Picture your younger self, hanging out with friends when one of them turns to you and asks, “Are you still a virgin?”
You’re left standing there, confused as you don’t want to be judged regardless if the answer is yes or no.
Virginity was a big deal growing up. There were so many questions. Would I bleed the first time I had sex? Would it hurt? Would people (oh goodness, my parents!) know by looking at me that I had ‘lost it’? Why was my body being treated as some possession that others could take from me and claim ownership over the first time I had sex? That way of thinking involved a slew of emotions from shame and guilt, fear and embarrassment to maybe even a little bit of excitement. Still for others, that mentality had damaging effects on their self-esteem, sexual wellness, body image and autonomy.
The way in which our culture obsesses over virginity, a concept that has been socially constructed, can have lasting impacts on a person’s overall sexual health and functioning. Social constructs are driven by norms and ideas created by, you guessed it – us humans!
When someone has sex for the first time there is no measurable change in who they are. To this day, there exists no medical definition nor physical marker of virginity in a vulva or penis owner. The hymen, which is commonly thought to magically break, tear or pop from first time penetrative sex is believed to be a physical marker for virginity in vulva owners.
It does not help that this view has been splashed across the media by celebrities taking their young daughters to the doctor to examine whether their hymen is still intact, hence falsely trying to determine whether they are still virgins.
The hymen or vaginal corona which is simply vaginal folds of tissue can come in different shapes and sizes and can stretch (not pop, like the common saying ‘popping the cherry’) long before a person has penetrative sex for the first time. To use this as a means to determine if someone has had sex is not only inaccurate, it’s harmful.
There is no change in the shape or size or tightness of the vagina as it is made up of elastic muscles which can stretch during sex and childbirth before returning to their usual shape. Nor is there any physical change in the penis after someone has sex for the first time. There is no virginity test and there is certainly no way of telling by looking at a person’s genitals whether they have had sex.
The commonly held view that sex for the first time for a vulva owner can be painful and cause bleeding has more to do with a lack of communication, inexperience and lack of lubrication than it does with whether a person has previously had sex.
Sex for the first time can be pleasurable and enjoyable if respectful and honest communication has been established and the body is sufficiently prepared.
The concept of virginity is heteronormative meaning that it is exclusively focused on male/female penetrative sex (penis in vagina or intercourse). This limited definition of sex neglects the needs, wants, desires, preferences and sexual experiences of many people who don’t identify as heterosexual. It also provides a very limited definition of sex and no single type of sex is more valid or superior than any other kind. Regardless of one’s sexuality or gender, pleasure is yours to explore, define and experience in a way that is most comfortable for you.
Purity culture and the idea of virginity reinforces detrimental gender norms by figuratively placing a moral compass between someone’s legs. It serves as a way to police and control bodies. If virginity is treated as something that can be lost when a person with a vulva has sex for the first time, that person can lose their sense of value and worth, while a penis owner on the other hand may actually experience shame and ridicule for delaying their first sexual experience until they feel ready to do so.
The construct of virginity does not exist and we need to reframe how we think about virginity. Sex and therefore virginity mean different things to different people and all types of sexual experiences and expression are valid. People should be free to make their own decisions about sex and virginity and do what’s right for them when they feel ready regardless of what society dictates as ‘the norm’.
Elisha Miller is a sex educator and Director of 5 Circles Bermuda, which provides modern and inclusive sex positive education and awareness through discussions, workshops and events. Follow 5 Circles Bermuda on Instagram.