The reality show, which premiered in December, thrust the topic of virginity back under the pop-culture microscope and has only fueled ongoing conversations initiated by athletes such as the Denver Broncos quarterback — who is in the spotlight now for just about everything he says or does — and stars like Miley Cyrus and Jordin Sparks. All of them in the past few years have publicly proclaimed their decision to hold off on sex until marriage. "Diaries" made headlines when cameras captured the first — and awkward — kiss by a couple at their wedding and it went viral.
Of course, sex always has piqued the public's interest, but why is America so fascinated with the idea of virginity right now?
"I think it's taking something historically uncool and making it cool," says Robin G. Sawyer, who focuses on human sexuality as an associate professor and associate chairman of the Department of Behavioral & Community Health at the University of Maryland, College Park.
From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" in the '80s to "American Pie" in the '90s to "Superbad" in 2007, sex has been at the center of coming-of-age movies for the past three decades, often with teens on a quest to lose their virginity as a rite of passage into adulthood. It's also been the cornerstone of shows such as MTV's"Jersey Shore,"HBO's "True Blood" and CW's"Gossip Girl."
Despite all that, there's a significant number of young adults who don't hook up at all. A report issued last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics found from 2006-08, 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men ages 15-24 had had no sexual contact with another person, up from 22 percent in 2002. The CDC data encompassed vaginal, anal and oral sex with the opposite sex, as well as any sexual contact with the same sex.
Among those trying to wait for sex is Joshua Rasch, 26, of Bel Air. Rasch has been an abstinence speaker and advocate, including working with the locally based organization Love 180, which encourages teens and young adults to delay sex. He's motivated by his Christian faith — he became religious at age 13 — and by a drive to have a functional, healthy relationship. In high school, he says, he was dismayed by the "drama" of his friends' sexual relationships, the pain they endured and the treatment of sex like a sport.
"I felt alone in that decision. I didn't tell any of my high school friends I wasn't having sex. I actually lied about it in high school. I told people I was having sex," he said. "That decision [to be abstinent] wasn't super strong, but each year my decision got stronger and stronger."
Unsurprisingly, it's been a tough decision. Rasch, who was voted "friendliest" in high school, is confident, well-spoken and athletic; a YouTube video reveals toned biceps and an approachable manner. Women, he says, become intrigued when they learn he's waiting to have sex.
Rasch admits he has lost his virginity, around age 24 ("I was really close to a girl, and then I thought we were on the same page with things, but we weren't), and he knows that making out can lead him into further temptation. But he's committed to waiting because of his goal of having a trusting, healthy relationship. He and his girlfriend of four months, he says, see eye-to-eye.
"How do you have good relationships? The casual hookup culture? I'm not seeing it," he says. "By holding that sacred and saving that and being extremely careful when you give that up, there's going to be a big payoff."
His story illuminates the long histories of complexities and attitudes surrounding any individual's sex life.
When sex researcher Alfred Kinsey released a 1953 report finding that 50 percent of women had premarital sex, for example, it challenged traditional views on relationships. The invention of easily available, hormonal birth control changed the ages at which people first had sex — and changed the perception of virginity, says Hanne Blank, a Hampden-based activist, historian and author who published "Virgin: The Untouched History" in 2007.
"Virginity sort of shifted over time, partly due to the sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1970s. [It] went from being an asset to a liability," she says. "There is a sense in which adult virginity, post-age 20 or so, is a sort of social stigma.
"A big part of it had to do with birth control. Once it became possible for women — specifically, young women — to engage in penis-and-vagina sex with a fairly reliable ability to control fertility, then there was a sense of 'Why not? Why not say yes to this?'"
These days, many people are delaying marriage and not waiting until marriage to have sex. Census data showed the median age to get married in 1953 was about 20 for women and about 23 for men. In 2011, it was about 26 for women and 29 for men.
When it comes to having sex for the first time, about 44 percent of 17-year-olds have had sex by the time they reached that age and the percentage dramatically jumps after that, according to the Centers for Disease Control data.
Amid data measuring sex before marriage and a fascination with it in pop culture, certain celebrities such as Disney stars Cyrus and the Jonas brothers, buck the trend. They're seen as the "antidote" to the problem of a hypersexualized pop culture that parents complain about, said Jessica Valenti, author of "The Purity Myth," which examines how society tends to judge young women based on what they do or don't do sexually, rather than by who they are as a person.
Stephanie Smith, 23, waited until she married her husband to have sex.
Her family and her Christian faith both led her to that choice at age 14. However, the Perry Hall native thinks the decision helped her and her then-fiance, who met at Moody Bible Institute, to maintain their bond even when she was interning in Amsterdam.
"When most people are living together, we were talking on the phone. That was incredibly difficult," she says. But because they had been abstinent together, she trusted him when they were apart. "I honestly just believe that, if we hadn't chosen to be people of our word and stick to our choice of abstinence, then we probably wouldn't have made it through that long-distance time."
Also, she says the waiting built anticipation, which is exciting. And she didn't have concerns about whether they'd be sexually compatible when they consummated the marriage.
"If you and your partner are both virgins ... you're both starting on an even field," she says. "I think everybody could say honestly that the learning part from there is pretty fun."
Anne Tallent contributed to this article.