Content Warning: mention of sexual assault. In this article, I use ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns, and discuss the human sexes within the bounds of the social gender binary.
According to Merriam Webster:
Virginity: the state of never having had sexual intercourse
1: the quality or state of being virgin; especially: maidenhood
2: the unmarried life: celibacy
Sexual Intercourse: sexual activity between two people; especially: sexual activity in which a man puts his penis into the vagina of a woman.
These definitions are heteronormative and in my opinion, old fashioned. As my particular social community contains a vast array of different sexes, genders, and other such spectrum diversities, I like to think that in this day and age, we’ve moved beyond definitions like these.
How are these definitions problematic? Let’s start with the first term: virginity. ‘Maidenhood’ is specific to young, unmarried women, as though marital and sexual status are mutually exclusive. The second half of the definition discusses celibacy, which is actually different from the idea of virginity. Celibacy means actively abstaining from sex, while virginity means that you haven’t engaged in sexual activity. Virginity does not make assumptions about future sexual relations, only current sexual status. While celibacy and virginity can be related terms, putting celibacy in as part of the definition of virginity is incorrect.
As for the definition of sexual intercourse, it seems to imply that it isn’t sex if more than two people are engaging in it at once. It is also heteronormative and is the basis for the “it doesn’t count” idea used by many people today. If it’s anal sex, it doesn’t count as sex. If it’s oral sex, it doesn’t count as sex. How many times have I heard these excuses used, that doing these things doesn’t count as intercourse, that if it isn’t penis-in-vagina sex, protection doesn’t need to be bothered with? A lesbian-identified woman I talked with said, “[Straight] women think they can get away with keeping their virginity by doing everything else . . . [They don’t understand] a sexual act can change the trajectory of a relationship.”
Added to this is disregard for queer relationships, as well as trans and disabled bodies. Gay relationships may be seen as having two virginities (penetrator and penetrated, though the penetrator in heterosexual relationships is rarely examined), or have the masculinity of those involved challenged. Lesbians are simply fodder for heterosexual male fantasy, and seen as not having serious relationships. Using sex toys is seen as implying the inadequacy of a partner, rather than symbolizing sexual adventure and exploration, as a normal way to engage in sexual activity. And trans bodies are entirely ignored, because everyone assumes they know exactly what is in each other’s pants just by looking at them (as if what is in someone’s pants is anyone else’s concern).
Another glaring problem is that the virginity definition relies almost exclusively on the physical act of sex. Socially, virginity is not an issue for most men. The heteronormative social perspective on men usually paints them as highly sexual beings while women must keep their virginities for as long as possible. One heterosexual male friend told me, “most guys don’t like having their virginity in their later teens [because] it’s more of a pride thing for men to lose their virginity as soon as possible.”
Another issue? The hymen. Princess Diana had to undergo a virginity examination by her doctor. For centuries, women have put red dye and other bloody-looking substances on sheets in order to confirm virginity to their partners and any other people who examined the sheets after consummation of a relationship. But that’s not how it works. Hymens can stretch due to things like menstruation and age, and because of this, some might never break. And everyone’s first sexual experience is different. Sometimes there is bleeding or discomfort, sometimes there isn’t. Some vaginas don’t have hymens at all, and others are born with hymens that are complete, and must be torn in order to allow for menstruation at a later time.
There is a woman teaching abstinence-only education who visited my high-school a few years back (I was in college; my father told me all about it over a phone call, excited that such an enlightened lady was teaching the kids about virginity). This woman had the gall to ‘give back’ virginity to those who asked for it, like they could undo their experiences. This is not a healthy approach. Not only is it not within her power to give or take experiences from people’s pasts, it teaches kids that their choices don’t matter because they can pretend those choices weren’t made.
Putting so much social importance on virginity can be damaging. If someone is raped, in some places the ‘loss of virginity,’ no matter how it was done, could lead to strained or dangerous family relationships (for example: honor killings). For those who feel enormous pressure to wait until marriage to have sex, sex may have such a bad association that it can be difficult to see it as something in which to take joy.
First sexual experiences, and for that matter ALL sexual experiences, should be focused on consent and communication, not some outdated heteronormative bullshit.
Want to read more about virginity and it’s problems? Read Suz’s fantastic article here, or check out The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti, or Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank.