If you’re a person who, you know, uses the Internet, you’ve probably seen stories about women auctioning off their virginity in a click-bait sidebar or filed under “Weird News.” Recently one of those stories was about Catarina Migliorini, a 21-year-old Brazilian woman who attained notoriety for selling her “virginity” to a Japanese man for $780,000 as part of an in-the-works reality show called Virgins Wanted.
You might dismiss this phenomenon as a lurid distraction on a slow work day, lumped in with topless female protestors or middle-aged men in love with anime characters, but that would be a mistake. Virginity auctions are actually a disturbing example of how we define and value female sexuality, and in covering them, the media supplies a 24/7 parade of titillating news reports barely questioning the culture that exists to support it.
I should know, having just finished a documentary called How to Lose Your Virginity, about the meaning and importance of virginity in today’s culture.
I first came across the Australian creator of the aforementioned reality show, Justin Sisley, a few years ago while researching my film. He had just announced his plans to recruit male and female virgins, put their virginity up for auction, and then bring them to a Nevada brothel to consummate the deal (Mann Act be damned) with reality TV cameras recording the whole process. “It’s a one-time thing,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s not like they’re continually going to be a prostitute.”
Migliorini snagged the female virgin slot on the show, and since then, the media has documented every bikini-clad moment of her journey, from her Playboy photo shoot, to the announcement that a mysterious bidder named Natsu would pay her that $780,000 to essentially be the first person to put his penis inside her vagina. That’s my description, by the way, not theirs. (Her male counterpart Alex Stepanov, a self-described socially-awkward 24-year-old from Russia, inspired a comparatively tiny tally of $3,000 for his “virginity.”) However, the latest updates report that the bidder, and possibly the whole enterprise, is a fraud, and Migliorini has put her virgnity back on the market as a free agent.
Migliorini is not an anomaly. There are virginity auctions happening all the time all over the world, albeit without a camera to record it, carried out by women in serious need of money for their education or to support their families. They have happened in Romania, Chile, Hungary and, most interestingly, in the UK, where a young woman named Rosie Reed was paid about $15,000 by a man who bought into the power of his devirginizing penis, despite the fact that she was a sexually-active lesbian in a long-term relationship.
But not since Natalie Dylan announced on Howard Stern that she was auctioning off her virginity through the Moonlight Bunny Ranch has there been this much prurient publicity and so little actual reflection on what’s behind it. (Despite a top bid of $3.7 million, Dylan never consummated the deal, but still took home a $250,000 fee.)
Women selling sex for money is nothing new; it’s the addition of virginity that pushes it into absurd territory. Women brandish virginity certificates, despite the fact that there’s no way to test for virginity, male or female. The phrase “her most precious gift” is repeatedly invoked by concerned citizens and abstinence educators, as if the woman in question had no finer attribute than an undisturbed vagina. There isn’t even an agreed-upon definition of virginity, as Rosie Reed’s story can attest. What exactly do these men think they’re buying?
By employing the trappings of a reality show, Sisley has taken this to a new level. After four years of media hype, with nothing to show but a thick sheaf of publicity, Sisley continues to claim he’s merely an artist “exploring the idea of virginity as a commodity.” In fact, he’s contributing to this commodification by creating a spectacle people can consume, rather than asking us to think critically about it. He is one in a long line of (mostly) men who profit from the perceived value of female virginity, from the purveyors of purity rings to the makers of virgin pornography to the fathers brokering the marriages of their virgin daughters, and the traffickers who procure “virginal” girls for sale in brothels all over the world.
Caterina Migliorini can do whatever she pleases with her own body, and she’s not the first to do it. The virginity merchants of the world, and the media covering them, are profiting off the sale of an idea: That a woman’s value is measured by whether she’s ever had a penis in her vagina, and that the introduction of that penis will irrevocably change her (and reduce her value) in some meaningful way. Maybe one day female virginity will stop being a societal obsession, but as reports of Migliorini’s new auctionÂ continue to clog my inbox, that day feels very far away.
Therese Shechter is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn whose most recent documentary is How to Lose Your Virginity. She writes about virginity, sexuality and feminism and is currently crowd-sourcing stories about ‘sexual debuts and deferrals’ for her interactive V-Card Diaries project.