If you were born in the 70s or 80s and your family was Christian, you probably know a thing or two about purity culture. It all hinged upon the idea that virginity was a chief priority of your existence — something that must be upheld at all costs.
Youth leaders, parents, and Christian writers all warned about the dangers of losing your virginity before marriage. Not only would you become “impure,” but you’d also be cheating on your future spouse, and subjecting yourself to a lifetime of bad sex. They warned that having sex with more than one person would basically make you unhappy in bed because you’d forever compare your past and present partners.
Purity culture fought hard to draw a line in the sand when it came to which activities were and were not okay before marriage. Kissing, holding hands, and even being alone with a member of the opposite sex were all slapped with warnings like “proceed with caution” or “avoid the appearance of evil.” Most leaders advised we avoid any touching at all because it would likely lead to sex.
I grew up with all of these religious lessons about sex which said my value would be diminished if I lost my virginity. That I’d be disappointing God. And even in the secular world, virginity was a big deal too. American Pie and 40-Year-Old Virgin were just some of the films that perpetuated this idea that losing your virginity was a hugely monumental occasion.
Most of us have been way too fixated on the concept of virginity, just because we’ve been taught that it matters. But what if we’re wrong to recognize virginity in the first place? It took me an awful lot of time, but I finally quit believing in virginity at all.
Here’s why I think we need to drop the word from our vocabulary:
There’s no physical marker for virginity.
Growing up, I was taught that a woman’s hymen would break on her first time, and that there’d be blood. I can’t even tell you how many movies have perpetuated this myth — more than I can count. I always thought it was so unfair that women came with “virginity detectors” while men did not… except that we don’t.
A woman’s hymen doesn’t completely cover her vagina, and it doesn’t need to break for her to have P in V intercourse. In fact, there’s no physical marker of virginity at all — not for men or women. And since there’s no physical sign of losing your virginity, nothing is even being lost.
There’s no agreement on the definition of virginity.
Traditionally, people talk about losing your virginity in terms of P in V intercourse. But what if you’re gay? What about anal or oral sex? Fingering or handjobs? There are a lot of different ways to engage in sexual activity — including masturbation. Bringing yourself to orgasm through masturbation is real sex since it shares the same biological reactions as having an orgasm with a partner.
Penetrative heterosexual sex is normally associated with virginity, but that’s not the only kind of sex there is. So why do we keep buying into the notion of virginity when we can’t even agree upon what it means?
The “value” of virginity mostly applies to women.
Throughout history, most cultures have demanded virginity in unmarried women, but overlooked or even applauded men who have sex whether they’re married or not.
In ancient times, a woman had to be a virgin just to get married. In modern times, we slut-shame women and say things like, “She’s not the kind of woman a man would take to meet his parents.” Even today, women around the globe request hymenoplasty — a surgery to “repair” their hymens so they can protect themselves by pretending to be virgins.
Even the word virgin is interchangeable with young girl or woman. And sure, men do undergo shaming for being virgins, but either way, they won’t fear death or banishment.
Our fixation with virginity harms women in other ways too.
The mythical concept of virginity has long inspired men to fetishize young, “untouched” girls. Some men get off on the idea of being with a girl for her first time, leading to virginity auctions. This fetish takes advantage of vulnerable girls and even contributes to sexual abuse and human trafficking. When we value the concept of virginity, it perpetuates the notion that women are mere property.
And what happens in cases of rape or sexual assault? 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime compared to 1 in 33 men. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 4 out of every 5 women who are raped are raped before age 25. About 2 in every 5 were assaulted before age 18.
That means it’s hardly uncommon for a woman’s “first time” to be a result of rape. But when we fetishize a woman’s virginity, we unintentionally encourage sexual assault and send rape survivors the message that they’re dirty or spoiled.
Purity culture thrives upon the notion of virginity.
The preservation of a woman’s virginity drives biased dress codes. It teaches young girls that they’re in charge of male reactions and guilty of causing men to lust if they wear the wrong things. Women wind up paying more of the negative consequences for sexual activity. The virginity myth perpetuates the longheld sexist story where women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Women who aren’t virgins before marriage are considered damaged goods, and forever impure — unless they beg for forgiveness and pledge themselves to chastity once again. There’s even a term for that: spiritual virgins.
Virginity doesn’t do anything but pile on the shame.
The entire concept of virginity is essentially meaningless, but it leaves lasting scars. When we say virginity matters, we frighten kids about sex during their most impressionable stages of life. If anything, we should be teaching our kids to have a positive, responsible, and shame-free view of sex. But that’s an uphill battle when we’re stuck on virginity.
Yes, some kids are able to quickly shake off the lessons of sexual repression when they become adults, but that’s not always the case. Many women in particular struggle to “flip the switch” on their wedding night from being rigidly chaste for so long.
I’ve previously written about my young marriage and my inability to have P in V intercourse with my husband, as well as how it took me years to fully lose my virginity. My hangups about sex were embroiled in purity culture and the teachings that virginity was so damn important.
I wish I’d known long ago that the whole concept of virginity is a lie. There’s an entire spectrum of sexual activity to be explored whenever each of us is ready, but losing our virginity is completely arbitrary. Many myths surrounding virginity abound, but all that really matters is if we learn about healthy, consensual sex and our responsibilities as sexual beings.
The truth is there is a first time for everything, but not everything deserves our attention. “Virginity” certainly doesn’t.