With so many people claiming to be deeply invested in the sexual lives of unmarried young women, our culture is full of expressions and representations of values, priorities, preferences, expectations, definitions, judgments, and assumptions about virginity. Yet in all the conversation, how much of what we hear, or believe, comes from the women and girls themselves? Virginity is often framed in a rigid, black and white lens, yet the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of women and girls who have not had sex are varied, changeable, and at times even contradictory. Yet virginity is thought of as something that everyone understands and accepts to be, on some level, real. Today, what we call virginity is generally thought of in two ways: sexy or lame. The striking difference between these two ideas prompted me to think more about how and why such a dichotomy exists and what it means for and to the girls and women we apply this label to.
I want to start by looking into each interpretation. First: sexy. Why is virginity, understood to be the absence of sexual activity, considered sexy? Part of this paradox is inherent in virginity itself. It is understood in terms of what it is not, so it’s impossible to talk about virginity without also talking about sex. Unfortunately, what we culturally define as sexy, and even how we define sex itself, is still largely described and experienced from a male perspective. Virginity is theoretically female and theoretically sexy because of the way we understand male sexuality. Unfortunately, this shows that a girl or woman’s virginity is not about her, but about an idea, full of its own value and meaning, that someone else places upon her.
It’s hard to escape the language commonly used to define, explain, and often excuse the mental and physical aspects of male sexuality, but without understanding this language and the social structure it’s built on, we overlook the significance that male sexuality has on female virginity. Hanne Blank’s book, Virgin: The Untouched History, explores this connection.
The erotics of virginity are the priorities of patriarchal sexuality writ large. In eroticizing virginity, youth, physical nubility, ignorance, inexperience, fragility, and vulnerability are objectified from the perspective of someone who, by definition, is none of these things.
It likewise demands that no woman may be considered sexually real by herself, that it is only through the sexual action of a male partner that her sexually is truly summoned into being.
Virginity is thought of as sexy because men are told that virginity is something to be acquired and that it takes “a ‘real man’ to convert a virginal ‘little girl’ into a sexually eager ‘real woman’” (p. 195) When a woman’s sexuality is defined by what a male does to her or takes from her, her ability to define her sexuality and to decide for herself what her expression of that sexuality means is taken out of her hands. As long as men are allowed to be the deciding factor in female virginity, the way that we talk about the sexual appeal of women who have not had sex will be defined as what men are expected to think of as sexy.
And now onto the opinion that being labeled as a virgin is lame. This idea began to take shape in the 1960s era of “free love” and available, reliable birth control. Hanne Blank describes the emerging mentality this way:
Along the way, more and more women began to insist that female sexual pleasure was just as important as male sexual pleasure. Rather than using romantic commitment and marriage as their sole yardstick of a successful interpersonal life, some men and women took to gauging personal success on the basis of sexual experience.
…to many it was now seen as the difference between being “liberated” and being “hung up.” To actually be a virgin betrayed one as repressed.
Then, in the 1980s, the United States became the first, and remains the only, developed country in the world to “create a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of it’s citizens,” set up to “teach specific sexual ideologies and behaviors” “upon a specifically Christian model of sexual morality.” Yet, recognizing that the term “virginity” had developed a negative or unwanted connotation, the legislation was tailored to be as deceptively acceptable as possible. “Virginity” was replaced with “abstinence.” You’ll probably be surprised that, in fact:
The word “virginity” appears nowhere in American legislation that deals with the ideal of “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard.”
This was done under the impression that while virginity was viewed as an “oddity,” abstinence was about “virtuous self-control.” Importantly, it was a choice- one that even someone who had had sex could still make.
But it would be ridiculous to think that just because you call it abstinence, it isn’t still all about sex. And further, it would be naïve to accept that our apparent obsession with abstinence isn’t itself rooted deeply in patriarchy. We see this clearly in the fact that despite “90% of Americans support[ing] comprehensive sex education in the schools,” legislation on both the federal and state levels have “generated a top-down ideological program that rests neither upon the demands of extant laws nor upon the wishes of American voters.” (p. 244) When men make up 83% of Congress and 77% of state legislatures, men are the ones who dictate national priorities, including the language with which girls are told what their virginity means.
So where does this leave the girls and women who have not had (what most people consider to be) sex? What does it mean that regardless of their own desires and actions, they are viewed as sexy or desirable for a circumstance that is not necessarily under their control and of which strangers can associate any value or meaning without their control and even without their knowledge? What does it mean that even when they’re told virginity is something you want to get rid of as soon as possible (or, to stay “abstinent” as long as possible- as if virginity was a tangible thing to be given, traded, sold, or guarded) they are still not the ones who get to decide what virginity is, what it means to them, how they want to express themselves sexually, and what they understand their sexuality to mean?
It seems obvious to me that the fairest, most practical, and healthiest way forward is to put women and girls firmly in charge of their own sexuality. The past 100 years have shown enormous advances for feminism, but we have still to break the stronghold that patriarchy and religious ideology have on female sexuality. Virginity is a social construct- the only meaning or effect it has lies in what we assign to it. It is also ever-changing, which should give us hope that we will each eventually be able to view and discuss our sexuality as something more complex than “has she or hasn’t she?” and more personal than something that is assumed to be universally understood.
For more on the fascinating subject of our cultural attachment to virginity, I highly recommend Virgin: The Untouched History, by Hanne Blank.