‘Virginity’ is an outdated concept

// 18 November 2008

We prize the idea of ‘virginity’ in our culture, whether valorising it in the form of ‘purity’ balls, or pillorying ‘virgins’. But it’s an extremely problematic concept, bolstering up a highly heteronormative hierarchy of what is and isn’t defined as sex.

Over at Scarlateen, fabulous Heather Corinna answers a question from a young bisexual woman who wants to know how she can “tell” when her and her girlfriend have lost their ‘virginity’. Her answer chimes so perfectly with how I feel about the misguided notion of ‘virginity’ that I had to share.

Since virginity as a concept has historically nearly always been — and usually is still — about heterosexuals and also about marriage, when we talk about virginity, we’re going to find ourselves talking about heterosexuality, heterosexism and heteronormativity a lot. If you’re looking in history for inclusion of lesbian women, or bisexual or heterosexual women who have had sex with other women, when it comes to concepts of virginity, give on up. There’s nothing to find.

However, even for heterosexual women, defining when they have had “real” sex as when they have had vaginal intercourse is a strange thing to do since a majority of women, vaginal intercourse isn’t an activity where they are even likely to reach orgasm or experience as much pleasure as they might with other activities, like oral or manual clitoral stimulation. Like so much else when it comes to virginity (and even sexuality as a whole) as a concept, this is another area where what sex is and is not is being defined not based on all the bodies and persons involved, but on one: while most women do not reach orgasm from intercourse alone, most men do, and that’s who, through most of time, has also been in charge of defining sex and virginity.

Lastly, I think the idea that when we choose to be sexual with someone else, we “lose” something is pretty backwards. When we choose to share our sexuality with someone else who also wants to share theirs with us, we are creating something which did not exist before, not losing something or taking something away from someone. We’re making something new. While sometimes the notion of sex as loss is about loss of childhood, the idea of sex as a loss mostly tends to come from places you probably — especially as someone who loves women — would not appreciate; from ideas about women as property, women as nonsexual beings, women’s sexuality as an object or something to “give” to a husband or man who “takes” it away, or women’s sexuality as something rapists rob from us. One would hope that those kinds of notions would be left well outside the bedroom in a healthy sexual relationship between equals and partners who are seeking to share mutual physical pleasure and emotional care or love.

Photo by smallestbones, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Lauren O // Posted 18 November 2008 at 7:11 am

Great post, great link. I find it interesting that we don’t have an equivalent word for the condition of never having performed any other activity. There is no word for never having swum in the ocean or never having tried falafel. No other activity is seen as being as permanent and staining as having sex.

Kath // Posted 18 November 2008 at 2:45 pm

I couldn’t agree more. Well said.

Kate Smith // Posted 19 November 2008 at 9:12 pm

Agree with Lauren O. Thank you so much for posting this. There are still so many pre-conceived notions about sex and female sexuality which surround us every day. I know I’m not the only woman who is unable to orgasm through penetrative sex and who wishes that there would be more emphasis placed on the joy of digital and oral stimulation! In a society where the media is obsessed with the language and imagery of the male penetrating the female (in whatever orifice is convenient) and when girls as young as their early teens can be heard bragging about their fellatio technique, where is the female equivalent? Only when the desire and pleasure of both sexual partners, of whatever gender or sexual persuasion, is considered to be of equal importance, will these absurd and outdated notions of possession and property be forgotten. I resent the odd looks I get when I refuse to acknowledge that the first time I had a penis inside my vagina is the point I should count as having lost my virginity- how dare anyone dictate that to anyone else?! We all know it’s an ancient concept used to rein in the behaviour of women and keep them in their rightful place as a chattel of first their father and then of whichever man he sees fit to bestow her upon. This, to me, is a major issue on which women should be more publicly vocal. So many will admit in private, to their friends, that they prefer the fingering, fondling, caressing, stroking and cunnilingus that they are supposed to see as ‘foreplay’ to the ‘main event’. Yet still penetrative sex is viewed as ‘full’ sex, ‘real’ sex, ‘proper’ sex. I’m not saying that this can’t be an enjoyable and fulfilling part of sex, but it’s high time that more women become open about the fact that a penis thrusting inside a vagina is an act that is often more culturally symbolic than it is physically pleasurable.

Katherine // Posted 20 November 2008 at 2:51 pm

Actually, can I point out that virginity has nothing to do with sexual pleasure at all. Virginity is entirely about reproduction–women were supposed to be virgins on marriage so that her husband’s property would pass solely to his male heirs. (The fact that a man needs to climax in order to ejaculate is therefore more about the latter than the former.)

This is, as your post points out, though, just underlining the points about women as property–or women as conduits for property–and that maybe we need a new word that isn’t about reproduction to discuss the point of beginning sexual knowledge, activity and enjoyment, or not worry about it at all.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 20 November 2008 at 5:00 pm

Virginity was defined solely for the benefit of men and it has been used to reinforce patriarchal definitions of what supposedly comprises female sexuality. Heather Corinna is absolutely right – women do not ‘lose’ their virginity to the male sexual organ because sexual activity is not just insert penis into vagina and then hey presto – the woman has had sex!! Need I say any more – no because Heather explains it very succinctly and lucidly. Also as Heather says ‘real sex’ is not about penetration because and this needs to be constantly said over and over, most women do not experience as much pleasure or even like having their vaginas penetrated by a penis. Definition of sex as penetration like virginity is a male-centered one and it is used to maintain myth men do sex to women rather than sexuality activity should always be one wherein both partners are fully engaged in mutual activities which give pleasure to both. So prostitution is never about ‘sex’ because the male buyer is not ‘having sex he is just masturbating into a woman’s or girl’s body.’ This is prostitution not ‘sex.’

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