The Importance of “Virginity”
Originally published on SexReally.com on August 3, 2009.
Let’s get rid of the phrase, “Losing your virginity.”
It places too much attention on one event (the “first time”) and one form of sex (intercourse). It makes sex seem like something bad for the (female) loser and good for the (male) winner.
And talking about it takes the place of more important conversations such as how to listen to, and protect, yourself and your partner.
Why not say something like, “Having sex for the first time?”
The markers leading from childhood to adulthood are numerous for women – learning to ride a bike, starting school, having your first period, shaving your legs, getting your driver’s license, earning your first paycheck. Certainly having intercourse is on that list.
But to place it at the top puts too much pressure on young women to do it “right,” whatever that means and at the “right time,” whenever that is. (I’m sticking to women in this post. A post on men and virginity may appear later).
One young woman I work with offered two other reasons why the phrase is unsatisfactory:
“There is a full range of activities outside of intercourse that adult couples find satisfying. I have friends who would not describe themselves as virgins but don’t have intercourse with their partners.
“Since the term implies penetration, it mostly ignores the dynamics and experiences of lesbian relationships.”
Other young women are equally candid about society’s obsessions with virginity.
One recalled that “as a teenage girl, I expected my first time to be flowers and candles and passion and whatever. As an adult woman, I look back on that expectation, roll my eyes and wish I could hug that girl and tell her, ‘Yeah, not so much.’”
Another woman said she and her boyfriend, both college sophomores and virgins, decided to have sex for the first time on a certain night. Early on the agreed-upon evening, after having supper with her family, she got up from her chair and walked around the dinner table, kissing Dad, Mom and her sisters goodbye.
“It was eerie, like I was about to die or something,” she recalled. Years after the event, she remembers the dining room scene far more vividly than what happened in the bedroom. That is telling.
A New Yorker in her 20s told me last week that she first had sex as a high school junior on a college tour. Wanting to be the first in her crowd to do this “special” thing, she went to a party on the strange campus, “got wasted and I’m pretty positive drugged, and woke up in a college senior’s apartment.” From then on, “I went crazy. I had sex with whomever whenever, because that first time wasn’t ‘special’ or even really wanted, it was just one more thing, on par with kissing.”
“At first, I thought it would be cool to lose my virginity, to be the first. But after, I thought ‘Crap, it’s not as cool as I thought.‘” Only now, she said, is she learning the pleasure of sex with a man she has gotten to know and trust - several years after her “loss.”
In her book The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti, executive editor of the blog “Feministing,” argues that virginity, like abortion restrictions, is a construct of a patriarchal society designed to control women’s sexual and reproductive behavior.
Saving yourself for marriage, she says, is “a lie told to women” that is part of a “well-funded backlash that is rolling back [their] rights.”
Although a narrow view of the history of human sexuality, what she says has some merit.
Here’s where I take issue: In her reaction to conservatives’ take on virginity, she proposes that we separate discussions about sex from discussions about values such as honesty and kindness. She argues for “a new way to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies.”
That’s impossible. Sex does present us with certain moral choices. Otherwise, we might as well be rutting around like goats. Are we honest, as well as flirtatious, with our partners? Are we kind, as well as seductive? Questions for the first time, the next time, and the next…
P.S. Here’s another phrase to erase from the lexicon: “sexual debut.” Makes me think of some poor couple in formal attire on stage, taking a bow before taking to bed.
Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” and “Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence.” She is a consultant to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.