The photograph in People magazine shows a fully clothed couple on a double bed, not touching, an empty expanse of sheet between them. He holds a Bible on his lap. She flashes a stay-yonder look. Dawn Bangart and Michael Caldwell, of Abilene, Texas, who are engaged to be married, decided to put aside all sexual activity for the remainder of their courtship—a span of six months. They are but one among many couples who, according to news accounts, are experimenting with a stint of premarital celibacy. The practice is known as "revirginization." Its aim is "secondary virginity."
The New York Times took notice of the phenomenon a few months ago in its trend-spotting Styles section, published on Sundays, and gave it a regional cast: "These days, a period of 'secondary virginity,' as it is sometimes called, is increasingly the norm for many brides-to-be across the South, an accommodation to the modern reality of premarital sex and the traditional disapproval of it in the Bible Belt." But the trend is demonstrably more widespread—the People story was reported from Denver and Chicago as well as from Abilene. The newly celibate couples reveled in their ex post facto purity. "The key is avoiding temptation," People advised. It so often is.
One reaction to the advent of secondary virginity is that of several parents quoted in the news reports: bewilderment and consternation. Oh, the young—once again, playing with fire! Another reaction comes in the form of a literal-minded parsing: the pursuit of lost virginity, of course, is the pursuit of the unattainable. The horse has left the barn. The toothpaste is out of the tube. You can't put Humpty together again.
A different way to see the phenomenon is as a powerful reassertion of American optimism: the conviction that what's done is not always done, that the broken can be fixed, the ravaged restored—that you can have another swing, can wipe the slate clean, can go back to square one. Among the more inane statements ever to achieve immortality is F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation in The Last Tycoon, "There are no second acts in American lives." This country is premised on second acts. The bankruptcy laws in America, for individuals and for corporations, are astonishingly liberal. Changing one's name—stealing someone else's identity altogether—is a cinch. If you don't do well on your College Boards, you can take them again (and again), and colleges will look only at your best scores. When the sports announcer Marv Albert became mired in an embarrassing personal scandal a few years ago, the only thing everyone knew was "This is not the end of Marv Albert." Immigrants reading The Last Tycoon in ESL programs must scratch their heads when they come to that apothegm about second acts; more on the right wavelength, if only they could make their way through Henry James's sentences, would be Christopher Newman, the protagonist of The American, whose very surname shouts "fresh start." If the Emma Lazarus poem about "your tired, your poor" hadn't made it onto the plinth of the Statue of Liberty, we might just as well have chiseled the words "Act II."
You can't turn back the clock, the realists say, and others warn that in any event we wouldn't want to turn back the clock (" ... to the days of back-alley abortions"; " ... to the days of segregated lunch counters"). But often we do want to turn back the clock. The word "retro" exists for a reason, and it's hardly a term of abuse. When world events get out of hand, one frequently hears the wistful desire to "return to the status quo ante"—to the way things used to be. On television two new sitcoms, Do Over and That Was Then, involve people who get a chance to return to high school as teenagers, with all the accumulated savvy of adulthood: a chance to get it right this time. (Two decades ago the preternaturally boyish David Owen made this transition for real, producing the very funny book High School.) Among the spam messages I've been getting lately by e-mail is one that announces itself on the subject line with the words "If over 40, turn back the clock." It offers a supply of human growth hormone, which is said to increase memory, muscle strength, and sexual potency, and to reduce wrinkles and body fat. Medical procedures to replace hips and knees promise to make the joints as good as new. According to NASA, the repairs on the Hubble space telescope actually made it "better than new."