What happens when you lose your virginity?

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

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.

17 Comments

  • AkaiHebi says:

    I lost my virginity to an onahole (plastic vagina) !
    No wait, if “virginity” is about innocence, then I lost it the day I first orgasmed (which wasn’t the first time I ejaculated).
    Actually, if virginity is about sticking a body part inside someone else ? No wait, it has to be penis ? Does it have to be erected, and how much ? If virginity is about not having perverted thoughts or any contact with porn, then I’m wayyyyyyyy past losing it. .. “losing it” ? I didn’t felt like losing anything, more like gaining actually. Well okay I lost semen in the process, but…

    AAAAAAAAAH MY HEAD. I’ll better just stop thinking about virginity, and keep having a fun and healthy sexual life because it’s what really matters :)

  • The most painful thing about the day I chose to no longer identify as a virgin? The ache in my back from where a shoot of bamboo had dug in (outdoor sex fail, the first!).

    Great writing, GotN :)

    xx Dee

  • Bob says:

    Great read, GOTN. Your point about the pressure it places on young men is quite true, as a male who lost his this year, aged 27, I’ve felt plenty of it. In fact, I hid it, and continue to do so, the level of societal shame that is around it. I agree entirely with your point, though. So much weight is placed upon the one moment, it’s hard to enjoy it. Particularly if, like myself, you’re a young male who has left it, what has been defined as, “late”. I was so nervous I could barely stop shaking!

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    As a (traditionally defined) virgin, thanks for this post. Although it fits with how I tend to think already.

    On the subject of the ‘base’ system, with vaginal sex at the top, I have to recommend this hilarious recent comic from the strip Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: http://smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=3683

  • Azkyroth says:

    I think a “Fuck-et List” is probably a much more useful concept than “virginity.”

  • Anonymous 4982 says:

    I lost my virginity. Luckily I had bought it using a fancy credit card with purchase insurance, and I lost it within the first three months of purchase. The insurance covered me getting a new one.

    :/

    Also surgery to “restore virginity” (see also “how to regain my virginity without surgery”). Religion has caused a lot of ills for the world.

  • Chris says:

    One thing I’d like to add to your posting and the thoughtful comments ahead of this one is the idea that virginity may be lost, but only when given. One cannot give up and lose virginity by force. It cannot be taken unless also given. Yes, we may endure violence or injury of many kinds, but virginity cannot be taken. A person who has been violated in this way does not lose his or her virginity, until he or she is ready to give it up. A physical act is part of the answer to the question of “how/when?”, but equally important is the question: “did I give it freely?” Both must be met for a person to no longer be a virgin.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hmm, I’m not sure I agree, and I think mainly because giving one more rule again enforces that binary tickbox of virginity, as well as elevating the importance of a specific act. I think this way of viewing virginity can actually contribute yet more awful feelings on top of an already incredibly traumatic event, so I can see why you’d want to say that it ‘doesn’t count’ in terms of virginity loss. I suspect it’s much more personal and individual than that, though, as everyone will have their own ways of categorising and dealing with their trauma. I wouldn’t personally want to say how someone should or shouldn’t define and process something traumatic – it may be that some people wouldn’t associate it with virginity, and others would.

      I think the word ‘give’ is a really interesting one, and is probably something I should have mentioned in the post – the idea that your virginity is a gift of some kind is a strange one, I think, and worth exploring. Why do we feel like it’s a gift bestowed rather than a mutual experience shared? I think there’s quite a lot implied in the word ‘give.’

      • Chris says:

        Non-binary? Almost-virgin, practically virgin, near virgin, sort of virgin, partial virgin, virgin-like. I’ve had used automobile salespeople make similar non-binary pitches, usually to my detriment. The point is that the person giving his or her virginity gives it only once, and it is a great gift. whether it is appreciated or not. It’s up to each individual to decide, like privacy online. Once given, it can never be recalled. If it matters not to the individual, then he or she can decline to declare or disclose virgin, non-virgin status. It isn’t relevant to everyone. If I began masturbating at age six, I probably care not one bit about whether I’m still a virgin. However, for those who care, they get to decide, and no act of sexual violence or abuse when a child at the hands of an adult can take that away. A partner worth having would respect that.

        • Girl on the net says:

          I get what you’re saying, I just think you’re saying the opposite of what I’m arguing for in the blog post, which is that putting virginity on a pedestal wherein one particular sex act (which is incredibly difficult to define physically and which has a lot of baggage) is seen as a ‘great gift’ way over and above anything else in sexual development isn’t particularly helpful, for all the reasons I put above. It sounds like you disagree, which is fine – I think this is a useful and interesting discussion to have and I never expect everyone to agree with me =), I just wanted to clarify a bit what my position was.

  • Joie De Mid Vivre says:

    Fantastic article and definitely food for thought. As a romance writer and feminist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about virginity for characters and how it will or won’t change them. I tend toward no change except them being surprised that the world doesn’t change much at all after they do whatever is their definition of having sex. It’s a silly myth perpetrated by powers who want to control female sexuality.
    The other idea that I love that you talked about is that once you’ve “done it” you can’t or won’t go back to just kissing or anything less. That diminishes and narrows the whole sexual/sensual/pleasure experience and really takes a lot of the fun out of it.
    Thanks for the great article.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you! Really glad you enjoyed it, and I’m really glad that you’re helping to bust some myths with your romance writing! (shameless plug alert – if you ever fancy writing a guest blog let me know – http://www.girlonthenet.com/guest-blogs I would love to be able to show off more romance and erotica authors)

  • Kwan says:

    This is wonderful writing.

  • Stephanie says:

    I have primary vaginismus and have never been able to have penis-in-vagina sex with my husband. We remain happily married and do other stuff like fingering, but a part of me feels like I’m missing out on something. Turns out that this is the way a lot of women with vaginismus feel, even in the 21st century, when we ought to be able to put medieval myths about virginity to rest.

    What defines a person as a virgin? An intact hymen? Not all women are born with an intact hymen: sometimes there are scraps and perforations. Hymens can be ruptured from activities other than sex: bike-riding, horseback riding.

    A very good post, GOTN!

  • Panwhora says:

    I ‘lost’ my virginity when I was sexually abused as a four year old child (or younger was around 3/4 years at the time) However I chose to define myself as a virgin until just short of my 25th birthday when I had intercourse with my partner.
    I defined this as losing my virginity as it was something I had chosen and was done in an act of love.

    I lay in bed after he had fallen asleep, unable to sleep and thinking okay is/was that it.
    am I now meant to be an adult.
    but i remember enjoying it when I was a child?!? :/

    I love this article though GoTN

  • Scott says:

    The stuff about virginity and lack of experience is what keeps me avoiding trying to meet women. I feel very intimidated around them because of a lack of confidence and experience, like they’ll be able to see my anxiety outright (or sooner or later) and tell me to fuck off. Even if I dated I’d be too afraid to initiate sex because I don’t know how, and that’s “not allowed” when it comes to men I’ve been assured. I understand virginity isn’t technically real, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable since every one around me seems to care about it as a concept. I’ve had it drilled in my head that virginity is discouraged and not okay. Not just by media, even in my old feminist/sociology classes we discussed it and many peers agreed it was an important factor that should be considered when it comes to dating and relationships. I had never felt smaller in a classroom before. The teachers only smiled and went on without challenging anyone.

    I do love anal play, it’s one the areas of my sexuality that doesn’t stress me out oddly enough. I really wish I could say that my love of anally penetrating myself with a dildo could make me de-virginized. But instead I feel it’ll only serve to become another obstacle in the way of losing my virginity as a heterosexual male. I doubt many women will put up with a boyfriend who likes filling his ass more than regular masturbation, along with having no real sex experience.

    I feel like I’m probably wrong on many accounts involving virginity but my brain gets crazy over this topic. I know nothing magical happens when you lose it but now I feel like I need to lose it or others will look down on me. I feel bad I can’t be as positive as others about this, but I don’t find it to be a pleasant topic. Being a virgin doesn’t feel good for me.

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