by Sonia Saraiya
In this exhibit, Sonia Saraiya explores the concept of virginity and what it means in our society when looked at through a feminist lens. This article was originally published at nist.tv.
Everyone seems to know what virginity is – but, oddly, few people can entirely define the term. Though virginity is moored in murky, hard-to-define concepts like “purity,” “sex,” and “first,” most people have a concrete idea of what it is – and either consider themselves virgins or remember the time they “lost their virginity.” In suburban America, teenagers are nervously asking, “If I did ____ with my boyfriend, am I still a virgin?” and in other cultures, kissing on the lips is just as much of a transgression as having sex for the first time – never mind trying to define “sex” or even “first time” in any satisfying, comprehensive way.
Virginity is historically a women’s issue – because the ideal of virginity is heavily, though somewhat subtly, gendered. In common English parlance, a “virgin” is anyone who has not had sex. But the contemporary social pressure, globally, on women’s virginity (as a way of retaining their purity) belies the word’s etymology. “Virgin” comes from the Latin “virgo,” which means “sexually inexperienced woman” and could be interchanged with “maiden.” Though both the ancient Romans and current English-speakers use the term virgin somewhat loosely to encompass more than women, the emphasis remains. Of the few women who managed to make a name for themselves in history, a large number of those are virgins: The Virgin Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, for example. Male monks and priests are “celibate”; pagan priestesses to Vesta, meanwhile, were the Vestal Virgins. The ancient Greeks (and later the Romans) categorized their goddesses based on whether or not they were virgins; there were exactly three major virgin goddesses, and three non-virgins. Though virginity is used for both men and women, it is a primarily feminized concept centered on the penetration of a vagina by a penis.
As with many social issues, the argument over women’s issues takes women’s bodies as the territory, often speaking for women at large. Maintaining virginity and losing virginity are both framed as feminist issues, both cited as the best way to maintain self-respect. And the constant background noise behind this conflict is the contradictory message of popular mainstream media – a shaky middle ground between conservatism and progressivism.
American virginity is its own particular brand of complicated. Sexually charged mass media competes with evangelical Christian beliefs and academic, sex-positive progressives. Porn, purity rings, queer rights, and American Pie smash together on your television screen and on the Internet. Despite federally funded abstinence-only sex education, a vast majority of people who marry in America today are not virgins when they wed.  What’s going on here?
What follows is a curated exhibit of selected videos from nist.tv and other video archives that showcases several different inquiries and opinions on the subject of virginity. In no way is this exhibit a comprehensive sampling of the many possible stances on virginity, the many definitions of virginity, or the widely different cultural symbolism and treatment of the question of virginity. As we are an American website with a plethora of American content available, we want to explore virginity as it is treated and depicted in America and identify the questions, ideas, or problems it raises.
After writing this exhibit and hearing the voices of other thinkers, I don’t want to deliver a moral or submit a truth. Ultimately everyone must have their own personal view on virginity and position it into their sexual narrative and their belief system however they can. For me, the most important aspect of being a feminist is asking questions about the prevailing norms we live in. And my question is this: Why does virginity matter? And what is the point of caring about it?
I. DEFINING VIRGINITY
What, exactly, do you lose when you “lose” your virginity? Where exactly in a woman does a cherry get “popped”? How does “deflowering” define the process? Does the person who you had sex with now “have” your virginity? If so, what on earth IS your virginity?
For such a pervasive and ancient ideal, closer analysis of female virginity holds some very surprising answers – or non-answers. It is widely believed that the first time a woman has sex, she will experience pain and bleed – unless, of course, she doesn’t, because she already “popped her cherry” by pursuing an activity vaguely sexual in nature instead, like riding a horse or a bike. (It’s worth noting that these activities are typically masculine, too.) It is also widely believed that losing your virginity is a pivotal threshold and possibly even a transformative experience, making it either a) worth saving or b) imperative to undertake immediately.
Both the answers and non-answers of virginity are addressed in this video by Hanne Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History.This is one of the few videos I’ve seen that so critically explores virginity from a historical, cultural, and biological point of view. Learning about sex and talking about virginity are steps towards “losing it” – and therefore are frowned upon as indecent. Hanne Blank is not threatened. Speaking in a lecture at the University of Maryland, she describes the process of beginning to research virginity and the questions that began to stymie her. She is preceded by Emek Ergun, a Ph.D. candidate at UMBC who translated her work to Turkish, and they both take questions at the end.
Blank concludes that the hymen does not exist; and that, therefore, virginity’s definition is far more complicated than is widely believed. Even if one chooses not to dismiss the hymen outright, as Blank does, discovering that there has been no scientific study on whether or not a hymen exists for every woman, and if it does, what shape it takes, complicates entirely our current, largely implied definition of virginity. What is virginity, then, except a social construct?
Blank also recalls her work as a guidance counselor that inspired her book – specifically, students coming in and asking her, with trepidation, whether or not they were”technically” still a virgin based on what they had done with their sexual partner(s). The anxiety over “technical” virginity is a particularly telling aspect of the problematic definition of virginity.
Blank doesn’t discuss this, but I think it’s relevant that out of this anxiety in defining virginity, “hymen” reconstruction has become a popular, if expensive, form of plastic surgery. For some women, undergoing the surgery is merely to restore the affectation of virginity – kowtowing to the higher value society places on virgins. But others undergo the surgery so that something “down there” bleeds when they have intercourse for the “first time.” The BBC recently ran an article on the phenomenon of hymen reconstruction amongst Arab women in Paris, France . Interestingly, though some women opt for the full “hymeoplasty,” others opt for a device filled with fake blood that can be inserted into the vagina. Still others (not mentioned in the article) will opt for merely a stitch in their vaginal canal that will rupture the next time they have intercourse, producing the necessary blood.
What all of this suggests is that the semblance of virginity is just as important as the virginity itself. Virginity is a privately known condition, but a publicly discussed good, which is why “technically” or “publicly” or “objectively” being a virgin is so incredibly important. In America, this question of technical virginity seems to most concern anxious teenagers. Typically American teenagers do not run the risk of violence, unlike the Arab women discussed above, if they lose their virginity, but the guilt and shame of “losing” their virginity seems to be punishment enough. In response to prevailing attitudes about virginity, Planned Parenthood released this video, called “Abstinence and Outercourse,” two months ago.
At first this video is befuddling, especially if you’re not currently a teenager. What on earth is “outercourse”? Planned Parenthood didn’t make up the term; but it, and other teen sex education organizations, have embraced it as a way to talk to teenagers concerned about “technical” virginity. The video is trying to fill a gap in sex education; the federal government will only fund abstinence-only sex education, and $50 million goes towards that every year  – $1 billion since the program started in 1992 . Teenagers are taught to value abstinence and virginity, but are not given a good idea of what their other options are – which is precisely what abstinence-only sex education is trying to do. But judging the aforementioned statistics on premarital sex, the vast majority of teenagers are going to experiment anyway.
This video treats abstinence as one of many methods to not lose your virginity; “outercourse,” depending on your definition of sex, is another method. I’s also incredibly frank about the complications in defining sex, virginity, and abstinence – clear and straightforward in a way very few other people are about such morally charged subjects. The video is, I believe, couched so as to reach out to a subset of American teenagers to whom virginity is a moral imperative but who do not have access to all of the information they might need – and yet are experimenting anyway. It comes out of the dialogue that stresses the technical definition of virginity, the appearance of virginity, over the actual behavior or values of the person in question.
One can conjecture several reasons for why virginity was valued historically, before reliable birth control and STD prevention. Maintaining virginity through abstinence prevents pregnancy and infection. It’s vastly more important for women because women are the ones who get pregnant and are forced to care for a child, and it definitely benefited men to value women’s virginity because they then had control over women’s wombs, where their offspring (and no one else’s) would be conceived. Though in some places around the world, and in some cultures, these factors are still very much in play, in America today, for most women these two conditions are no longer relevant. Contraception and STD prevention may not be, some argue, available enough, but they are still available.
So why is virginity still valued? It’s clear that there is something else at play – a moral, mythical, or superstitious value in virginity that is associated with wholesomeness, purity, and “goodness.” These three terms are so loosely defined, so entirely intuitive and emotional in their connotations, that I don’t want to discount them, but it’s also very difficult to work with them. There is a belief in Africa, for example, that men will be cured of HIV/AIDS if they have sex with a virgin. The ancient Greeks believed that virgins could carry water in a sieve, and medieval Europe believed that virgins could tame unicorns. In America we are past many of these myths, but I don’t think that the “purity” virginity retains is really any less mythical. I have no problem with myths, but it is surprising that in such a scientific and rational society, such a nonscientific and irrational belief would be so widespread.
Whether arising out of a belief that sex is sinful and dirty or out of a need to control women’s sexuality because it poses a threat, there is a deep-seated cultural need for women to remain “pure.” A woman’s perceived purity, furthermore, is probably more important than her actual state of virginity, because the issue of her purity is socially determined and socially judged – thus determining her worth. Further examination of virginity, as Hanne Blank undertook, shows that although virginity is considered to be a biological or physical construct, what virginity represents and is perceived as is far more important.
II. VIRGINITY IN AMERICA: Waiting
Stereotypically, America is a hotbed of hedonism – we invented the Summer of Love and Las Vegas, after all. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that mainstream media is experiencing a conservative moment – one might even say a conservative backlash – against this relatively new sexual freedom. If it wasn’t clear when middle America reacted very strongly when Janet Jackson’s breast was accidentally exposed by Justin Timberlake during the Superbowl, the current spate of “pure” popstars, packaged for wholesome suburban consumption on the Disney channel, would have shown us that there is a very strong conservative undercurrent to American sexual politics.
Media outlets like VH1, who make their bread and butter on behind-the-scenes specials of the orgiastic life of rockstars, are undoubtedly a little bit taken aback by all of this virginity making the news. Recently, VH1 ran a special on “The New Virginity” examining teenage popstars and other celebrities who are publicly declaring, and perhaps leveraging as a marketing tool, their purity pledges or maintained virginity.
The video features many different commentators on the popstars, including Feministing’s Jessica Valenti, who wrote a book on the subject of America’s obsession with abstinence and virginity called The Purity Myth. They point out that while this image of purity is about not having sex, an obsession with abstinence and purity is still an obsession with sex – who isn’t having it is just as interesting as who is. Many of these young popstars simultaneously market their physical attractiveness and their purity in a package deal, creating a culture of people who are obsessed with talking about sex and thinking about sex but is not having sex.
The values of these pop stars reflect the values of many young Americans. Now many teenagers make abstinence or purity pledges in their communities to a variety of authority figures = their families, their priests, their churches, their future spouses. Many evangelical churches and other (typically conservative) religious groups aggressively idealize virginity and promote abstinence before marriage. Surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective – in these communities, the burden of virginity falls heaviest on girls. The Jonas Brothers, mentioned above, are a notable exception to the many female celebrities cited, and may suggest a growing emphasis in these communities on male virginity. But exercises like the much-discussed purity balls suggest that while both girls and boys make purity pledges, it is still skewed towards valuing female virginity. 
It’s hard to know the reasoning of the individuals, especially the women, in these groups. Not just because virginity is here attributed with a mystical and pure power, but also because these women do not have much of a presence on the Internet. In a curation of Internet videos about abstinence and virginity, one thing becomes clear – whatever teenagers and young people are learning in their classrooms, churches, or homes, they are coming to the Internet for questions and advice. Whether or not the Internet has any good and comprehensive help for them is a different story, but due to its impartiality and anonymity, the Internet remains an enormous champion for sex – not necessarily safe or positive sex, but not necessarily harmful or misleading, either.
The little expression of pro-abstinence and pro-virginity I could find came from, interestingly, young Christian women. And the most-represented on the Internet (and therefore, one can assume, the most-embraced by young people) were clips from concerts and interviews of a Christian rock group called Barlowgirl, a band of three sisters that have openly renounced not just sex, but dating in its entirety. The pious sisters, all in their twenties and single, released this statement on the subject:
We believe that God has one perfect man already chosen for us; therefore we have no need to worry ourselves in searching for him. When the time is right, we know God will bring us together. In the mean time, we are not hiding in a closet avoiding all males, we are still living our lives, just without the pressure of having to have a boyfriend.
Lauren Barlow, the youngest sister and drummer for the band, often takes the microphone during concerts to exhort young women to have faith in God, to not give in to boys because of low self-esteem, and to stay pure. Most of her speeches cover the same themes, and I believe this one is representational:
As you can see, she typically uses this speech to introduce one of their most famous songs, “Average Girl,” which is a song about this sentiment. An excerpt from the lyrics:
So what I’m not your average girl
I don’t meet the standards of this world
Chasing after boys is not my thing
See I’m waiting for a wedding ring
No more dating
I’m just waiting
Like sleeping beauty
My prince will come for me (he’ll come for me)
No more dating I’m just waiting
‘Cause God is writing my love story (my love story)
Boys are bad that’s certainly not true
‘Cause God’s preparing one for you
If you get tired waiting till he comes
God’s arms are the perfect place to run
Barlowgirl champions purity as a form of self-empowerment for young girls in particular – without knowing or caring, perhaps, that virginity is a construct defined primarily by men. On the other hand, their focus on young girls also is a throwback to Victorian values – while nothing better can be expected of men, who will “associate” with women of lower class and looser morals, well-bred girls are expected to remain pure until they fulfill their religious and social duty to marry.
It’s possible that Barlowgirl is leveraging their virginity pledges for fame – though I find that less likely, only because they are not particularly famous outside of Christian rock circles. Their beliefs provide an interesting counterpoint to the analysis of virginity presented by Hanne Blank, the “outercouse” options presented by Planned Parenthood, and the analysis of purity in America by VH1. Barlowgirl, and the interest in them, comes from a very individualized, non-mainstream part of the dialogue on virginity, and provides us a glimpse into the psychology of devoutly abstinent Christian women.
III: VIRGINITY IN AMERICA: Pressure
Meanwhile, in mainstream American culture, almost the exact opposite phenomenon can be observed – both men and women feel enormous pressure to “lose their virginity” or to become sexually active. A lack of sexual experience is a burden, a curse, or a liability – for both men and women. Last year, Tina Fey good-naturedly mocked herself on “The Late Show” with David Letterman for being a virgin until 24.  Dan Savage, author of the column Savage Love and popular sex expert, took a question at a lecture from a young woman who was ashamed that she was still a virgin and afraid to bring that up on dates in the video below:
If there is little space in conservative culture to be a sexual human being, there is little space in the mainstream media to be a virgin. Fey self-deprecatingly praises her own “wholesomeness” while the questioner at Savage’s lecture demonstrates her fear of rejection and alienation. There is an enormous pressure on teenagers to lose their virginity, a pressure articulated through pop culture. The argument for losing it is not very sophisticated, but it is prevalent: “losing it” is “cool” – well, sometimes. While young men court acceptance and adulthood by becoming sexually active, young women – even in American, sexually charged teenage culture – face shame in either category.
Popular movies that discuss virginity loss demonstrate the difference between the teenage male losing his virginity versus the teenage female. In movies like “The Graduate” and the “American Pie” franchise, engaging in intercourse for the first time is part of the male coming-of-age narrative. Boys cannot be men unless they have “lost it” – and many of these coming-of-age movies follow the virginity loss with graduating high school or college, entering careers, and/or getting married. In most of these narratives with men, having intercourse for the first time does not often have negative consequences. On the contrary, virginity loss is a rite of passage towards a virile and capable manhood. “The 40-Year Old Virgin” attests to this by implying that the main character has not really grown up because he has not yet had intercourse. The stigma of virginity is front-loaded; a man no longer faces the shame of still being a virgin.
The stigma and shame around a young woman, meanwhile, is more diffuse and more complex. There is some stigma attached to being a virgin. Some of this stigma parallels the stigma of being a male teenage virgin, and that seems to be the sentiment expressed by Tina Fey above. There is also the uniquely female stigma of not “putting out” enough for her sexual partners. Young men appear to exert pressure on each other to gain sexual experience; with young women, the pressure seems to largely come from within the relationship – a potentially far more dangerous source of pressure, I might add.
But young women who do lose their virginity shed that stigma but can quickly fall into several other zones of shame, primarily because unlike men, young women are easily labeled as “too” sexual. So if teenage girls do become sexually active, they can quickly be labeled as “sluts,” as in the upcoming movie “Easy A” and in several episodes of “Sex and the City.” She could become teenage and pregnant and eventually a single mother, like the protagonists in “Juno” and “Grease.” She could age without settling down and be stigmatized as “single” or even a “spinster,” as portrayed in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and other episodes of “Sex and the City.”
[It’s unsurprising that given this kind of pressure towards “putting out,” but also given very established modes of stigmatizing women who put out “too much,” parents and even young women might embrace groups like Barlowgirl for encouraging them to not give into that kind of pressure and instead remain true to their faith and therefore, possibly, themselves.]
The mainstream media and socially conservative views on virginity share at least one belief: that women can and often are “too” interested in sex and lose their reputations as a result. Furthermore, a woman’s virginity, or lack thereof, is everyone else’s problem. The status of her virginity determines her worth as a human being. In many ways we do live in a progressive society, but a belief like this – based on, as I discussed above, nebulous “facts” and biased values – having such a hold still on American women is a throwback to historic values that openly dismissed and devalued women. One may ask, justifiably, what is the point of caring anymore about virginity?
IV. VIRGINITY IN AMERICA: Positive thinking
Therese Shechter, director of “I Was a Teenage Feminist,” is working on a new documentary called “How to Lose Your Virginity,” inspired by her own choice to get married at 40. For the past couple of years on her blog, The American Virgin, she has been collecting stories from later-life virgins as well as writing about current news as it relates to virginity. Shechter is a champion of later-life virgins, and is calling for a space where virgins can be virgins without feeling stigmatized or shamed. This trailer for her documentary, which is still unfinished, deals with many of the issues I have discussed here, including taking on the media’s portrayal of virginity with a critical eye. (You may recognize some of the commentators from earlier videos!)
There is of course, a smaller minority in America that identifies as “sex-positive” – a difficult-to-define term that loosely means being open-minded, non-judgmental, and even enthusiastic about sexuality. Many feminists and other progressive thinkers identify as sex-positive. But placing virginity in a sex-positive context, as Shechter does in her website, is semiotically tricky. Though abstaining from sex could technically be a sex-positive act, because abstinence is so value-laden and socially pressured, it is very difficult to reconcile the two terms. And any terminology that uses “virginity” as synonymous with “purity” runs into problems, because sex-positivity is almost entirely about embracing sexuality as not sinful, “dirty,” or otherwise “bad.”
Furthermore, while most American culture has no difficulty defining the term “losing virginity” as vaginal-penile penetration, mainstream culture does not fully embrace the queer community or alternative definitions of sex. A more thorough definition of sex drastically complicates the event of virginity loss. And denying virginity of its mythical powers (as well as sex of the superstitious taboos around it) makes the entire notion of virginity seem very beside the point. For sex-positive thinkers, the important question is: Are you making your own sexual choices, as an adult, with your full consent, and enjoying them? In this light, virginity is a footnote, an afterthought.
In conclusion, well, there is no conclusion. Virginity defies definition and cannot easily be placed in a value system. I posed two questions in my introduction: why does virginity matter? And what is the point of caring about it? After examining the way virginity is defined and handled in American culture, I don’t have good answers. We’re past the biological imperatives for virginity, but continue to code it culturally with all kinds of significance, from shame to pride. I posit that virginity is just as much of a mystical quality as it ever was. Its value is determined entirely by culture; its definition oversteps the bounds of rationality. It is hard to believe that in our modern world we would almost universally cling to something so tenuous, but I believe the mythos of virginity is still holding us in thrall.
The virginity myth plays a major role in “The Virgin Suicides,” both the book written by Jeffrey Eugenides and the film adaptation by Sofia Coppola. One of the most curious elements of the work (the movie stays very faithful to the book, so I’m going to conflate them, though they are two distinct works of art) is that though the title refers to the five Lisbon sisters, they are not all “technically” virgins, yet the reader/viewer is somehow aware that the word “virgin” doesn’t mean what we usually think it does. The Lisbon sisters live under the guardianship of strict Catholic parents and are not allowed much outside, let alone to date or have other friends. They also do not tell their own story. The story is instead told by a first-person plural narrator – a collective “we” comprised of the neighborhood boys who grew up with them and watched them from a distance.
Both Eugenides and Coppola evoke a mood that speaks more to the intuitive definitions and contradictions of feminine virginity than reams of critical analysis. The girls are defined entirely by a male gaze and a male interpretation of their actions. The boys, in the words of A. O. Scott, who reviewed the film for the New York Times “hoard scraps of virginalia like precious stones” and observe them from afar – they almost never physically interact with the girls except for one evening. The girls, sequestered as they are, gain mystery and potency they wouldn’t have otherwise – their inability to be touched heightens the desire of the boys.
“The Virgin Suicides” uncovers a note of horror at the root of the virginity myth. How do girls manage to grow up with these conflicting pressures and desires? What Eugenides and Coppola show us is that not all girls manage it. The girls live in, and are trapped by, the virginity myth. Their cooped-up existence, rather than any sexual technicality, is their virginity – an emotional, physical, or environmental virginity. Idealized as they are by the boys, the girls do not seem quite real, either. Their parents and the boys watching them impose upon them specific ideals that the girls themselves don’t choose. Suffocating inside this ideal, they succumb to despair – and eventually suicide.
This is not a true, or even a likely, story for the average American girl. But this story rings true. It shows how much we still cleave to the virginity myth, and more importantly, illustrates the danger in blindly accepting that myth. Perhaps most importantly, though, “The Virgin Suicides” shows that this is not just an esoteric inquiry into values or semantics. Our beliefs on virginity resonate through us to real, confused, pressured young women just trying to grow up. ▢
- Scarleteen – “Sex positive sex ed” with lots of articles and questions on virginity, including an interview with Professor Hanne Blank.
- Rethinking Virginity – an April 2010 conference and ongoing discussion.
- Where is Your Line – a film and outreach project exploring consent.
- The American Virgin – Therese Schecter’s blog and upcoming film on virginity
- The Virginity Project – British writer Kate Munro’s collection of virginity loss stories
A special thank you to the panelists and participants of the “Rethinking Virginity” conference at Harvard University, for passionately taking on a discussion that was on my mind; to my many first-readers; and above all, to Anne, for so tirelessly making this happen.
1: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-12-19-premarital-sex_x.htm and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/19/AR2006121901274.html
4: Valenti speaks in an interview about her book that takes on this idea very critically, and other news organizations have confronted the phenomenon of purity balls and purity pledges (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_KL92oBWcQ ) as well.