Grace Dent on TV: 40-Year-Old Virgins

How people can humiliate themselves like this is beyond belief. Not that I'm ungrateful, obviously...

In our heavily sexualised society, it's tempting to think we're all open and easy about sex. Or that the average person sexts at least five grainy pictures of their bare behind to strangers before breakfast, before popping to the local municipal park to become bathed in the bodily fluids of local dog-walkers. Channel 4's recent human-zoo excursion What Happens in Kavos... showed a bright new world of teenage sexual freedom. The freedom to enjoy bisexual group sex despite third-degree sunburn and a throat wound from imbibing tequila through a funnel. The freedom to catch gonorrhea to a backing track of David Guetta.

So with this in mind, it's common to overlook men like Clive and women like Rosie, subjects of this week's Channel 4 documentary 40-Year-Old Virgins, both virtually unsullied by human hand and increasingly perturbed about the matter. So perturbed, in fact, that allowing a film crew to record this most delicate of journeys was their only real option. No, I don't understand this either – in the same way that I struggle to understand the people with triple bum fissures on Embarrassing Bodies who, at some point, have sat on the loo whimpering, “There's only one thing for this: I need this anal dilemma televised at 9pm on a major digital channel, intercut with scenes of Dr Christian in a miner's helmet struggling to keep down his Sugar Puffs.”

As a TV viewer I am bewildered, vaguely disapproving and wholly grateful to these people all at the same time. They are creating TV which appalls, titillates, but also educates. Plus, of course, they get free treatment – which brings up some awkward questions about why the poor have to suffer utter indignity for the pay-off of a small taste of the medical luxury that rich people enjoy daily.

For the purposes of this journalistic opus, I shall contain myself to the journey of Clive, who somehow transgressed from being a devout Christian and terrified virgin to a naked man fingering a gasping 68-year-old American woman on primetime telly, no squelch and groan unaccounted for. Sex, I mused to myself while watching this wholly uncomfortable but riveting hour, is a bit like riding a bike. Once you've ridden a bike, peddled the damn thing and gone somewhere without crashing, then the vast impossibility of the task fades away. One can see that bike-riding is just a flurry of feet, steering and a bell to ping if one's feeling chipper. Any old idiot can do it. But if you leave it until you're 45 to ride the bike, dark worries will cloud one's thoughts about peddling too fast or too slow, the ding of one's bell, or whether one's shopping basket might fall off midway.

Clive had got himself into such a dismal psychological sexual cul-de-sac thinking about sex, he even had trouble muttering words like “penis”. A lot of highly strung people cry after sex, but Clive had taken to sobbing before sex, which pretty much negates erotic ambience. One great thing in Clive's favour was that he actually fancied Cheryl, who was a naughty, robust and, overall, kind lady with a lot of patience and a neat line in being wholly convincing over her personal sexual ecstasy.

Rosie, 28, the other sex explorer, was dispatched to meet Gary, who resembled Stuart Copeland, the drummer from The Police, as he is now. On their first meeting, Rosie announced that she didn't find Gary attractive. Gary asked her to caress his face, which she did with the enthusiasm I exude while retrieving the partially eaten voles my cat has gifted me from behind the television. “Would you like to wash your hands?” Gary asked Rosie. “Yes,” she said, rushing to the bathroom to douse herself in antibacterial foam. Rosie was experiencing what they call in Scotland “the dry boke”.

To me, her taking part in the show felt vaguely wrong, as she was quite vocally emotionally scarred by childhood sexual abuse. Thus the vague possibility that she might feel obliged to have sex with this looming man spouting cheesy psychobabble, so as not to waste Channel 4's plane ticket, was saddening. In fact, Rosie stuck to her guns about finding Gary as attractive as dry rot on wood-chip and flew home unbesmirched. “One thing I've learned from this is I'm not bothered about being a virgin anymore,” she said. “I'm fine about it.” She said “fine” in that slightly high-pitched, pass-agg way that folk who are not fine pull off being totally bloody fine – but at least she didn't have post-Gary regret to deal with.

After having sex with Cheryl, Clive hung out of the taxi window en route back to his hotel, letting the wind catch his face like a glibly happy Golden Retriever coming back from a great ball-fetching adventure. “I've just had sex!” he shouted to passers-by, the weight of the sexual world lifted from his shoulders. As to whether he returned to his room and began searching for cheap flights to Kavos, we viewers were left in the dark.

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