‘Popping the cherry’: Is virginity real?
Cherries, Flowers, V-Plates.. we all know the euphemisms. Growing up, I remember virginity being discussed everywhere. It was in every bad American high school show, the sealed sections in Dolly/Cosmo Magazine (which I would covertly read in the public library), even in Religious Ed. at school. My friends discussed it frequently, and there were many misconceptions and a great deal of anxiety that surrounded this mystical concept of sex and ‘the first time’. Virginity and sex were mired in contradiction.
What the hell is virginity anyway? When do you cross that indefinable line?
To answer this, we have to ask, what is sex?
In the heteronormative patriarchy, sex is defined as penis in vagina. Which is an extremely narrow definition considering the many different ways it is possible to be sexually intimate. This emphasis on penetration makes definitions of virginity extremely problematic. What about if you’re a lesbian and you never have penetrative sex with a man? What if you only ever have oral sex? Does this mean you’re still a virgin? More importantly, why does this matter?
Virginity is a social construction to which we ascribe unnecessary significance. Sylvia Plath sums this up beautifully in ‘The Bell Jar’:
“When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.
Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another. I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.”
There’s this misconception that sex alters you physically. For women, there is this notion that the hymen tearing signifies ‘losing your virginity.’ But there are a large number of women who lost their hymen wearing tampons, exercising, or never had one to begin with. Therefore, it boggles my mind that virginity tests (a dehumanizing practice undertaken in many places where virginity is prized like India and Iran) involve a doctor searching for a hymen. Of course, true to capitalism, there are a group of people cashing in on this obsession with purity, and now, you can buy hymens online. The advertising promises ‘you can kiss your deep dark secret goodbye’ and ‘marry with confidence.’ Virginity as a tool of oppression. The idea that women who aren’t ‘virgins’ are disposable or tainted- ‘used’ by someone else reinforces the traditional idea of male ‘possession’ of female bodies. Women as property. Non-virgins as damaged goods. This takes away the liberty of women to make choices with their own bodies and explore their sexuality as they see fit.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to undermine the decisions of people who believe in sex after marriage or the importance of commitment to their sexual partner. It’s an intensely personal decision, and sex should mean whatever you want it to. But I do strongly believe choices like, who we have sex with, when, and how, aren’t measures of morality.
“…the idea at play here is that of “morality.” When young women are taught about morality, there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens” – Jessica Valenti
As for the emotional significance of ‘losing your virginity’, again, that varies immensely, and not everyone’s first time having sex has to be a definitive, life altering moment. There are people who attach a great nostalgic significance to their first sexual encounter, whilst for other people, it could just be an unmemorable, vaguely awkward experience. And that’s fine. Everyone has different sexual milestones. Maybe it’s not the first person you’ve slept with, it could be the first time you’ve slept with a particular partner that matters, or one particularly fantastic sexual encounter.
The mythology and social dynamics of virginity affect both genders. Even in the schoolyard, perceptions of virginity and gender were inextricably linked. For men, virginity appeared to be something to be ashamed of. I have a friend who went to an all boys school, and he talks about how virgins were shamed socially- sex was social currency. He also talked about how there was a great deal of pressure to discuss the details of your sex life, hooking up with a girl at a party gave you bragging rights, and even if you were uncomfortable with the idea, it was a social obligation.
In my subjective experience, girls contend with mixed messages. There was a dichotomy: on one hand, being a virgin could have you labelled as frigid and naive, yet being sexually active and having too many partners could have you labelled as a slut.
These kind of pressures can make ‘losing your virginity’ an extremely confusing landscape to navigate, and it’s difficult to know when you’re ‘ready’- it’s different for everyone, and no-one should feel shamed for being a virgin. I’ve had discussions with friends who’ve been too nervous to tell their sexual partner about their inexperience, which is an interesting contrast to the fixation with chastity in other social contexts.
Also, the expressions we use to discuss virginity are flawed. Like the phrase ‘saving yourself.’
“Why do they even call it that, “saving yourself”? Like we need to be rescued from sex? It’s not like virgins spend their whole lives engaged in the sacred ceremony of “being saved” from intercourse.” – Robyn Schneider
‘Losing’ your virginity is also problematic- you don’t ‘lose’ anything, if anything, you gain the experience of sex. I like Lacy Green’s idea of renaming it ‘making our sexual debut.’
Or better yet, I read that the expression for ‘losing your virginity’ in Chile is “Verle el ojo a la papa,’ which translates to ‘to look into the eye of the potato.’