The Virginity Problem

The first time I had penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex, I remember it being unromantic, awkward, and quick. As he rolled off me and we both lay staring at the ceiling, I sarcastically noted: “Well that was glamorous!” My words hurt him more than a little. But what did he expect from the first time?

Did he expect fireworks?

An epic orchestral swell at the moment of climax?

It’s no wonder we come into our first sexual experiences with a range of (often problematic and inaccurate) preconceptions. From television shows, to celebrities, to films, society places a lot of emphasis on the life-altering and ground-shaking significance of losing one’s virginity. “Losing it” is supposed to be this monumental event… right?

Yes, first sexual experiences can be hugely powerful. But our obsession with virgins is not doing us any favours.

Among the (many) fundamental problems involved: “virginity” is an ill-defined concept, a before/after dichotomy is promoted, first time experiences involve “loss”, and there are huge gender inequalities ingrained in the notion.

MURKY DEFINITIONS

The assumed act that determines one’s virginity (or not) is penis-in-vagina intercourse. Where does this leave people who have sexual experiences that do not involve a p-in-the-v? If you’re a man who has sex with men, is penetrative anal sex the defining act? What about women who have sex with women? Self-pleasure is undeniably sexual, but because it only involves one person, does it somehow not count? You can see where I’m going with this: the loopholes (no pun intended) are endless.

A 15 year old once asked me if she was a “half virgin”…

In my work as a sex educator, I see young people struggle all the time about what constitutes virginity. A 15 year old once asked me if she was a “half virgin” because her boyfriend only briefly put some of his penis in her vagina. If people are willing to engage in debates about what virginity means to them, then that’s terrific! But the assumed definition involves heterosexual, penetrative sex and that is hardly inclusive of the range of sexual experiences that people have.

According to Hanne Blank’s book Virgin: The Untouched History, there is no actual medical definition of virginity. Contrary to some beliefs, the tearing of the vaginal corona, or hymen, has little to do with a vagina’s first sexual experience.

So I ask you: what is virginity even? Ultimately, it is a concept that has very different meanings to different people. And yet, a single and myopic definition dominates popular discussion. Hardly makes sense to me.

THE CATERPILLAR/BUTTERFLY BINARY

Just as we classify into good and evil, black and white, man and woman, so too do we see a delineation between before and after having sex for the first time. You are one person before the first time you have sex (a VIRGIN), and, like the caterpillar transforming in its cocoon, you become another person entirely after your first time.

Not only is this misleading, it is categorically untrue.

Sure, you could potentially contract an STI and that might change your body. And yes, if you are capable of getting pregnant, that can happen too and would most certainly be life-altering. But having sex for the first time does not fundamentally change you. If you’re a virgin on Friday and have sex on Saturday, odds are, the “Sunday-you” will feel pretty damn similar to the “Friday-you”.

“Is it true that you walk differently after your first time?”

A few months ago, a 16 year old timidly asked me: “Is it true that you walk differently after your first time?” It took all the strength I could muster to not shout, “Who the fuck is telling you such utter bullshit?!” and instead ask, calmly, “And where did you hear that?” Turns out her friend’s mom had been broadcasting that she could tell who among her daughter’s friends has had sex simply by the way they walked. The caterpillar/butterfly binary can be used to scare people away from having sex.

This binary can also be used to encourage people to have sex. The website “Sex Is Back” presents video confessionals of real people’s sex stories. These stories are engaging, diverse, sex-positive, and LGBT-friendly. What a great tool to get the discussion of sex out into the public arena! Nonetheless, individual accounts still show how pervasive the before/after divide is. As an example, towards the end of one of her stories, Anne mentions excitedly talking to her friends after her first time, and they ask: “Are you one of us finally?”

With the hype that “losing it” will change you in some irreversible way or will grant you membership into a group (or keep you out of another), no wonder people expect great things. No wonder people anticipate fireworks and music and transformation. This inane focus on virginity is setting up false expectations.

THE LOSS METAPHOR

The Canadian branch of MTV produces a video confessional series similar to “Sex Is Back,” but it focuses exclusively on people’s first sexual encounters. It skews towards 20-30 year olds, but otherwise, there is diversity in the cast’s stories and perspectives. They even offer valuable insights on improvements that could be made in sex education.

But the show is called “Losing It,” which, to me, undermines the entire project. Without a doubt, it’s a catchy name. But it reinforces the metaphor that our virginity is something that we have until we lose it or give it away.

This notion of “losing” something that you can’t get back is so ingrained that even sex-positive educators perpetuate the imagery. Marnie Goldenberg is a Vancouver-based, self-proclaimed “sexplainer” who focuses on healthy sex education of kids and teens. Throughout her article The Right Age for Losing It, she frequently uses parentheses or italics with the terms “losing it” and “virginity,” but nowhere does she challenge these words or explicitly highlight the different types of sex that are out there. With the last bullet of her “Thought Launchers” questions, she implies it (“What does ‘losing your virginity’ mean anyway?”) and links to useful articles, but I think it bears more explicit discussion — especially in young people’s sex education.

These omissions perpetrate the troubling metaphors that pervade mainstream discussions of sex. That being said, as Al Vernacchio effectively argues in his TED talk, a number of our metaphors around sex and sexuality could do with a massive overhaul. This symbolism sets up hetero-normative, sexist, goal-oriented, and unhealthy attitudes about sex.

If we consider “losing” as undesirable, then it logically follows that we should do our best to hold on to it, to not lose it. Which brings me to my next point…

THE HYPOCRITICAL GENDER DIVIDE

My critique of virginity wouldn’t be complete without drawing attention to the deeply embedded gender issues of the concept.

You need only scratch the surface to find guilt and shame in many discussions of sex. Virginity is fertile ground for these two powerful motivators to show their ugly faces.

For men and boys, there tends to be shame if they haven’t “done it” yet. For girls and women, all too often, there is shame if they have. After all, the concept of female virginity goes hand in hand with innocence: before her first time she is pure, and afterwards, she has been “deflowered” and devalued. This bases a woman’s value on her sexual activity. Don’t give it up too easy, ladies, or what are you worth?

Exhibit A: in the Single Girl’s Opinion column on askmen.com, there is an article called 5 Reasons Not to Sleep with a Virgin. I do not know if this is an actual “girl’s opinion.” I do not know what the reactions are to the article (we see hundreds of shares, but there seem to be zero comments). All I know, it is disgusting and needs to die. An excerpt:

“Because so much importance is put on her virginity, her first time is bound to be an emotional experience, which means that you might have to deal with panic, sadness, guilt, and other unpleasant reactions. She has probably imagined the event for a long time and wants it to go absolutely perfectly.”

Umm… no. Just no. I could write an entire post devoted to ripping apart this article but I will remain focused and stay calm.

Despite this persistent attitude, many women and girls embrace the notion that their first time isn’t necessarily a big deal, and that they (and their sexualities) aren’t defined by virginity:

These perspectives and the awesome women who proudly share them with the world give me hope. But as long as there are the “askmen.com” columns of the world, there is plenty of work still to be done.

SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM

Can we just get rid of this pesky virginity thing? Hanne Blank responds to this question in a Scarleteen interview:

I don’t think we have a choice. We will always have to grapple with the transition that happens in people’s lives when they go from not having sex with other people to having it. So in some form or other, virginity will always be with us. It’s one of the major life stages, in terms of sexuality, and it’s one that eventually ends for the vast majority of people on the planet. So we’re probably always going to be talking about it.

I am perfectly content to talk about first sexual experiences. But let’s have that talk outside the constraints of “virginity.”

Let’s talk about how you don’t lose anything when you have sex for the first time. In fact, you’ve taken your first step down a road that can bring you unparalleled intimacy or lead you to intense carnal pleasure. #gain

Let’s talk about how you will still be the same you after having sex. Sure, you may walk with a bit more swagger… And yes, get an STI or get pregnant/get someone pregnant and things will definitely be different… But while you may develop a relationship with sex that does shape who you are, odds are that ain’t happening after the first time.

Let’s talk about how sex comes in all shapes and sizes and however you define sex for you is perfectly fine. Don’t force your beliefs on others.

It’s not about “giving it up”. If you want to have sex and you have a supportive environment, have sex. If not, don’t. No one should be convincing anyone to have sex, under any circumstances, first time or otherwise.

And guess what – it doesn’t make you “easy” if you have sex. It makes you human.


For more examples and discussions of first sexual experiences, visit:

About HeadMistress

I'm the proud creator of this site as well as its main contributor. I tend to keep it classy but that doesn't mean I shy away from digging in my heels and getting down and dirty. Go to the "About" page for more info and email me at rebecca[at]sextracurricular.com

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