In our culture, female-bodied people are taught to value their virginity, while young male-bodied people are proudly patted on the back when engaging in sexual activity. For females, there is both religious pressure to maintain our virginity until marriage and cultural slut-shaming when we don’t. The high value that is placed on female virginity gives us the impression that our experience of losing it will be transformational, leaving us confused when it’s lackluster, or worse, traumatized when it’s negative. Another major flaw in valuing virginity is that it’s only defined in very narrow terms: a heterosexual framework where sex equals vaginal penetration with a male partner. Defining virginity as such undercuts and devalues sexual experiences outside of penis in vagina (PIV) sex, and especially those encounters with non-male partners.
Losing my virginity wasn’t the transformative experience that I was led to believe it would be. I lost my virginity when I was 17 years old. My boyfriend and I had planned the night carefully. After his mother’s gift shop was closed, we snuck into the back quietly where the holiday decorations were stored. He laid a blanket on the floor next to the fake Christmas trees, and we had sex in the nervous, awkward way that two virgins do. It wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t pleasurable. I kept getting pricked with fallen tree needles, and the penetration was too painful to feel good.
Later that night, I lay in bed reflecting on what was supposed to be a monumental moment in my life. But besides being a little sore, I didn’t feel any different. And then I had a funny thought, I don’t think that counted; I am still a virgin. Sex is supposed to be hot, and feel good, and that was neither.
The high value that is placed on female virginity gives us the impression that our experience of losing it will be transformational, leaving us confused when it’s lackluster, or worse, traumatized when it’s negative.
In the months and years that followed, I eventually learned to enjoy sex and be comfortable in my body when entwining with someone else’s. When I started regularly orgasming, I came to think of myself as someone with a sex life. Gradually, and at no one particular moment, I realized that the sex I was having started to count. I no longer considered myself a virgin.
Looking back, I realize the way I conceptualized virginity was rather strange. I was raised by California hippies that taught me that sex was supposed to be something I enjoyed, and so when it wasn’t, I bracketed the experience as not sex. I had only been exposed to representations of sex that were pleasurable, and my parents didn’t shy away from discussions of pleasure. I equated losing my virginity with enjoyable sex, a narrow and specific characterization, that although different than maybe most people’s definition, it seemed no less narrow and specific than the way our culture generally defines it.
Sex is so complex and individualized. It’s hard to think that one’s first sexual experience can be so neatly defined, valued, and weighted. Moreover, the conventional way of thinking about virginity raises more questions than it answers, like: What counts as sex? What sort of body parts ought we and our partners have in order for our experiences to count? What, if any, emotional state needs to be present? And most importantly, is the concept of virginity outdated?
Losing your virginity is most often defined by the breaking of it. I reached out to psychologist and educator Leah Spasova, who recently appeared on a BBC special discussing new research on attitudes toward virginity. She reflects on the context of our cultural emphasis on the hymen, saying, “Historically speaking, the whole institution of marriage and the obsession with the hymen is about paternity. It has mostly been about insuring that the offspring men take care of is their own.” Given that the emphasis on virginity is about procreation and paternity, it is no wonder that virginity is typically framed in terms of PIV sex, the only form of sex that results in pregnancy. In this framework, evidence that a woman has not had PIV sex becomes evidence of virginity. Spasova points out that this is particularly true in religious communities, saying “If you are sampling very religious young people, many of them believe that they will be virgins if they don’t have PIV sex, but they will engage in oral and anal sex.”
The connection of virginity to an intact hymen obviously extends far beyond religious communities. Many young people are led to believe that a woman’s intact hymen will make her first sexual experience bloody and painful, despite the fact that this isn’t true for many women. Adult performer Nicki Brand reached out to me on Instagram to tell me her story. She recalls that she did not bleed the first time she had penetrative sex, and was later harshly judged for it. She says, “The first guy I had PIV sex with, a year or two later when someone told him that girls were supposed to bleed, posted something on Facebook about how I was a liar.”
The hymen being the mark of virginity is clearly not about the sexual experience itself. This is evidenced by young people who engage in a lot of different sexual experiences (such as oral sex, anal sex, and digital penetration) but still consider themselves virgins. And conversely, it is also evidenced in non-sexual experiences that are thought to take virginity, such as tampon use.
Rhaine reached out to me on Twitter to tell me her coming of age story. Her mother told her that she could only use maxi pads while on her period because tampons would take her virginity. For this reason, using a tampon for the first time out of necessity at summer camp was a traumatic experience. She recounts, “I had no idea what I was doing and I was too ashamed to ask anyone, so I shoved the whole applicator inside me and immediately regretted using one. I really believed that the pain was my virginity being taken and I was going to hell. It was terrible.”
One doesn’t have to reflect much on the way that virginity is defined to see that much of the emphasis is on the power of the penis. Specifically, the penis’s power to transform cis-women’s bodies. Grassroots community organizer Jess Ansel and I talked about this over the phone. They tell me that they didn’t start to question the phallocentric nature of virginity discourse until they were in queer communities, when these heteronormative assumptions started to feel problematic. They reflect, “Our culture pushes that if there is no cock when you have sex, it isn’t really sex.”
One doesn’t have to reflect much on the way that virginity is defined to see that much of the emphasis is on the power of the penis. Specifically, the penis’s power to transform cis-women’s bodies.
In a Twitter conversation, writer, filmmaker, and activist Nia Ashley tells me that because all of her early experiences were with female partners, her friends joked that she lost her virginity to herself when she used a dildo, despite the fact that she had already had sex with women. While she didn’t think of sex in these terms, she was very aware that others around her did. She says, “I knew I was queer at a young age and I had a very sex-positive family so I never believed in virginity, but after having sex with people with vaginas I wanted to know what penetrative sex was like. So I just bought a dildo and figured it out.” Later, when questioned if she was still a virgin, she said she didn’t believe in virginity and when asked why, said, “Because I have sex with people without penises and that’s still sex.” While she is unconflicted about this, she still felt the need to defend her position.
Ansel says this narrow definition of sex limited them, and led them to only think about safe-sex practices in terms of PIV intercourse, which poses obvious health risks since PIV sex is not the only way to spread STIs. They say, “There is an expectation that if you do penetration it is more serious. I myself was uneducated when I was younger; I didn’t know I could get STIs from other sex.”
Thinking about sex and losing one’s virginity, exclusively in terms of PIV sex, not only puts us at risk when engaging in non-PIV sexual experiences, it also prevents us from recognizing the non-mechanical but very important emotional dimensions of our sexual encounters. Focusing too much on the physical may take away from the connection, the opening of bodies, the emotionally vulnerability one shares with another person.
Looking back on my own experiences, I believe I would have been better off not thinking about my virginity the way I had. I would have been able to recognize that sex is more complicated, personal, individual, and varied. I believe Ansel may be onto something when they say, “I don’t want this construct of virginity anywhere near my body, my body is my body to do whatever I want with.”
Perhaps we can open up the way we think about virginity to include a variety of experiences, to take seriously all the sexual relationships that we have. And perhaps, virginity can be reconceptualized, or better yet, we can abandon the concept of virginity altogether.