The evening I lost my virginity I lay awake in bed staring at the wall, willing myself to feel special. I assumed that with that magical penis-in-vagina moment, something fundamental about me would change. I couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly – I didn’t expect sparks, or revelations, or for the world to burst into glorious technicolour like it did in the Wizard of Oz. I just thought I’d feel… different.
I didn’t, and looking back at that moment as an adult that’s a blessed relief. Imagine if there really were a significant change bestowed upon someone just because they happened to have completed a particular sex act. If it shone out of them like a traffic light, blinking ‘green’ for ‘has fucked’. It’d be quite disturbing, not to mention really awkward over breakfast with your family.
What is virginity?
A long time ago someone emailed me to pose a fairly meaty question about virginity: what is it? What defines it? Is it even a useful distinction? If you’d asked me that question when I was fifteen, I’d have given you some guff about ‘rites of passage’, probably, or the vague sense of pride I felt when saying ‘yes, I’ve lost my virginity’ that was borderline arousing in and of itself. When I was a virgin, and shortly after I first had sex, virginity seemed to matter to me a whole lot.
It was pretty widely accepted, among my gang of snogging/fingering/shagging friends, that virginity was something you’d lose when a penis (yours or your partners) went into a hole (a vagina, usually, although I’ve spoken to a few gay guys who’d use anal penetration as the marker of the magical ‘losing it’ moment). But the idea of virginity as defined this narrowly throws up a whole mess of questions. From the curiously juvenile:
How far in does it have to go?
Do you (and by this we almost always mean the penis-owner) have to come?
To the more philosophical:
What counts as a penis? Does a strap on or dildo count? And if those count, why not fingers/a cucumber?
And the obviously practical:
What if there is no penis? If you literally never fuck anyone who has a cock – a physical or a silicone one – do you miss out on the whole ‘rite of passage’?
Realistically, the idea of virginity is something that causes a fuck of a lot of problems. We talk about virginity as if it’s a physical, binary thing: you ‘have’ it, then you’ve ‘lost’ it, you either are a virgin or you aren’t. You can’t ‘kind of’ lose your virginity, or lose ‘a bit’ of it, despite the fact that – for most of us – our experience of sex is much more gradual and exploratory than a simple ‘abracadabra’ one night that turns you from a student into a master.
This binary, physical box is reflected in our obsession with how to define virginity. What goes in? What happens when it’s there? In our quest to make ‘virginity’ a useful term, we just need to correctly solve the logic puzzle and come up with a definition that encompasses a vast array of different experience. While the word is useful in certain circumstances, asking ‘what is virginity?’ becomes a bit like asking ‘what is breakfast?’ To you it might be toast, to me it’s cereal, to your mate over there with a hefty appetite and exquisite taste it’s a bacon sandwich with ketchup.
What changes when you lose your virginity?
When the guy who emailed me posed this question, he said that in his opinion it was one for the philosophers. As an ex-philosophy student, I generally recognise this statement as a handy shortcut for saying ‘you know what? This doesn’t really matter so we’ll give it to these armchair-botherers to keep ’em busy.’ While that can sometimes be frustrating, there are times when I want to shout “YES! This is EXACTLY what philosophy is for! FINALLY a reason to sit down and have a good old THINK about stuff!” This is one of those times.
So: does virginity exist? Well, given that people frequently email me asking how they can lose their virginity, clearly it does. If you say you’re a virgin I’m not going to turn round and define you out of existence – I (and loads of ace guest bloggers) have written about virginity here before, and despite our different experiences, we’re all describing the same phenomenon. But I’d argue that virginity is probably quite a different thing to what we usually perceive it as: it’s not a definitive physical thing, just a word that has an extremely limited (and often damaging) meaningful use.
Even focusing on the very narrow (penis goes in vagina – voilá!) concept of virginity, viewing it as a physical change isn’t particularly helpful. There is no actual ‘cherry’ that you ‘pop’ (argh eww). Did you know that, if you have a vagina, the hymen doesn’t usually break during your first fuck? That actually, it’s not par for the course that first-time sex will be painful and make you bleed? I learned this from the excellent Bish – who has more info on it here, and Scarleteen has more hymen-myth debunking here.
Bottom line: I can ask you if you’ve ever been to Disneyland, and the answer will be a clear-cut yes or no – it’s measurable, and easy to define. I can ask you if you’ve lost your virginity, and while some of you can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you may be talking about very different things. Unless one of you has solved that magical Rubik’s cube of biological definition and managed to bring all humans under the virgin/non-virgin binary, defining it as a physical thing is really limiting. But as a linguistic and social construct, virginity clearly does exist. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the word is meaningless, just as I’m not going to deny that when I tell you I got to ‘first base’ with someone, most of you won’t know what I mean.
Is it useful, though? That’s a better question.
Damaging ideas of virginity
Alongside the fact that physical definitions of virginity often erase the experiences of plenty of gay, non-binary and trans people, the term itself is dragging some pretty shitty baggage behind it. Because it’s usually been defined to mean this initial penetration – the meeting of penis with vagina – it’s often been used as a means to control women: the idea that they must prove their virginity on their wedding night, that women are ‘used’ or ‘broken’ if they have sex before marriage – all these things and a hell of a lot more contribute to give the idea of virginity a pretty dodgy reputation.
On the other side of the coin, many groups experience a social shame around not having lost your virginity. This usually affects young guys (because society occasionally acts like an obnoxious jock), who are made to feel weak, pathetic, less ‘manly’ if they haven’t done it – and God forbid a dude might choose to say no to sex until he feels comfortable. This shame does affect girls too, though. Back on the night when I lost mine, I know I felt a certain sense of relief – I couldn’t be accused of being frigid any more, because I’d ‘done it.’ Woo hoo! Go me! Even though I didn’t do more than lie on the floor and hold my tights down for ease of access!
Those are the obvious problems. Equally obvious but less often talked about is the idea of a heirarchy of sex acts. One of the reasons virginity as a yes/no tickbox appears helpful is because we often conceive of sex like it’s something akin to the property ladder: you progress through certain stages, getting ‘better’ and having ‘more’ with each step up. You know the order of this – you do. First base, second base, third base, home run. Snogging: fingering/hand jobs: blow jobs/licking out: sex. Maybe eventually buttsex if you’re feeling spicy. There’s a really interesting paper on young people’s attitudes to this sex heirarchy, in which people talk about the accepted progression:
“I generally assume that people sort of […] they will sort of go, kind of build up, going, mainly you know, do things with their hands, then maybe develop into things with their mouths but because, you know, vaginal sex is sort of the kind of most intimate thing, that is usually something I would expect people to leave till last.”
So where does virginity come in? Well, it’s the final stage, isn’t it? The boss level. Top achievement. Once it’s fixed like that, weird stuff happens: you can end up in a situation where you’re pressured into fucking because it’s ‘no big deal’ – you’ve had the most significant sex, so horny partners may well take it for granted that you’re up for more. We build our ‘first times’ up into something super-special, so afterwards the idea that someone might want to pop back to second base for a bit seems odd. Our language all reinforces this – why would you choose second base when you’re in line for a guaranteed home run?
What’s more, as a friend of mine pointed out when I was talking to her about this post – what if your ‘first time’, as defined so narrowly, is actually something quite traumatic? Putting disproportionate pressure on one individual sex act – a tiny slice of your sexual activity throughout life – is going to cause a fair amount of heartache and misery for people who had a bad experience.
How do we solve a problem like virginity?
So, what the hell am I trying to say here? We have a word that means something which is pretty tricky to define. It doesn’t adequately represent any physical thing, and nor is it meaningful in a more descriptive sense. You can use it, and I can understand it, but there’s no guarantee that we’re talking about the same thing, and when we have that discussion there’s a hell of a lot of baggage that comes along with it, which we have to step carefully around unless we kick it over and cause a mess everywhere.
However, we can’t just stop using the word virginity, because that would be to ignore the significance that the concept of virginity has had for millions of people. We can’t just define virginity out of existence, because it clearly is meaningful, if only in a way more limited sense than fifteen-year-old-me thought.
What we can do, though, is chuck out lots of our virginity baggage. We can start talking about virginity in a way that highlights the limitations of it as a concept, rather than overhype the significance of any individual moment. Virgin? Not a virgin? That tickbox itself is not only not as big a deal as we’ve been led to believe, it’s not even really a tickbox.
Challenging what we think of virginity is important. Because while so much is wrapped up in this one event – this apparently life-altering moment – we’re not focusing on things elsewhere that can matter far more. If we broaden the spotlight, we can look at other experiences that can hold way more significance for any given individual (First orgasm, anyone? First love? First time you had sex and actually felt like a sexual superstar?). Because really it’s the significance that matters. I have much stronger memories of the first time a guy touched one of my boobs (just the one, that was how it worked back then – one hand on bum one up the bra – there was a system), or the first really powerful fantasy I had, the one that got me wet and horny in science class. In terms of a sexual journey, the first time I came during sex with someone was way more significant than the first shag itself. For some of you, losing your virginity will have had a special significance – and that’s cool. But being significant is not the same as being transformative.
We need to stop thinking of virginity as a process of transformation, whereby the ‘new’, ‘fresh’, ‘naive’, ‘innocent’ virgin emerges from a post-fuck chrysalis as a sexually mature butterfly. It’ll put way less pressure on people to fuck in a particular way and encourage us to appreciate the significance of other things we want to do sexually. Above all, it’ll make it easier to chill out and enjoy what we’re doing – whether that’s home run, second base, or making out in the locker rooms.
Sometimes people email me to ask if I’ve done a particular sex act. If I say ‘no’, they’re disappointed. As if being a horny fucker means being able to tick all the filthy boxes someone could ever think of. I don’t want it to work like that: while there are certain kinds of shag I love more than others, I think the type of fuck itself is less important than the way it makes you feel. Applying this to virginity feels like a good move – awesome sex should be something you can wholeheartedly enjoy, without feeling pressured to hit arbitrary targets. Fun rather than achievement. Not pro-baseball where a home run matters, but a game with your friends in the park, where you’re all too busy laughing to bother keeping score.