Consider, for the following moment, what it means to lose one’s virginity. For some, considering virginity means recalling a pleasant moment, wherein a romantic interest blossomed out of an idyllic and simple time into the beginnings of one’s sexual life. For others, the boundary of virginity has not yet been crossed, and anxiety and ambivalence can be the common sexual state of mind.
Virginity can be seen as a special thing to be maintained or perhaps sex is entirely unappealing even though outside forces are continually pressuring one to buy into the sexual game.
Yet for many others virginity conjures up memories of worry and fear, perhaps physical, emotional or mental pain and anguish.
Whether one’s earliest sexual experiences were negative, positive, non-existent or somewhere else in the sphere, most of us are profoundly uncomfortable with openly discussing virginity.
I must admit that I too initially withdrew from this topic, knowing that opening such a door would put me and my sexuality in a vulnerable position. After all, a topic such as virginity touches upon very personal and often sensitive issues. For this reason, I insist upon taking a thorough and meaningful look into what we mean by virginity and its comings and goings.
Considering virginity provides us with an intimate gateway into the intricacies of sexuality. And now, more than ever, do we require such a gateway. Never before have people been so bombarded by images, ideas and ideals of sexuality. Never before have people faced such disorienting and possibly damaging sexual forces through the Internet or commercialism. Never before has sexuality been so thoroughly tied to politics, economics and our collective experience.
Considering virginity and how we relate to it forces us to be vulnerable. But, if we truly wish to grow, and see our passions and desires ﬂow free from the restraints of the media’s shackles — overturning the unspoken traumas that lurk behind every door— then we must confront the issue at its heart. Let’s go beyond the current understanding of virginity into new and exciting realms where sexuality exists in its heartiest and fullest form.
First, what is commonly meant by virginity? The traditional description of the loss of virginity is, to its credit, fairly straightforward: the ﬁrst time that a penis ﬁnds itself in a vagina, or the ﬁrst time a vagina ﬁnds itself with a penis in it.
While this description may seem simple and broad enough to constitute the boundaries of virginity, we would be doing all sexual peoples a massive disservice by accepting that description as fully encompassing and accurate.
The ﬁrst and most lucid problem with the traditional description is its hetero-normativity. That is to say, the description is inherently biased towards a heterosexual picture of sexuality. A gay person who has never been with a partner of the opposite sex, but has been with someone of the same sex is considered, under the traditional description, still a virgin.
Transgender, gender ambiguous or hermaphroditic people are also left in a confused and difﬁcult situation if our explanation of virginity is grounded entirely in traditional ideas of mere genitals. It should seem obvious that calling said alternative-sexual types to still be virgins is a painful and incorrect understanding.
The hetero-normative aspects of the traditional description of virginity are made even more apparent when we consider the historical underpinnings of virginity in women. As psychoanalyst Amanda Hon pointed out, “Historically, the hymen has been widely regarded as the ‘anatomical representative of virginity,’ although its existence is conjectural. Virginity has been written about as a physical state long before the hymen was ever discussed in medical literature.”
That is to say, the physical loss of virginity was patriarchally decided upon ﬁrst, then proved with the hymen’s so-called discovery. And yet, even when the problems of the traditional description is laid out before us, rather than engaging their imaginations, many attempt to simply reform the traditional description, or add enough caveats for it to operate successfully.
Such reformers attempt to expand the traditional deﬁnition into a scale of sexual activity: once one has achieved or performed a certain level or certain number of sexual acts they then cross the boundary out of virginity. While this reform of the description may be inclusive enough for most members of the sexually active population, it still leaves us short on too many levels.
First of all, it still leaves us with a description that favours penetration as a marker, since on any scale of sexual activity, penetration remains the easiest point on the scale at which to draw the line.
Take, for example, recent research that analyzed the teen magazine Seventeen, as mentioned by Amanda Hon, wherein girls’ loss of virginity was, “deﬁned as occurring when they have intercourse, while in boys there was some ﬂexibility, allowing them to choose whether to base their virginity status on their achievement of orgasm rather than penile penetration of a vagina.”
This sexual double standard reconﬁrms a heterosexual, male and phallic bias that leaves all non-straight, non-male-identifying people with penetration as their only option for deﬁning virginity.
It almost feels silly to point out that penetration is not the end-all-be-all of sexual activity, and yet such thinking all too often underpins sexual assumptions.
The take-home point, it must be stressed, is that all attempts to create a deﬁnition of virginity using carnal descriptors inevitably reveals itself to contain some element that ends up being discriminatory or limiting. This point is made all the more real when we consider situations of sexual abuse. If a person’s ﬁrst major sexual experience was one of rape, do we still maintain that that person is no longer a virgin? After all, they’ve “gone all the way” at that point, even though it was not their choice to do so.
Yet, our intuitions should be telling us that something in our understanding of virginity is wrong if it leaves the sexually abused and mistreated in the dust, if it leaves us with that sinister virgin-whore dichotomy, if it leaves us in the trash-bin of modern hyper-sexualization. If we hope to maintain any understanding of virginity that cruxes on physical lines, we will be drawn back in to problematic and limiting understandings of virginity.
We need to re-envision virginity to move past these limitations. We must therefore turn to desire, to consent, to passion, to seduction and to dignity which will arouse in us a fuller awareness of virginity and sexuality.
First and foremost, we must drop the whole “losing” or “loss” part of the equation. Virginity is often something special — that cannot be doubted. But, for most of us, virginity has an endpoint that, if we are being sexually respectful of ourselves and others, occurs when it ought to occur, free from the pressures and hold-ups of the oversexualized consumerist game around us.
By calling it a loss we inadvertently buy into the fetishizing of virginity, and miss out on what can be gained on both sides of this supposed virgin/non-virgin divide.
Genuine virginity, then, ends where genuine sexuality begins: at the moment in our lives where, as contemporary philosopher Wolﬁ Landstreicher put it, we “truly allow the expansiveness of passionate intensity to ﬂower and to pursue it where the twisting vine of desire takes it.” That is to say, virginity is ours to decide.
If my passions, abilities and desires dictate that a certain set of experiences is what constitutes the end of my virginity, then that is that. If my partner has chosen a different set of conditions then that is their choice.
What is more important is that we open up the ﬁeld of discussion of what each of us expects from the other in sexual interactions. The meaning of virginity and sexuality is a personal decision, and an autonomous understanding of need and desire.
We must realize that, as Slavoj Žižek put it, “True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake or a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s choice puts at stake one’s very existence — one does it because one simply ‘cannot do it otherwise.’ ”
That is to say, our choosing of meaning must not be treated like any average choice one would make while shopping. It is a choice that matters deeply and must be treated as such. One must consider what virginity means to them, since if one does not then social forces and pressures make the decision for better or worse (with a likely tendency towards to latter).
The deﬁnition of virginity must not be a closed ordeal. There is no other way to transcend the demands of hyper-sexual modernity, since the sexuality of our present day doesn’t respect our personal trajectories or passions, but instead dictates what it means to be sexual. And, as has been shown, that present-day sexuality is far too often damaging, non-inclusive, reductionist, consumerist, sexist and not in the interests of liberatory attitudes.
Virginity must remain ﬂuid and interactive as to be able to respectfully include the many requests that each person’s sexuality asks of it. Rather than having our understanding of virginity ask us to conform to certain discriminatory and damaging norms, our understanding of virginity must ask of us, as Martha Nussbaum once asked, “What is each person able to do and to be?”
But it must be remembered that such an alternative vision of virginity can only come about if we decide to adopt the struggle for a radical, collective and authentic sexuality. We must decide to shed the sexual anxieties and frustrations that modern hyper-sexualization has burdened us with. We must decide what constitutes or constituted the end of our virginity and where, and how, and why our sexuality has its beginning. We must decide what is or is not meaningful within the many twists and turns of the erotic.
So I ask you again, to consider virginity. Consider what virginity is in the here and now. But most importantly, consider what virginity can be.