The Concept of Virginity
By: Collin Guilbeau and Esmeralda Aguilera, Peer Educators
January 21st, 2021
The concept of virginity has been a hotly debated topic for much of our history. Many of us know of the word; it can be easy for us to forget that it is not a scientific discovery nor a medical condition, but rather is a social concept (1). According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word social construct refers to "an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society." (2) Despite it being only a concept, there seems to be so many revolving ideas about virginity, what it is, and how one "loses" it. So, to help figure out what this concept is, in this blog we will recognize the cultural significance of virginity, explain some of the biological markers for virginity, and how we can benefit from learning this information.
Virginity and Its Meaning
Virginity has been a hot topic since it was first conceptualized around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago (3). When we talk about virginity, we usually refer to it as the state of not having had sex. Losing one's virginity happens after someone has sex for the first time and in an academic setting, the more accurate term to describe the first time someone has sex is called their "sexual debut." Many different cultures have used this concept of retaining one's virginity to signify purity and worth. Many cultures believe that a person is most pure and has the most value when they have sex exclusively with one person after marriage. While there is no right or wrong time to have sex, we should always remember that each person has value, and nobody's worth should be evaluated on how closely they adhere to this idea of virginity. Whether or not we would like to admit, choosing to have sex is an important and daunting decision for many people to make. Therefore, we should not shame people who decide to have sex early on. We should also remember that choosing to stay abstinent until marriage or forever is also a highly important decision. We should be respectful of each of a person's wishes, regardless of what those wishes are!
Biological Markers of Virginity
Now let's look at one of the biological markers for virginity.
When it comes to cisgender women, many people think that the hymen is a consistent and reliable biological marker to determine whether someone has had sex for the first time. A hymen is a small fleshy covering that is believed to protect one's vagina from being exposed to the outside world. Hymens can form in many different shapes and sizes. Even though it is meant to be a covering, a hymen usually comes in structures containing holes that allow for blood flow during the menstrual cycle. Some of the lesser common structures are formed in which a person is born with no hymen or where the hymen completely covers the vaginal hole, which may need surgical intervention to allow for blood flow.
Some people believe that the first time a cis woman has sex, her hymen will break or tear, causing a small amount of bleeding, which is considered only to happen when someone has sex. If a cis woman is born without a hymen, her body is not capable of bleeding during her sexual debut.
It is important to remember that sexual intercourse is not the ONLY way a hymen can be torn or broken. It is possible that physically demanding activities (such as sports) can also damage one's hymen long before the first time they have sex. Hymens are also extraordinarily elastic. They act more like a scrunchy than a breakable cover of plastic. Their elasticity allows for it to contract just as the walls of the vagina do. In some cases, a person's hymen can even break after having sex and grow back to their original state, making it appear as though they are a virgin. Therefore, a "virginity test" doesn't exist if you only look at the hymen.
Why Does This Matter?
By now, you may have noticed that most of this talk concerning virginity primarily pertains to cis women. Our society tends to put a heavy role on women and whether their sexual purity equates to their self-worth. There are no biological markers to determine whether a cis man is a virgin other than his word. Our society also tends to put more agency on a cis woman's decision to have sex than a cis man's decision to have sex. Many historical narratives have painted a picture depicting women as the only people who can control their sexual desires. This same narrative also describes men as being unable to control their urges.
Therefore, most of these sexist beliefs provided a double standard for women. Women were punished for not controlling their sexual desire, and men were not punished because it is believed that this is common behavior for a man to lack control. And while we wrote in the past tense to discuss these historical narratives, we can start to understand how these belief systems have made their way into our current society. Phrases such as "boys will be boys" and "locker room talk," allow men to objectify women without societal consequences sexually. Women who have chosen to have sex and are seen as "putting out," or "easy," which also reinforced these old standards of self-worth tied to virginity.
Graph is provided from "The National Survey of Family Growth." Link to article on graph can be found here.
Traditional views on losing one's virginity describe "penis-in-vagina" sex and these beliefs on virginity tend to reach a grey area when talking about oral or anal sex. With this understanding, individuals in the LGBTQ+ community may consider losing their virginity to be any form of sex whether it is penis-in-vagina sex, oral sex, anal sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, or any other form of sexual intimacy. Losing your virginity only depends on what event you choose to classify your sexual debut.
More info about virginity and the LGTBQ+ community can be found at this link.
What We Can Take Away
Virginity is just not as concrete as we have been taught to believe it is. There are no "virginity tests" and there especially are not one's that pertain to both cis women and cis men, such as the hymen test. Adding to this, most people agree that instances such as rape or sexual assault do not count as sex regardless of what society may say constitutes a sexual act. It is with this information that conveys how "virginity" does not actually exist, but rather, it is a concept we choose to believe as a society.
It is important to note that no person deserves to be discriminated against based
on their sexual life. Having higher rates of sexual activity is only taboo because
our society has socialized us into believing it is wrong. We should respect that virginity
is viewed differently by many people, but we should never allow these beliefs to dictate
how we treat others.
1. Breaking the Hymen: 9 Facts about Hymens and "Virginity" | Teen Vogue
2. Social Construct | Definition of Social Construct by Merriam-Webster (merriam-webster.com)
4. What Is Virginity & The Hymen? | Losing Your Virginity (plannedparenthood.org)