As I am wont to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my sexuality lately, and as part of that process I’ve been talking with other people. Through these conversations I’ve had a number of people mention to me that they’re virgins. I don’t particularly like to contradict people’s self-identities, but every time I hear someone say this I cringe inside a bit and want to mutter “no you’re not”. At the very least I want to look them in the eye and scream “what does that word even mean to you?”
I’m not the first person to criticize the concept of virginity (oh hell am I not). It’s fairly well established in most feminist circles that the concept of virginity is a myth. Typically it’s used to refer to penetrative sex, but there are all sorts of people who have most certainly had sex but not penis in vagina sex (see: lesbians). There’s an obsession with the hymen, but rarely is the hymen actually broken during the first instance of PIV sex (often it’s already gone). At the end of the day, there’s good evidence that the whole concept of virginity is a holdover from patriarchal obsessions with female purity and the establishment of biological fathers.
Most of those links go pretty far in explaining the larger problems with the term virgin. What I’d like to talk about here is how calling yourself a virgin can actually muddy the communication you’re having with a potential partner, and how it can even inadvertently belittle other people’s sexual experiences.
What is a virgin?
The word virgin is woefully unclear. You might think it’s simple: someone who hasn’t had sex. But what does it mean to have sex? Have you had oral sex or anal sex? Have you given or received a hand job? Does masturbation count? What about soaking? Is touching someone else’s breasts over the shirt? What about under the shirt?
And god forbid you don’t identify as heterosexual because any conception of what a virgin is becomes as muddy as the flipping Mississippi. Scissoring (totally not a thing)? Frottage? WHAT COUNTS?
If you’re trying to communicate with a partner about your past sexual experiences or have a discussion about your feelings on sexuality with a friend, you give them almost no information when you say that you’re a virgin. You may even be misleading them as your definitions of virgin likely differ.
The use of the word virginity in serious conversations gives everyone a pass to not have the hard discussions about what really constitutes sex and when we feel as if we’ve passed certain milestones and what elements of sex are more or less life changing and why. It circumvents all those real, honest questions and just says “we all know what I’m talking about right? No more questions asked, right? Let’s move on”. It makes it easier for us to assume and harder to actually talk specifics.
It also asks all the people in the conversation to participate in a variety of patriarchal myths about sex, the role of sex, and the morality of those who are or are not virgins, because in order to accept the term “virgin” as it currently stands you have to be willing to accept penetrative, PIV sex as an important milestone that other types of sex are not.
What Do We Say Instead?
All of that being said, it is probably useful to have a term for not having done a certain sexual activity before. So in my mind, we need to revamp the word virgin: virgin is actually just a phoneme. It needs a modifier. You could be a kissing virgin, or a making out virgin, or an anal sex virgin, or a frottage virgin, or any of a million other kinds of virgin. All of us are on a spectrum of sexual experience, and everything about making that linguistic shift is helpful to validating more types of sexuality, sexual experience, and sexual preference. It also means that if you’re having a conversation about your own sexuality with another person and you want to use the word virgin to describe your experience, you’ll actually be communicating clearly, which is something we could all use more of in conversation. I wouldn’t advocate to erase the word “virgin” from our vocabulary, but rather to be more thoughtful and careful with the ways in which we use it.
How The Word Virgin Can Be Invalidating
The other issue that I see with the muddiness of the word “virgin” is that it can communicate to other people that their experiences are not “real” in some way. As an example, I was talking to a friend recently who in the midst of having sex with someone was informed “by the way, I’m a virgin so I don’t want to have sex”.
I have also been with individuals who have told me they were virgins after we had engaged in activities that by most definitions would be called sex (although they were not PIV). It feels pretty shitty to realize that your partner does not view the activities you’ve done together as real or important in the same way that you do. Something about the word virgin brands certain things as really sex and other things as “meh”.
When you just say “I’m a virgin” you could be implying to your partner that you didn’t care about the activities you’ve engaged in up to this point, that you have really strong feelings about penetrative sex, or that you don’t want to accept that you’ve actually been intimate with them. It can absolutely feel like a denial when your partner does not recognize their actions as sex. It can feel as though they don’t actually want to have sex with you or be intimate with you or admit openly that they have done what they’ve done. It might feel as if they’re ashamed, or as if they simply didn’t care about what you were doing.
Rather than being sloppy with our language and potentially hurting partners, it seems much easier to just be specific about what you have and haven’t done, or just not call yourself a virgin.
So next time you think about using the word virgin, consider the fact that you’re probably not a complete virgin. You’ve probably held hands or hugged or kissed. Be more specific. It’s better for everyone.