How much is a man's virginity worth?
Virgins Wanted is the title of a new Australian documentary that follows Alexander's journey as his virginity is auctioned off to the general public.
Alexander Stepanov is terrified. Two and a half years ago this young Russian immigrant from Sydney's Western suburbs answered an online audition ad that featured a picture of the Virgin Mary and the words "Virgins Wanted". It is now the title of a new Australian documentary that follows Alexander's journey, alongside fellow virgin Catarina Migliorini, as their virginity is auctioned off to the general public.
That auction closes in seven days, and shortly after the now 23-year-old Alexander will have to sleep with the winning bidder. The idea appears to fill him with dread. "I feel myself bad, doing this," he says.
At 16 Alexander left his grandparent's home in Moscow, arriving on Australia's shores with barebones English. He lives with his mother, whom he calls his "best friend", and her limited English means Alexander has, rather incredibly, managed to hide all news of the auction from her.
Documentary participants Catarina Migliorini and Alexander Stepanov are unsurprisingly apprehensive.
As he talks his sentences run into one another like they are tripping down the stairs. He is friendly and forthcoming, but also highly-strung, and up till now his life has been crippled by severe social anxiety. He hasn't even had his first kiss, let alone had sex.
I ask him if he's imagined what losing his virginity to a total stranger will feel like. He pauses, and then replies: "I try not to."
Can a price be put on a man's virginity? The 31-year-old Melbourne filmmaker Justin Sisley has made a bold attempt to. And with Alexander's auction standing at $1,300 it appears to be worth less than 1/100 of a woman's, with the auction of fellow participant Catarina (a pseudonym she is using) now up to $190,000. Of the 800 or so bids – legitimate or otherwise – an overwhelming majority (around 650) are for Catarina.
The eventual winners will then have to pass a medical test and police check. And an accredited gynecologist will attempt to confirm Catarina's virginity. With modern medicine unable to provide an equivalent test indicating male virginity, Alexander's bidder must rely on his word, and that of two family members who will provide statutory declarations to support his claim. The act will not be filmed, but security will be provided.
According to a list of terms and conditions the winning bidders cannot kiss the virgin, use sex toys, involve any other persons, expect fellatio or the fulfillment of any fantasies or fetishes.
If you're baffled by why a man would go through the humiliation of not only confessing on camera to being a virgin, but then signing on to lose it to the highest bidder of a month long online auction, here it is: loneliness. It's the kind of loneliness that suffocates, like a room with no door. A place that all of us visit, but only some of us live permanently.
In one, long, jumbled sentence Alexander takes me through his experiences as a social outcast, from grade school to high school and finally into adulthood. He may have escaped the childhood bullies who beat him and spat in his face, but it seems the hurt is still fresh as day.
"After my HSC I tried to get enrolled into TAFE. Four different courses! And I never could finish a single one of them because during lunch breaks I would be the person who is outside, sitting by himself and with no one to talk to. I was always feeling this anxiety and I never could do anything," he says.
Filming the documentary became a crack of light pointing to a different life. "My main goal from this documentary was to become more confident," he explains. Alexander has also undergone two years of therapy paid for by the filmmakers, from which his clinical depression became evident. "Before when people would talk to me I'd start to panic. My heart starts racing. I still have some of this in me right now, but not as bad as it was two and a half years ago."
But Alexander's progress has been made on borrowed time, and soon debts must be repaid with an act few of us, if given the choice, would commit.
After all what he has agreed to do, in its essence, is prostitution. And yet it feels unkind to mention this when he so studiously attempts to avoid talking about "the auction". Instead he steers the conversation to his romantic hopes that through the project he might meet someone. "Not so much someone who buys my virginity, as someone who participates in the project, who I have things in common with," he tells me.
One month ago an excited Alexander finally met that person when he flew with filmmakers to Bali, where Catarina is currently awaiting an Australian visa. Upon meeting Catarina he handed her a present: a rubber charity bracelet.
Alexander's breezy 20-year-old Brazilian has clearly already made a favourable impression. "She's very beautiful and a very kind person. It was hard for me to talk to her. She's much more confident than I am."
He confesses, "I want to make a relationship with Catarina."
In the meantime bids for his virginity – mainly from Catarina's home country of Brazil where there's been significant media coverage – continue to trickle in. And the cruelest twist of all may be that although Alexander says he's specified bidders should be female, the filmmakers have confirmed this is in fact "open". Whether male or female, Alexander is contracted to have sex with the highest bidder.
Currently the highest listed bidder is a woman from Brazil, but the film's producers are in the process of confirming an even higher bid from a "Diego", also from Brazil. Afterwards Alexander will receive the full bid amount, along with $20,000 from the filmmakers for the filming rights to his story.
When I ask Alexander why he believes these bidders consider his virginity to be of value, he replies, frightened, "I have no idea. I still don't understand this thing. Is it some crazy sexual fantasy? I don't know."
Most media reports also seem perplexed and have almost all focused their reports on Catarina, leaving Alexander as a tiny footnote. Too often inscribed into the social anxiety that surrounds losing one's virginity there is an implicit understanding that we are referring to a girl's virginity. As if a girl's virginity is something of value. So valuable, in fact, that it has market value.
But a guy's virginity? Next to Catarina's cool 190K, it looks about as valuable as a takeaway cup.
It's difficult not to admire Alexander for his perseverance and the determination with which he has gone about to try and change his life. But when it boils down it seems he is a person grappling with his inner demons, and still learning the ropes of basic social skills. It is this man who is being paraded online as fresh meat, who is being watched by a filmmaker's eye and who will leave a stranger's bed no longer a virgin, yet never been kissed.
"The auction part, I wish I could have a chance not to do it," he says, desperately. "But I have a contract with Justin. I have no choice."