Sex & Relationships

The Trouble With Virginity: What America’s Sexual Language Leaves Out

Our limited concept of "losing your virginity" ignores the importance of consent.

Photo Credit: Sean Nel

Virginity looms large in the American consciousness. But looking at how we actually start having sex, the binary of virginity does an embarrassingly bad job describing how young people come to embody their sexual selves. The whole virginity concept — a switch that gets flipped with or without our intention — is at odds with the idea of consent in sex. Can we have both virginity and consent? And if not, which one are we prepared to let go?

It’s nice to think that we’ve largely talked ourselves out of the corrosive history of virginity that associated literal monetary value with women’s bodies (not so long ago, an engagement ring was compensation to a woman for giving up her chastity). But if you thought that chapter of history was over, you might be disappointed. Therese Shechter’s new documentary, “How To Lose Your Virginity,” walks us through the fascinating past and present of virginity: from the Roman Vestal Virgins choosing celibacy to carve out a modicum of autonomy in a world where they had no control, to radically morphing definitions of virginity over Christian history, to “virginity kits” and online virginity auctions. Shechter’s movie, with breezy, watchable, funny delivery, walks us through the simple argument that baked into the very term virginity — one that we still use freely — is an idea of a woman’s body as an object for transaction.

Women’s virginity is protected by a father and then “given” to a husband, words we use to this day. Shechter draws on colorful characters and leading experts to retell the story of virginity, an ancient-sounding history that bleeds, quite disturbingly and no pun intended, into the present. While Shechter isn’t anti-virginity per se, she is adamantly in favor of women being able to define their experiences for themselves, without the interference of institutions with bad track records of recognizing women’s personhood.

When I had high school sex ed, the educators were already over the word “virginity.” The ’90s gold standard, instead, was “readiness.” We were encouraged to “become sexually active” only when we were “ready.” It’s hard to write without scare quotes because these same educators, apparently terrified to be talking about sex, were at a loss to define their terms. There were consequences to becoming sexually active, they told us, things like pregnancy and exposure to sexually transmitted infections. This readiness was a vector that went in only one direction, eventually toward sex. It was a choice you made once and couldn’t unmake. Soon we would switch off our youthful unreadiness and join the ranks of the “sexually active.” How often? With whom? And are you still “sexually active” every moment after having sex? What about at those moments of the day when you’re not actually having sex?

Once that switch is flipped, a person is apparently game for anything, and irreversibly. The concept of becoming sexually active is certainly more progressive than that of virginity. For one, it acknowledges that teenagers have sexuality and choices (although “become” is not such an active verb). But it’s missing a lot of things. It’s missing the sexuality that many people have on their own since childhood. When it’s acting as shorthand for virginity — often considered penis-in-vagina penetration — it dismisses all sexual activity between people other than heterosexual couples. And “becoming sexually active” whitewashes the complicated course to sexual maturity that rape and sexual abuse survivors go through. Though it does gesture toward the right not to venture into sex at too early a moment in one’s development, “becoming sexually active” is also missing consent: the ability to choose the sex that you want — or don’t want — at a given time, without pressure or expectation.

I first got confused by the concept of “being sexually active” when doctors started asking me about my status in college. While I’d had sex in the past, I wasn’t having it then, and I didn’t feel particularly comfortable talking to them about it. I think what they meant to ask was, “Should I screen you for sexually transmitted infections?” That’s a question with a very different answer. How was I supposed to respond? What about my friends (men and women) who were survivors of rape or childhood sexual abuse, people who might very well have been exposed to STIs, though they weren’t sexually active in any meaningful sense? How were they supposed to answer? The language left much to be desired.

But I didn’t really understand the deep mismatch between the concept of becoming sexually active and the way that women actually live their lives until I began talking to women about their sex histories for “Subjectified,” an oral history project about the sex lives of young women around the U.S. One by one, I encountered stories that dismantled the image of the freight train barreling unstoppably in the direction of sexual activity. I heard stories of fits and starts.

One woman told me about losing her virginity at age 13 in a trusting, respectful relationship and then not having sex for a while after that ended. Eventually, she “started from the beginning” with new partners, with no expectation of sex or “being sexually active.”

One woman told me about exploring sexuality with female friends at a young age, in a safe environment, followed by years of dysfunctional, non-consensual encounters with men.

And another woman described early, non-consensual hookups that led her to feel it would be better to “choose” sex (even if she didn’t really want to) than to have it chosen for her against her will.

None of these processes of becoming sexually active were one moment or one choice. The choices grew and developed, were influenced over time by real life, and adapted to the very different environments that the individuals grew up in.

But whether we call it virginity or becoming sexually active, we assume that the arrow only goes in one direction. In Shechter’s words, “there are the deeply ingrained transformative ideas about women ‘losing’ their virginity, instantly transforming from innocent to experienced, clean to dirty and valuable/value-less. Aside from the sexism and commodification, the idea that your body and soul can change from one moment to the next by the application of a penis to your vagina (but not your anus) is ludicrous.” Shechter interviews doctors about women’s anatomy, demonstrating that there is no real physical proof of a lost virginity. If physical proof is surprisingly illusory, spiritual proof is even harder to come by. “I understand the need to mark the moment of becoming sexual,” Shechter tells me. “The problem is, sex just doesn’t work like that, in a moment. It’s a process.”

Last year, I started crowdsourcing anonymous sex stories for an oral history project called “Do Tell.” Many of the stories involve first times. But another trend quietly emerged. Some women decided not to have sex ever again, and this was the significant transition that they wanted to talk about. For some, it was due to age or lack of a partner or just lack of interest. For others, the choice of celibacy came out of past traumas. For them, maybe the most empowering position was exercising the choice not to be sexual with other people. And other women discovered a real desire for sex for the first time at age 40 or 60, or after a divorce.

Does one “become sexually active” after a 10-year hiatus? After a dissolved marriage or the birth of children? Does choosing to become sexually active or celibate mean something different at 60 than it does at 16? People sent me stories about feeling shame for wanting not to be partnered or about the choice not to have sex anymore. Some felt resentment at the expectation that once their virginity was shed, they’d always be available for sex. Some felt resentful of other people’s judgment because they chose to be single or celibate. In a world obsessed with the way that a girl becomes a woman, we don’t often look at the many sexual statuses a person can have over the course of a lifetime.

I realized that my concept of becoming sexually active was fully broken during one long interview, in the middle of a totally ordinary, typical “first time” story. Morée lost her virginity in high school with a long-term boyfriend after plenty of discussion, consent and with a condom on hand. It wasn’t all that, as it so often is not, at least not the first time. “We didn’t have sex for a while after that,” she told me, “because I wasn’t comfortable with being sexually active.”

What startled me was the notion that she thought she could take it back, that she could suddenly not be sexually active just as she’d suddenly become sexually active. And what alarmed me as I processed the conversation in my mind was how I had forced that rigid idea of sexual activity onto her, assuming that a switch had flipped and that she wasn’t free to make a new decision for herself. Her approach was altogether healthier than my assumption, and more realistic to the ways that we grow to embody our sexual selves over time, through trial and error, and hopefully good humor along the way. Without this one-way arrow of “becoming,” without this sense of sexual activity as an identity rather than a set of chosen behaviors, Morée was free to experiment in a safe setting and figure out what felt right for her at the time. And if it didn’t feel right, she was free to step back. Although she did have plenty of feelings about what it meant not to be a virgin anymore, nothing was lost.

Disturbingly often, the people sharing their stories on “Do Tell” talked about violence. For so many, abuse was the introduction to a grown-up world of power and sex. This violence preceded any consideration of virginity, choice or opportunity to define their sexuality for themselves. Beyond circulating a profound misunderstanding of how growing up works, the binary, transformational model of virginity creates a culture that revictimizes survivors of rape and sexual abuse. In a culture saturated with sexual violence, like we have in the U.S., any conversation about sex will grapple with violence. We can’t talk about virginity without it. Among young women who have sex before age 20, one in 10 women (and one in 20 men) will describe it as “unwanted.” As the president recently noted, one in five women is raped in college. We can’t talk about these cases like they’re outliers, no matter how we define sexual activity or virginity. As the recent backlash against Dylan Farrow (and widespread ignorance of rape allegations against Bill Cosby) shows too well, young survivors see plenty of reasons to keep quiet and not much opportunity for justice.

Within purity culture, the ambiguity of what rape means for virginity plays on survivors’ fears, no matter how many times an adult says that rape is not sex. If we can’t determine for sure whether virginity is a hymen or a state of mind, how do we tell if it’s gone or not? And when a young women’s whole identity is at stake, who gets to judge? Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old Mormon girl from a traditional family, famously survived nine months of brutal captivity in the woods of Utah. A decade later, Smart has begun to discuss the ways that she was harmed by the virginity culture that she was raised with, how she was told that women who’ve had unmarried sex are chewed-up pieces of gum. This was her reference point after her rape. In that framework, a choice that someone else made to rape her changed her status as a person. “That’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”

Shechter talks to veteran sexuality educator Heather Corinna, who constantly fields heartbreaking questions about virginity status from rape survivors. Shechter herself has collected many stories of rape and virginity in her project’s “V-Card Diaries.” The fact that the question “Am I still a virgin?” still nags at survivors shows us the power of virginity to cast our identity based on sexual status, without our input or choice. “In the stories with more positive outcomes,” Shechter tells me, “the woman writing has decided that what happened to her wasn’t sex, it was violence.

The assumption that once someone has sex for the first time, her identity shifts and the act of sex joins her repertoire, forever “on the table,” flies directly against our concept of consent. Consent is how we tell sex from rape, though its legal history is relatively recent, since a husband forcing sex on his wife wasn’t even a crime in parts of the U.S. until the 1990s. It’s a concept that remains shockingly controversial to teach young people in a culture that all too often blames survivors for their rapes. If virginity is property passed from a father to a husband, who is a woman to give consent? Which party is she stealing from? In fact, for women who understand consent, choosing to refrain from sex can be as powerful as participating, especially for survivors.

Shechter’s movie poses a few suggestions for how to rethink virginity in a way that respects women. But it also leaves open the possibility of shedding the concept altogether. What if we gave up on the idea of a binary identity shift from sexually inactive to sexually active? What if we “lost our virginity,” in Shechter’s words, replacing it with a notion of consent, given and rescinded by people with rights and choices? The idea I grew up with, of waiting to be “ready to have sex,” begins the important work of inviting choice into the equation. But it also takes choices away — choices like deciding not to have sex with other people, or forgoing a certain kind of sex, or choosing not to have sex with a particular person or in a particular moment. When I met Shechter in Brooklyn, she handed me a paper “V-Card” with a neat row of ten cherries, each ready to punch out with one of the many virginities that a person might get to losing, regardless of his or her age or sexual activity status. As it turns out, we’ve got a lot of virginity to lose.