Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Steve Carrell and natural law ... Natural law is an inherently fraught concept, but no more so than when it attempts to define human sexuality.

In its more religious or theological versions, natural law defines sexuality as being inherently heterosexual, since it is only through heterosexual intercourse that procreation -- and thus the regeneration of the natural world -- is possible. Conversely, in its secular versions human sexuality is natural only when an individual "orients" his or her sexuality according to biological or genetic instinct. Ultimately the two views prove incompatible, and any consensus on a "natural law" or "natural order" impossible, because each differs in premise rather than argument.

What's curious, though, is that each treats virginity, in itself, as being deviant. Only when virginity is willed does it become celibacy or abstinence, in which case sexual restraint is consecrated by God or accepted as a form of evolutionary behavior. Unintentioned, post-adolescent virginity, by contrast, is identified as either perverse or inexplicable.

Which brings me to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which Steve Carrell plays the accidental virgin who finally stumbles his way into love and deflowerment. I saw it recently, and very much enjoyed it. But I also found its message about sexuality (along with Wedding Crashers, it's an encomium of love rather than sex) to be inconsistent. As funny as it was, it was still based on the idea that virginity is a condition which must be cured, as if it were a disease.

And therein the problem lies. The movie clearly lies in a secular moral universe, in which sexual orientation is to be respected but sexual inhibition is not. That seems odd to me. From emotional disorders to physical disfigurement, there are any number of "causes" for unintentioned virginity. The film's protagonist, for instance, clearly had a kind of genuine emotional disorder. Fortunately for him Katherine Keener was there to save the day, but in real life can be so lucky.

In the end, then, I can't help believing that virgin jokes, however hilarious and even well-intended, are counter-productive. They may prompt a rare few toward true love, but in general all they do is reinforce the perception of virginity as being socially or morally deviant. To understand the anguish that perception causes, all you need do is watch Carrell's expression after he's been "outted". Not a pretty scene, that. And certainly not something that our culture can condone without become woefully inconsistent with its other secular and even religious values.


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