Feature: Are virgins in fashion again?

On the right, Lynn, sexually active and happy. And in the chaste corner, Jeanette, saving herself for marriage. They're going to have an argument. By Emma Daly
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The term "virgin bride" will soon mean only one thing: a vision of loveliness clothed by Richard Branson's new megastore. But there remains a small yet dedicated section of the population determined to sleep only with the person they marry, and one of that band, Jeanette Barratt, will appear on national television this week to defend her unfashionable views.

A Room with Two Views, a BBC2 series running over two weeks, tackles the subject of premarital sex with a debate between Ms Barratt, a telemarketing executive, and Lynn Phillips, a 20-year-old recruitment consultant.

Ms Barratt, 26, an attractive and committed Christian, holds that sex before marriage is absolutely wrong, because sex, she tells Ms Phillips, "was designed for that married relationship". She is certainly in the minority in Britain, at least according to a survey of sexual attitudes published in 1994.

Of 19,000 people interviewed, only 5 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women agreed with Ms Barratt that premarital sex is always wrong. However, another 14 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women said it was "mostly or sometimes wrong", perhaps reflecting the view that there are no absolutes in human sexuality.

Still, Ms Phillips would be pleased to know that three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women questioned said that sex before marriage was not wrong at all. After all, as Ms Phillips argues in the programme: "How can you possibly build a good relationship with someone if you don't know them sexually?" Ms Barratt has a ready answer: "Part of the actual fun of it is going to be growing and learning together."

Many thousands of Britons agree with her. The same survey found 16 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men did not have sex until they were married, though it tracked a significant decline in the numbers marrying as virgins: 38 per cent of women of 45 to 59, as opposed to 5 per cent of those aged 25 to 34.

"Don't you think sex is so precious it should be saved for the person you're committing yourself to?" asks Ms Barratt. "If you get married," Ms Phillips replies. "I don't know that I will." She sees Ms Barratt's views as outdated.

Which of these two women is likelier to lead the happier, healthier life? Is it even possible to speculate? "If someone is making a choice about remaining a virgin, then one would assume it's a reasonable and valid choice," says Janice Hiller, a clinical psychologist and a specialist in the field. "There's no reason at all why it should be damaging. Sexual activity is perfectly healthy, but there's no reason why you can't live without it."

But she agrees with Julia Cole, a psychosexual therapist working for Relate, that the decision must be an informed one. "I'm not suggesting everyone should experiment before marriage," Ms Cole says, "but if you're very ignorant of a general understanding about sexuality, your relationship will probably suffer."

Ms Cole says that, given the problems she hears from couples visiting Relate, sexual ignorance is widespread, even among those who practise. This compounds any sexual problem the couple might have - first, because they are often uncomfortable with the language needed to discuss sex, and secondly because they are unsure of what might be done to aid a resolution.

"So it's important that even if you don't want to have sex before you get married, you have clear information that will help you deal with sex when you do get married," Ms Cole explains.

And if, like Ms Barratt, you believe that masturbation is wrong and selfish, you can learn a lot, Ms Cole says, by reading and talking about sex. She is also a promoter of the benefits of heavy petting - one good way, she maintains, of getting to know your partner sexually.

Many women who choose to remain virgins are following the cultural or religious path carved by their families, and Julia Cole sees nothing wrong with that. Many arranged marriages, for example, work well, she says, because couples enter a period of extended courtship on their wedding night and will not progress to sexual intercourse for days or even months. "They will learn together, and that's OK," Ms Cole says.

But, she warns, "it leaves you open to the possibility of abuse, so that, for instance, a young girl in an arranged marriage who has no understanding of sex might have a male partner who treats her almost as if it was rape, a quick, painful procedure." Without a sexual education, she will not know that sex doesn't have to be that way.

Ms Barratt holds her position on moral grounds, but she also articulates concern about the sexualisation of society. Sex, she says, is everywhere, but "sex as an act, not sex as an emotional exchange". She wants boundaries, and to her, maintaining her virginity is mandated by the Bible.

Her position seems extreme to many of us - and we feel some concern at her blithe assurance that sex, with the man she chooses to marry, will automatically be marvellous. Tell that to two women I know of, who were married as virgins to inexperienced men, and who subsequently discovered their husbands to be homosexuals.

Although Ms Barratt is, it seems, unusual in the absolutism of her views (save for a few high-profile fellow-travellers such as Victoria Gillick and Anne Atkins, a vicar's wife who made her debut as agony aunt for The Daily Telegraph last week), her feelings do reflect a widespread belief in Britain that sex should be confined to a meaningful relationship: only 4 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men say they see nothing wrong with one-night stands.

In the end, Ms Barratt says that there is right and wrong, and sex outside marriage is simply wrong. For Ms Phillips, moral absolutes do not come into it. "I don't think you know what you're missing out on," she says. "I'm not ashamed to say I do enjoy sex; I'm living for the times."

Ms Barratt apparently speaks for many with more experience when she says that sex "is one of the most precious and special gifts we have as human beings to share with each other". It is just that most of us want to share it more than once.

`A Room with Two Views: Premarital Sex', BBC2, Wednesday, 11 December, 11.15pm.