Virginity. The big V-word. No matter where you grew up, or when, the concept of virginity and losing it was definitely sprinkled throughout your childhood. While looking back at your first forays into the concept, it’s likely that you’re going to do some serious cringing. But that’s not simply because you were naive, or inexperienced. Chances are, a lot of the cringing you’re doing is because whether you can articulate it or not, the concept of virginity is laden with thousands of years of toxic and oppressive stereotypes and stigmas and you know it.
Unfortunately, the definition of virginity has not evolved as fast as our definitions of sexuality, women’s liberation, understandings of consent, and work to dismantle heteronormativity. That’s because it was created to uphold patriarchal and hetero hegemony, and there are still people who benefit from that.
It’s all well and good to throw around big words, but how is patriarchal and hetero hegemony flowing through this word?
So how do we change this? Before we can break-up with a word, we must break it down and ground it in lived experience, which is why this article is first and foremost a collage of first-person stories. It’s all well and good to throw around big words, but how is patriarchal and hetero hegemony flowing through this word? And what does that look like? One important thing to note: while we opened up the floor to all individuals, women were the only ones who shared their experiences.
At the beginning of unpacking the concept of virginity, at least in the west, means unpacking the role that religion and constructs of purity play. Again, while language can be a lofty theoretical conversation, it impacts real people. The consequences are here, and now.
“I grew up in rural Virginia. I was raised strictly Christian and was taught that sex before marriage was a sin and that a woman had a virgin status that could be taken away from her by a man,” says Rachel H.
“Abstinence-only education set me up for failure when it came to making good choices as a teen. Instead of having my own belief system about sex and deciding when I was ready and who was the right person to first have sex with, I had a belief system forced on me by my parents. This didn’t help me at all when some awkward teenage boy gave me an ultimatum to have sex with him or break up. Instead of being taught to seek out respect and consent, to discern what was truly right for me, I was only taught that sex is bad. So, when this guy pressured me into having it with him when I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t able to articulate my true feelings and leaned back on the fact that my parents wouldn’t be ok with it. We all know that teenagers love doing what their parents don’t want them to do. I ended up having sex for the first time in the back of a truck (right on the metal) out in the woods on a cold fall day. I cried afterward.”
“My parents eventually found out after reading my journal. I came home one day and had things thrown at me when I walked in the door. My parents said I was ruined, and my father told his friends that he had a whore daughter. I was forbidden from leaving the house for a while. I received messages that I was damaged goods. Because I was never taught that I have innate value no matter what, I spent much of my teens and early 20s chasing men who treated me so poorly. It was what I thought I deserved and that mistreatment felt safe in a backward way. I am still recovering from this toxic mindset.”
“Virginity is a religious-based tactic to shame women into submission.”
Like Rachel, one anonymous individual, let’s call them M, also suffered from the concepts of purity that virginity enforced on them:
“With my first boyfriend, every sexual act we did felt like I was eroding away at this status as ‘virgin’ and was leading me closer to sex. And I didn’t want that. Alas, was not given a choice in the matter. My Catholic guilt was tied up with my knowledge that I ‘wasted’ my virginity on someone who was absolutely the worst. At 14 I lost my virginity, therefore was worthless.”
In Rachel’s story, the concept of virginity took away her right to holistic sex education, the ability to express herself, and subjected her to abuse from her parents and boyfriend. For M, the purity that virginity status granted her wrongfully became the core of her worth. Nicolle, a sexual freedom philosopher and fervent opponent of the term “virgin” writes: “Virginity is a religious-based tactic to shame women into submission.”
Barbara, who was raised roman catholic, looks at significant biblical figures to illuminate how we can find the idealization of purity at the core of religious belief: “I can’t help but think of the Virgin Mary and how she was chosen to bear Jesus because she didn’t have sex with anyone else, she was pure. Her story sends that message that virginity is favored and preferred. God is this male being that chose her over all other women. Sex for a woman could be a loss of purity, a loss of innocence.”
Jenna, 23 was raised in a Christian environment and shamed for having sex. She recognizes that the concept of virginity is “totally centered around purity and female control.” Jenna also talks about the concept of virginity’s hyper-focus on penetration:
“I have a friend who is 26 who is a virgin,” Jenna begins “He says he had a conversation with God that he should hold off from having penetrative penis-vagina sex until he gets married to that special someone. I honestly think that’s a little ludicrous because he’s let me perform oral sex on him and vice versa. If virginity is attached to sex, why does oral get a free pass but penetrative sex is preserved as sacred? I think in many cases virginity is also attached to actual childbirth. ‘Save yourself for marriage. Have sex with your wife. Knock her up with your magical sperm.’ Penetrative sex is synonymous with pure sex. When it happens after marriage it becomes a seal of the package deal: your body is mine and my body is yours. And in some cases, it’s: your body is mine to impregnate. So, virginity is broken to pursue the creation of life.”
Virginity is a concept to control women's existence through shame, and then define that existence as child bearers.
M’s experience with sex education backs up that claim. She says that there was a big difference in how men and women were discussed in sexual education. She learned “all about a penis and how it experiences pleasure, but only about the function of a uterus and menstruation.”
What this experience and Jenna’s observation of the hyper-focus on penetration reveal, is that the concept of virginity is obsessed with women as procreative vehicles. While men are taught that their sexual organs can experience pleasure, erections and arousal, women are taught about the function of their bodies. Virginity is a concept to control women’s existence through shame, and then define that existence as child bearers.
Virginity’s hyper-focus on purity, procreation, and penetration is also the core of hetero normativity, which means that the concept of virginity actively erases queer identity and sexuality.
Virginity’s hyper-focus on purity, procreation, and penetration is also the core of hetero normativity, which means that the concept of virginity actively erases queer identity and sexuality. Barbara’s first sexual experience was with a woman, but she did not consider it a loss of her virginity because of the way society erases and invalidates lesbian sex. Years later when she had sex with a man, she says that she took it more seriously. In addition to erasing queerness, the concept of virginity also reinforces the gender binary itself.
“The first definition of virginity that I had was very much received ‘wisdom’ and came along with a traditional and repressive concept of gender,” says Josephine.
“For as long as I can remember, I knew I was not the gender they told me I was. But even as a child I also knew that I had to reproduce the one I was assigned or I would be in pretty serious danger. The lessons that I learned from my environment were that there was a binary gender (and nothing else) and this was determined at birth. Within this understanding, “men” were always interested in sex and were borderline uncontrollable in that regard, and of course had to be heterosexual. I related to exactly none of this, but I didn’t fully understand why at the time and so it just added to my sense of alienation. ‘Women’ by contrast were of course also to be heterosexual and yet also generally uninterested in sex, and their ‘virginity’ was something that should be considered sacred. Apparently, the concept of virginity applied to ‘men’ nominally as well, but there also seemed to be an imperative for men to get rid of that moniker as soon as possible. Even from a young age, the concept seemed deeply unfair and I also remember being struck by the damage and paradox it caused – one group of people were supposed to try to ‘get rid’ of their virginity as soon as possible with another group of people who were supposed to retain it as long as possible? On a personal level, this confusion, combined with the intense certainty that I needed to conceal it, meant that I felt I could never say no to sex – that the ‘gender’ I was supposed to be was always to ‘want it,’ so the notion of saying ‘no’ to it seemed to go against that – and of course, that my ‘virginity’ must be lost as soon as possible.”
As Josephine also points out, the concepts of virginity also reinforce harmful stereotypes about men and women: that men always want sex, and that women are shy and withdrawn, unsexual creatures. The more and more you look at and unpack the concepts of virginity, you notice that everything exists in a binary. “Sexual vs unsexual,” “pure vs impure,” etc. That’s because the core of the term relies on the modes of binary so that we can place our experience somewhere in either of two boxes: when one has “had it” and when one “has not.” As Josephine posits, “if we instead assume sex is an experience that can have definitions as multiple as individuals in the world, the notion of virginity effectively loses all cohesive meaning.”
Wouldn’t that be nice?
As we continue to interrogate the definition that losing your virginity is the moment a man penetrates a woman, we need to also unpack the inclusion of the word “moment” itself. Can we reduce our sexual “entry” into the world into a single experience?
Francisca for example, didn’t consider herself a virgin long before she “had any penis-vagina-mouth-hands-ass-whatever- interaction with another person,” simply because she already felt like a sexual being, and was prepared to engage in sex long before it happened.
“It’s not like I deliberately decided to not consider myself a virgin,” says Francisca, “It’s more that the idea of ‘I’m still a virgin’ in my head just didn’t feel right. I’d get thoughts like ‘I think about sex way too much to also be able to say I’m a virgin.’ I felt too aware of my body, sexual desires and fantasies.”
To imply that the physical act of a penis penetrating a vagina is the only one that matters is all wrong.
Our sexual lives are filled with a countless number of firsts, of discoveries, and of wonderful realizations. To imply that the physical act of a penis penetrating a vagina is the only one that matters is all wrong. What matters is the ways we bloom for ourselves, no matter what that looks like. That is what we should be celebrating. Furthermore, the idea that virginity is a single moment also complicates our ideas of consent.
Morgan recounts her experience as a 13-year-old.
“I don’t remember thinking about sex or wanting sex when we were hanging out. It just happened, and it wasn’t my idea. He took my virginity at his mom’s house and then soon after stopped talking to me, ignoring phone calls, avoiding me. I remember this was devastating. I walked to his mom’s house in the rain and cried to her. I always felt this moment in my life was taken away from me because it wasn’t mine and it wasn’t special to me. I met my first and long-term boyfriend in 9th grade and he was kind, we would do everything together. We did not have sex immediately and when we did we both lost our virginities together and I loved him. So, I lost my virginity to my first love. Losing one’s virginity should be special to both people. It’s not something that just happens.”
So yes, I ‘technically’ lost my virginity at 14 when I was raped but I had my first CONSENSUAL sexual experience when I was 15.
Rachel C, has a similar story.
“’Losing my virginity’ has always been a hard thing for me to think about. When people ask, ‘when did you lose your virginity?’ I don’t know how to answer because my first sexual experience was rape (perpetrated by a boyfriend). So yes, I ‘technically’ lost my virginity at 14 when I was raped but I had my first CONSENSUAL sexual experience when I was 15. So, having that experience makes me very consciously define ‘losing your virginity’ as a consensual, informed, enthusiastic experience.”
When we say that there is only one moment that changes us, we take away autonomy from the individual, and especially those whose first experiences were non-consensual. Virginity is not just a “technicality,” or an irreversible mark. It should be what we decide it is.
Across perspective and background, what each individual expressed was a strong opposition to virginity’s assertion that when you have sex, something is not just lost, but taken by a man (and only a man). She is becoming impure. She is not discovering something. She does not feel pleasure. She is not queer. She is being diminished, or at least changed, by a force outside of herself. Implicit in the concepts of virginity lies the core of the power dynamic everyone who isn’t a white, straight, cis man has been trying to eradicate for centuries: the violent and false assertion that our power does not come from within us.
So, is the term irredeemable? While Josephine’s initial thought is that it is, she also likes the practice of reclaiming words and repurposing them. That being said, Josephine also knows that “unless we can turn ‘virginity into something completely different, we may just have to try to find something much more useful and representative – and at least, more positive, inclusive and celebratory of all our genders, sexualities and experiences.”
Sexual debut, on the other hand, celebrates any pinnacle moment where you felt most like yourself in relation to your sexuality, and that can happen many times, in many ways over the course of your life.
Nicolle has a suggestion, and it’s “sexual debut.”
“When you say ‘virginity,’ you’re saying that someone else decides her worth. That sex is only valid between a man and woman, and penetration defines the moment. That her power is given rather than discovered. Taken rather than gained. Lost rather than celebrated. Sexual debut, on the other hand, celebrates any pinnacle moment where you felt most like yourself in relation to your sexuality, and that can happen many times, in many ways over the course of your life. It’s never the end and it’s never too late, it cannot be taken from you, and you aren’t beholden to anyone else in order to experience it.”
While some are scrapping the term, and implementing new ones, others are taking the weight out of the word by stripping it from its sexual (and therefore religious historical) context. M, does this by referring to anything and everything as a “virgin.”
“A virgin is simply someone who has not done some act. That’s it. Haven’t had anal sex? Anal virgin. Haven’t flown in a plane? Plane Virgin. It doesn’t have the weight it once held for me. Does it matter that you have or haven’t done something? No.”
Some, like Jenna, propose replacing the word with a description of the specific acts. “I don’t presently believe in the terminology, what is the alternative? Instead of saying, ‘I lost my virginity at 14,’ do I simply state, ‘I had penetrative sex for the first time at 14’? By doing this, Jenna is removing the sexual act from the loaded concept of virginity and allowing it to be exactly what it is.
Whatever your tactic may be to move forward from this burdened word and reclaim your sexual power, I’ll leave you with a quote from Nicolle, our sexual freedom philosopher.
Your sexual power is not given by another, and therefore, cannot be taken by another.
“Sex is life energy and how you choose to use it depends on you and no one else. To still have the hangover of purity culture that associates sex with sin is a disservice to the purpose of life, which, if I were to take a guess, is the discovery and expression of oneself — consciousness alive through love, that is, connection to all things. The actualization of power is how capable you are to express yourself, and that capability is either supported or denied by the culture into which you are born. Sex is not so much an act as it is a way of being. It is a way of being alive. Sex, as a physical act, can be a form of meditation, and meditation brings us into awareness. It’s moving energy in love. Making love. Once you are aware, you understand your power. If you are in service of love, then you are power. Sexual power is not how you have sex, how many times, or with whom. Sex is one journey to love, but love is always what you are. Your sexual power is not given by another, and therefore, cannot be taken by another. Someone asks, what is sexual power? Tell me how you love.”