Femintimacy explores sex— and the many topics that word encapsulates— from a young feminist’s angle. She doesn't claim to have all of the answers, but will be talking about how culture and society have impacted sex and intimacy for young women, figuring it out with you.
Virginity is a confusing concept to say the least. Messages are thrown at young women from all sides about when and how and with whom they should lose their virginity, and these messages often frame it as something to be protected or preserved. I grew up with a lot of questions about what it meant to lose my virginity. Even though I have since had sex, I’m still learning how to best answer those questions. So I decided to use this piece to at least try to answer them. Here are some of my thoughts, including responses from Make Muse team members:
1. When did you lose your virginity?
I lost my virginity when I was 19 to my boyfriend of a month. According to American societal standards, this is a more “acceptable” or “conventional” age to do so. I wasn’t in high school. We used protection. We were dating (even if only for a month). But beyond the reasons why the situation was socially acceptable, I felt very comfortable, ready, and prepared. I felt secure in his feelings for me and my feelings for him.
2. When should you lose your virginity?
There’s no one right age to lose your virginity. Societal standards, at least in the United States, push that we should wait until we’re out of our teen years, or in a committed relationship, or even married. But the decision to have sex is highly personal and individualized, so only you can know when you’re ready to do it for the first time.
Both virginity and the lack thereof are so highly stigmatized in our society. Allie DeVlaeminck, Make Muse team member, told me, “If you have had sex, either you were too young, too old, not long enough in your relationship, not in a relationship, etc. On the other hand, if you are a ‘virgin,’ you are also criticized. You’re asked why you have not done it yet, why you are ‘so picky,’ what are you waiting for, and other questions.”
Young people, particularly women and girls, are caught in an impossible trap, in which their choices, no matter what they are, are always wrong.
3. How do you know when you’re ready to lose your virginity?
Many different factors—emotional, psychological, and physical—contribute to your readiness to lose your virginity. Readiness is not necessarily defined by age or relationship status, but you should be completely comfortable with the person you are planning to lose your virginity to. I recommend educating yourself to the best of your ability on what having sex means from a physical standpoint (the physical acts that may take place, as well as precautionary methods to prevent pregnancy or STIs, whichever may be applicable to your situation). It’s also valuable to do some introspection and consider what sex may mean for you on an emotional level. Consider your needs and your priorities. What does it take for you to feel safe and comfortable? Are these needs being fulfilled by your potential partner? A general rule of thumb that I use is, you’re not ready for sex if you can’t have an honest conversation about it with your potential partner. Conversations like that can seem scary and intimidating (which they are a little bit), but I find that if I’m unable to vocalize my feelings and communicate with a partner, then I’m not ready to have sex with them. I knew I was ready when I looked into my partner’s eyes and could see the love and respect reflected back at me. It’s not necessary to be in a serious relationship with the person you lose your virginity to, but in my opinion, you should feel respected and valued by your partner, whoever that may be.
That being said, I don’t like the language around virginity. To “lose” it implies that virginity is something you give away and then you no longer own it; it’s lost. Your body is yours, and you have full ownership over it, but virginity is not a gift that you give away. It’s not a prize that you bestow upon the worthiest suitor. Having sex for the first time is an experience that you share with a partner, not a transaction. And having sex doesn’t diminish your value, it doesn’t mean you are damaged, it doesn’t mean losing your virtue, and it doesn’t mean that you are any less of a person. Yes, once you have sex, you are never again a person who has not had sex. But that’s not a loss. Hopefully, it’s a gain.
4. How has our society idealized and fetishized virginity?
The Virgin Mary is the ultimate, deified woman figure, uplifted and honored in the Christian religious tradition. From this figure sprang the binary of the Madonna or the Whore, which binds woman to either the category of the innocent, pure, honorable woman, or the category of the sexual, promiscuous, dishonorable woman. As such, our culture places great emphasis on telling women to protect their virginities and by extension their “honor” or “virtue.” This connection between women’s values and their virginity can make some people afraid of or anxious about having sex. On the other hand, our culture simultaneously encourages men to have sex from a young age, while women of all ages are shamed and may feel ashamed for having it. This establishes an unhealthy relationship in which women are encouraged to protect themselves from the sexual advances of men (in a narrative constricted to a binary between women and men).
I’ve recently been rewatching Degrassi, a Canadian high school TV show, where nearly every single time people have sex, it has horrible consequences. Pregnancy scares, emotional trauma, STIs. While this may dissuade people from having sex at a young age, it also perpetuates the message that sex is scary and should be avoided at all costs.
In some places in America, girls as young as five and seven years old and their fathers attend “Purity Balls,” at which the girls are expected to pledge chastity until marriage, and the fathers vow to protect their daughters’ virginity.
Purity Balls and something far more common, abstinence-only education, stigmatize the sexuality of women and girls. In an article for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti writes about Elizabeth Smart. Smart now advocates against sexual exploitation and abuse of children, after she was kidnapped at 14 years old, raped, and held captive for nine months before her escape. Smart said that her abstinence-only education “made her feel ‘dirty and filthy’ after she was raped.” This is a concrete example of the ways in which overemphasizing virginity has negative consequences on the physical and mental health of young women, especially those who are survivors. Dealing with trauma while also believing you are somehow worth less for having “given away” your virginity compounds trauma and can lead to the survivor blaming themselves.
Virginity is also fetishized in porn that advertises “sex with virgins” or “taking young girl’s virginity,” as though it is something that can be stolen. This contributes to a harmful dynamic which values virgins (for their potential to have sex and the appeal of having sex with someone who has never done it before) while devaluing those who have had sex, and especially those who have had a lot of it.
5. Has society caused harm by placing too much value and emphasis on preserving virginity?
My short answer is yes.
Caitlin Panarella, another Make Muse team member, said, “I believe that virginity has in many ways become commodified when it comes to girls and women, while at the same time girls are held to the double bind that they are undesirable and lack worth unless someone (usually a man) desires them. When it comes to men, virginity can become a point of insecurity as well, as societal standards dictate that they have experience and be the assertive and dominant partner in a sexual encounter.”
“Everyone deserves to become sexually and romantically active when they feel ready, not because social pressure was a factor and not because they feel they are worth less without sexual experience,” she continued.
In addition to the harmful effects of attaching virginity to self-worth, society’s emphasis on virginity from a young age can lead to unhealthy sexual relationships later in life. Ingrained messages that discourage women from having sex can lead to physical symptoms of reluctance even if they want to have sex. Psycho-medical conditions such as vaginismus, which makes penetrative sex very painful, can be caused by intense emphasis on preserving virginity.
This overemphasis on preserving virginity can also enhance feelings of sexual anxiety and discomfort. Personally, even though I knew I was ready to lose my virginity, everything I had been taught about how it was painful and scary and would “change me” caused me to have a lot of anxiety leading up to it. Afterwards, I realized that sex was just another experience that some people choose to have, but societal stigmas definitely emphasized my discomfort.
Young women are expected to avoid sex as something dirty or potentially dangerous, but only up to a point (until we are around 20), and then it suddenly becomes weird to have reservations. It’s strange if you’re not ready to immediately jump into bed because “what are you waiting for?” But what do we expect when we teach young women to fear sex?
Rather than teaching young women to fear sex and the fallout of “losing your virginity,” we should educate them on what having sex actually means so that when it happens, it’s not intimidating but instead pleasurable.
6. How does the heterosexual concept of virginity erase LGBTQ experiences?
Traditionally, losing your virginity is defined as having heterosexual, penis-in-vagina sex. But this ignores the multitude of other ways that people can have sex. Sex is not so limited, nor so necessarily heterosexual. This erasure of LGBTQ sexuality ignores a large group of people and experiences. In ignoring these experiences, the sexual expression of a whole section of our population is invalidated. This exclusion leads to a lack of dialogue around non-heterosexual sex and can make people reluctant to come out or less able to acknowledge their own identities. While some may say it’s positive that LGBTQ people may escape certain societal pressures around virginity, I would respond and say that it’s by no means better to not see yourself reflected in the culture at all.
Disregarding LGBTQ experiences leads to a limited understanding of sexuality, which can have a negative impact on young LGBTQ people who may come to believe that non-heterosexual ways of having sex are wrong or strange if they are never addressed in cultural discourse around virginity. Confusion may arise regarding when exactly a non-heterosexual person loses their virginity, especially if they are not having penetrative sex. However, this anxiety around defining virginity highlights the problematic cultural obsession with virginity and the need to define it so strictly as penetrative sex, when in reality sex can look like a lot of different things. Emphasizing that sex can and does happen in a wide variety of ways has the potential to change this heteronormative narrative and aid in the process of de-fetishizing virginity.
7. What if we redefined losing your virginity as the first time you orgasm with a partner?
I was recently asked what I thought about redefining virginity as the first time you orgasmed with a partner. My immediate response was, “whoa.”
If that were the case, I would still be a virgin.
The concept seems so revolutionary. For one, many people, particularly women, would definitely be losing their virginities much later in life. This proposal also presents a more inclusive definition of virginity that does not exclude LGBTQ experiences. I do think defining virginity as orgasming with a partner could potentially lead to an intense pressure to orgasm. Such pressure can actually make it more difficult to climax. But on the other hand, defining virginity in reference to orgasm could lead to more focus on sexual pleasure for both parties, rather than just one. If people were more conscious of the importance of reciprocal sexual pleasure, we would have healthier attitudes toward our sexuality and feel free from societal expectations.
I challenge readers as well as myself to examine our preconceived notions of sex and virginity, and not judge ourselves and others for expressing our sexuality or for the choices we make about our own bodies.