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

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

 
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