The Societal Construct of Virginity
Virginity is a notion packed with religious undertones, societal expectations, heteronormative assumptions, anatomical questions, and emotional hinges. In fact, it is difficult to even contrive a working definition of virginity when one considers the variety of ways to engage in sexual acts, the decisions that go into having sex, and the diversity of body types/parts that participate in the act.
By the time I was 20, my virginity was a burdensome social currency that separated me from the rest of my sexually active friends. We were living in a college bubble where nights out became morning stories, and breakfast talk consisted of snapshots into dorm room hookups.
I was always an avid listener in these conversations, but I secretly wondered when my time to participate would arise.
“Losing” my virginity
It happened shortly after, one humid, summer night with a boy I was sort of dating. The sex itself was consensual, probably lasted four minutes, and was forgettable, to say the least. I remember walking naked to the bathroom immediately after, and when I came back to the bedroom, he was getting dressed.
I stood there, completely uncovered, soaking in the power dynamics of what just occurred. My nude, vulnerable self was squaring off with someone who viewed this act, my first-time, as a routine occurrence. I instantly regretted my decision, chiefly because I thought this night would never evolve into more than the night I “lost my virginity.”
Now, six years older and somewhat wiser, I regard that night as a fundamental event in shifting the way I understand society’s construction of female virginity.
Virginity in pop culture
Popular culture, from novels to television and film, places an unbelievable amount of pressure on the circumstances surrounding a woman losing her virginity. Not only should the conditions be pristine and scattered with rose petals, but the person she has sex with for the first-time must be “the one.”
Such realities seldom exist, and consequently, women are essentially made to feel guilty if their experiences do not measure up to those on a fictional scale. Women already hold themselves to impossible standards due to society’s obsession with popular culture. Why should something as intimate as virginity be on the same unattainable level as photoshopped body perfection? For the sake of uplifting anybody who defines themselves as female, we must work harder to promote realistic visions of losing virginity.
To do this, we must understand the history of misogynistic ideals rooted in the concept of virginity itself. Physically, the vagina, unlike the penis, has a tell-tale sign once intercourse has occurred for the first time. Its hermetic seal tears and the tangible evidence of sex is clear (unless it has torn beforehand, from other physical activity). Countless women throughout history, and even today, have had to subject themselves to the inspection of their hymen’s intactness in order to be deemed fit to marry their husbands. The proof of purity lay in between her legs, and one single vestige of human anatomy determined her future. Virginity, therefore, became a commodity, and the line between female personhood and male property blurred.
The pressure to be pure
Because men need not concern themselves with such anatomical variables, the pressure to remain pure is directly on the woman. It is an undue burden that rears its ugly head when we unpack the verbiage around virginity itself. When a woman has sex for the first-time, she “loses her virginity.” The concept of loss paints women as givers and their partners as takers. Reducing a “first-time” to a “loss” gives the illusion that sex is simply a transaction in which women give up part of themselves to a more powerful being. Not to mention, loss also implies a feeling of bereavement, as if what happened is a mournful decision that can never be “undone.” Why should any woman engaging in an act as natural as sex have to grapple with such an overwhelming construct?
We must also nuance the diversity of first-time sexual experiences when considering the limiting definition of virginity. A recent study from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) found that out of 10,000 males and females between ages 15 and 44, 6.6 percent of females and 7.4 percent of males did not lose their virginity voluntarily. The idea of loss, in this case, quickly delves into connotations of fault if the act itself is not consensual.
Virginity is far too narrow of a construct when we layer on the absolutely imperative notion of consent. It is simply unjust to assume a man or woman is no longer a virgin if their first time is not consensual, and it further stigmatizes the 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 71 men who have encountered sexual violence in their lifetime.
A heteronormative ideal
How does the heteronormative conceptualization of virginity transfer over to same sex, first time relations? According to the Kinsley Institute, 11.5 percent of study participants lost their virginity to a person of the same-sex. It is difficult to calculate virginity, with its rigid definition and structure, in this statistic, which begs the question: is the construct of virginity obsolete in our sexually fluid world?
As it stands, virginity does not account for the vast array of first-time experiences people are having this millennium. The construct of virginity began in a time when women could only equate their worth with an esoteric notion of purity. Now, virginity exists in a period of tremendous social upheaval, led by fierce women destined to peel away its patriarchal confines. Sex has gotten much larger than any single classification, and virginity has no place in the widening landscape of human sexuality.
As humanity evolves, we must do away with terminology and notions that no longer provide an accurate representation of the female identity. Virginity is the next frontier, and we must work together to paint a more inclusive picture of first time experiences that empowers any woman along her sexual journey.
Featured image by Julie Blackmon
Author Bio Monica Flamini lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is currently a teacher. She is going back to school this fall for her PhD in educational policy. She hopes to someday work in the public sector, creating inclusive Social Studies curriculum for middle schoolers.