because so much of relationships (and life in general) is waiting in that uncomfortable middle. And, encouragingly, Mikaela is hardly dismayed by the prospect. “When it happens, it happens,” she says, which may sound pretty laissez-faire, but actually strikes me as a profound counter-cultural statement, aimed not at sex itself but at the prospect of finding the right guy first. “I don’t think virgins should be made out to be a big deal—like we’re an alien species or something,” she says.

I hope shows like Virgin Territory can help people take Mikaela’s sentiment to heart. I’d like to think that we young adults are all seeking authentic relationships, but our culture has conditioned us to take the easy way out by engaging in a harmful “hook-up culture” that treats bodies as commodities and souls as another casually tossed undergarment. The thing that everyone on the show has in common is the desire to find and maintain true, lasting relationships apart from sex. Believe it or not, that statement is not an oxymoron. I would not go so far as to say the cast members are role models, but they are real people whose reasons for waiting are multifaceted. It helps that the show they’re on is sometimes funny, sometimes sad and sometimes awkward; but, most importantly, it takes every aspect of these virgins’ lives seriously. That’s something I never expected from MTV, but I’m glad I was pleasantly surprised.

So do yourself a favor by turning off Naked Dating and watching Virgin Territory instead. It airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV. Check out the pilot episode below.