Here's Why We're Thinking About Why Virginity All Wrong

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I was 15 when I lost my virginity. I can say that because, at 15, I knew exactly what my “virginity” was. Everyone did. A virgin was someone who hadn’t had penis-in-vagina sex. Pretty clear, right? If you had a vagina and it’d never had a penis in it or you had a penis that had never been inside a vagina, you were a virgin. Period. The end.

But now that I’m twice the age I was when I “lost” my virginity, that definition doesn’t seem so obvious. What about "gold star gays," who have never had sex with an opposite sex person? Are they virgins? What about oral sex or anal sex, which — as sex advice guru Dan Savage likes to point out — have “sex” as their last name? What about all of the touching and kissing and rubbing and sucking that happened before that fateful August night at the turn of the century? Was that not sex, too? And if it was sex, then WTF is a virgin?

“In everyday early-twenty-first-century conversations we tend to think of virginity in one way only: a matter of sexual activity,” Hanne Blank writes in her book, Virgin: An Untouched History. “Either one has ‘done it’ or not. While the nature of that critical ‘it’ may come under considerable debate, it is not controversial to view virginity and its loss as being a matter of having done ‘it’ or not, whatever ‘it’ is construed to be.” So how do we construe “it?”

It Depends On What Your Definition Of “Sex” Is

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One 2007 study from researchers at Prevention Research Center looked at how teenagers defined “virginity” and “abstinence.” Of the 925 young people between the ages of 12 and 16, 83.5 percent said that a teenager would still be a virgin if they engaged in genital touching and 70.6 percent said someone was still a virgin if they participated in oral sex. Interestingly, 16.1 percent said that a person was still a virgin if they had anal sex and 5.8 percent said someone was still a virgin if they had vaginal intercourse.

There are other studies about how teens and young adults think about sex and virginity but, unfortunately, they’re all pretty old. This one from 2007 was the newest one I could find — and it was conducted before I even graduated from college. However, a similar 1999 study that included data collected in 1991 (when, to give you some perspective, I was one year away from starting kindergarten), found that 59 percent didn’t think someone who had oral sex had “had sex” and that 19 percent felt the same about anal sex. It’s not an exact comparison, of course, because the questions in these two studies were different, but it does illustrate the fact that our ideas of what sex is and how to define virginity are less clear than 15-year-old me thought. And it definitely highlights Blank’s point that “the nature of that critical ‘it’” is a source of debate.

This Confusion Is Nothing New

Despite what teenage me thought, virginity has never been a clearcut thing. The studies above highlight the fact that there’s a pretty wide range of definitions and Blank’s book also points out that despite the fact that penis-in-vagina sex is considered the “definitive sex act, the sex act that terminates virginity” by many, history has been more flexible with definitions of virginity.

For example, Blank writes, 13th century philosopher and scientist Albertus Magnus outlined four different types of virginity, from infants who had “innate virginity” to people who chose virginity in youth to virgins who were virgins for religious reasons and, finally, “virgins who didn’t look or act like virgins.” She also points to Saint Augustine’s fourth-century writing that said that someone who was raped could still consider themselves a virgin as long as they “resisted with all one’s heart and soul.”

“Augustine’s reasoning?” Blank writes. “If virginity could be said to be irrevocably lost by forcible physical action, then it could hardly be said to be claimed to be an attribute of the soul.”

Augustine’s assertion that survivors of rape could still be considered virgins is technically wrong if we’re working with the penis-in-vagina definition of virginity, but it’s one that all but the most callous people would agree to today. Who wouldn’t say it was OK for a rape or childhood molestation survivor to call themselves a virgin, even if technically they weren’t one? That allowance — whether it’s given in the fourth century or the 21st — points to the fact that even the final defining act that “terminates virginity” can be murkier than it seems at first.

Do We Stop Caring About Virginity?

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So if both historical and modern conceptions of virginity are fairly fluid, does it make sense to keep caring about virginity at all? Blank says we can’t ignore the history. “This isn’t to say that virginity is relative and therefore irrelevant,” Blank writes. “To the contrary, we have more than two and a half millennia of written history that make it abundantly clear that virginity is relative and therefore immensely relevant. It is precisely its relatively that makes virginity so troublesome and so fascinating.”

Virginity is important on a both a societal and individual level. I’m lucky enough to remember almost all of my sexual firsts with fondness — and I value all of those experiences. While I absolutely put more value on the moment a penis first went into my vagina than I did the first time someone touched my boobs or the first time I touched someone’s boobs or even the first times I had oral sex, I wish now that I hadn’t. I wish I’d valued all of those moments not as shifts in my moral landscape or a change in my value as a girl and a human, but as amazing, life-changing firsts.

Because they were amazing. And they were life changing. And, in retrospect, that gradual transition from never-been-kissed to person who’s had penis-in-vagina sex was still significant, important, and valuable. So rather than eliminating the entire concept of virginity, I propose we formally do what we’ve informally been doing for hundreds of years: Recognize the fact that virginity exists on a spectrum. Let’s celebrate those firsts, regardless of the body parts involved. Maybe in doing so we’ll not only help guide the next generation through their sexual awakenings but also push back against harmful mythologies and value systems.