A million and one movies, television shows, and books later, you think the topic would be done and dusted by now. But the hype around 'virginity' marches on and it's time the narrative around it changes. The concept of virginity is heavily cultural and its place in the world today is heavily questionable.
Does virginity matter?
The concept of virginity is massively problematic on so many levels. Whether you become sexually active as a teenager, in your twenties, thirties, or not at all, the idea of ‘virginity’ has always held colossal theological, religious, cultural and social weight, no matter your age or geographical location. But where does this concept stem from? And what is its place in our society today?
At our core, human beings are complex emotional and often irrational beings who often have a really tough time talking about something pretty central to our lives: sex and sexuality. The idea of virginity is thoroughly rooted in moral, physical and spiritual ideals surrounding outdated ideals around purity, innocence and cleanliness. The social status quo of yonder year saw virginity as imperative to upholding these ideals, as well as guaranteeing the father of any subsequent children from subsequent pregnancies. It’s typically used in reference to penis-in-vagina intercourse, which has historically been seen as the only definitive and ‘accepted’ type of sex within our predominately (but fading!) heteronormative* and oppressive patriarchal* society.
So what are the issues with the concept of virginity?
Issue 1: It’s exclusive
This blanket definition of sex as penis-vagina and purity-driven narrative around ‘losing your virginity’ shuts out the experiences of those in the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, as well as those who have experienced sexual trauma. If we equate our first sexual experience as one defined by penis-vagina or another form of penetrative sex, where does that leave people engaging in same-sex, queer, non-binary and mixed ability sexual activity?
Issue 2: Views virginity as a commodity
Virginity has historically been seen as a commodity that defines a woman’s worth, dividing the ‘pure’ from the ‘tainted’. Ultimately treating a woman’s hymen, which not everyone has in tact the first time penetrative sex happens, like something you can buy, barter, or trade for goods or social status.
Issue 3: Slut-shaming
This practice of valuing virginity, or tying a person’s worth to their sexual status, survives to this day in the form of slut-shaming. In a nutshell, slut-shaming is where men are often lauded for their sexual exploits, their peers applaud their active sex lives, whereas women are demeaned for their number of sexual partners, frequency or even enjoyment of sex.
Worse still, in some societies women who are deemed ‘impure’ by engaging in sexual activity suffer social, economic and health issues due to their perceived sexual status. Even worse still, victims of sexual trauma or rape are also lumped into this category, losing their social status for an act they never consented to.
Issue 4: The loss of innocence
The act of penetrative sex is seen as a transformational moment whereby you ‘lose’ your perceived innocence and become a ‘real’ man/woman - this concept is problematic in itself for many reasons, including the notion that your worth is determined by your ability to reproduce, and that you lose something when you engage in sexual activity for the first time.
And why, why do we so often continue to refer to engaging in sex as losing something? Why can’t we speak of it like it can be in its healthiest sense, a fun, pleasurable activity between consenting people?
In reality, when sex is consensual and practiced safely, it can be an intimate, fun and thrilling activity that feels great. Your participation, or lack of participation in sex for whatever reason, is not something that should determine your value or character - the decision to engage in sex should be one you can make in a safe, comfortable and informed environment where you feel respected, supported, and fulfilled.
Virginity is an outdated social construct, shrouded in patriarchal ideals that fuel shame and misinformation. How can we try and make that better for everyone? As a society we need to focus on delivering inclusive sexual, biological and social education. By learning, speaking, and sharing, we can equip ourselves and future generations with the accurate information they need to enjoy safe and fulfilling lives both in and outside of the bedroom!
Here's are some helpful definitions:
* Heteronormative: denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.
* Patriarchal: relating to or denoting a system of society or government controlled by men, example: "a patriarchal society"
Filipovic, J., 2013. 'Purity' Culture: Bad For Women, Worse For Survivors Of Sexual Assault | Jill Filipovic. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/09/elizabeth-smart-purity-culture-shames-survivors-sexual-assault> [Accessed 10 September 2020].
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