Losing it: understanding virginity in the 21st century

While the beginning of a new school year usually sees university students attending new classes, buying textbooks, and reading course outlines, some may also be hatching a plan to ditch their V-card status. On the surface, virginity seems like a pretty straightforward concept. A person is a virgin if they haven’t had sex, and isn’t if they have. Among millennials, virginity can even be the quickest way to decide whether someone is a prude or a slut.

However, in reality, the concept of virginity is vastly more complicated. In fact, according to Ummni Khan, an associate professor of legal studies at Carleton University, virginity is a deeply ideological construct.

“[It’s] based on cis-normative and heterosexist understandings of sexual phases,” Khan who also holds Carleton’s joint chair of women and gender studies, said. “Classically, virginity [is when] a penis goes all the way into a vagina, then the man [loses] his virginity and the woman [loses] her virginity.”

Khan said this definition is founded on assumptions of what sex means generally, what it means between a man and a woman, and what it means to reach sexual maturity. But, she said, it fails to include the perspectives of members of the LGBTQ+ community due to the typical black-and-white depiction. Queer and non-heteronormative couples are rarely included in the virginity narrative.

What about the LGBTQ+ community?

Sexual intercourse and virginity defined by vaginal sex alone exclude other types of sexual relations and identities, and in a sense, devalue them. It begs the question, is a gay man that never participates in vaginal sex still a virgin?

“It basically puts everything on penetration, so any sex outside of that isn’t considered real sex,” Khan said. “A woman who has never had sex with a man and has only had sex with [women] in a heterosexist way would be a virgin even though she has had sex with many other women. It shows how [non-penetrative] sex isn’t considered authentic sex in the way that heterosexual sex is.”

Khan said the concept of virginity is one that isn’t even considered in the queer world.

Samuel Richardson, the administrative co-ordinator for Carleton’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Centre, said he agrees.

Richardson said that discussions in the centre around virginity are ever-evolving, as visitors and co-ordinators alike try to define the concept for themselves.

“Something that we really have a lot of conversations around is [deciding about] sex for yourself,” Richardson said. “It’s that discussion [about] what [your partner] enjoys in sex and what [you] enjoy in sex. In queer relationships, it’s kind of impossible not to have that conversation.”

Carleton’s Womyn’s Centre also took a stab at examining the heteronormative depiction of virginity in a statement issued by Holly Smith and Harar Hall, the centre’s co-ordinators.

“The concept of virginity is heteronormative as most narratives consider ‘losing one’s virginity’ as the first experience of heterosexual intercourse,” they wrote. “We know that there are a myriad of ways people have sex

beyond heterosexual penetrative intercourse that are equally as valid, satisfying, and worthy of recognition.”

So why exactly is it that sex between a heterosexual man and woman has come to define sexual activity?

As author and historian Hanne Blank explores in her 2007 novel Virgin: The Untouched History, penetrative sex involving a penis and a vagina is the “only form of sexual activity that renders a woman pregnant.”

Women can’t win

Blank goes on to state that it is in this sense that virginity can be understood as a heterosexual female construct. She illustrates how historically, within the Catholic church and the Western world, even the male renunciation of sex was seen more as an act of self-control rather than purity.

“Virginity has never mattered in regard to the way men are valued, or whether they were considered fit to marry, or, indeed, to be permitted to survive,” Blank writes. “As a result, virgins are, and always have been, almost uniformly female.”

The social connotations surrounding women when it comes to virginity are expansive. According to Richardson, just by looking at examples from popular culture, one can easily identify stereotypes perpetuated upon females who engage in sexual activity.

“We shame women so intensely to not have sex, or if they have too much sex, they become a slut, and whore, and ho,” Richardson said. “How many movies have we seen like Easy A or The Scarlet Letter, movies about shaming a woman for the use of her body for pleasure?”

Caitlin Hart, a graduate student in women’s and gender studies at Carleton, said it can be difficult to tread the thin line between the two labels that are handed to women in terms of virginity.

“Basically, if you’re female right now, you can’t win,” Hart said. “If you’re a virgin, you’re a prude, and if you’ve had a lot of sex and so forth, you’re basically a whore.”

Blank discusses in her book that the pressure put upon women to remain chaste and virginal are ideas that are recirculated again and again within our culture. This expectation is taught to young girls and the concept is handed down again and again within families and education systems, helping to keep these ideas alive.

Letycia Henriques, a Carleton graduate who now studies at Algonquin College, is just one of the many young women that have grappled with Western culture’s perceptions around virginity.

“Growing up, I was basically taught by society that my virginity was something pure and that I should save it for the person I love [or] my husband,” Henriques said. “I was told I wasn’t allowed to wear tampons as a young girl because then I would lose my virginity to it.”

Both Smith and Hall said that decisions about whether or not to have sex should be left up to each person to determine for themselves. 

“We support women who become sexually active young, women who wait until marriage, women who never engage in sexual acts, and everyone in between,” they wrote in their statement. “We support any self-determined decision a woman makes for her own body.”

Men are feeling the pressure too

While discussions on virginity have historically centered mainly on women, today there is much more stress put on men to lose their virginities. Khan said the concept of male virginity has been shown as something of an incredible milestone in a heterosexual male’s life, one that often determines their social worth.

“It doesn’t matter how many women [they] have sex with, that means [they’re] more of a stud, and you want to lose it early because that means [they’re] more of a stud,” Khan said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s serious or not, it’s thing that you want to do.”

Khan said the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a comedy chronicling the exploits of a middle-aged man on his quest to lose his virginity, exemplifies some of these pressures.

Just as the pressure on women to remain chaste can be extremely harmful, pressures on men to lose their virginity can also be detrimental to society, Richardson said. 

“Men are so pressured to lose their virginity so they’re not losers anymore, the sexual violence rates go up,” he said. “They start to get pressured, and then hit on that girl a little bit more so she feels like she has to give in.”

Richardson advocates that people should simply be free to make their own decisions, rather than giving in to societal pressures.

“At the end of the day, you know your body best,” he said.

But, he also warns that young people should be taking the necessary precautions to ensure they are practicing safe sex.

“If you are going to engage in sex, be careful about it, trust your limits . . . don’t feel pressured to do it, but just be safe if you do,” he said.

“Your virginity is not your life.”

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan