CW: rape/sexual assault
Everyone has a unique and personal relationship with virginity, which is greatly shaped by the cultures we grow up in. Even in communities that are most “liberal” about the concept, there remains a certain ambivalence over whether ‘losing our virginity’ is something to be proud or ashamed of. On a global scale, there are several misconceptions about sex and virginity which at best create stigma, and at worst cause suffering.
When evaluating society’s problematic approach to virginity, we should first consider the language we use to discuss it: “Lost virginity”, “deflowered”, “popped the cherry”, “cashed in the v-card”. As funny as they are, all of these phrases imply loss, trade or damage.
The same sentiment is iterated in many other languages. Perdre la virginité, perdere la verginità, το να χάσει κανείς την παρθενιά του, কুমারীত্ব হারান: all include the verb “to lose”. In German, the (relatively formal) phrase “
Why, in choosing to have sex for the first time, and thus gaining an experience, is our lexicon so bereaved? There are a few possible reasons.
Historically (and still by many today), virginity has been used as a value barometer, specifically aimed at women. In fact, virginity is seen in many cultures as a solely female attribute. In Arabic, the phrase ما عاد بنت would denote losing virginity, and directly translates as being “not a girl anymore”, with the implication of becoming a woman. Even though the possessive “su” is genderless in Spanish, if you put “perder su virginidad” into Google Translate, it will translate as “losing her virginity”. The same happens with other grammatically similar languages. While Google Translate is famous for its discrepancies, this one seems a little more loaded.
Clearly, society has an implicitly gendered approach to virginity. As such, the idea of being a woman’s “first” often comes with an inherent power dynamic – the taking of virginity, the destruction of ‘deflowering’. The woman is always passive in this narrative, with her virginity used as an indicator of her worth. As a tweet by @LeMePakistani reads “Marrying a virgin woman must be the same excitement as you’re buying a new car, not a second hand one”. This unfortunate simile exposes the core problem: that the construct of virginity functions in a world which views women as objects to be valued.
Another reason for the language we use may stem from fundamental biological misconceptions. While virginity is something which affects all genders, much of our discussion is heavily based around a misunderstanding of female gynaecology – namely, “the cherry”; aka the hymen. The hymen is a thin film of membrane inside the vulva which can slightly obstruct the entrance to the vaginal canal. Faults in global sex education (and a lacklustre approach to female health) have created a fondly mythical aura around the hymen.
Here are some of my favourite myths: the hymen always perforates when you first have penetrative sex, which will always result in bleeding; Sex will always hurt the first time for those with a vagina; An “intact” hymen is a good indicator of being a virgin.
Not only can the hymen perforate from any number of physical activities, often without people noticing, but some people can also be sexually active for many years, or even their whole lives, and retain an “intact” hymen. Thus, there is no real scientific basis for virginity. Ultimately, as Hanne Blank puts it, “virginity reflects no known biological imperative and grants no demonstrable evolutionary advantage.
This lack of understanding of the hymen has serious implications. In some parts of the world, proof of a bride’s virginity is required before marriage. These “virginity tests” can either constitute a physical examination – which are often forced upon women – or the requirement to show “proof of blood” after consummation of a marriage. These virginity tests are not only based on a biological myth, but can also result in major emotional and physical trauma. In fact, a statement was issued by the UN Human Rights, UN Women and the World Health Organization (WHO) in October 2018, declaring that “virginity testing must end as it is a painful, humiliating and traumatic practice, constituting violence against women”. Clearly, the widespread misunderstanding of sex and virginity has damaging consequences.
Another issue with our discussion of virginity is how cis/heteronormative our approach is. Sex is often defined as simply penile-vaginal penetration, indulging the archaic myth that sex is solely for procreation, rather than pleasure. This would imply that a person who has engaged in any sexual relations that do not include both a vagina and a penis, attached to a cisgender man and woman, is still a virgin, despite having experienced sex. Even in a supposedly progressive curriculum, LGBT+ students are often failed in sex education, and are met with very little clarity on the different ways sex can be explored. I recall a teacher in my school who, when asked how lesbians have sex, responded “I think they use equipment…maybe…just google it.”
Despite the lack of information, there are many forms of sex that do not pertain to just heterosexual intercourse; all of which come with their own risks and rewards. When institutional homophobia leaves people without a comprehensive education on different forms of sex, LGBT+ students are taught instead to feel like outsiders, and are left fundamentally endangered (as tragedies such as the AIDS crisis have proven).
Furthermore, the physical emphasis on intercourse not only removes the validity of the many other forms of sex, but also removes a level of agency from people who engage in sexual acts, by taking away the emotional scope and the freedom to define sex as a person wishes. In fact, to suggest that sex and losing one’s virginity lies entirely in the physical act also removes the requirement of consent for something to qualify as sex, foregoing a distinction between rape and sex which should be imperative. Thus, the damaging urge to frame sex as an entirely physical act of penetration removes the element of individual consent, choice and feeling, destructively perpetuating our society’s rape culture.
Ultimately, the way sex and virginity is discussed – the heteronormativity, the misconceptions – reduces sex to its basest (and often inaccurate) form of biology, and heterosexual physicality, vitally overlooking the dimensions of pleasure, sensuality and emotion which make sex enjoyable in the first place. Many people find that the same technical act can feel entirely different based on the person and level of intimacy. Of course, not all sex is emotional, nor is it required to be. But by the same token, not all sex lies in just the physical – it should be what we make it. If a sexual act doesn’t technically qualify as intercourse, a person should be able to define it based on their own relationship with the act. The same should apply to virginity. Rather than learning about virginity within a fixed classification, we should be handed the freedom to define our own terms of engagement, and reclaim what it means to have sex. Whether a person chooses to have sex or not, or chooses to label themselves as a virgin or not, it is only by reforming our relationship with virginity that we will ever remove the destructive stigma that still hangs over us today.
Hanne Blank (2008). Virgin: The Untouched History. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. pp. 304 ISBN 978-1-59691-011-9.
“United Nations agencies call for ban on virginity testing”. World Health Organization. 17 October 2018.
Cover image: Mae Mu on Unsplash