At least once a semester I go on a rant to my students about virginity. To me, there are few more destructive concepts in the world. In making my point today, I could focus on cultures in which virginity is so overtly prized that girls are routinely subject to “virginity tests,” which means that an examination is performed on them to see if their hymen is intact—under the mistaken beliefs that a) all hymens look the same and b) hymens will always remain perfectly intact unless sexual intercourse has occurred.
Or, I could move much closer to home and explore the fetishization of virginity exemplified by “virginity balls.” It is my understanding that at such balls, girls typically make a pledge of virginity to their fathers, promising not to have sexual intercourse before marriage. In turn, their fathers promise to protect the purity of their daughters. There is so much so obviously wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start. And, in truth, the questions about what it means to say that a girl is “pure,” why it’s held in such high regard that the girl must make a public pledge to uphold it, and why the father is placed in the position of “cock block” are targets that are too easy for readers of this blog.
Indeed, I’m guessing most of the readers of this blog already thought “purity balls” were, at best, bizarre. Yet, we still probably talk about virginity, even though many of us also likely think it’s not just OK to have sex before marriage, but it’s actually pretty wise to do so. So as John Oliver would say, “Why is ‘virginity’ still a thing?”
Virginity focuses on one moment in time—the time a penis enters a vagina—and elevates it to a momentous occasion such that teenagers who have not experienced it worry, or at least think about, when they’re going to lose their virginity and who they’re going to lose their virginity to. Some desperately want to shed their virginity, some want to hold onto it as long as they possibly can, some want to lose it to the “right person” in the right situation, and some don’t care who they lose it to or how as long as it happens sooner rather than later. Whatever their thoughts about and concerns, unless someone has talked really honestly with them, they’re expectations about this moment and what it means are generally completely unrealistic.
Let’s be frank, it’s generally boys who are the ones who want to shed their virginity, not just because they’re horny (not in any way to say that girls aren’t) but because doing so is a badge of honor. So what message are they getting? Basically that girls’ bodies are the means by which they will achieve this badge of honor, and what’s standing between girls’ bodies and their achievement of their goal is, well, the girls, themselves (which, by the way, is a key element of “rape culture”).
And girls? Well girls are the ones who generally want to wait until the right moment with the right person. Why? Because they’ve been told since they were young that they should wait—and that it’s their job to hold off boys. They’ve also been told that if the person isn’t just right and the context isn’t just right, they’ll regret it. But why? Why should they regret it? Why are we telling them that this moment when a penis enters their vagina is such an important moment that they’ll feel terrible regret if it isn’t perfect? And how is perfection then defined? Is it defined by how much pleasure they felt or by the perception that they waited for the right boy and the right moment? (Hint: It’s the latter.)
And further, why are we setting up sexual intercourse to be such an extraordinary and wonderful experience? First, we’re placing all the focus of sexual activity on this one act and telling them that it will reverberate throughout their life in some way. Do many adults (discounting those whose first experience with sexual intercourse involved some form of trauma) believe that their first experience with sex of any kind has had a significant effect on their life? Second, girls and boys need to know that most women don’t derive endless amounts of pleasure from sexual intercourse and that the vast majority don’t orgasm from it. Wouldn’t it be far better to put our efforts into teaching girls about their bodies and urging them to explore what feels good to them so they can share that knowledge with their partners? And wouldn’t it be great if sex ed teachers talked to their students about all the other forms of sexual activity that can feel at least as good as intercourse?
So to summarize, our focus on virginity is an enormous factor leading to the belief by both boys and girls that a) intercourse is a goal/achievement, b) intercourse is the most important aspect of sex, c) the first time it happens, if it ever happens, can never be undone…so you better do it right, particularly if you’re a girl, d) either girls should be able to orgasm through intercourse or girls’ sexual pleasure isn’t what’s important, and e) to not lose one’s virginity is to not become an adult.
And finally, to that last point, which I’ve left to the end because it’s such an obvious and glaring flaw in all this talk about virginity. What to do about all those people who have never and will never have vaginal-penile intercourse. Are adults who have engaged in lots of sexual activity but never in that one because they have no desire to do so virgins? And if so, doesn’t that, in itself, mean that virginity really has very little meaning? And then what of those adults who have never and will never engage in much or any sexual behavior for any variety of reasons? Are we to say that they are diminished in some way? Are they any less of an adult for not having achieved this defining moment?
So let’s move on and stop talk about virginity as if it’s still a thing. It’s not.