Look, I never expected to be getting sex education from celebrities, but I must credit them for recently reigniting conversations about virginity.
Turns out, it’s not real. And that’s more than I learnt from health in school.
Miley Cyrus has received equal criticism and praise for her statement “virginity is a social construct”, while rapper T.I. came under fire when he revealed he forced his 18-year-old daughter to undergo yearly “virginity testing”.
“There is a huge myth around virginity for women, that it is a physical thing,” says Flo Perry, author of How to Have Feminist Sex.
“This is completely scientifically untrue.”
I remember feeling like my virginity was something important that should be saved for the “right guy”.
I guess that’s why I timed it impeccably to be “lost” on Valentine’s Day.
But whether virginity means nothing to you or is a really big deal — I’ve recently learnt it can be a pretty harmful concept.
“If you take the view that virginity loss is a step in a learning process, then virginity just describes a state — like being a beginner in any learning process,” says Laura Carpenter, sociology researcher and author of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences.
“Where it can be harmful is when people value, or devalue, virginity.”
Treating virginity as a prize allows society to objectify — and in worse cases kill — women. Its narrow definitions exclude the queer community and some sexual assault survivors.
Virginity as a “rite of passage” shames men.
There are good reasons for dismantling it altogether. But should we, when it’s a concept that for some cultures remains significant?
Virginity vs abstinence
BUT THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH WAITING TO HAVE SEX, you might be thinking.
I hear you.
Pointing out virginity is different to abstinence helps us clear the path for a discussion around it.
Virginity is largely treated as an “identity”; you’re a virgin until the first time you have sex. Whereas abstinence can be a state you enter in and out of during your life, explains clinical sex therapist Cat O’Dowd.
“Someone can be abstinent who’s already had sex. Non-virgins can be abstinent. Abstinence is voluntary celibacy and celibacy can be voluntary or involuntary.”
Calling out the harms around virginity isn’t about shaming people for “waiting” to have sex if that’s what they want.
“I am a big believer in: wait as long as you like, never have sex at all if that’s your heart’s desire,” says Perry.
“But the concept of one singular moment where your virginity is lost is the problem.”
Dr Carpenter says: “People go through all sorts of contortions for the sake of ‘keeping’ or ‘losing’ it, rather than focusing on how they’d like their sexual selves and lives to unfold.
“One of the saddest kinds of stories I heard involved young women unwilling to leave abusive boyfriends to whom they ‘gave’ their virginity.”
How it impacts women vs men, and excludes many
The gender differences are stark: women are taught to see virginity as a “special gift” and men as a “terrible stigma”, explains Dr Carpenter.
Women are labelled as “spoiled” or “ruined” after the first time they have sex. “It’s sexual oppression,” Ms O’Dowd says.
And it’s damaging for men, too.
“Men are socially rewarded for having sex … [but] men are judged for not having sex,” she says.
“Male virgins may be particularly prone to sharp feelings of deficiency because sexual prowess and profligacy are defining features of manhood in our culture.”
But hey, at least they don’t have to be worried about being killed for losing it. We’ll get to that soon.
And what even is sex, anyway?
Defining virginity loss as something that occurs after penis-in-vagina penetration “totally erases queer expression”, Ms O’Dowd says.
It also creates “anxiety and pressure” for people living with disability, explains Adjunct Professor Matthew Yau, a certified sex therapist.
“It has created mixed messages for people with disability, particularly when their expressions and ways of gaining sexual satisfaction may be hindered by their disabilities or do not fit in the so-called ‘social or sexual norms’.”
As a “first time” concept, virginity also disregards people whose first sexual experience is abuse or rape.
“I see a lot of clients who are survivors or rape and sexual assault. As sad as that is, it’s always possible to redefine and reclaim your body and your sexuality,” Ms O’Dowd says.
“You can have … your ‘first’ sexual encounter on your own terms in a beautiful, sensual, positive way.”
Virginity is keeping ‘harmful and unreliable’ testing alive
In some cultures if a woman is found not to be virgin when she “should be”, she can be killed.
Sherria Ayuandini from the University of Amsterdam has researched virginity testing.
“Women are under higher scrutiny [than men] and might experience adverse consequences when virginity is considered lost, ranging from ostracisation to physical violence,” she says.
Hymen testing is one method of virginity testing still performed in many countries — and one of several the World Health Organisation has campaigned to end.
“In some locations, [the hymen test] is even institutionalised; for example, as part of an entrance test. One of the more famous case of this is the police cadet entrance test in Indonesia,” Dr Ayuandini says.
But the test isn’t accurate.
“There are many studies that look into ‘abnormalities’ of the hymen to indicate previous history of vaginal penetration and the accuracy is fairly low, with one study reporting only 2.5 per cent of patients show any ‘features’ that might indicate previous penetration,” Dr Ayuandini says.
“The notion that the hymen ‘breaks’ after penetration is also largely erroneous as the hymen is flexible so it might not experience any trauma even after the first penetration.”
Apart from the fact virginity testing is defective, Dr Ayuandini says it “causes undue stress to the woman who needs to undergo it”.
“Women have reported feeling violated, humiliated and traumatised because of it.”
Respecting varied beliefs around virginity
There is a lot to be gained from dismantling the concept of virginity, but we know it’s of cultural and religious significance to many.
For example, premarital virginity is valued in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and many other religions.
So how do we navigate that?
Shakira Hussein from the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic studies says it comes down to choice, something all men and women should have over their own bodies.
“There can be a sex-positive mindset that still believes in restricting sex to within marriage,” she says.
“You can have some very raunchy conversation with hijab-wearing married women!
“There is a lot of Islamic scholarship that talks about the importance of sexuality and having a good sex life and being sexually fulfilled.
“It can be partially waiting for the right time and person, but it can also just be putting other things in your life like education ahead of that.”
But she says with men and women waiting until later in life to marry, it’s becoming harder for them to navigate staying “pure” until that time.
Ms O’Dowd says while “virginity isn’t harmful per se”, policing women’s bodies and controlling them is.
“‘Acceptance of different cultures doesn’t mean we accept the intolerable’. This is a quote from an amazing woman, Jasvinder Sanghera, who grew up in the UK in an Indian family who tried to force her into an arranged marriage,” she says.
Sanghera runs charity Karma Nirvana and helps women who have run away from their families out of fear of being killed for not being a virgin.
Dr Ayuandini says we can accept that virginity is important in certain cultures, while still improving its impact for women by stopping virginity testing.
“It’s possible to value preservation of virginity before marriage while at the same time not doing virginity testing.
“The test does not work while also being harmful, so why do it?
“I usually receive the following question often after making such statement. ‘But how can we then find out whether someone is a virgin or not?’ to which I always answer, ‘Trust’.”