Debunking the Virginity Myth
by Naz Toorabally
As a society, we’re obsessed with virginity.
It’s a hot topic in secondary school with whispered conversations at lunch on who’s ‘done it’, at pre-drinks during freshers’ week where some of us fess up to not having ‘lost it’ yet, and it can even crop up years later over drinks with friends reminiscing about how the first time wasn’t that great and not the life-changing moment we were led to believe it would be.
Virginity matters to many people and losing your virginity is seen as a rite of passage.
But, this concept we’ve placed so much importance on is a myth that has been and is used to control women’s bodies and determine their worth.
The virginity myth is the belief that women lose their virginity when their hymen ‘breaks’ the first time they have sex. Traditionally, this ‘breaking’ of the hymen occurs due to penile-vaginal sex between a cisgender man and woman that leads to bleeding – confirmation that the woman was, indeed, a virgin.
This myth comes with severe social consequences for women, notably, slut shaming, and in some cultures where virginity testing is practised, failing these tests can lead to imprisonment and even death.
But, we now know that everything we’ve been taught about virginity is a lie, even if the NHS still upholds some of these myths about hymens breaking and bleeding the first time women have sex.
Importantly, not everyone enjoys penetrative sex and that’s OK!
Realising that these myths are so ingrained in our society that even medical professionals are misinforming women is disconcerting; if they don’t know the truths about vulvas and vaginas, it’s no surprise that even people with vaginas grow up believing these lies. But, there’s hope with the work by medical doctors and sex educators, Nina Brochmann and Ellen Støkken Dahl who have made it their mission to uncover the truths about the hymen and female anatomy.
The definition of virginity loss varies for everyone, but usually – throughout pop-culture and casual sex conversations – we’re almost always talking about intercourse between cisgender men and women irrespective of consent. It doesn’t take into consideration that what ‘counts’ as sex varies widely from person-to-person; for example, some people believe that any type of genital touching counts as sex and others believe that sex only counts if it ends in orgasm.
Yet, culturally, many people still believe that virginity loss can only be legitimised by penetrative sex with a man. In fact, our beliefs about virginity and the role of penetrative sex has seen purity culture flourish, with people – particularly women – who want sex but also want to remain pure and virginal before marriage, engaging in other sexual acts such as anal and oral sex under the misconception that this doesn’t count as ‘real’ sex. And as we continue to value and uphold the virginity myth, we forget that as it’s an inherently heteronormative and trans-exclusionary definition that erases the experiences of queer people and anyone who does not engage in penile-vaginal intercourse. It also perpetuates the shame experienced by survivors of sexual assault by ignoring the fact that sexual assault is assault and not sex.
As a queer woman, this myth has, in the past, made me question whether or not I’m a virgin because I’ve only slept with a woman. And I’m not alone in this. Virginity matters to many LGBTQ+ people, particularly in the context of validating our sexual lives which has a longstanding history of being unnecessarily scrutinised, dismissed, and fetishised. For women who have sex with women (WSW), it’s particularly difficult to define virginity loss given the absence of a penis and the notion of virginity being phallogocentric. It’s for this very reason and the beliefs that uphold purity culture that WSW frequently have their sexual experiences invalidated.
What we need to realise and what I eventually realised is that virginity is not a physical state.
It’s not uncommon for WSW to have their sexuality challenged, particularly, by men. I have experienced first-hand the dismissal of the sexual experiences WSW specifically due to the absence of a man’s penis in the bedroom, by being told it’s not ‘real’ sex and that I should have sex with men to experience real sex.
I have also frequently been asked by friends and strangers how two women have sex which confuses me because this question is devaluing and assumes that lesbian sex is very different from straight sex. No one asks straight couples how they have sex and many (falsely) assume that sex between men is defined by anal intercourse. Ironically, there’s a lot of overlap between what we’re all getting up to in bed. The reality that a man is not always an essential part of a woman’s sexual experiences challenges the patriarchy of sex, and can be difficult for some men to accept.
As someone with a background in women’s sexual function and wellbeing research, the curiosity and fetishisation of sex between two women concerns me because it negates women’s sexual experiences and pleasure that does not involve penile penetration of the vagina, irrespective of sexual orientation. Importantly, not everyone enjoys penetrative sex and that’s OK!
There are physical and psychological reasons, including trauma, that prevent people from engaging in penetrative sex, even if they want to. For example, women who experience vaginismus – spasms and tightening of the vaginal walls during attempts of penetration – can find penetrative sex painful and sometimes impossible. This can happen the first or hundredth time a woman has sex and can lead to distress related to the importance placed on vaginal penetration.
What we need to realise and what I eventually realised is that virginity is not a physical state. The only way someone can find out your virginity status is if you tell them. You can’t test for it, it’s not defined by the state of your hymen, and it can’t be taken from you, lost, or given to someone. For people who believe in virginity, it should be about more than just penetration, because sex is so much more than that.
We know that the concept of virginity is inherently problematic, and contributes to an unnecessary amount of distress and confusion. But, while it remains an important part of our culture we must continue to poke holes in it (pun intended), redefine it, and come to an inclusive consensus on its definition.