“The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.”

So much for sex — or so much for the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, the 18th-century British statesman who in that little epigram immortalized his trenchant wit — though not his philosophy, for it is on record that future generations, while quoting him with relish, went on coupling nonetheless.

Until now, that is.

Until now?

Imagine the notoriously stuffy aristocrat teleported to Cool Japan. Much would bewilder him, of course, but one aspect of it — its sexual tastes, or lack thereof — might well bring a gleam to his eye, a smile to his lips and an exclamation to his heart and mouth: “Ah, you see! My time has come!”

When we have sex for the first time, do we gain something, or lose something? We lose our virginity and gain experience, but does the latter outweigh the former? As far back as living memory extends, it was generally supposed to. Not universally; nuns, monks and other abstainers there have always been, upholding virginity as a pathway to higher spheres or damning coitus as pollution. But for the average boy and girl, sex was an awesome mystery if not a premature pleasure, and for the average man and woman, it was a part of life without which our Earthly lot would seem sadly diminished.

Maybe that’s a misapprehension it’s time we rose above. Shukan Post magazine’s report on a spreading virginity trend might have been titled “Virgin Pride.” The actual title is “30 percent of 30-ish single women are virgins: Is that so strange?” The phrasing suggests that one would naturally think so but shouldn’t. A 33-year-old career woman in the finance sector no doubt speaks for many when she says work must come first. Building a career takes time, effort and energy. You study to get into a top university, study to get out of it, head off overseas for an MBA, struggle to prove yourself in a society that typically relegates women to the kitchen and nursery. Who has time for sex?

“My plan from the beginning,” the woman says, “was to start thinking about marriage in my mid-30s, to a man who loved me from his heart, someone I could respect as a responsible member of society. And my first sexual experience would be with him.”

Shukan Post’s 30 percent figure is an extrapolation from health ministry statistics that show virginity percentages among single women ranging from 40.1 percent for those aged 20-24, to 25.5 percent for those aged 35-39. The weekly Spa!, discussing a related theme, presents its own calculations which, coming from a different source (the condom maker Sagami Original), are slightly different: 25.5 percent for single women in their 20s — high enough, but low compared with single men in their 20s, 40.6 percent of whom remain strangers to Eros and his mysteries. How frustrating for a young woman. No wonder, Spa! concludes, women in their 20s are increasingly turning their backs on men their own age in favor of worthier partners in their 40s!

Of that, more shortly. Shukan Post introduces a career woman of 33 who for years kept her virginity to herself as a shameful personal blemish. Drinking after hours with female colleagues, she would keep quiet when talk turned to sex and hope no one noticed. Finally, on her 30th birthday, impelled by some inner need, she made her confession. Expecting hoots, she got shrugs instead. “So? What’s the big deal? Good for you!” Three years later nothing has changed, except that she accepts virginity as part of her identity, and why not?

There’s more to virginity than physiology or even psychology. Shrine maidens of old gave it a sacred character. In farming villages until relatively modern times, as Shukan Post explains, a custom known as “night crawling” legitimized on set occasions the penetration of maidens’ bedrooms by local young bucks. No one took it amiss, least of all the girl or her family. Different times, different mores. An individual back then belonged to his or her community in ways we today can scarcely imagine.

The sexual liberation movements of our own time turned virginity into something of a burden — liberation meant you had to be liberated, like it or not. Those who didn’t like it kept quiet. Now they’re speaking out. At the vanguard of virgin liberation are certain female TV comedians who laugh at their own virginity, real or fictitious, emboldening their more diffident sisters. “Who needs sex anyway?” is Shukan Post’s parting shot — the proliferation and refinement of mechanical sex aids make partnership pretty much superfluous.

Really? Yes and no, for Spa!’s theme is women’s search not for sexlessness or post-sexual alternatives, but for suitable partners among men old enough, or nearly, to be their fathers.

“My first sexual experience came at 16 with a man 10 years older,” recalls one woman, now 26. “Ever since, men my age have struck me as a bit callow. They’re OK as friends, but I’ve never actually dated anyone my age.”

A certain 28-year-old tax accountant has, and was happy enough doing so until she met her current lover, a 48-year-old senior colleague to whom she turned for advice when she found herself over her head. “Whatever the difficulty was, he always had an answer for me” — the parent-child relationship eroticized. “He’s my peace of mind,” she adds. As for her old, much younger boyfriend, “I outgrew him,” she says — without seeing in that, apparently, a tacit invitation to her current lover to outgrow her.

Well, that’s life — may we all continue to grow and outgrow one another, and see where it leads. If Chesterfield turns out to have been prescient, the next casualty might be laughter — for laughter (“the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things”) was as asinine to him as sex.

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