From ‘Game of Thrones’ To ‘Downton Abbey,’ Television’s Treatment Of Grown-Up Male Virgins

Over at the Daily Beast yesterday, I wrote about a television phenomenon that officially became a trend over the weekend: the prestige television male virgin. I explained:

On last night’s Game of Thrones, after getting seduced by wildling warrior Ygritte (Rose Leslie), Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) confessed that “There’s been no one else.” Ygritte knew that as a man of the Night’s Watch, the celibate brotherhood who guards the Wall which marks the border of Westeros, Jon was forbidden from having sex after he swore the vows she asked him to break. But she assumed that he’d had sex before he joined up, and was surprised to learn she’d been mistaken. “A maid! You’re a maid,” she teased him.

An hour later on Sunday night’s television line-up, Mad Men copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), whose father sprung a blind date with a pretty schoolteacher on him, confessed during a bout of logorrhea at the diner where he took her that “I’ve never had sex, not even once.” His confession was inexplicable, even to him. “What am I doing?” Ginsberg moaned. “I ordered soup. I just said that.” And Jon and Michael are in good company. Much of the third season of Downton Abbey, which aired on PBS earlier this season, concerned the sexual awakening of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) after he marries Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), ending years of sexual yearning and passing into the realm where, in the words of his bride “all things are permitted.”

As I wrote earlier in our discussion of lies pop culture tells us, one of the biggest is that everyone’s having sex all of the time, and that everyone started having sex sometime late in high school or early in college. It’s worth noting that all three of these stories which have acknowledged that there isn’t a set age at which everyone is miraculously divested of their virginity are in some form or other period pieces. Game of Thrones is set in a world where youthful marriage means that a lot of people do have sex for the first time at a relatively early age, but often not in a truly consensual fashion. Downton Abbey is set in an environment where nice people of both sexes are expected to come to marriage inexperienced, and when the slow burn of sexual tension is a key source of cultural drama. And one of the things that Mad Men captures with great perceptiveness is the uneven arrival of the sexual revolution in different characters’ lives depending on their level of privilege and the conditions of their upbringing.

It would be nice to see some shows attempt to tell similar and similarly respectful stories about characters in contemporary settings, and about women as well as men. High school and college may be the point by which the majority of people have sex for the first time, but they aren’t the only times that people decide to—or get a chance to—have sex for the first time, and there are different concerns and different anxieties about it at different ages. I’m not saying that pop culture should abandon teen and young adult sex stories. But Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Downton Abbey all serve as a reminder that there’s rich material in different kinds of first time stories, whether someone’s having sex for the first time at a different point in their life, or having sex for the first time with a new partner, which can be just as momentous as the first time period.