What is virginity? Of course, the simple answer—as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary—is, “the state of never having had sexual intercourse: the state of being a virgin.” This definition makes sense on first glance, but upon further thought is vague and outdated, leaving much to be desired. The state of “being a virgin” has traditionally been esteemed as valuable and expected for young girls and women before marriage. Such cultures believed females should only lose their virginities once married in order to consummate the marriage and to bear children. Emphasis was placed on the actual breaking of the woman’s hymen as the point at which she was no longer a virgin—there is much more background to this and surrounding religious beliefs. This also explains the lack of emphasis on male virginity.
Fast-forward to today’s Western culture: it is generally accepted that women do not need to “keep” their virginities until marriage; we now understand that the hymen can break before a woman ever engages in sexual intercourse and we acknowledge that other sexualities beyond heterosexuality exist.
How should we, as a society, go about defining virginity regarding non-heteronormative sexualities? And is it even important that we define it? For lesbian women, one might say they actually never lose their virginities if they never have sex with a male, while others would argue any penetration or oral sex counts as a “loss” of virginity. If we decided to define sex in that way for lesbians or bisexual women, though, there is a disconnect—what we would consider sex for them would still be “third base” for heterosexual partners. Likewise, if we defined “loss” of virginity for gay men as anal sex, would we then consider it a loss of virginity for heterosexual individuals as well?
It’s a complicated issue with many facets and it makes me question why we care so much about virginity in the first place. Of course, one’s first sexual experiences are landmarks in one’s life—oftentimes meaningful—but perhaps we’re getting too caught up in history’s idea that virginity is something certain with definite precincts.
Another reason I question the importance we place on virginity is the underlying sexism that seems to come along with it. Our culture maintains aspects of history’s assessment of female virgins as pure, while those who are not virgins are somehow tainted. This certainly is not aligned with modern culture, yet we have kept some of these judgments. The double standard for men and women also still exists. It’s socially acceptable for “boys to be boys” and to engage in sexual experiences as early and as often as they wish, while we inhibit such activity for girls through slut-shaming.
It seems people today define virginity in many different ways for many different reasons, but nobody really discusses these divides or the emotional costs associated with them. I don’t have an answer on how to mend this issue and I acknowledge that various people from various walks of life will never see eye-to-eye on the topic. Still, I believe the social constructs surrounding virginity are undoubtedly worth conversation and exploration.