It’s been over three years since Miley Cyrus declared that virginity was a social construct. She received criticism from those who thought Miley was encouraging young women to have sex and shaming abstinence, but we think she had a very good point then and we still need to talk about it.
What is a social construct? It’s basically an idea that’s been created by society, so created by the ideas of people, rather than something with a basis in physical reality.
What is virginity? Is it something you can ‘lose’ or ‘give’ to someone else? Why is it so sexist? Read on to find out…
What is virginity?
Being a ‘virgin’ means not having had sex with another person. Traditionally, this definition only included vaginal sex, so oral sex, mutual masturbation, other forms of non-pentrative sex and even anal sex did not count.
Before we even getting into the misconceptions about hymens and the stigmatising, sexist concept of ‘purity’, we immediately run into problems with this definition because different people have different ideas about what counts as sex.
People who have penetrative sex – i.e. vaginal or anal sex – may consider themselves virgins even if they have engaged in other forms of non-penetrative sexual activity. People who may not have penetrative sex, such as lesbians, may have a different definition of virginity. Does that mean that a lesbian who has never had sex with a penis is still a virgin, even if she is sexually active? This definition of sex feels very heteronormative and devalues other types of sex.
Some studies suggest that men orgasm 90% of the time during penetrative sex, compared to just 50% of women. This may partly be because of this emphasis on penetrative sex as ‘real sex’, even though some estimates suggest less than 20% of women can achieve orgasm from this activity alone. Penetrative sex is often focused on the person with the penis and his experience, and ends when he achieves orgasm. Whilst times are changing and there are more pleasure positive resources out there, putting penetrative sex on a pedestal may be a hindrance to many people’s experience.
Does virginity exist?
“According to the Worldwide Health Organisation (WHO), virginity is not a scientific or medical concept,” says Zoya Ali, a relationship and sex educator. “There is no medical test that can be done to check someone’s virginity. Virginity is totally a society and religion-driven concept. These social constructs can heavily influence our personal beliefs. They will continue to exist and influence the narrative of sexuality until we start talking about it and setting the record straight.”
So virginity is a social construct. So what? Why is that a big deal?
Is the concept of virginity problematic and potentially harmful?
“The obsession with associating virginity with purity is problematic because it is patriarchal and hetronormative,” says Zoya. “In some cultures, a woman’s virginity is considered the family’s pride and honour. The term “losing your virginity” adds unnecessary pressure to first-time sex. It makes it appear like you are losing a part of yourself or giving it away to someone. It perpetuates this idea that something will change after you have sex, and you will no longer be ‘pure’.”
In many traditional societies, a woman was expected to be a virgin until her wedding day. Female virginity has been valued through much of human history, and women who engaged in sex could be shamed, blamed for bringing their families dishonour and even killed.
What is a hymen?
There was also this expectation that a virgin with a vagina would bleed after having sex for the first time because there was an expctation that she would have had an intact hymen, which would break after having sex.
In reality, this often isn’t the case. “The hymen is a thin membrane surrounding the vaginal opening. There is a misconception that it totally covers the opening of the vagina, and an intact hymen would indicate someone is a virgin, which would break the first time someone has sex.
Think of the hymen like a curtain. It is made up of folds of tissue and comes in many different shapes and sizes, not solid tissue; otherwise, how would period blood make its way through?
The hymen can break due to many other reasons apart from penetrative sex, such as while playing sport, riding a bike or horse, or putting something in your vagina like a tampon, finger, or sex toy. Some people might simply be born without a hymen to begin with. In rare cases, it can cover the vaginal opening entirely and would need medical assistance,” says Zoya.
The pervasive belief in having an intact hymen as ‘proof’ about whether or not a woman is a virgin has led to practices like ‘virginity testing’. The WHO condemns this practice: “Virginity testing is often performed by inspecting the hymen for tears or its size of opening, and/or inserting fingers into the vagina (the “two-finger” test). Both techniques are practiced under the belief that the appearance of the female genitalia can indicate a girl’s or woman’s history of sexual activity. WHO states that there is no evidence that either method can prove whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse or not.”
In patriarchal societies where lineage was a concern, men would have motivation to try and make sure that they were the father of their wife’s children. In practice, this often led to men controlling and policing female bodies. Even today, there still exists this double standard when it comes to sex.
What about male virgins?
Generally speaking, there have been different views on male and female virginity. Whilst a female has often been expected to remain a virgin until marriage, men have often been expected to be more sexually experienced and promiscuous. Whilst this is a generalisation and things are changing in a lot of places, even today there is still this pervading idea that men are meant to want sex, enjoy sex and go after sex, whilst women who do the same are slut shamed and devalued.
“The shame and taboo often fall only on the person with the vagina, who is often subject to the expectation of saving themselves for marriage or the right one,” says Zoya. “There are constant reminders of virginity being the most important thing you can give someone. I’ve heard of menstruators not being allowed to use period products like tampons or menstrual cups because of myths that it will cause them to lose their virginity. Somehow the surveillance checks don’t apply to our counterparts who might even be celebrated for making their sexual debut into manhood.”
Is there a better way to think about virginity?
This idea that ‘losing’ your virginity is such an important rite of passage for young people can lead to pressure, anxiety and some people feeling like there is something ‘wrong’ with them if they don’t want to have penetrative sex – or if they don’t want to have sex at all.
Sex is an important part of many people’s lives, and deciding if and when to engage in sexual activity is an important decision that should feel right for the people involved – but seeing it as this massive ‘before’ and ‘after’ event which changes your life forever may not be helpful.
The concept of ‘losing’ or ‘giving away’ your virginity suggests that by having sex you ‘lose’ something, that you give something away, and that you are not intact after, when in reality sex is just another activity that people can have as much or as little of as they want provided it is consensual and safe. Some have suggested ‘sexual debut’ as an alternative, which can encompass any type of sexual activity and suggests the person is entering the sexual world rather than giving something up.
Do you think virginity is a social construct? Do you have any ideas for alternative definitions? Let us know!