Virginity On the Auction Block

When Edward Dalberg wrote that "what men desire is a virgin who is a whore," he might as well have been talking about Natalie Dylan (an alias), the 22-year-old from San Diego, California, who is auctioning off her virginity in exchange for a one-night stand at the Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada. Her goal, she says, is to raise the funds to pay for her graduate education as a family and marriage therapist more efficiently than her sister, who worked for three weeks as a prostitute at the same brothel.

"It's shocking that men will pay so much for someone's virginity, which isn't even prized so highly anymore," Dylan told the Herald Sun, an argument belied by both the current high bid of $2.5 million and the controversy surrounding the auction. Then again, much of the young woman's blasé attitude toward exchanging her body for money sounds as naïve as one would expect from a virgin opining on human sexuality.

In response to the controversy, Dylan argues that her auction is actually empowering: it is of her own volition, and she expects that both parties will "profit greatly." Yet even as a reported 10,000 men have vied to deflower her, Dylan remains oblivious to how she has turned not just her virginity but her body itself into a mere object. "I think it's become some kind of competition between all these men," she says. "It's like a contest they all want to win."

Those applauding Dylan's entrepreneurial spirit are quick to note that "we're all whores," and many liken it to the daily grind of going to work in an office. They, of course, overlook that a worker can have many first times at new jobs, and that few are literally surrendering an ounce of flesh to their employer. A woman owns her body, their argument goes; by exchanging it for money she strips away a man's ability to use her to her own detriment. How conveniently they ignore that such an argument ultimately objectifies us all, turning every person into little more than a walking bag of flesh to which a price tag should be affixed.

That a controversy exists at all over this auction is itself a sign that virginity is not as culturally insignificant as Dylan and her supporters seem to think. Granted, Western society is long past the days when girls were married off by their parents shortly after entering puberty to ensure they were virginal. Grooms' families no longer demand dowries which are forfeited if there are no bloody post-coital sheets to prove the bride's virtue on her wedding night.

Virginity, in Western society, is now less about a physical condition and more about a psychological experience, a rite of passage. As such, it is a moment in a woman's life that our culture continues to treat as significant. Singers like Deanna Clark in "Strawberry Wine" and Vanessa Carlton in "White Houses" reminisce -- seemingly years after the fact -- over their first sexual experience.

From The OC to The Gilmore Girls, and all the countless other television shows in between, we've watched teens lose it in prime time. While the morality of the moment has been treated in a variety of ways, one thing has remained constant: it is always part of a "very special episode." An entire genre of popular literature, the romance novel, draws its monetary lifeblood from heroines carefully guarding their virginity until they meet the alpha male to whom they choose to give it to.

Indeed, it is our society's view that virginity is mostly a psychological condition which separates us from societies we consider barbaric. Consider, for instance, the deadly result of treating a woman's virginity as a thing of value: as with all "things" it must be owned by someone. In the shame-based Islamic societies, that thing -- the physical condition of virginity -- is such a valued commodity that even the suspicion of its loss has been used to justify the rape, disfigurement, and "honor killing" of women.

It is disturbing, then, that a young woman who plans a career in the mental health field cannot see there is more to virginity than a mere fleshly barrier. That she believes herself capable of attaching no psychological significance to the moment is alarming. Yet such artless self-delusion is often the hallmark of a virgin: having no experience in matters of sexuality, they believe themselves masters of it already.

In as much as Natalie Dylan and her supporters seem to think her auction is somehow empowering, somehow clever and worthy of applause, they overlook one thing: she is not merely selling her physical condition as a virgin. She is also selling an irreplaceable moment in her lifetime that our culture believes should have some psychological import. The fact that she says that moment is meaningless speaks volumes of how little virtue she possesses in the first place.

Yes, her body is hers to do with as she pleases. But the same can be said of any woman who hops from bed to bed: it's her choice, but that doesn't mean she's not a slut.  And that, ultimately, is what Natalie Dylan's first sexual experience boils down to. She's just looking to make more money at being a slut than your average street hooker.