I was sixteen years old. I cried. Not with pain, not with pleasure – certainly not with desire. I cried with the sheer relief at having sloughed off the weight of my clunky, ungainly virginity, which I had carried with me everywhere I went. I was free to turn away from the boy in whose bed I had divested myself of something I no longer had any use for.
It was gone.
For women, the loss of our virginity is just that: a loss. A handing over of some special power, the giving of a precious gift. A surrender. For men, the first act of sex is not a loss, but a gain – a belt-notch. The way we speak about the virginities of young men and young women reflects something deeply troubling about the way that sex is understood as a power exchange. A woman, it seems, can only hold power by refusing sexual activity, and after a single act of coitus this power is relinquished, handed over to her (in this model, always male) partner.
This dichotomy (clearly self-contradictory) is dangerous for both men and women to subscribe to uncritically. How, exactly, given the compulsory heterosexuality this idea insists upon, are men meant to have more sex than women? Must we demarcate a subset of scarlet women who have no purity with whom men are allowed to have sex? How many must there be? In recent surveys, straight men have reported an average of about seven sexual partners, while straight women have claimed four. It’s a statistical impossibility.
While female sexuality in lived reality is a formidable power of its own, there is precious little room for understanding it as such when we think about virginity in terms of purity and its loss. Leaning up on my elbows in those crumpled sheets so long ago, I had no sense of my own potential – no idea that this act could be about more than handing over something which had been attached to me and no longer was. I hadn’t been given the tools to instead construct the experience as the first time I had expressed myself as a sexual being; tapped into the resources of power and pleasure that would now be a part of my life. The line we’re fed about virginity is not only disturbingly pervasive, but dangerous.
Do you recall high school sex education? Rows of hormone-drenched teenagers on hard-backed chairs, supposedly being equipped with information that would help us navigate our futures? This process could be an incredibly useful one, teaching us how to understand our sexual selves, how to ensure our own safety and wellbeing and that of our partners…but this is almost never how it unfurls. Rather, we’re instructed that the act of sexual intercourse has two grave dangers with no clear benefits. Disease and pregnancy make up the price of sexual expression in this model of sexuality. Virginity becomes something precious, something concrete, defined against the twinned evils of babies and infections. It becomes a thing.
It becomes so much of a thing, in fact, that it must be fiercely guarded, lest it be imprudently given away. One of the creepiest iterations of this protection can be seen in the “purity balls”, increasing in popularity in the States since the nineties. Girls and young women as young as four years old pledge their chastity to their fathers, swearing to honour this spooky marriage-like contract until rightfully wed – at which point the ownership of these girls’ virginities can pass from their father to their husband. These girls are not allowed to make their own decisions about their sexuality, a right that belongs instead to adult men. Such ceremonies are a hallmark of a world where as the virgin status of women must be fiercely defended as a marker of her purity and worth, when masculinised virtues such as intelligence, bravery and integrity can be relegated to a role of less importance than a woman’s intact hymen. (On an anatomical note, the concept of hymens ‘breaking’ is outdated. What happens is rather a ‘vaginal corona’ of several layers of thin elastic membranes which may tear or stretch a little, but remain part of the body. This is what we should be teaching in sex education!)
Male virginity is painted very differently in our cultural language. There is no ‘sacredness’ in a virgin man – his first time is not a special gift. Instead he’s a laughing-stock; socially inept. It further highlights the oddness of how we think about virginity. Why is there a difference in the way we see the sexualities of people of different genders? If I could transport myself through time with the wisdom of my years to that bedroom where my younger incarnation is staring dully at the wall, hiding her newly sinful nakedness under the black sheets the boy laundered especially for the occasion, I would speak gently with her. And I would speak to him. I would tell them both that their experience was not so dissimilar, that his smug smirk is invalid. He is wrong in thinking he now has something of mine, and I’m wrong in thinking I have lost something to him.
It’s difficult to point to a single cause for the way in which virginities are understood and spoken about. It’s too easy to point an accusatory finger at the ‘patriarchy’, vague and amorphous scourge of women’s independence. Some facets of the message are transmitted quite explicitly – in our sex education, in the purity balls thrown for children to celebrate their chasteness, in the religious services which rank extramarital sex among the worst sins a person can commit – but pervading everything is an understanding of women’s bodies as not belonging to them. Better women and men than I have tried to trace this back through the ages, through cat-calling, abortion laws, dowries and bride-prices without finding a satisfactory answer. Identifiable culprit or none, these harmful ideas are still informing us today, and should be fought against.
The weird dichotomy around virginity of passive, violated women and triumphant men is demonstrably harmful. The anxiety surrounding virginity needs to be replaced with engaged exploration of sexual identities and possibilities. Rather than breaking down one’s entry into the world of sex into a black and white picture of loss and transgression, young people deserve respect at this critical point of self-discovery. Equally importantly, young people who are not interested in sex or who have personal reasons for not wanting to experience it should not be shamed and marginalised.
I propose, instead of this weirdly formal and rigid understanding of the beginnings of sexuality, we change the way we talk and think about virginities. We should all be able to determine on our own terms if and when we have had virginities, let alone ‘lost’ them. I have heard people use the term “sexual debut” in lieu of virginity loss, and despite its camp corniness, I think it speaks much more positively about how we move through our sexual lives as best we can. Our sexuality is something to celebrate.
The image accompanying this piece is by Melbourne artist Nicole Thomson. You can find her work at http://nicolethomson.tumblr.com/