Is Virginity A Myth?

imagesBy Nataliya Naumova

What is virginity? Might seem obvious, but there in no clear answer.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says sex is “an act performed with another for sexual gratification.” Sounds pretty broad, yet a lot of us think it’s penis-to-vagina penetration that ends virginity.

What about gays and lesbians? What about young women and men who take virginity oaths but do oral and anal? What if a woman’s one and only lover were a man with E.D.? (That can happen!)

It’s confusing!

Hanne Blank, a sexuality author and activist says,

I spent about a week (at Harvard’s medical school library) looking through everything I could – medical dictionaries, encyclopedias, anatomies – trying to find some sort of diagnostic standard for virginity… I am not finding anything close to a medical definition for virginity.

Feminist author and blogger, Jessica Valenti, points all this out in her book, The Virginity Myth. And when she asked people to define “sex” she got no consistent answer. Indeed, America once had a great debate over whether Bill Clinton “had sex” with “that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” He said oral didn’t count. Others said it did.

Odd that there’s no clear meaning when we’ve talked of virgins since ancient times, when so many keep promoting it, and when virginity becomes a synonym for girls who are “good,” as in, “She’s a good girl.”

Even if she is both mean and virginal, she’s a good girl, Valenti points out.

But if she’s kind and non-virginal, she may be punished for her supposed badness — even when she has no control.

In some parts of the world girls and women are murdered in honor killings because they were raped or because they did not bleed on the marriage bed — and hymens may be broken from things that don’t even resemble sex, like exercise.

Even when girls aren’t being killed they may feel shamed for their lost virginity. Elizabeth Smart has explained that she “felt so dirty and so filthy” when her captor raped her that she understands why someone wouldn’t run away “because of that alone.”

As a young girl one of Elizabeth’s teachers had compared sex to chewing gum:

I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.” And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value… Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.

And then there are sexually naive but slut-shamed 11-year-olds who have no idea what “ate me out” means even as they’re accused of having been thusly eaten.

So women are shamed and killed and feel so dirty that there’s no point in escaping a ruthless captor – all because of virginity, or the lack thereof — even when “virginity” is unclear!

Virginity: a myth that can kill and cripple, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

One of my students wrote this and gave permission to post.

Popular Virginity Posts on BroadBlogs
Lose Virginity, Lose Self-Esteem?
It Ain’t Sex Unless You Ooooo
It Ain’t Sex Unless It’s Pleasuring

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 15, 2013, in feminism, sex, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Brilliant post! I write about this extensively in the new book as well. It’s sad that this outdated, irrelevant term still causes so much distress in so many people.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Rohan.

  2. This is something I have always pondered to myself about. It grinds my gears when young people will do everything except penis —> vagina, cal themselves virginal and make no acknowledgment to the fact that they have done other sexual acts. It’s almost as if these think don’t matter or count to them at all.

    Bill Clinton was an all and out liar with his statement because from what I recall he said, “I didn’t not have sexual relations with that woman.” The term “sexual relations” is pretty damn broad and doesn’t include just intercourse. I was only 13 or 14 when I heard the news that they found evidence of his dna in the office and thought to myself, “This goon doesn’t think a bj counts as sexual relations? Dumbass.”

    Another point is, there is so much placed on female virginity, it’s no wonder why girls feel the way they do when they think their virginity is no longer there. When you really stop to think about it, it’s such a ridiculous thing to place so much importance on.

  3. F. naghiniarami

    great post. My own experience with this issue (virginity) yields a point that is similar with Naumova. The virginity always was one of unanswerable questions in my mind. I had mixed feeling about it and I was wonder why a girl who has oral or anal sex and keep her hymen safe can be a good girl in contrast a girl who has intercourse and loose her physical virginity known as a bad girl! in my idea both had sex before marriage so whats the difference? I grown up in a kind of culture that extremely value girls’ virginity, In my culture if a girl lose her virginity before marriage, she confronts with lots of aggressive behavior of others specially boys, her future husband and his family. for instance, everybody look at her as a whore! and she has no more respect in the society. Actually, its mostly depend to your family and specifically to your mom because mom can solve this problem with setting up a hymen surgery! Imagine if your mom is not an educated or smart woman, what’s going to happen to you? Perhaps, that girl has to deal with lots of upcoming, unpleasant treats from others. Interestingly, the girl who had anal or oral sex before marriage and still has her hymen in place, going to get married with on of the most successful, rich and high class boy in the city; additionally, her husband and his family treat her like a princess with so much respect! That is amazing that how people translate and misuse the meaning of virginity. The dictionary meaning of virginity is that “…the state of being naive, innocent, or inexperienced in a particular context” (google). so what do you think? My own view is that the concept of virginity is another thing of male-role that wants to control women. I maintain my claim that if it is not so, why a boy can sleep around with whoever he likes without being worry about his virginity and it is not a stigma but having intercourse before marriage is controversial and disgusting for a girl. Still, I say that what matters most is not virginity itself but the aspect of having control and power over women.

  4. Shu-Hsuan Hu

    Yes. It’s hard to define virginity. Many young girl friends do not know they are still virgins or not. Sometimes they insist they are still virgins even they got penetrated but without the blood bleeding. So they would believe that their membranes have not penetrated yet then they are still virgins. In Asia, there are even a surgery that can help women to rebuild their virgina membrane in order to make the guy believe they are still virgins. But I discovered recently that many men tend to love non-virgin now, they even afraid virgins because they do not want to have more responsibility. That’s quite opposite than before. In Christianity, they believe men and women should enjoy the sex after they got married, then their marriage would be blessed. If there is any temptation before the marriage, then that means the devil is alluring you.

  5. Katherine Rupel

    It’s frustrating how flawed our sexual education is growing up– both within institutions like school as well as cultural learning. I think the reason young people are left so in the dark when it comes to sex and sexuality is because it’s “taboo” and not “polite conversation”. Rather than having an environment that’s open discussion where kids can ask questions without fear of judgment or stigmatization, we rob them of their understanding of sexuality and ultimately stymie their development.

  6. Mikaela Hansen

    This is definitely a thought-provoking post. It is a very blurred line of when a girl is considered a virgin and when she is not. In my opinion, I would consider someone a virgin until they have had vaginal sex. However, what if you had a girl that had sex with one person consistently that they love versus a girl who has never had sex but consistently engages in other sexual acts with many different people? Who would be considered the “good girl” in this situation? Would the second girl be considered a virgin or not?

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. Having studied psychology for a couple of years I’m understanding the social motivation to feel guilty or shamed after having sex. This shame varies from place to place. I live in Los Altos and attended Los Altos high school. At Los altos high school, when people dated it was assumed that they were also having sex. Even if two people had sex when they weren’t dating, it wasn’t that big of a deal. My boyfriend attended archbishop Mitty, a private catholic school. At Mitty, if someone found out that you had sex with your boyfriend of 8 months, it would be shameful and people would judge quite harshly. The differences in this societal judgement of what people see as sex can be extremely harsh and detrimental. I have heard about honor killings before and I believe that they are horrible. I don’t believe that it is honorable to kill someone because they are no longer a virgin. To say that someone holds no worth because they have lost their virginity is also a horrible thing. Virginity is a tool used to oppress and control women socially and personally. Slut shaming is a cruel took used by society to embarrass and make women feel guilty for something that is only in their human nature. Thank you for posting this. I love reading about things like this.

  8. Yes, virginity doesn’t exist. I’m happy with the news because of my sister. When she was 20, she had sex with her boyfriend and she regreted having sex because of her virginity. My parents found out that she lost her verginity to a man who wasn’t a nice boyfriend and they were disappointed that she lost her virginity to such guy. My mother also said that she would feel sorry to her husband in the future bacause she is not a virgin and also she gave it to the worthless guy. As I learned that virginity doesn’t exist, I told my sister that she doesn’t have to feel sorry to her future-husband and ashamed anymore because of a word doesn’t exist, as long as it was her decision.

  9. I grew up in a very bias and religious African American family that believes that once your “cherry” is broken you are no longer a virgin. It’s also very unfair how some parents and cultures make women feel dirty and worthless because they are not virgins anymore.
    I don’t get how you can still be a virgin when you have anal sex or give blow jobs… that’s still sex!!!

  10. This really gets you thinking. Like many others I struggle to understand how one defines virginity. So many young girls define it as only intercourse between a man and women. Therefore everything else is okay. I guess what should we expect as a society? The President of the United States stated that a women performing oral sex on his genitals is not having sexual relations. Many people lost respect for Bill Clinton after this incident, but most people just shook their head or laughed. I remember hearing comments like, well I guess even the President is just a guy. The comments towards Monica Lewinsky were not so light hearted. There is so much emphasis put on the value of a woman’s virginity and yet we hardly ever hear anything about the value of a man based on his virginity. That would just be crazy?
    I shudder when I think of how our culture has taught women and girls that virginity is their worth, especially in cultures that condemn women for acts of rape. This sexual objectification of women is displaying how we should save ourselves until after marriage. This way our spouse doesn’t have to share us with someone else. Is marriage giving them ownership over us? It is like once women have given away their virginity they are labeled used and of less value. Isn’t time that this stops? The shame and guilt is placed unfairly on women and it needs to end. As a mother of two preteen girls I cannot stress enough that sex is not something to take lightly! I place the same emphasis on all sexual acts and it should apply to both males and females. However we cannot continue the cycle that teaches girls that they are dirty or worthless because they are not virgins.

  11. The moment the wedding march started all eyes turned toward the back of the church, the doors opened and she appeared. To this day I remember that moment I saw my soon to be wife enter that door way, I can’t tell you anything else that was going on because I was completely focused on her, I had never seen anything so beautiful.

    She was wearing a white dress, made by family and friends that contained bits of lacing from both of our mothers and grandmothers wedding dresses. A symbolism of purity, of virginity.

    Of course she was not a virgin, neither was I. We were not even each other’s first sexual partner, we had both lost our virginity years prior to even meeting one another. Ultimately the marriage did not survive us as some 17 years later we ended it. But when I think back to that summer day and the moment I saw her in that white dress, the thought of purity and virginity was not in the knowledge of being the first to have sex with her but starting a new and untainted life with her. A life that did not see anything that had happened before that moment but only looked forward, being virgins of life and going forward together.

    The incidents that are talked about in the article are not to be taken lightly. I have seen firsthand the results of successful or attempted mercy killings. I remember the fallout of President Clintons downplaying of sexual activities. And I have been the person who was the first responder to victims of sexual assault. I’ve heard a lot of ideas about the definition and importance of virginity, especially when it comes to women’s virginity.

    For me I like my definition of virginity: a new start, the chance to move forward without the chains of past actions, the hope.

  12. The post in brilliant and inspiring. Debates on whether virginity is a choice open for people, especially women to make seems to be everlasting. In society domained by male, female are to be “faithful” to their husbands. Here by being “faithful”, there are a lot of regulations in detail but virginity is always listed at the top. People talk about it, but few ever considered the problem of whether “virginity” really exists or not.
    It is generally believed that religions, customs and even laws can all be used by those who domain the society as tools to control the others. To show their control over women, men who domain the society often employ these three stratedgies: religion s of various kinds often praise “virginity” while nailing non-virginal girls to the pillar of shame; social discourse take non-virginity as disgrace; laws of ancient countries and even some modern countries as a crime. Stories of honor killing may be far away from the modern world, but discriminations and censures step in as replacements. All of these facts only add to the obsurdity of virginity when we finally find the concept does not scientifically.
    But to break the barrier of understanding on the issue, there are further ways to go. The non-existence of virgintiy in scientific field and the vagueness of the concept still cannot eliminate its existence in the mind of tens of thousands of people. And who says there are no definition for virginity? There are many, some even with specific details (check with ancient Chinese requirements on women for example). They are just non-scientific, but they exist. How to eliminate these definitions/moral requirements and discriminations/social pressures that come along are the next step to go.

  13. Virginity is a very difficult thing to define because it does not have one meaning. When most kids receive “the talk” they are told what sex is how one looses their virginity, which is when the hymen is broken. But there is a lot more to it. Some people define virginity as never in engaging in vaginal sex. They do not count having oral or anal sex as loss of virginity. Other people view virginity as being abstinent and never engaging in any time of sexual activities. So I think it really is a personal definition and that there is not just one universal definition. For example, take two couples that made a virginity pledge. One couple may never engage in any type of sexual activity as to not break the pledge, but the other couple might engage in oral, anal, or something else and reserve vaginal sex for marriage. They each believe that they are keeping the pledge. I do not think virginity is a myth but I do believe that there is not a universal definition and everyone hast to decide for themselves.

  14. The thought is very intellectual. I love the fact that it brings up the idea that what if virginity or being a virgin is all in our head..? is having a virginity like believing in god? what if I didnt believe in virginity? this piece made me think about a lot .

  15. I definitely Agree that there is no clear way to define viriginity. And the fact that women have to feel ashamed because they lost their virginity against their will is so wrong on so many levels. No woman or girl should feel that it is their fault that this has happened to them. As for virginity defining a girl as a “good girl” isn’t always true. Because of the fact that sometimes the girls who aren’t virgins lost it unwillingly and yet they are considered sluts, and hoes, and sometimes the virgin is the one being promiscuous and dresses in ways that show more than she should.

  16. I personally believe that true virginity is the complete and total abstinence from any sexual activity, whether it be performed by your own hands, or the hands of another or others. This includes masturbation. My personal opinion on why feminist author Hanne Blank was unable to find a medical definition of “virginity” is because virginity throughout the ages has been a term almost always related to religion (specifically Christianity), which is in total contradiction with science.

    • I’m a little confused by why you think that science says that virginity equals any sort of sexual behavior at all? It actually doesn’t. And the earliest meaning of the word simply meant “a woman who was independent of a man.” So she may have been unmarried and having sex and she would be a virgin. I will definitely have to write a blog post on this sometime.

      Virginity is a social concept, not a scientific one.

  17. Being a virgin is something many girls are teased about and not being a virgin is something many girls are ridiculed about. What I don’t understand is why is it called losing your virginity? It sounds so negative and scares people away. That may also be why so many people, women mostly, are ashamed of having sex. When in reality you are not loosing anything, but rather gaining experience and knowledge of sex. I mean with out sex none of us would be alive so we should not put such a negative connotation to “Loosing your virginity.” I mean what is there to loose if we can not even agree on what it is? And I’m not saying you should just go out and have sex, I’m just saying it should not be a negative thing for men and women.

  18. Good post. After reading this article, it reminds me of one of my conversations with a drunken friend. She was born in a very traditional family and her parents have taught her ever since she was a kid that her virginity should be kept until she is married. However, feelings are hard to control. She “lost” her virginity when she studied in college. For a conservative family, if a girl who has “lost” her virginity, she would be detested. So she put this secret in her heart. Imagine that how serious it would be for her that she was upset for this kind of thing even she was drunk. She even wants to do a virginity reconstructive surgery. As far as I can see, virginity is not the representative of purity. These definitions are from traditional distortions of the past. Defining whether a person preserves his or her moral integrity should be judged from behaviors. Therefore, it seems to me that the concept of virginity should be correct, especially for children’s education. If a child has been educated at an early age the virginity is supreme, it would bring big psychological pressure to the child.

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