WORDS Stephanie Lewis
Like sex itself, virginity can mean many different things to different people. We delve into the layers of the V-word and start talking about the taboos with a curious and open mind.
Losing the v-plates, popping the cherry, giving away your precious flower. Whatever you call it, the beginning of your sexual journey is the focus of much attention – not only for yourself, but maybe for your friends and family, in the media, and within your cultural, social or religious group: Have you done it? What was it like? Did it hurt? Who was he/she? Where were you? Romantic or awkward soundtrack/lighting/facial expressions?
It seems that there are two ends of the spectrum: those who are dying to give it up, and those who are holding on for dear life. Just like Rachel Hills wrote on the Daily Life website: “For teenage girls, that thrill [of losing your virginity] comes with a bitter twist: resist sex and you risk being labelled a prude, but do it too soon or in the ‘wrong’ relationship, and you risk being labelled a slut.” For some, religious or cultural beliefs dictate actions, rather than fear of social judgment. So where do you sit? And what exactly constitutes virginity? And why do we all care so much?
The ‘Like a Virgin’ episode of Insight on SBS from June this year sparked my interest in this taboo topic. It featured a wide range of opinions on virginity, and people from vastly different social, cultural and religious backgrounds shared their stories.
When Inez Manu-Sione got married at 30, she participated in the traditional Tongan ‘sheet ceremony’, whereby the sheets are presented to her family to inspect after the wedding night, and a celebration is held to honour the work of the family in keeping her a virgin. Inez initially thought it was “barbaric”, but went through with it as she “really wanted to honour [her] mum”.
[quote]I thought I was the last one on earth to still have my virginity[/quote]
Contrastingly, Rose Russo, at age 22, hired a male escort to lose her virginity to. Being in a same-sex relationship she still felt like a virgin because she had not had sex with a man. “I thought I was the last one on earth to still have my virginity,” says Rose.
For Tinashe Dune, who comes from a Shona Zimbabwean family, having sex for the first time was less about losing your virginity than “find[ing] someone who is worthy” to share it with.
Nathan McGuire kept his virginity a secret from his girlfriend until months after they had sex. “I felt like I was one of the last people to do it, so I wanted to get it over and done with,” says Nathan.
For some it held so much value, for others it was a stigma. For some it was social, a topic among friends that maybe resulted in peer pressure. For others it was deeply personal. Hearing of so many different experiences within the one-hour episode really highlights for me the range of beliefs people have about virginity, and reinforces the necessity of keeping an open mind during discussion.
Apart from opening my eyes as to the variety of beliefs and experiences, another issue brought up in that episode of Insight was, what exactly do we mean by virginity?
John is a 30-year-old Christian man who was saving himself, and his definition of virginity might be stricter than many: “Kissing on the cheek, yes; tonguing, no.” For others, it all came down to the technicalities of “penis + vagina = penetration”. But as Nathan McGuire says, “If you’re going to do everything else, what’s the difference?” Tinashe Dune agrees: “It’s another body part, what’s the difference?”
[quote]For as long as we have had a notion of virginity at all, its parameters have been controversial and, as often as not, vague[/quote]
Indeed, the focus on these particular body parts in defining virginity raises a whole host of questions. What about other sexual acts? Tim, who identifies himself as gay, talks about the idea of two virginities: the “penetrative virginity” and “everything else” virginity. Which brings us to, what about homosexual sex? What about oral sex? And every other kind of sex? What if you are sexually assaulted?
As Hanne Blank says in her book Virgin: The Untouched History (the first chapter of which is published on the New York Times website), “For as long as we have had a notion of virginity at all, its parameters have been controversial and, as often as not, vague.” And even if we do agree that losing your virginity must consist of P in V, then how do we assert that someone isn’t a virgin?
In many religious and cultural cases it comes down to the breaking of the hymen, and the bleeding that goes with it. However, there is craziness that goes with this too. Rosa had to get her hymen surgically removed as it didn’t break. “What kind of judgement is that,” she questions, “if we’re using this little piece of skin which may or may not exist, exists in lots of different forms, may or may not bleed, may or may not break during intercourse?”
Emma Gray collected stories of women’s first times for The Huffington Post this year, and wisely wrote: “The diversity of experiences shared with us further underscores the fact that a person’s first time can mean a lot of different things. We might be better off if we stopped putting so much emphasis on it.” It was brought up on Insight that maybe the pressures placed on young girls to not have sex do little to encourage a healthy attitude towards sex and sexuality later in life. For Inez Manu-Sione, however, not having sex before marriage actually took a lot of pressure off her, as she just knew it wasn’t going to happen, so she didn’t have to worry about it.
Either way, perhaps we need to shift the focus from losing to sharing. As sex and relationship vlogger Laci Green suggests, by reframing losing your virginity as your “sexual debut” we can give power back to the individual, and emphasise that it is your right to choose when it happens, where, who with and to what sound track.