Rethinking Virginity

Virginity, especially the losing of one’s virginity, is one of those things society classes as a Big Deal (TM). It’s seen as a marker of innocence as opposed to depravity, ignorance as opposed to experience. It’s seen by many people as an essential rite of passage, a marker of adulthood.

It’s insanely problematic, especially from a feminist or queer perspective, and even more so from an asexual perspective. There is so much hype around losing your virginity, and it’s harmful and nonsensical. There are two main streams of thought around virginity, and I argue that neither has a place in feminism – at least, in my particular concept of asexual feminism.

First of all we have the rhetoric of negative virginity loss, coming from the outdated, patriarchal idea that women who have not had sex are innocent, pure and unsullied. As such, losing one’s virginity was (and in many contexts still is) seen as something shameful. Virginity in this sense is just one way of policing women’s bodies and sexualities.

Against this there is the more sex-positive rhetoric. It points out exactly how outdated and sexist it is to conflate purity and virginity, and how little value that has for society. The more liberal view of virginity in the West nowadays is that losing one’s virginity is something that inevitably happens, something natural and healthy and empowering. Naturally, there is still a lot of policing of when it is appropriate to lose one’s virginity: too young and you are frowned on as not being ready for it, too old and you risk being laughed at. Often virginity is still conceptualised far to narrowly, excluding the experiences of queer or trans* people by maintaining a strict focus on penis-in-vagina sex. But in general terms, many people have moved away from virginity loss as something negative to it being a rite of passage, something generally positive.

The problem with this view is that as much as it admits that virginity is an outdated concept with problematic connotations, it is still centralised in discourses about sexuality. So much emphasis has been placed on the role of first sexual experiences without actually analysing the assumptions associated with it. Losing one’s virginity is still seen as a Big Deal (TM). I have to say, there has been a lot of focus on making first sexual experiences much more safe, valuable, pleasurable and consensual, and that is really excellent, because it’s obviously very important to people considering or having sex for the first time. But overwhelmingly virginity is still central to our ideas about sexuality and indeed, to being a human being, which completely marginalises those who don’t actually see sex as that overwhelmingly huge factor of their lives.

I could say that I’m a virgin if I wanted to. I’ve certainly never had sex – defined in any way. But for me, and I think for a lot of other people, the experience of sex for the first time isn’t something that I find makes a difference to me. It’s just like any other experience: my not having had sex is just like my not having been bungee-jumping or not having been to Africa. I think that both feminism and society would benefit from a decentralisation of sex from being, because conflating humanness with sex is not helping anyone.

I realise of course that sex can be a big part of people’s lives. But different people put different values on different experiences, and sex is one of those experiences. And more importantly, sex isn’t automatically a positive part of someone’s life. Elizabeth at Shades of Gray has written an excellent piece on the neutrality of sex which I very much agree with, as has Framboise at The Radical Prude. There is nothing about sex that makes it intrinsic to existing as a human being (especially seeing as we’ve moved past the idea of sex purely for procreation), so the whole concept of virginity and the significance of losing has become kinda useless for feminism.

I don’t have sex, but I do not see myself as a “virgin”. Sex just isn’t a thing for me, and I don’t really place any value on the fact that I haven’t had sex, so the whole concept has no relevance for me. If I ever do decide that I want to have sex with someone, then I’m sure it will be pretty momentous for me. But not because I consider it a rite of passage, or something I just have to experience, or something that tells me I’m not young and naive anymore. It’s just another experience, with the potential to be good or bad or neutral.

Obviously society will never move past sex, and it is a large part of some people’s lives. But I think feminism especially needs to recognise that sex has different levels of meaning for different people, and sexuality is not something that can be assumed in everyone. The concept of virginity, and all the significance that is placed on losing it, does just that: it assumes sexuality, often only heteronormative sexuality. Participating in the dichotomy of virgin and non-virgin, experienced and inexperienced has nothing positive to give: so it’s time to ditch the concept completely.

17 thoughts on “Rethinking Virginity

  1. Did you know that most women prefer chocolate to sex?
    (I like really cheap chocolate, like a Cadbury’s Snack. All that sugar and artificial colour and flavour in the fillings.)

    Great post again, Jo.

  2. This is a great post. Some of my fellow feminists do see the harm in still making a big deal about virginity (because there will always be those guys who want to “break in” a girl) so hopefully more will ditch this concept. I wish the focus would be more on ensuring that one is responsible enough to have sex… with the note that having reponsibilities doesn’t automatically make you a grown up.

  3. this is a nice post, Jo.

    I’m starting to believe that the idea of virginity serves some important functions in society, or has done in the past.

    the idea of virginity:
    – discourages sexual predation of people who are new to sex (and vulnerable) especially of children.
    – encourages people to carefully consider first sexual encounters.

    However, the idea of virginity is by no means the only structure in society that supports these goals (having sex with children is a crime, for example), nor is it the most effective.

    (there’s an issue here that I’m not sure about: to what degree is children’s sexual innocence worth protecting, and how should that be managed?)

    I think a huge problem with the idea of virginity is that it presents a binary view of sexual experience, where virgins can only be ignorant of sex, and people who are not virgins cannot be ignorant of sex. It presents sex as something that is by nature simple, and the difference between people who have had sex and people who have not had sex as something important, and this is the cause of a lot of anxiety.

    1. I actually don’t think the “discouraging sexual predation of children” point has anything to do with virginity – I think it has more to do with understanding consent and that children and most young teenagers are not able to give informed consent and understand the consequences (positive/negative/neutral). In some cases virginity is actually seen as a turn on by rapists (or just by people who take some sort of wierd fancy to having sex with virgins) so I don’t think it’s really accurate.

      But I agree with the rest fo the comment: especially the binary thing. Just because you’ve had sex doesn’t mean you’re any wiser or different, and just because you haven’t doesn’t mean you have to be innocent or ignorant or frigid or conservative.

      1. on discouraging predation: i guess i don’t mean it discourages the predators, themselves. the ‘virgins are special and we should protect them’ thing and the ‘innocence is special, once you have sex you’re broken’ thing creates a culture that has zero tolerance for sex with children. ‘once my children are exposed to sex, they won’t be my children anymore’ – but this is also super horrible for a bunch of reasons.

  4. I love the concept of accepting that sex has different levels of importance to different people. I’ve never been able to quite get that as clear in my head as you wrote it! I also agree that the virgin/non-virgin binary is SO oppressive, constraining and just plain unhelpful! I love this blog and your straightforward, honest style 🙂 Thank you!

    1. Thanks Flick! I think too often (especially in feminism) the whole sexual-freedom thing is taken to mean that everyone wants sex (and often that sex is a “need”) which is quite marginalising to those who just don’t place that much value on it. And thanks for the overall blog comments too!

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