I had sex for the first time when I was 21 years old. It was clumsy and awkward and on the bathroom floor of my then long-time boyfriend’s grandmother’s house. He told me the next morning that he “didn’t think it was going to work out.” I remember feeling like I had been punched in the stomach as I looked out his car window into the dark, early morning sky. I had just *given him my virginity*. And he didn’t want me anymore? Who would, now that I was used goods?
I grew up in purity culture, a belief system, usually in conservative, Christian circles where young people, particularly girls, are instructed how to stay “pure” for their future (heterosexual) spouses. The cornerstone of this is remaining a virgin, ie abstaining from sex till your wedding night. So much more goes into purity culture. Things like saving your first kiss for your spouse and courting instead of dating. No masturbating and abstaining from any act that may lead to sexual thoughts, desires or actions. A friend was once cautioned by a mentor against holding hands with her boyfriend because “holding hands leads to handjobs.”
To many, these ideals sound ridiculous. Ancient and antiquated backward thinking. But out of all of these concepts that seem to only be revered by the deeply religious, one toxic concept has effected countless people, regardless of religion or belief system:
While the concept of “virginity” extends to both males and females, the emphasis has historically fallen on those of us with vaginas and hymens.
The concept of virginity is historically tied to hymens.
Before I go any further, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:
Everything you think you know about hymens is a lie.
And now I’m going to tell you why. Pay attention. It’s important.
Here’s what we have been told a hymen is:
Myth: A hymen is proof of a woman’s virginity.
The most pervasive of these virginity myths is that if a woman has never had vaginal intercourse, her hymen, like a seal, is intact and unbroken. As the legend goes, once she has vaginal sex, the seal, “cherry”, the hymen is broken. Popped. The first time she has sex she bleeds, it hurts, because, you know, her hymen kept everything tight and closed and now that she had sex, it’s broken.
Now for the actual facts:
Fact: The hymen is actually a mucosal tissue surrounding the vaginal canal. Surrounding. Not covering.
Most hymens actually resemble donuts, but much thinner. Almost every single hymen has at least one hole, though there are *rare* cases where said hole is too small for anything to fit comfortably through and that is a medical condition called an imperforate hymen. The hymen can (and usually does) tear or simply wear away from other nonsexual activities. Mine tore while dancing in my living room at 14 years old. Others have torn during sports or bike riding. As a newborn, hymens are generally thick and prominent, but as a person grows, their hymen thins and can wear away from everyday activities, such as running, washing, masturbating, inserting tampons, stretching, etc.
So why all this hymen talk? What does it have to do with virginity?
Since, well, forever, a woman’s worth has rested in her virginity. But how would one ensure that she really was a virgin and had never had penetrative sex with a man? Including some ancient and superstitious tests, the most common is to insert fingers or an instrument into the vagina and test the elasticity of the vagina and to feel if it appears to have been used/widened during sex. This test, called the “virginity test”, also checks for traces of the hymen membrane which would suggest the hymen has been torn during sex.
To be clear, for centuries, a woman’s worth and life have depended on the status of a thin, mucosal tissue.
A tissue, that often isn’t even torn during sex for the first time.
The patriarchal proclaimed importance of the hymen is not just a relic of Biblical era times or in far, remote places of the Middle East. Human trash and rapper, T.I. recently boasted in a podcast interview how he accompanies his now 18-year-old daughter to a yearly gynecologist appointment where he insists on her doctor checking to be sure her hymen is still “intact”.
It’s 2019, in America, and these archaic, intrusive and abusive practices are still happening.
Virginity myths are only focused on vaginas.
If the concept of virginity is so centered around hymens and whether or not they are intact, how would one test the virginity of someone with a penis? Hmm? Historically and even now, it was the woman whose worth and life was centered around the purity and intactness of her vagina while men are given a pass and encouraged to have the sexual exploits they desire.
No one thinks ill of a man who has casual sex. No one questions the number of partners he has had or how well his penis will perform if he has bedded too many women. But the moment a woman has vaginal sex, her body is thought of as used. At best, she is told to not have sex with too many partners, since overuse will stretch out and ruin her vagina (both statements are medically false, by the way.) At worse, but all too common, she is told that she is ruined and broken, and that she has given her one precious gift away, and now she will have nothing to offer her future husband.
An ugly thing about virginity myths is that they are damaging to those who have experienced rape and sexual violence.
Because the toxic concept of virginity is so tied to a woman’s worth, this is damaging beyond words to those who experience abuse, assault, and rape. If their virginity is “taken”, even forcefully, what matter is that to their future husband? Their hymen is broken. They’ve been used. They’re stretched out. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t want it, their one gift is gone. It can never be given again.
These virginity myths are horrendously damaging bullshit.
Countless people who have been raped have shared that they felt dirty after their assault, not only because of the power taken from them but because they were told their worth, tied to their virginity, was gone. And when you feel broken and dirty and someone is “willing” to “love” you and “forgive” you of your “sins”, you dig in deep to that, desperate for absolution and belonging.
Even though absolution was never needed for a crime the victim never committed. Even though she never needed to pay a price for what her abuser forcefully helped themselves to. And yet, society has created this shrine around virginity and sinfulness around “losing” it, that when a woman is raped and deemed unworthy, she may spend years and years and years believing she has no worth which can lead to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and actions, staying in and running to abusive relationships and more.
“Losing” your virginity to an abusive partner can often prohibit the victim from feeling they can leave.
Even when rape is not how a person first has sex, so many women stay with abusive partners for years, even decades. This is often because of the shame they felt “giving their virginity away” before marriage. The pressure to stay with their abuser is insurmountable. They have given away their virginity. They can never get it back. Because their virginity is tied to their worth and marriage, they feel locked into a relationship, even if it turns dangerous or deadly.
Virginity myths are heteronormative as well as harmful and dismissive to the LGBTQIA+ community.
One of the other ways the concept of virginity is toxic and harmful is how heteronormative it is. Virginity focuses only on if a person has their vagina penetrated by a penis. Spoiler alert: there are lots of different ways to have sex. There are lots of different people who have sex. Some have penetrative sex in their vagina the first time. But that is not the only or best or only valid way to have sex. The concept of PIV virginity totally passes over the LGBTQIA+ community and takes away the validity of their first sexual experience. Not everyone has a hymen or a vagina or has sex with a person with a hymen or vagina. It’s important to remember that this in no way impacts their worth or validity of their sexuality.
I am more than the sexual experiences I’ve had and the state of my hymen.
My vagina is more than a gift to be given. A prize to be won. A thing to be conquered. My hymen tearing while I was dancing in my living room at 14 years old had no impact on the cleanliness of my soul or body. Neither did having sex for the first time on that bathroom floor in Texas. My vagina is not a symbol of purity or chastity or easiness or whorish behavior since it has experienced pleasure from 3 sexual partners and abuse from my ex. It is a part of my body. A powerful part. But it doesn’t define my worth in any way.
We need to do away with the toxic virginity myths and rethink our language regarding sex and sexual experiences.
We need to stop this idolatry of virginity, treating it like this priceless gift that can be given or taken. These virginity myths are toxic and rooted in archaic and abusive ideals. A hymen is not “proof” of said virginity and is nothing more than a piece of tissue to help prevent germs and disease from your vaginal canal. Shouldn’t we change our language and attitudes towards when a person has sex for the first time?
Because it’s simply that. Having sex. For the first time. Whether its penetrative vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex. Sex is what the person who consents to have it says it is. Period. End of story. It is not a gift that gets to be taken or given or sold to a future spouse, nor a thing to be policed by toxic and abusive parents and religious beliefs and standards. This is not something that defines your worth, or something to be fetishized or shamed.
You did not “lose” your virginity and you did not give away your most precious gift- you had sex for the first time. The most precious gift is YOU. Your worth is not tied to your hymen or your amount of sexual partners or how your first experience with sex came about. Virginity is a toxic concept. And you are so much more than that.