Virginity - How is This Still a Thing?
(Disclaimer: this is written in the context of western society, it would take a whole other article to look at the dangerous impact of the concept of virginity within Lower Economically Developing Countries. This should be read as a critique of the Western’s worlds definition of virginity and its implications. )
In light of Miley Cyrus’s teaser Instagram post for her music video “Mother’s Daughter”,
where she displayed the controversial message “virginity is a social construct”, there has been a thread on social media debating the very notion of virginity itself. It is questionable to what extent we should let this six letter word govern both our place in and the way we are treated by society. This article intends to demystify the very notion of virginity and debunk many falsehoods about the subject, as well as highlight how the word and its connotations has perhaps caused more confusion and hurt than good. To cut a long story short: We need to rethink virginity.
The textbook definition of a virgin is, "the state of never having had sexual intercourse: ‘I lost my virginity’ ". At face value, this word should have little to no impact on a living being. Whether you have had (consensual) sex or not does not give much insight into who you are as a person. Yet, over the years, there has been a heavy focus on virginity; it has been actively discussed in literature, history and the Bible, and usually linked with ideas of naivety, innocence and “purity”. It is surprising that even in today’s Western world which - in part thanks to social media - has sparked a new age of hookup culture fueled by apps such as Tinder, Bumble and more, there is still such a focus on whether you are a virgin or not. When examining the true nature of virginity, it becomes increasingly clear that these notions are abused by our patriarchal society through their association of virginity with one’s place in society.
The obsession with a women’s first time originates back to when women were viewed as property. Virginity was an incredibly important concept in marriage - a bride had to prove her virginity to justify her worth. When looking at the ceremony of marriage itself, the role of virginity goes hand in hand with the subjugation of the bride. First, the bride is walked down the aisle by her father as she is literally handed from man to man. Back in the day, this was evocative of the taking of the female by her new owner (her husband) from her previous one (her father) in return for a fee (her dowry). It can be said, though, that in the Middle Ages (a pre-women's rights era), it made perfect sense for this to take place as it creates a clear division of labour, with the wife taking on a domestic role within the household while the husband provides for her. The clear issue with this outdated transaction now is that women are demanding more freedoms in their careers, sexuality and lives, but the contract of marriage delegates the woman to a certain position. When there is no respect for that position, she becomes trapped in inferiority. Furthermore, the very colour used during the wedding ceremony (white to contrast the blood that should appear when she loses her v-card to her husband), emphasise the importance of her “purity” for the husband to be assured of her worth. Another tradition was for the women to bleed on a sheet, placed upon the bed where they were expected to consummate their marriage. The man was then to parade the stained sheets around the house, boasting to his guests that he has taken this woman's “purity”.
Although the afore-described wedding doesn’t tend to be the norm anymore, the societal associations remain the same - being a virgin means you are “pure” and sought after by men (with popping the cherry becoming something for men to boast about). If you are not a virgin, you are immediately categorized as a slut - someone who is “loose”, an “easy lay”. There remains a strong view that women (especially young girls) need to remain “pure”. This is very present in “born again” Christian communities, with events created to keep girls “pure” and innocent (as well as their fathers very much in control of them). An example of this is the Purity Ball in South Dakota, a ceremony where girls as young as 10 make a pledge to their fathers to remain submissive, “pure” and “virtuous”. It is events such as this and the prevalent labels and associations made with virginity as a result of the stigma around it which categorize women as sexual objects: something to be passed on from one man to another. Through looking at the sentences used by men and women when referring to virginity it is clear that it's a construct used to oppress - a woman's virginity is taken and a man is the one who controls this theft of virginity: “I lost my virginity to him” and “I took her virginity”. Not only is this version of virginity incredibly heteronormative, mysogynistic and outright controlling, but further places an unreasonable pressure on women to remain virgins.
Nevertheless, the stigma of virginity also causes huge issues amongst men, especially young adolescents fuelled with testosterone. They are faced with an overwhelming pressure to lose their virginity as fast as possible. To still be a virgin by a certain age is considered a failure or a demonstration of weakness, even inadequacy. This derives from the assumption that a man associated with female values or traditionally feminine traits is ultimately less of a man. This is used to emasculate and bully and can cause boys to boast of non-existent sexual prowess, dragging the reputation of still innocent girls down with them. Current media portray men who haven’t had sex as weak or inferior laughing stocks. Films such as The 40 Year Old Virgin, as funny as they are, completely rely on the fact that a man past a certain age being a virgin is absurd. Sleeping with women is something to be celebrated, something to be bragged about. But how can that work logistically if men are meant to sleep with all the women and women are not meant to sleep with any men? That doesn’t even make a shred of sense... There is a major flaw with this gendered double standard on virginity. And because of this double-standard, virginity as a concept itself becomes completely impossible to properly define.
The current consensus on what virginity is and its place within our society is exclusive and
alienates a whole group of already marginalized people. Virginity and what losing one's virginity entails completely isolates anyone from the LGBTQ+ community, as their version of sex is not encapsulated in the heteronormative view of the act. Our notion of virginity would paint LGBTQ+ people as virgins regardless of the sexual relations they may have had. This is incredibly dangerous to the community as it sometimes leads to men wanting to “take a gay girl’s virginity”. This increases sexual aggresivity and chances of sexual assault, as some men wanting to assert their dominance and prove themselves inflicts huge amounts of distress and pain onto those in the queer community.
There’s another aspect of virginity we haven’t yet mentioned: the sex that lacks consent. For victims of sexual assault, the concept of virginity is incredibly detrimental to both their mental health and their perception of sex. Someone who has been sexually abused may feel as if their virginity was taken or stolen by their aggressor (on top of the PTSD and trauma they would already experience, of course). This gives a large amount of power to the abuser, power which the victim might feel is impossible to reclaim. This view could further be encouraged by their family or friends. Often those who have been raped undergo virginity tests which are intrusive and only add to their trauma.
Lastly, let’s unravel the myth that a woman's virginity is determined by the breaking of the hymen. The hymen is a thin piece of mucosal tissue found at the opening of the vagina; this tissue either completely or partly covers the opening. Some are more flexible than others. The hymen and its consequent breaking has habitually decided the verdict on whether a woman has lost her virginity or not. Virginity tests are becoming incredibly popular, especially amongst young girls whose fathers wish to check that their daughters are untouched. This test is not only invasive, reprehensible and oppressive, but is also based on the completely flawed belief that the hymen is torn or damaged as a result of sexual intercourse, resulting in the bleeding of the woman on her first time. The hymen has NOTHING TO DO with whether someone is a virgin or not. Most women don’t even bleed during their first time, and when they do it might not even be the result of the hymen breaking. Bleeding can be the result of tiny breaks within the opening of the vagina. Your hymen will already stretch as a result of puberty or could already be broken or torn as a result of a number of everyday activities: horse riding, gymnastics, inserting a tampon, masturbation or medical exams (to name a few). To repeat, the hymen is no indication whatsoever of whether a woman is a virgin or not. It also plays into the notion that every woman’s first time will hurt as her hymen will break and she will bleed. This gives men permission not to work hard to make a girl’s/woman’s first time pleasurable, when in fact it can be a positive experience on both sides. If you are still unsure about the hymen and how little it actually represents, I strongly suggest you take a look at the TED talk by Nina Brochmann & Ellen Støkken Dahl on the fraud that is virginity that is included below. So clearly, virginity can’t be proven physically, and as such it's a mere concept created by a patriarchal society to control women.
Honestly, I find Miley Cyrus to be the perfect encapsulation of white feminism in Hollywood at most times, yet with her statement that virginity is a construct and the conversation which followed I found myself intrigued. Though I initially found the idea ridiculous and provocative, the more I questioned the statement, the more I realised how stupid and controlling virginity and its significance in our society is.
So that's it. The myth of virginity is busted (or at least, this has been an article attempting to bust it).
This article has essentially been an attempt to formulate the frustrations a woman in the “developed” western world may feel when faced with the construct of virginity. I think it’s important to note that if there were a “Disney-fied” version of the dangers of virginity, this would be it, as I haven’t even begun to tackle the true threats that the notion of virginity places on women (notably but not exclusively in LEDCs). Also, the myth of virginity can be used to endorse and facilitate female genital mutilation. Virginity can be massively dangerous to young girls as some people share the belief that virgins have special powers, often leading to the rape of these same young girls. The aforementioned are just some of the many sinister and alarming connotations virginity has. (I have attached below a poignant TED talk by Dr. Jasmine Abdulcadir who speaks brilliantly on the problems caused by the myth of virginity in relation to Female Genital Mutilation).