On the Concept of Virginity

I realized recently that I can’t remember when I lost my virginity. I would have thought that realization would have a much bigger effect on me and feel like a real loss. However, it doesn’t bother me at all that I don’t remember exactly when I lost it (although I do remember with whom). It got me thinking about the significance we place on the loss of a girl’s/woman’s virginity. I was in my friend’s wedding a few years ago, and her sister made her maid-of-honor speech all about how lucky the husband-to-be was because he would be marrying a virgin and how wonderful her sister was for waiting. I felt incredibly uncomfortable about my friend’s lack of a “body count” being discussed for several minutes in front of all her family and friends. However, she was very religious, so I’m sure was viewing it from a different perspective, and she seemed to love the speech, which was really all that mattered in that moment.

Why do we say someone loses their virginity instead of gaining something? To me, this makes it sound as though it’s a rite of passage, chore, or duty a woman must go through, not something she enthusiastically chooses. Is it painted in a negative light to deter women from partaking, to shame them once they decide to “give in?” Granted, men are also said to “lose their virginity,” but the act is not perceived in the same serious, negative light nor loaded with the same often damning connotations. For these reasons, I try to remember to say “started having sex” instead of “lost my virginity,” which is more empowering — a decision I made instead of something that happened to me.

Virginity is not a physical or medical concept. There’s no medical test for virginity, although these are given to women, even young girls, in certain countries. One of these countries is the U.S., where it is legal for a physician to do an exam on a woman or even a girl for the primary purpose of checking her hymen. When you break it down, it is legalized sexual assault and quackery, considering those underage cannot give consent and the exam tells nothing of whether she is a virgin or not. These exams attempt to determine whether the hymen, the skin that often covers the vaginal opening, is still intact. However, the hymen can break in other ways, such as tampon usage, horseback riding, bicycling, or gymnastics. Boys’ sexual history is not nearly as discussed or worried over. Neither is it used as a basis of valuing a boy. Women’s sexuality is always being politicized.

Virginity is a religious concept designed to control women and their sexuality. In Abrahamic religions, a daughter is her father’s property until he finds an interested mate of whom he approves for marriage to his daughter. Traditionally, the woman has had little to no say concerning who she marries. Purity balls are father/daughter dances held by some Christians in which a girl (who in some cases hasn’t even hit her teens) makes a promise to her father she will not lose her virginity until marriage. Similar mother/son purity balls or any other formal ceremony in which boys pledge their chastity to their mothers, to my knowledge, do not exist.

Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-Whore Complex, posits that men see women as either pure and virginal or slutty. This can be seen in the way a teenage girl who has had sex is often seen as “fast” or “loose”, while a woman who has entered her 20’s (and certainly her 30’s) without having sex is often considered frigid or a “bitch,” someone who is holding out on giving men the pleasure they deserve. This dichotomy has created generations of women who experience anxiety about losing their virginity, about seeming to come on too strongly, not coming on strongly enough, or passing their “expiration date” by losing it “too late.” By having sex with too many men and coming off “trashy” or by having sex with too few and coming off “weird”, “stuck-up”, “inexperienced”, or “difficult.” It seems, regardless of the timeline a woman feels is right for her regarding when to start having sex, and regardless of her best intentions, she cannot win and is destined to be marked inadequate and perhaps even conniving. I experienced this at 24 when I decided to have intercourse for the first time ever, in the first serious romantic relationship of my life. During that year-long relationship, I was accused of all of the following by my partner: being “frigid”, being (conversely) “a nymphomaniac”, and (by contrast, yet again) of not initiating sex as much as I should.

The concept of virginity seems to be loosely defined, putting a woman’s sexual status up for personal interpretation. Some consider a woman to have lost her virginity only after her vagina has been penetrated by a penis (an overtly heteronormative stance). Some consider any sexual activity, such as giving or receiving oral or being fingered, or the use of a dildo, as a loss of her virginity. Additionally, there are girls and women who have sexual activity forced on them against their wills. Some would still consider them to be virgins until they choose to have sex, some wouldn’t. For many young girls or women who have been forced to lose their virginity and taught it is a gift from God that can never be gotten back once lost, the trauma they face after their assaults is often much worse.

I would challenge anyone reading this to question the way in which we talk to girls about virginity and sex. Although losing your virginity to someone with whom you are in a committed relationship (if not marriage) is often considered the “gold standard,” this is often impossible for girls to reach. The average age of first sexual experiences in the U.S. is 17. Only a small portion of people stay for life with the same person to whom they lost their virginity. This is too high a burden to bear, and girls should not be taught that their virginity status in any way determines their worth as a human being. Boys are not seen as dirtied by sex, and by framing the act as dirtying women, we treat women as a commodity that can be bought and sold, and that loses value as she becomes “used.” It is up to each one of us to change the dialogue and thinking behind these concepts. One way I challenge the concept that a woman’s worth and character should be judged based on whether or not she has had sex (and if yes, how many partners she’s had) is by refusing to answer the question from a dating partner or potential dating partner: “How many partners have you had?” There is no upside to answering this, and the downsides are multitudinous. If your answer is more than they want to hear, you’re a whore. If it’s fewer, you’re a prude or stuck-up. In either case, you have legitimized the question and its underlying misogyny just by answering it.

What do you think? Have you considered this topic? As always, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the matter!