Sex is anything but explainable in black and white terms.
And yet society has created the concept of virginity to keep it in line. The task sounds—and is—impossible, and yet virginity maintains a vice-like grip on our culture. Movies such as Youth in Revolt and Sex Drive represent the emergence of a brand new Hollywood trope—the virginity quest—where a lovable, awkward youth—usually male—has the adventure of a lifetime as he attempts to lose his virginity and spare himself from becoming a perpetual loser. (This affliction can also affect the not-so-young, as we learn in The Forty Year Old Virgin, though the hero is still male and still a loser). Virginity jokes are a comedic genre in their own right; in fact, there are several jokes on this theme related to USC students. Virginity has even infiltrated our vernacular, with people using the expression, “I’m a virgin at X,” to indicate their first time doing something.
Most of the time, we consider this stuff pretty harmless. But here’s the problem:
Losing your virginity is not a rite of passage. Having sex is no indication of age, maturity level or understanding. If we all emerged from our first times as fully-formed adults, ready to take on sexuality, relationships, families and jobs, then teen pregnancy would be welcome. Meanwhile, the idea that young men must have sex in order to prove their “maleness” leads inevitably to heterosexism and the objectification of women as tools to accomplish this objective.
Losing your virginity is not necessarily awesome.In fact, for some people it’s hell. Many young people, particularly girls, are pressured or even forced into having sex for the first time. And even if both parties are consenting, it might not be as good as they’d hoped. People who thought they were ready might find afterwards that they were not. First-time sex can also come with severe unplanned consequences, from sexually transmitted diseases to negative attention at school. The way society and the media tend to characterize losing one’s virginity as some kind of race compounds the problem, because such urgency makes people even less likely to think about how sex is not a guaranteed good.
We don’t even know what “virginity” is. Medical professionals and sex educators will typically tell you oral, anal and vaginal sex all count as sex, but almost any college student will tell you that if you’ve only done oral, you’re still a virgin. But some very sexually active people, for example women who have sex with other women, may go their entire lives without having “sex” in the traditional sense. Are we really supposed to call them virgins? What about people who use sex toys or whose partners use sex toys on them? What about people who derive optimal sexual pleasure from oral sex or other alternative forms of sexual activity? Are we not supposed to consider them sexually active? Preposterous.
The virginity concept destroys women’s lives. Just as marriage has historically been a financial exchange of women for property, so virginity has been the gold standard for determining the woman’s worth. Under the pretense that a woman is only “pure” enough for marriage if she is a virgin, many cultures have adopted the practice of invasive virginity tests, in which a doctor examines a bride-to-be to see if her hymen is still intact. These tests are socially sanctioned sexual assaults—a violation of a woman’s body by a party to whom she does not personally give consent. They reinforce the double standard that it is acceptable for men to have sex outside of marriage, but not for women. They are also largely inaccurate, based on the examination of a delicate membrane that can be torn by tampon use or athletic activity, or might not even be there in the first place. In the past, failing a virginity test has been justification for calling off a marriage, dishonor, ostracism and even murder of the “tainted” woman.
This isn’t some medieval practice either. Egyptian military forces performed virginity tests on women detained during the 2011 revolution, ironically to refute claims that women were raped while in detention. In Zimbabwe, virginity tests have been justified as a measure to prevent the spread of HIV—because sexual responsibility is apparently only the woman’s job. Female genital mutilation, a painful and dangerous process in which a woman’s pleasure-producing genitalia are removed and the vagina is sewn shut except for a small hole to allow the passage of urine and menstrual blood, continues to be practiced in many Middle Eastern and African countries as a means of keeping women “pure” until marriage.
Virginity shouldn’t be something you lose. The first time a person has sex—any kind of sex—shouldn’t be a loss; it should be a gift. Tragically, misogyny, arranged marriages, sexual assault and social pressure mean it doesn’t always happen that way. But why should our language enforce such a disgusting reality? Language is productive in that it influences the way we think about things. If we continue to conceive of virginity as something that can be taken from someone, we are one step further away from putting an end to these one-sided sexual relationships.
Perhaps the biggest problem with virginity is that we’re still associating it with a narrow-minded definition of sex. “Sex” as a concept is still reserved for the heterosexual and the monogamous (though not always the consensual); other forms of sexual relations necessitate special names—gay sex, lesbian sex, threesomes, etc. The idea of virginity holds traditional sex—as in when a man has vaginal intercourse with a woman—as the crème de la crème of sexual acts, precluded by clearly defined levels of lesser intimacy that increase in intensity, taboo and participant pleasure: first, second and third base—and home run.
This of course assumes that everyone likes or wants this particular type of sex, that every person always gives oral sex a try before going all the way, and that each successive step is more likely to end in orgasm than the last. None of these assumptions are necessarily true for anyone, but we keep operating on them because they make things simple—or at least that seems to be the only reason we would try to fit something as explosive, unpredictable and altogether indescribable as sex into a neat, cubic box with a ribbon on top.