When I was a freshman in undergrad, I had a conversation with several of my dorm mates about how one could define a “virgin.” Everyone who’s survived puberty has had this debate, and I occasionally find myself ruminating on it many years later. A close girlfriend of mine insisted that anything with the word “sex” in it (i.e. oral sex, anal sex) excluded someone from being able to claim the title, whereas a male friend of mine was quick to distinguish between “technical virginity” and “mental virginity,” adding a whole other level of complexity to a subject that was already pretty confusing.
It’s been more than ten years since that conversation, and I still don’t know the answer to the question. To be fair, nobody else seems to either, but virginity is still such a significant cultural phenomenon that it continues to make headlines in some form or another.
It may be 2019, but we still live in a world where some women sell their virginity for millions of dollars in online auctions. In South Africa, some young women are awarded “virginity bursaries” to attend university under the condition that they undergo annual virginity testing—an initiative that officials claim curbs unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, even though the same scheme wasn’t offered to male students. And in India, Dr. Indrajit Khandekar is fighting right now to remove the “two-finger” virginity test from the medical curriculum of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences at Sewagram, a medical college in rural India, on the basis that it’s—surprise, surprise—not scientific.
On the newest season of the U.S. show “The Bachelor,” the star Colton Underwood is exploiting his virginity to find true love in the most romantic dating platform on earth—reality TV.
And as the new content and social media manager for Clue, I’ve also received dozens of messages from young girls asking about how using a menstrual cup or doing certain sexual acts might affect their virginity.
Virginity clearly is still a hugely powerful idea in so many cultures. For all of these reasons, I think it’s important to interrogate the concept of virginity itself.
Where does this idea come from, anyway?
Where the concept of virginity originates is a matter of some debate, but it’s clear that women’s virginity has been prized across cultures and regions for thousands of years. Some say that it comes from Ancient Greece, where virgin girls were meant to have small, pink, upward facing nipples, and girls who were sexually experienced were meant to have dark, large, downward-facing nipples. That excludes most of the world’s nipples, but okay—that’s Ancient Greece.
The Medieval age offered different indications of virginity. In the Medieval text De secretis mulierum, or “Women's Secrets,” some of the more widely acceptable indications of virginity were: “shame, modesty, fear, a faultless gait and speech, casting eyes down before men and the acts of men”.
In case you think that any clever woman could resist detection by simply faking these traits, think again, because a man could simply examine her urine instead. Virginal urine was thought to be clear, lucid, sometimes white (maybe they didn’t have yeast infections in the Medieval age) sometimes even “sparkling,” whereas “corrupted women have a muddy urine”.
Whatever its origins, virginity tests have evolved to be a global phenomenon for reasons that aren’t fully understood—and they’re still happening. The Royal Reed Dance festival – or Umkhosi woMhlanga in Zulu – is an annual tradition in parts of South Africa and Swaziland where young girls declare their virginity before the king, and participate in virginity testing where the tightness or intactness of the hymen is examined. And in 2003—not so long ago—former Jamaican parliament member Ernie Smith proposed virginity tests for all Jamaican schoolgirls, to combat unplanned pregnancies, because comprehensive sex education was too unrealistic, I guess.
The problem with the hymen
The hymen is a thin, fleshy tissue that’s located at the opening of the vagina. Historically, cultures have used the intactness of the hymen as a way of indicating virginity. But there are a number of issues with using the hymen as a way to tell if someone has had sex.
For some people, the tissue is so small that it’s practically non-existent. Rarely does the hymenal tissue cover the entire vaginal opening. And often, the tissue tears on its own during childhood, as in the case of bathing, walking, sport activity, self-exploration, or masturbation. So using the hymen to establish who is and who is not sexually experienced is not accurate.
And yet, the word “hymen” has become a loaded word, charged with a number of ideas about virtue and morality. That’s why a sexual rights group called The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) coined the term “vaginal corona,” stating that the word hymen has been “portrayed as the boundary between guilt and innocence”.
That’s why it’s necessary to ask the question: How do we identify someone who is a virgin? The answer is, we can’t. But what we can, and sadly often do, is perform virginity instead. We wear white gowns at weddings. We engage in competitive analysis, much like the debate I had in college, to determine who gets to claim a title that, to quote Hanne Blank, author of the book Virgin: The Untouched History, “serves no biological imperative, and grants no demonstrable evolutionary advantage” like reproduction or survival—unless policing female sexuality qualifies. We create and actively participate in structural hierarchies where women are either pure, or dirty—which grossly oversimplifies female sexuality, and neglects to include a spectrum of behavior that exists between this harmful, sexist binary.
We ascribe behaviors to virginity, so that a woman can “behave” in a way that aligns with our preconceived notions of what virginity is supposed to be. We attend purity balls as teenagers and swear Jungian pledges of abstinence to our fathers until we’re old enough to swear pledges of fidelity to our husbands. We undergo excruciating hymen reconstruction surgeries, known as hymenoplasty, to maintain that performance, even if it means spending thousands of dollars and exposing ourselves to complications like vaginal stricture, bowel perforation, and infection.
The problem with this, is that we perform virginity in a way that harms women instead of liberating them.
By performing virginity, we assign an undetermined value to something that cannot be quantified, measured, or proven. Virginity frames a woman’s worth as inversely proportional to how much sex she’s had, which upholds patriarchy.
What about male virginity?
Because there’s no widely-held ideas about a litmus test for identifying male virgins, male virginity is not held to the same standard of scrutiny as female virginity. While women are punished for their sexuality, men are applauded. The irony here is that, within a heteronormative context, a man can only lose his virginity if a woman gives up her own. But even though there is no physical way to identify a male virgin, men still experience stigma.
According to one study, there’s even a system of thought, called the stigma framework, which applies to people who are ashamed of their virginity and try to hide it, something that’s more common in people who identify as male than female. Though there isn’t a male “hymen,” shame is often a factor for men who haven’t yet had sex, because their concept of manhood is linked to sexual experience. Secondly, masculinity can then be interpreted as something that women either give or take away, by either giving or denying men sex—which is the underlying and terrifying reason why men like Elliot Rodger, Alek Minassian, and other violent INCELs (“involuntarily celibate”) consider mass murder an appropriate response to being denied sex by women.
Virginity harms people in many ways, but women experience a disproportionate amount of violence that occurs as a result of men’s virginity stigma, in addition to the day-to-day mental, physical, and emotional work of performing virginity.
“Virginity” makes sex about straight cis people (and it shouldn’t be)
Virginity perpetuates an idea that the only sex that “counts” is when a penis enters a vagina. This excludes same-sex, non-binary, and transgender couples. Sex can be between two people, or between multiple people. Sometimes sex involves two penises; sometimes it involves two vaginas. Sometimes it involves fingers, a mouth, or an anus. Virginity ranks certain sexual acts as more legitimate than others, which elevates the heterosexual orientation as more legitimate than others.
Virginity is already a harmful concept for men and women who are not transgender. For trans people, it can be even more damaging, because it assigns masculine and feminine roles based on biology, which is different from gender.
It also sets a dangerous example for young people who are just experiencing their sexuality for the first time, creating a false sense of security in terms of the potential dangers surrounding certain sex acts over others. Yes, you can still get an STI from oral sex, or from anal sex. Any form of sex that puts someone at risk for contracting gonorrhea or HIV is real enough, so speaking about it in terms of PIV (penis-in-vagina) intercourse, is a misleading approach.
What exactly are we “losing”?
The language we use to describe our experiences gives them significance. It’s why we may choose to say “making love” or “fuck” about a particular moment of intimacy. The act is physiologically the same, but the sentiment behind it may be completely different.
So when I say that I “lost” my virginity, I’m implying that I lost a part of myself that I will grieve. I’m saying that it’s something to be missed, an absence of something that makes the person who once had it less whole. Sex in a safe, nurturing environment certainly does not fit this description at all. In fact, missing out on consensual, mutually-satisfying sex would be something worth mourning. I won’t mourn a completely irrelevant membrane that probably broke during soccer practice in third grade. “Loss” doesn’t accurately describe way I felt when I had sex for the first time. I would describe my “virginity” as something I happily threw out the window of a runaway train on the way to Disney World (you know, the happiest place on earth)...because it was awesome.
Besides, I can think of many worse things than not being a virgin on my hypothetical wedding night...like being condemned to a lifetime of bad sex with someone who I grow to resent because we simply have no physical chemistry.
Download Clue to track your sexual activity.