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Conceptions of Virginity

January 11, 2011

Virginity is one of those concept words that get tossed around a lot like ‘Freedom’ and ‘Evil’ and ‘Love.’   We think that we know what these words mean, we can use them in sentence (“I am Free to Love whomever I desire, even if he is Evil.”), but when we actually think about these words critically, the definitional lines blur and contention arises.

There are many lens through which to define concepts like virginity: historical (women and dowries and sure-fire paternity, oh my), psychological (and thus the young woman detaches her love-interest from her father to her male-lover even as she moves from clitoral to vaginal stimulation, thank you Freud), physical (hymen = intact), social (now that you have entered a woman, my son, you are a man!), religious (you are a cow, what boy will buy the cow when he can get the milk for free?) etc etc.  The point is, not only do different intellectual approaches yield different definitions of virginity and ascribe different (if any) moral values to the act of ‘having sex’, but the public discourse about sex and virginity is, I would argue, innately contradictory.  Losing ones virginity is penetration (except when it’s not, like with lesbian loving).  Losing one’s virginity is bad (except, that if you stay a virgin, that means you’re a ‘loser,’ with an L on the forehead.).  In fact, the very term ‘virginity’ is pretty much only thought of in regards to ‘losing it.’  Thus, virginity as a concept, as a word, is rendered meaningless without the assumption that one is supposed to lose it, will lose it, or has already lost it.  As a state to simply stably exist in, it has no purpose.  Is it any wonder that we poor young folk are confused by this societally-charged word?

But enough about my intellectual struggles with this word that twelve-years-olds use daily without much thought or confusion.  For this post, I interviewed several individuals, ages 18 to 25, via email, asking them about how they regarded virginity.  I tried to get some variation in my participants; some are straight, some are bi-sexual, some are religious, some are not, some had their sexual debuts early, some late.  As as sample size, it is rather small, and, admittedly, all these individuals are extremely intelligent, intellectually focused youthful people.  So, perhaps they are not a representative sample of the American population.

Below are short biographies of the interviewees (names have been, as always, changed for the sake of publication.)

Cassie (18) is a straight, well-traveled high school student of Irish descent who lives in rural Virginia. In her youth, her parents were traveling Renaissance Festival musicians and she journeyed with them across America.  She has had many a boyfriend in her time and has developed a reputation as a ‘heart-breaker.’ She plans to go to college to study Chinese language and culture.

Vera (20) is a bisexual (if she had to label), undergraduate student studying political science and gender studies.  She grew up in the “wonderfully cold and conservative” state of Alaska, and is glad to be living in Chicago, a (slightly) warmer, more democratic area.  She has two younger sisters and a gaggle of female cousins, all younger than she is.

Michael (25) is a straight (cisgendered) guy who grew up in Austin, TX, the most liberal city in one of the most conservative states.  He was the child of a lapsed Catholic father of mixed Mexican/Irish descent and a lapsed Episcopalian mother of generic lily-white Western European descent.  Both went to Rice University, which he and his brother also attended.  His mother is a writer and his father an attorney.  He currently is at graduate school, studying gender and sexuality as his main focus.  He was raised atheist, but has some extended family who are very conservative and religious.  He has had numerous sexual partners since sexual debut at age 14, is self-proclaimed ‘very’ nerdy to this day, overweight since day one, and tends towards hairiness.

Naomi (23) is a bisexual woman who grew up in Nebraska, but has lived the past five years in Chicago.  She graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA degree in religious studies and currently works as a youth group director at a church and run a domestic abuse Crisis Line.  She has a boyfriend.

Alexa (23) is a straight woman born and raised as an atheist, liberal in Madison, Wisconsin.  She has been classically educated and is currently a first-year law student.  She has been in two relationships, one of which she described as “going down in flames” the other of which is going strong after 2 1/2 years.  She can’t remember a time when she didn’t know where babies came from, started learning about adolescence and sexuality at age seven, was an avid reader of “Savage Love” since age 14.  She started ‘doing anything sexual’ at 19 years old, but has never masturbated and still does not.  Due to a physiological issue (in which her gynecologist had to get involved), she didn’t have vaginal intercourse until she was 21.

Each respondent had the opportunity to answer, or not answer, any questions they wished to.  I corrected their responses for grammar (sometimes) and for coherency, but these words are each their own.  I bolded sentences in each statement that I thought summarized their main point or struck me as a particularly well-written and pithy view.  Read the discussion below, and then, if you wish, post your own thoughts on the nature of virginity in the comments section of this post.

What is virginity? (Physical?  Mental?  Emotional?  Societal?)

Cassie: Physical, it’s breaking the hymen in a vagina which seems to be rather painful. As for the rest, I would say that it’s a stepping stone on the road to adulthood. With that comes various things, a lot of pressure to lose it and become more adult and fear that you won’t do it right. There’s also a lot of emotional shit tied up in it, that it will be the answer to all your problems somehow (irrational and fairytale based logic) and then there’s all of the hormonal stuff that influences your emotions and tells you to get laid now or else! Then there’s society which presses two different views into you: 1) Sex is BAD it is a bad thing that you have to do in private and losing your virginity is a BAD thing because it’s connected to sex or 2) that sex is highly desirable and that the more sex you get the more popular and happy you’ll be. In other words, it’s a mosh of silly stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with what’s actually going on.

Vera: Virginity is partly physical, but on a personal level it is must more mental and emotional. It’s a conscious choice to accept consequences (i.e. pregnancy, diseases, emotional pain) or engaging in sexual acts with another person.

Michael: Part of virginity, as a broad concept, is physical, mental, emotional, or social, but such broad brushstrokes aren’t particularly useful.  The presence or absence of a hymen is essentially meaningless, as is the state of whether or not one’s genitals have been in contact with another person in some sexually charged way.  Mentally, emotionally, and socially, virginity is much more meaningful–how one thinks of oneself as or not as a virgin (if, indeed, that label is of any interest at all), how one feels about one’s virginity or lack thereof, and the performance of sexual knowledge, experience, emotion, relation, and so forth.

So, as a sociologist by training, I see virginity as primarily a social construct, with human interactions guiding individuals’ beliefs about what virginity entails or doesn’t entail, what counts or doesn’t count as sex, their emotional reactions to first sexual experiences, and conditioning their interaction with every person, group, or symbol they encounter.  To a working definition, I would say that virginity is the social state of being a sexual isolate, a person who has no and has had no sexual contacts with other individuals.  Predominantly, I would say that this is the expected social state for people until about adolescence, at which point it begins to morph into the state of non-virginity, or sexual connectivity–the social state of a person who has had or has sexual contact with others.  However, this also begs the question of how we define sexual contact.  Hard-line traditionalists would limit sex to merely penis-vagina intercourse, with any of a slew of sexualized activities counting as sexual and corrupting (I take this from Carpenter’s (2005) introduction to “Virginity Lost,” mostly).  Furthermore, given what I know about sexual violence, I see defining the victim of sexual assault as a non-virgin to be very harmful to that person’s sense of agency and control.

Thus, I’m going to edit virginity again, in such a way that virginity is primarily defined by the individual, and then portrayed to the public. Virginity is a social state of being that indicates that an individual does not engage in a certain set of proscribed sexual acts with other people, or with him or herself.  These acts within the proscribed set are those acts which the individual and his or her meaningful social influences define as real, legitimate sex.  This individual may use this identity label of “virgin” in social interactions which are concerned with sexuality, at which point the individual’s social world may accept, reject, or challenge the individual’s definition of his or her own virginity, potentially prompting a re-evaluation of the identity.  Non-virginity is similarly a social state of being indicating that an individual does engage in a certain set of sexual acts which are defined internally and externally as legitimate sex.  Either of these states, virgin or non-virgin, may be presented actively, passively, or may be attempts to “pass” as the other conceived identity.  Fundamentally though, every person has a sexuality which is meaningful, and receives and gives messages about sexuality, even those considered pre-sexual, or virgins, or sexually inactive.  Ideally, this definition gives individuals the agency to define what sex acts they want to consider virginity-removing and exclude others, while enabling challenges from outside the individual.  Secondary virginity, masturbation, and sexual violence are potentially contained herein–hence “does not engage” rather than “has not engaged,” and no necessary reference to other people.  Also, one might consider oneself a virgin, while having sex with men, because one has not had sex with women.

In plainer English: virginity is when you think of yourself as someone who doesn’t have sex (and, usually, hasn’t ever had sex), whatever you define sex as.  A non-virgin is someone who thinks of themselves as doing the right kind of sexual activities.  However, other people may have different ideas about what counts as sex and thus of whether one is a virgin or not.

Lastly, for some people, virginity might be irrelevant entirely, as they do not consider themselves sexual.  They might be defined as virgins by others, but if the label has no individual salience, I’d say it’s absurd to state that they are thus definitely virgins, as virgin is an identity as much as a label.

Naomi: Virginity is a socially acknowledged state, in which people have not had whatever the most traditional type of sex is for their orientation. (Straight people – vaginal intercourse, gay men – anal intercourse, lesbians – oral sex)

Alexa: Virginity could have a physical definition, such as the first time that someone of either gender has experienced penetrative sexual intercourse (i.e. involving a penis), which allows for homosexual male sex but not the female equivalent. But such a definition is absurd, not least because its exclusion of lesbians already makes it inadequate. Even though the definition given could imply that the loss of virginity is one’s first sexual experience, there’s too much else to do sexually that provides equal or greater sexual knowledge.

At a fundamental level, virginity is a mental state that is a lack of experience of sexual pleasure, not to mention confidence. So one can read all the books about sexuality that one wants, and thus have some knowledge of what to expect, but that doesn’t replace the experience itself. It’s exactly like that saying about learning to swim: you can’t learn to do it by reading about it. Masturbation, I think, is a step along the way to a gradual “loss” of virginity, because, like the experience of solo sexual pleasure, the experience of it with someone else (doing anything) is significant.

The thing with this definition is that it doesn’t mean much, as far as society goes. There’s no concern about paternity or morality, both of which are beside the point, in this day and age. I guess virginity––if it counts for anything––is fully “lost” once you feel confident about your sexuality––i.e. experiencing sexual pleasure––with (and without) someone else.

What age is it acceptable to lose ‘it’?  To still have ‘it’?

Cassie: It depends on who you’re talking to. Among teenagers the ‘optimal’ age is about 16-17 and after that people look at you funny (or at least some of them do). If you’re talking to adults they seem to think that in your 20s is best although the lowest would be 18.

Vera: An acceptable age to lose it would be determined by that individual’s level of maturity and ability to make the decision with the proper weight and careful thought that they are making the choice that it right for them, that will make them happy. Explanations about their reasons for choosing to have sex should not include “I felt like I had to”, “everyone else is doing it”, or “I was bored”. Any age is acceptable to still be a virgin, but on a societal level, this is far from true. But then again, it really is no one’s business in society and “society” really has no right to demand a level of chastity in women when we are inundated from the age we are capable of sitting in front of a television about our status as sex symbols and sexual commodities. Like sexual orientation, chastity (or otherwise) has no real practical societal relevance, especially with regards to the extremely unequal views and standards for men and women on the issue of virginity, and therefore assigning correct ages or times (i.e. before or after marriage) has no significance and should therefore be discarded, from a societal standpoint.

Michael: This question is kind of arbitrary for a number of reasons.  First of all, chronological age, emotional maturity, and biological development are related, though not perfectly correlated.  Second, “acceptableness” implies that there is a super-structural entity which ordains appropriate sexual activities, while in fact there is no hard and fast rule for everyone.  Different social groups define things differently; for example, age is irrelevant if one takes as important marriage rather than age. A married 16-year-old having sex is more acceptable to, say, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints than a forty-year old having sex outside of wedlock.  Or indeed, probably an eighty-year-old virgin.

That being said, I think some guidelines exist.  Some psychiatric studies claim to document the harms inflicted upon people who have sexual contact before social and sexual maturity.  I’m not familiar with those works, but I can see where they’re coming from.  I would say that it’s probably harmful (using harm as an approximation of inappropriateness) to be sexually active before the onset of puberty, and before some level of emotional independence and maturity. Effectively, if one’s body can handle it, and one’s emotional state isn’t likely to be harmed merely by sexual contact with oneself or with another person (plural-person sexuality tending to be more emotionally vigorous), I don’t see a necessary age limit to virginity loss. I’ve known people who’ve waited until their twenties, people who are still waiting, people who became sexually active very early in life, and people who were deeply harmed by being sexually coerced at young ages.  Many of these people have turned out alright, some victims of child abuse are fine, and others aren’t, some people who had sex at age 18 are emotionally dependent on all of their partners, and so forth.

I guess, less scientifically, it comes down to this: is losing your virginity (however it’s defined for you) something you want to have happen, and can you identify the reasons you want that?  Are those reasons in accord with your individual moral standpoint, and that of your social circles and influences?  If those reasons are in conflict, what are the costs of having sex or not having sex, and are they worth it?

Lastly, will you be able to remain more or less harm-free from the experience–avoiding disease (unwanted disease, for the bug-chaser community), unwanted pregnancy, emotional abuse or manipulation, exploitation, and power imbalances?  To some degree, all sex with others (and the self, too) can carry risks of emotional turmoil and some form of harm, but being able to parse out and evaluate one’s own desires, interests, values, and those of one’s social influences is what I’d say is the limit to acceptable age to have sex.  Particularly the gendered aspect of power dynamics and exploitation based on age and men exploiting women, being cognizant of those pressures is important.

As far as an acceptable age to still have virginity–why should someone ever need to have had sex?

Naomi: I think this one changes according to what age you are – parents don’t want teenagers having sex, teens usually do want to be sexually active.  I believe most people would expect to lose their virginity when they’re somewhere between 15 and 20, maybe before 25.

Alexa: I’d put no limits on experiencing sexual pleasure while alone (i.e. masturbating). That’s too private a thing to try to limit, although I would hope that the person would have some understanding of what they’re doing. (I’m a big fan of starting to read books about puberty and sexuality from a pretty young age, not least because my mother made sure I did from when I seven years old.) But with someone else, I think the partners should be at least in their teens, in the hope that being 13 or older is accompanied by enough maturity to make a responsible decision about sex. This also raises the question of the age difference between partners, and after either partner is over the legal age of adulthood, I don’t think it really matters. But while at least one is still legally a kid, I’d be in favor of a “Romeo and Juliet” concept, where if there’s a greater than 3-4 year difference in age, it’s basically wrong.

Under my definition of virginity, I’d say there’s no age at which it’s unacceptable to be a “virgin. I’d also say that it would be rather unfortunate, but I’m willing to agree that that’s just how the chips fell.

Is it better to have sex before or after marriage?  Does it matter?

Cassie: I think that this issue is mostly based on your own belief and doesn’t really have any connection to better/worse. For myself, I would say that it doesn’t matter and that it might even be better to have it before because then you know how to please your spouse.

Michael: As I have never been married, I have no way of answering this question in a comparative sense.  However, I do not see anything necessary about being married and having sex. I wasn’t raised with religion, and I’ve been having sex for a long time, and I’ve turned out alright, and I’ve had some pretty great sex and some terrible sex, for some good and some bad reasons.  Some people might get a lot out of the emotional and physical commitment to one person in a socially sanctioned relationship, marriage; other people might find it stifling and either eschew it, or not choose to bound their sexual lives to themselves and one other person in a socially sanctioned way–whether by having an open relationship, or some other tactic, consensual with any partners or not.

Naomi: Man, I hope sex is better after marriage.  I figure most sex lives are longer after marriage than before, so you’d hope that people put their experience and knowledge of the other person to good use.  I honestly don’t think many people care about premarital sex anymore, but many people don’t want to acknowledge that people in positions of power are having premarital sex. There are many people (teachers, politicians, pastors, etc) who wouldn’t get fired for having premarital sex, but might be fired for being public with that information in the slightest.

Alexa: I’d say that, where marriage means one only has one sexual partner for the duration of that legal relationship (e.g. life), and where that meaning is given great social importance, it is better to have sex before marriage. This is because one gains the experience of sexual pleasure, the self-knowledge, the knowledge of another, and the confidence that comes with it. It’s better to know all that before you get married, so that you know what you like and can determine whether you and your potential spouse are sexually compatible before getting into a legal relationship that can be a mess to get out of.

I’m not sure, however, how much that matters, since I suppose I don’t give the same importance to marriage that society as a whole seems to. I think monogamy and fidelity can be had and expected outside of legal marriage, as long as the partners agree to exclusivity in some way. Infidelity can carry a social and moral stigma with or without marriage, and still causes emotional harm regardless of whether the partners are legally married. So because marriage doesn’t have the same emphasis for me as for society, I think that my answer in the above paragraph is rendered rather irrelevant.

What do you think about how virginity has been portrayed in popular culture?  The common discourse about virginity?

Cassie: Honestly, I think it’s played up way too much! On the one hand you have virginity being a stigma and something shameful that should be lost as soon as possible (this mostly from younger people) and then you have people saying that it should be cherished above all else! Guys, it’s just a goddamn hymen and some stretching. That is the only difference. Well, that and the possibility of getting pregnant/STDs which is more a health thing than a pop culture thing.

Vera: In popular culture, shows like Gossip Girl and other such shows geared primarily to teenage girls have enforced the idea that it is expected for girls to have sex and/or give sexual favors to any “boyfriend” they might have in high school. These shows even implicitly imply that it is shameful even to graduate high school still a virgin, as these
characters are typically unattractive in some glaring way, and that the only reason they remain virgins is because no one wants them. Having sex in high school has therefore become a way for young teenage girls to prove to themselves that they have societal value as women, that someone is attracted to them, that they are not one of those girls that no one cares about. Honestly, it makes me a little nauseated when I think about it. As the oldest of three girls, I always get a sick feeling when I see my youngest sister (who is eleven) watching some scene in which a 15-year-old girl has a threesome with two guys she just met. What constructive models are these for girls? How can we expect these models to give young girls any sense of worth as a human being beyond being a sexual object?  The other side of this coin is the popularity of those hypocritical “purity rings”, which besides being quite simply just a joke, also put undue overemphasis on a woman/ girl’s worth as a person based upon their sexual experience. Although I see much more of the pressuring of girls to have sex, this opposing trend is just as damaging. As a culture we have no right to connect sex so closely to the self-worth of women in such a way, as this kind of system can only be both confusing and damaging in the way in which a girl comes to know herself, especially in a time in which she herself is so desperately trying to discover her own identity. Such heavy-handed and judgmental influence can only be confusing and detrimental to her ability to make judgments for herself, one of the first steps toward maturity.

Michael: Virginity is almost always portrayed in a deeply harmful way, particularly as far as gender goes (and I here refer primarily to heterosexual conceptions of virginity, with which I am most familiar).  Men are lauded for having sex, women vilified for losing their virginity.  Sort of an American Pie thing. People put way too much importance on virginity, assuming that there is something necessarily special about being someone’s first, in such a way that all subsequent sexual partnerships are somehow less, somehow sullied with the presence of prior sex partners.  I find that abhorrent, the idea that any partnership, with any number of people or with oneself, can’t be as good as any other.  Sure, there might be path-dependent effects–you’re more likely to do activities you’ve done before, and first experiences might affect one’s conception of others–but I reject the idea that virginity is necessarily special and necessarily world-changing.  It’s just a minor identity shift, more internally definable than anything, but somehow conceived of as terribly important.

People talk about virginity like it’s some all-important thing and that people who aren’t virgins (or at least who aren’t virgins outside of marriage) are somehow degenerate or harming the moral fabric of the world.  Hogwash; every perspective on virginity is just a different cultural set of symbols and meanings, and the belief that people who are not virgins can’t have the same meaning or are somehow lessened only does harm.

I clearly believe, then, that most portrayals of virginity are deeply traditionalist and steeped in right-wing rhetoric and understanding of sexuality, particularly appropriate sexuality as only heterosexual, married, vaginal intercourse.  Public discourse about virginity makes it seem like there’s only one sex act that counts, and so discounts other acts–oral sex, anal sex, tribadism, frottage, BDSM, and non-heterosexual sex in general.  It limits the scope of the sexual world, in such a way that it benefits members of powerful social actors within the religious, social, and gender patriarchy.

Naomi: I think the weird virgin-whore complex is still very much around for girls – you’re not supposed to really discuss having had sex, even though most people have. There’s definitely some sort of prize associated with taking somebody’s virginity (and how’s that for a creepy phrase). To be somebody’s first is something to be proud of, but to be a virgin is not something to be proud of.  Perhaps this standard is only around for people in their early twenties.

Alexa: I think that virginity as sexual penetration is still the common portrayal, which is a social vestige of religiosity, where sex isn’t supposed to be pleasurable and is instead shameful and unclean; and of a society where paternity was thought necessary for one’s social legitimacy. Yet both concepts are losing their hold, so I think the definition is losing its social significance and may, in fact, be in flux, such that people don’t really know how to define virginity. To that, I’d say there’s really no need to define a concept that carries little to no weight in society.

This doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t have some discourse about one’s first sexual experiences at all. They’re important, and should be treated that way. But wrapping them in a discussion about virginity––whatever it means––I think confuses the issue. The only thing I wish is that popular culture would better portray female sexuality; specifically, that it may take a few tries before vaginal intercourse is actually fun for a woman.

Any other strong thoughts, ideas, opinions on virginity?

Cassie: I think I pretty much covered it but to sum it up: Virginity is an imaginary holy grail or something akin to a disfiguring scar and neither of them have much to do with what it actually is.

Michael: I think I’ve expressed a number of strong thoughts, particularly above, but I’ll say one final thing.  Virginity, as a concept, divides the world into two neat halves, the virgins and the non-virgins, the appropriately sexual and the fallen.  Such a division constructs many people as different, worse, and to use academic capitalization, “Other.”  It privileges certain groups at the expense of these sexual others, and limits sexual expression, shapes sexual interest, and ultimately harms everyone as it forces a neat structure onto what is a very fluid, ill-defined, and multifaceted aspect of sexual life.  Ultimately, I don’t think the conception of virginity gets us anywhere.  I think it’s outdated, harmful, and repressively supports patriarchal gender norms and even state power in ways that harm individuals and individual agency. It’s tied up with how people call girls sluts but men players, and how the government and some private groups pay black women to be sterilized.  It removes rights from vast groups of people–anyone who isn’t traditionally heterosexual–while constraining the variety within heterosexuality itself.

I’m here referring mostly to the broad social conception of virginity rather than using my own definition.  With my own definition, virginity is less harmfully defined, and hopefully it’s reflexive and fluid enough that it couldn’t be used to harm some groups for the benefit of others in social, political, or cultural terms.  Hell, we don’t even have a good word for non-virgin.

Maybe I’m speaking as a going-on-twelve-years non-virgin, but I think we should not care about virginity as much as we do, or maybe even at all.

Naomi: Enh.  I feel like the importance of virginity is over-emphasized and the importance of sex is under-emphasized.  Like, yes, a virgin will be more likely to have physical discomfort during their first time, probably be unskilled due to inexperience, maybe be more emotionally vulnerable.  But, having sex in general is a big deal.  Having sex the first time isn’t riskier or less risky than having sex the second or sixtieth time.

Kind thanks and regards to all those who participated to make this post possible.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 5:37 PM

    Nice blog, Luca! Really enjoyed the many viewpoints of this article, and the point “Michael” made of not even having a name for a non-virgin.

    I would say that, like Biblically-derived dietary laws, the concept of virginity is antiquated though important in historical context. I imagine that it was once important to establish that a woman was biologically a virgin to ensure she was [sexually transmitted] disease-free, and to verify paternity (important given the law of primogeniture in property/title inheritance, and with property as the primary source of equity). In this lens, it is easy to see why there is a “double standard” for male/female virginity, and indeed “virgin” was formerly used strictly as a female descriptor. Today; with the advent of paternity tests, contraception, and antibiotics; virginity is no longer as socially valuable. Having it is a scarlet letter, and losing it a red badge of honor. I suspect this is because the first sexual encounter is generally less pleasurable than subsequent ones, both for physiological (in women) and experential reasons. Thus, as your contributors noted, not having one’s virginity implies better bedroom performance. And, of course, having had the opportunity to lose your virginity signals other things about one’s physical and social desirability.

    However, in some areas, there’s still a purity premium. I would never, for example, sink to buying harlot olive oil–extra virgin for me, thank you.

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