What is a “virgin,” anyway?

Anyone else think it’s kind of weird that we have a specific word to label someone who has never had sex? We don’t have words to label people who haven’t done other things – there’s no word for someone who has never driven a car, never read Harry Potter, or never run a marathon.  But for some reason, we see sex as SUCH a huge, defining thing, that we label people who haven’t had it.

ImageLet’s start with the word. “Virgin.” What does it ACTUALLY mean? Well, it’s kind of hard to pin down a definition. Everyone THINKS they know what it means, but if you ask them to explain it, they treat it like Judge Potter Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it”.

Some people try to define virginity medically for women, by the presence of a hymen. But, as many of us learned in health class, the hymen can be torn or stretched by vigorous exercise (weirdly, horseback riding was the example I always heard), its original appearance can vary greatly, or it can stretch back after sex. Plus, since there’s no male equivalent, the presence or absence of a hymen seems hardly an accurate way to define virginity as a whole.

The most commonly understood definition of the word “virgin” is “someone who’s never had sex”. But can you explain “had sex” ACTUALLY means? A penis in a vagina? We know that that’s not sufficient.

Obviously that definition makes exclusively gay people permanent virgins, right? Well, some people might concede that if you’re a gay dude, then having anal sex would make you not a virgin, since we tend to conflate sex with some kind of penetration. What about lesbians? Where do you draw the “virginity” line? Oral sex? Digital? The presence of orgasms? (Although I have to imagine that the kind of people who are THIS concerned with “virginity” aren’t spending too much time concerned with gay people’s virginity since, in their minds, gay people are already sinners / unnatural / coming for your children).

ImageBut even in straight couples, where is the line? How about a straight couple who has oral and anal sex regularly? Are they virgins? Technically, maybe? But come on – adding “technically” to any explanation is basically admitting that it’s not REALLY true. When was the last time that saying “Well, mom, technically we didn’t break any rules” actually got you out of trouble?

However, as with many many things in our world, it’s not the definition that’s important, but what our culture does with it. And I don’t think you need me to tell you that standards for men and women are wildly different when it comes to virginity. The best place to get an idea of these cultural double standards is, as always, through TV and movies.

Male virgins, in TV and movies, are the subject of ridicule and taunting at worst, and comedy at best (for instance, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin). The “quest” to “lose” virginity is often spun into a happy-go-lucky tale of male camaraderie and heterosexuality. Even the makers of American Pie said that part of the film’s title came from the idea that losing virginity in high school is as “American as apple pie.”

Meanwhile, female tales in this genre are much scarcer, and often have more serious undertones. For instance, in Little Darlings, a light-hearted romp about two girls at summer camp in competition to see who can lose their virginity first, the girl who does lose her virginity doesn’t admit it, and the girl who doesn’t lies and says she does; neither seems truly happy or comfortable in her decision. Having sex comes with some sobering realizations.

(Also, we all know that in horror movies, the girl who has sex is killed first! )

But whatever the case may be, as a society we are obsessed with girls’ and women’s virginity. I’m not going to address the issue of painful and invasive “virginity tests,” often done in the name of religion, or the harm done to women who have “shamed” their families by having sex before marriage – those are grave issues that deserve attention in their own, more researched post.

Attitudes about virginity also bleed into other aspects of pop culture. Remember how in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a slew of pop stars who proclaimed their commitment to virginity and “purity” while also appearing in sexy videos. The subject of these girls’ virginity was a constant topic of tabloid speculation. The importance placed on it was done in the name of making sure these women were “good role models” for their young, impressionable viewers, but all it really did was make it seem as if the most important measure of a woman’s worth as a role model and as a person was whether or not she’d ever had sex. It also reinforced the idea that a woman’s sex life is EVERYBODY’S business.

Attitudes about virginity also shape the way we see rape survivors; part of the reason that it’s difficult for women to come forward to report a rape is the perception that a woman who has had sex is dirty or ruined. In many cultures throughout history, and sadly, in many today, a woman who has been raped is seen as damaged or as less worthy of a good marriage.

This is a topic I’m going to explore more in-depth in the future, but I just wanted to think about some of the basics first. If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend Hanne Blank’s book “Virgin” or Jessica Valenti’s “The Purity Myth“.

So what do you think? Is virginity an actual thing? How important is it? Is there a double standard? Where else in TV or movies is virginity an issue?

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