Rethinking Our Concept of Virginity: Past & Present
Society has something to say about men who maintain their virginity too long and women who do not maintain it long enough. We all remember sitting around as teenagers, grouping our classmates into the sex-havers, almost sex-havers, and the virgins. Words like “prude” and “easy” slowly worked their way into daily gossip and we emerged with an unofficial taxonomy based on who was touching whom and how much. It’s hugely important to know where these ideas come from and how they influence the ways we approach sex.
In western society, we understand virginity as a state of being we possess before having sex (typically vaginal intercourse) for the first time. The way we see it, though, virginity is a non-thing. It is the absence of sexual activity, which means that virginity doesn’t really exist as it stands—the language, feelings, and stigma surrounding abstinence are all socially prescribed. We’ve translated it into a sort of sexual currency, trading pieces of virginity with each other until we give away the “big one” for good.
A Brief History of Virginity
For as long as humans have been getting it on, there has been speculation, ceremony, criticism, and even celebration when it comes to having sex for the first time. The transition from virgin to sexually active which we know today has evolved from centuries of tradition and custom that still underlie modern thoughts on sex.
The Bible says, “But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel … [then] the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die”. Pretty dramatic, but certainly not an uncommon thought in biblical times. Virginity has long been tied to the “purity” of a new bride and the certainty of paternity, and so women were routinely victimized if they were not deemed virginal. “Consummating a marriage” then became a critical part of the wedding tradition, bearing the expectation of evidence in the form of blood on white sheets. Back in medieval times, a woman’s virginity was determined by the “string test”, which compared the circumference of a girl’s head with the length of her neck to decide whether or not she had been sexually active. A woman who was found “impure” was considered less valuable since her future husband would have no way of ensuring the paternity of her children.
As medicine advanced, society then perpetuated the myth (ad nauseum) that the existence of the hymen serves as physical evidence of virginity.
“Concern with specifying exactly which sexual acts could result in virginity loss appears to be a recent phenomenon, part of a general tendency, beginning in the late nineteenth century and accelerating over the course of the twentieth, to approach human sexuality as a medical, rather than a moral, matter.”
That’s pretty problematic. Firstly, it’s now long understood that the hymen can remain intact through sex and it can also tear for countless non-sexual reasons. Put simply: there is just no reliable way to tell whether or not a woman has had sex. Secondly, by classifying virgins as those whose hymen is intact, we are promoting the idea that a woman’s virginity is physical and temporary, and therefore valuable. That means that once it is lost there is no getting it back–it is a nonrefundable transaction that permanently removes women from the safety of the “virgin” category in the eyes of society.
The second layer here is that men don’t have the equivalent to a hymen, and so their virginity is inherently less measurable and valuable. There is no way to corroborate a man’s sexual past so there is no consequence or value tied to his virginity status. It does not increase his value to withhold sexual activity which positions men as the sex-givers and women the reluctant sex-takers.
So where are we now?
Anyone who has seen the first-time sex scene in Ladybird knows that western society has come a long way. It is no longer the norm in America to check for bloody sheets, and we certainly aren’t measuring any necks. That being said, many people still believe the hymen to be a reliable measure of virginity and expect that they will be physically changed after their first sexual encounter.
But the implications now, while not as severe, are more nuanced than they used to be. When referencing virginity, we use words and phrases like “losing”, “taking”, and “swiping a V-card”. These may seem harmless and playful on the surface, but they contain some pretty heavy consequences. Critical Language Awareness tells us that the words we use matter when it comes to forming perceptions and that language is a powerful tool in promoting and reinforcing certain ideologies. Take these two sentences, for instance:
“I took his/her virginity”
“We shared his/her first sexual experience”
The image accompanying the first implies involuntary, even forceful action while the second sounds collaborative. The “giving” and “taking” narrative really just says to us that we don’t own or have power over our first sexual experience. Something during the course of that exchange is taken from us. You only “gain” something if you are taking someone else’s virginity and not the other way around. When you think about it, though, we typically gain a lot when we have sex for the first time. We learn about ours and others’ bodies, expose ourselves to new physiological and emotional frontiers and open the door for expressing ourselves in a new and exciting way. The positive feelings associated with a first sexual experience get lost in translation when we phrase the encounter in a way that takes away our power.
Luckily, society is being forced into a language shift. Sure, you can say that you are no longer a virgin if you have vaginal intercourse. But what about gay women? Post-op trans women and men? Individuals with a reproductive disability? Who, then, can we frame as the giver or the taker? The spectrum of sexual identification and experience that has finally made its way into the mainstream flies in the face of our traditional understanding of virginity and is pushing the narrative to adapt accordingly.
Virginity and Gender
There is only a narrow time frame during which society deems our virginity status “ok”. Lose your virginity too early and you’ll face criticism, hold onto it for too long and suffer the same stigma. Psychologists recently found “sexually inexperienced adults more likely perceive themselves to be stigmatized because of their virginity. They see themselves as less attractive than those with more sexual encounters.” Virginity has evolved into a double-edged sword, and it is more and more rare to feel perfectly safe from its stigma.
Although more often directed towards women, men are just as easily victimized by virginity myths. Just take a look at the priesthood, for instance. The Catholic church has made it clear that sexual activity and piety cannot coexist, and in many ways stand in opposition to each other. In order for someone to be truly devout, he must be celibate. What message does that send to our men and boys? Or in a more modern example, take a look at the movie The 40-Year Old Virgin. The entire film is based on the idea that it is “abnormal” and even comical for a man to maintain his virginity well into adulthood. That’s a lot of pressure, and we reinforce that message when we tell boys that they are the stewards of virginity, the ones holding the power.
It is hugely important for the education around sex to happen early and with accurate, inclusive, and comprehensive information. The more we perpetuate myths of virginity and power through the language we use, the more damage we can cause. Sex for the first time should not be framed as a conquest, and we certainly should not be enforcing a timeline. Let’s look at the past to acknowledge the way we used to approach sex, and then leave it there. Because the less we care about each other’s virginity status, the more we promote healthy sexual experiences free from pressure, stigma, and arbitrary timelines.