Here's Why We Need To Change The Conversation Around Virginity

by Laken Howard
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Even though it's 2018 and our collective view of sex is evolving — thanks in large part to the feminist, LGBTQ+, and sex-positive movements, of course — there still seems to be a lot of judgment surrounding sex. Whether we're telling them when, how, or perhaps most commonly, not to do it, it can't be denied that society is still hung up on telling young people what to do about their sex lives.

For many of us as teenagers, it seemed like everyone was obsessed with either "losing" their virginity or "saving" it, like it were some tangible object that also happened to define who you were. But it doesn't end in high school. A perfect example of society’s lingering fascination with virginity is the recent announcement that Colton Underwood — a former pro football player who was outspoken about his virginity on his season of The Bachelorette — will be the next leading man on The Bachelor. Assuming the show-runners choose whoever they feel their audience will connect with most, it’s pretty telling that they chose Underwood over other fan favorites. The show’s host, Chris Harrison, also recently revealed that Underwood’s virginity will “be one of the storylines” on the upcoming season, and the fact that someone's sexual status is going to be a plot point on TV further proves just how obsessed we are with judging each other's sexual choices.

And this isn't the first time the franchise has focused on a contestant's virginity: Ashley Iaconetti's storyline on Chris Soules' Bachelor season was also all about the ~big reveal~ that she had never had sex. All evidence considered, it's safe to say that society is pretty obsessed with knowing which celebs are virgins... even those who are still minors — remember back when everyone was weirdly interested in whether or not teen stars like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus were still virgins?

Whether it's in the form of slut-shaming, kink-shaming, or even looking down on someone who's less experienced, it can't be denied that society seems to enjoy passing judgment on one another's sexual choices. But isn't it time we re-think how we talk about virginity, and stop obsessing over everyone else's sex lives?

The Problematic Nature Of The Term "Virginity"

Back in the days when we were all mere tweens and teens just starting to learn about sex, the idea of someone "losing their virginity" was pretty straightforward: it meant that two people had penis-in-vagina sex for the first time. The problem with this heteronormative definition of virginity, however, is that it's both inaccurate, incomplete, and exclusive of the LGBTQ+ community.

"The more we emphasize virginity as a goal, the more silence we have around real issues like pleasure, sexuality, and consent."

There are so many different kinds of sex — anal sex, oral sex, vaginal sex, mutual masturbation, and more — that it's silly to associate just one act (penetration) with the 'loss' of virginity. Sexual intimacy doesn't require penetration, and it certainly doesn't only happen between a man and woman. In reality, losing one's virginity is less of a physical milestone and more of an emotional one, and we should all feel free to define our own virginity however we want.... even if that means not using that term at all.

“We need to get rid of the word virginity altogether,” Andrea Barrica, founder of online sexual education platform O.School, tells Bustle. “That doesn't mean that everyone is ready for sex, but virginity as a concept is obsolete. Definitions of virginity leave out oral and hand sex, queer sex and anal sex — none of which should be considered ‘not sex.’ And the pressure around virginity causes anxiety, stigma and shame for both the haves and the have-nots. The more we emphasize virginity as a goal, the more silence we have around real issues like pleasure, sexuality, and consent.”

"Virginity places pressure on people with penises to lose it, and people with vulvas to keep it, without any consideration as to whether or not each feels ready to do either."

Another huge problem is that, too often, discussions surrounding the virginity of men and of women is viewed and treated differently by society. Just think of the gendered connotations of "saving it" versus "losing it" — and how those with a penis are often celebrated for losing it while those with a vulva are shamed for not saving it. "Virginity places pressure on people with penises to lose it, and people with vulvas to keep it, without any consideration as to whether or not each feels ready to do either," Barrica says.

How Focusing On Virginity Is Harmful

Although it would be asinine to suggest that having sex — however you define that word — for the first time is not an important moment for many young people, there's nonetheless a serious problem with just how much emphasis society places on that milestone. By hyping up the loss of one's virginity, it creates a lot of often unrealistic expectations about how the first time "should" go, which in turn can be the source of a lot of anxiety for young people just starting to experiment with their sexuality.

"I think in this day and age many people have a lot of anxiety about having sex for the first time," Diane Gleim, LMFT, AASECT certified sex therapist, tells Bustle. "It's built up to be a monumental moment in a person's life, like crossing a threshold into a new world, but that is one of the many ways our culture is so messed up when it comes to sex."

In short, because we place so much emphasis on virginity, it makes the first time seem like it should be some life-changing moment; in reality, that's not always the case for every individual. The first time you have sex can, of course, be a special and intimate memory, but plenty of people (including yours truly) have a completely meh experience the first time around — but that doesn't mean our experience is something to regret or be ashamed of, and it certainly doesn't mean we're in any way 'tainted' by having a less-than-perfect first time.

Can Waiting To Have Sex Affect Your Sexual Development?

Since the sex-positive movement has taken off, it's been growing more and more acceptable for women in particular to openly celebrate sex and intimacy. But one crucial thing to remember is that sex-positivity doesn't just mean encouraging people to have sex: it means being accepting of everyone's sexual decisions, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. That, of course, includes being respectful of someone who's made the decision to wait to have sex — either until marriage or until later in life.

According to 2017 data from the CDC, the average age of "first intercourse" is 16.8 for men, and 17.2 for women, meaning most of us are still teens when we start experimenting sexually. But if someone chooses to abstain from sex until later in life, can that have an impact on their sexual or romantic development? The answer is both yes and no: "Some people can confuse virginity with 'purity', but often what they are referring to is a lack of experience," Gleim says. "And sometimes what they're also referring to is sexual naivete, but these are two different things: a person can be inexperienced and also be wise."

"Society assumes that someone who loses their virginity later in life will automatically become clingy and weird when it finally happens. And that’s not the case for everyone."

Just because someone has never had sex doesn't necessarily mean they lack sexual knowledge or experience; similarly, just because someone *has* had sex doesn't necessarily mean they're experienced or knowledgeable about sex. Jenna*, a 23-year-old who waited to have sex until her early 20s, tells Bustle that, although her religious upbringing influenced her to wait until later in life to have sex, she still took time to educate herself about sex.

"It wasn’t until I was in my first serious relationship at 21 that I realized I knew nothing about sex," Jenna tells Bustle. "When that relationship ended, it was a concern for me when dating in my early 20s. Between 21 and 23, I embarked on a huge mission to educate myself, both practically and spiritually. I watched a ton of porn, read up on a lot of Christian debates and basically educated myself about sex, sexuality, and how society views it all."

Despite her lack of practical experience, Jenna says that by the time she had sex for the first time, she felt ready and like she really wanted it, instead of feeling unsure or anxious. "I didn’t feel pressured, I didn’t feel coerced, unlike many of my friends who did it when they were much younger," Jenna says. "I don’t think my sexuality has changed much since I’m still learning about it, but it’s definitely something I’m more open about with friends."

Another harmful stigma about later-in-life virgins is that "taking" their virginity is a some huge burden that, unless it goes magically well, will end in hurt feelings, confusion, and clinginess toward that first partner lest they stay together forever.

"Society views virgins as anomalies," Katherine*, a 28-year-old woman who waited until she was 25 to have sex, tells Bustle. "I’ve had partners tell me that I’m the kind of person they tend to avoid because I don’t have a lot of experience. Society assumes that someone who loses their virginity later in life will automatically become clingy and weird when it finally happens. And that’s not the case for everyone."

Why It's Time Stop Obsessing Over Other People’s Decisions Regarding Sex

So what's the bottom line? It's pointless to judge others for their sex lives, or lack thereof. Regardless of whether you're sleeping with zero people or 100 people, no one should ever feel judged for their sexual decisions. As long as you feel happy and comfortable with your own choices, it doesn't matter when or how you decide to have sex for the first time.

"There is no one right time to have sex, but we need to talk to kids about why we have it and what we get out of it, so that they can make informed and consent-affirmative decisions for themselves," Barrica says. "Most of all, we need to remove the idea that the loss of virginity should be painful, and based more on lack of knowledge about anatomy and the physiology of sex — and often lack of affirmative consent — than it is some unfortunate part of having a hymen."

Having sex for the first time can be messy and complicated enough on its own, so the added pressure that comes with pushing people to either "lose" or "save" their virginity can make things even tougher. If you feel ready for sex, it's important to take the time to educate yourself about things like consent, sexual communication, and the basics of pleasure — and ignore outside influences that try to sway you one way or the other toward having sex.

"There are so many negative messages that men and women get during childhood and adolescence about sexuality — from parents, religious institutions, media, [and] peers," Deborah Fox, MSW, AASECT certified sex therapist, tells Bustle. "These negative messages get lodged pretty firmly in our psyches. And whatever your sexual behavior is, you can easily make up that it's bad in some way, or will be perceived by others as bad… The combination of what you feel about your sexual behavior and how you imagine another will interpret [it] is a powerful and potentially crushing combination. It’s stunning what people can infer about someone else in response to limited information about their sexuality."

Simply put, there will always be someone out there who will judge you or try to make you feel guilty for your sexual decisions... but you shouldn't let other's opinions of your sex life affect the way you conduct it — because your sex life is no one's business but your own (and your partners'). And if we want to make having sex for the first time a more approachable, less nerve-wracking experience for future generations, it's important to stop placing so much emphasis on virginity and the ~first time~, and instead focus on providing young people with better sex ed, resources about how to have good sex, and of course, starting conversations about consent. That way, even if someone's first time isn't some special, life-changing moment, they can still feel empowered to continue exploring their sexuality in a healthy way — which will hopefully lead to a more fulfilling sex life in the future.