I spent the bulk of my adolescence being equally thrilled and terrified about the idea of “losing my virginity.” My favorite book was Judy Blume’s Forever, which described sex between teenagers as beautiful, intimate, and consensual. This was pretty different from how first sex was presented elsewhere in the media, where it was fraught with risks both physical (pregnancy! infections!) and emotional (you might be dumped, labeled a slut, or bring shame upon your family).
While my understanding has definitely evolved, I am sad to report that plenty of young people today are still getting these inequitable and unhealthy messages, and even those of you who haven’t considered your own virginity in quite some time have probably internalized a lot of outdated and misguided ideas about first sex.
Whatever point you’re at in your sexual journey, take a minute to re-educate yourself about the concept of sexual initiation. I can help.
Virginity isn’t a real thing.
Virginity is a social construct; it’s not an actual thing. It is an idea designed to control how and when people (in particular girls and women) engage in sexual activity. However, for whatever reason, we have passed along this construct as if it was gospel.
There is no part of your body that is “virginity.” People assigned female at birth (and some intersex people) may have a hymen, a bit of mucosal tissue that may partially surround the opening of the vagina, and that in some cases may (but not always) tear and bleed during first sexual intercourse. Hymens come in different shapes and sizes. Some people have imperforate or microperforate hymens that mostly or completely cover the entrance into the vagina, which may make sex difficult and which doctors can alleviate with a medical procedure. Many other people’s hymens stretch long before they first have sexual intercourse and they wouldn’t even know it, because they wouldn’t feel it nor is it a big deal. But the existence of a hymen and the idea that women would necessarily bleed during first sex has created anxiety among men and women alike for who knows how many centuries. And on that note, if virginity is about a body part, what does that say about people who have penises? Virginity doesn’t apply to them? Again, this is an imbalanced way of suggesting who is entitled to sex and who has to “wait.”
First sex isn’t just penis-in-vagina.
When I grew up, “losing your virginity” was about people with penises sharing their bodies with people with vaginas. Our collective understanding of sex and virginity erased the experience of my friends and family and peers who were LGBTQ, placed the burden of gatekeeping sex to girls and women, and presented boys as predatory creatures.
Sure, that’s the assumption that we make when someone tells us that they have had sex, but it is a totally heterosexist lens through which to operate. Sex is a series of deeply personal and intimate behaviors that have the capacity for pleasure. All of these behaviors can be considered intimate rites of passage. Sex is definitely not a word owned by heterosexual people; LGBTQ people experience sex in many ways as well and the notion that we are indefinitely virgins if we never have p-i-v sex is just silly.
We need better language about it.
In my decades of work, I frequently hear about the fears that people have about first sexual experience, and that’s not exactly a surprise. Popping your cherry? Ugh. Gross. First of all, the cherry is slang for “hymen” and as we now know, it isn’t actually a measurement of whether or not someone has ever had a sexual experience. Second, “popping” does not sound like a noise you would want to hear during any type of sex. As I tell my students: if you hear a pop during sex, get yourself to a hospital STAT. Related is the old-fashioned term “deflower,” which implies that a young woman’s sexual inexperience is somehow valuable or beautiful or (don’t kill me, I hate this word, too) “precious”, a “flower” which is taken away from her once she has sex. (Gag. Yes, it’s an awful term and there is nothing that gets plucked from our bodies when we choose to engage in sex, of any kind.)
Sexual experience isn’t black-and-white.
The whole idea of the existence of a monumental, irreversible transition from “virgin” to sexually active human complicates our sense of self, and eventually, our relationships. I struggle with the idea that virginity is something to lose, as if there is this part of you that magically disappears forever. A “loss” of any kind certainly has negative connotations — even if some people’s social status is elevated by the loss of virginity (You know who I’m talking about BTW, assigned males at birth).
Instead of seeing a consensual experience as negative, what if we considered it a “shared experience,” and a gain, instead of a loss, for both parties involved. And let’s keep in mind that transition from sexual inexperience to experience certainly doesn’t happen in a single encounter. Sexuality and sexual relationships can be a life-long journey, and everybody’s journey looks different.
Your sexual experience isn’t your value as a person.
Last, and probably most important: Are you a better person if you maintain the title of virgin? Or because you’ve chosen to share your body with another person”? (I’ll wait for the answer. . . ) No, of course not. Your sexual debut status has nothing to do with your value, contrary to what medically inaccurate and unethical abstinence-only sex education would have you believe.
Proponents of abstinence-only sex ed have recently rebranded their version of education as Sexual Risk Avoidance, a new name for the same old sexual shaming and fearmongering. In this “sex ed” curriculum they teach that if you have your first sexual experience before marriage (and even if your first sexual experience was nonconsensual) you are like a chewed up piece of gum, or worse. And no, I am not making that up. In fact, last fall I helped to speak out against abstinence-only education, in front of a huge wall of spit-out gum created by Advocates for Youth and Trojan Condoms for their “You Are Not Chewed Gum” campaign.
Historically, the way society’s language, cultural references, and sex “education” frames sexual initiation has been sexist, heterosexist, and often harmful for all involved. So this is my attempt to deconstruct what I perceive to be vicious lies, lies that have a significant impact on sexual and emotional health.
I suppose what I would like to leave you with is this: you get to decide when you want to share your body with someone else. It should be an empowered and consensual decision that results in a pleasurable and fulfilling experience. It should not be limited to assigned sex, gender, or sexual orientation: your body, your decisions, your terms.
About the Author
An internationally recognized expert on sexuality and relationships, Dr. Logan Levkoff is an author and educator dedicated to perpetuating healthy and positive messages about sexuality and relationships and encouraging honest conversation about sexuality and the role it plays in our culture. As a thought leader in the field of human sexuality and personal relationships, Logan frequently appears on television including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and CNN. Logan is an AASECT Certified Sex Educator and Sex Educator Supervisor and served on the AASECT Board of Directors. She received her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Life Education from New York University and holds an M.S. in Human Sexuality Education.
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