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”.
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.
I’m going to let all these other people explain why it doesn’t make sense to just say you’re a virgin (seriously, click the links, they are helpful), but what I’d rather focus on here is a.how unhelpful it is to tell someone you’re a virgin and b.how you can often inadvertently belittle the sexual experiences you’ve had with your partner(s) by using the word virgin.
So first and foremost, when you assert that you’re a virgin you are not actually telling your conversational partner a whole lot of information about you (except possibly that you don’t read nearly enough feminist theory). They’ll probably assume you mean penetrative sex, but what if you mean you’ve never held hands? What if you mean you’ve never achieved orgasm with another person? What if you mean you’ve had oral sex and anal sex but not penis in vagina sex? And god forbid you don’t identify as heterosexual because any conception of what a virgin is becomes as muddy as the flipping Mississippi (this reference is really just for my Minnesotan folks out there).
So there are a lot of critiques of the concept of virginity that talk about how it plays into purity and larger patriarchal social constructs, but I want to point out one that’s plain and simple: calling yourself a virgin is straight out unhelpful and unclear. 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 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 are not.
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 (a word I just today discovered and am totally in love with), 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.
More specifically, using the word virgin in a sloppy way can have some seriously negative effects on your partners. 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). Conversing with your partner about what you mean by sex is generally a good thing to do before you’re having sex, but if you don’t, then being specific about what you have and haven’t done rather than assuming your partner has the same definition of sex can go a long way towards not being a jackass.
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. There is a lot of baggage that comes along with the word, and it seems to be easier for everyone to just be a bit more specific and let your partner know what you have and haven’t done, and what you are and aren’t comfortable with rather than using the word “virgin” as a pass.
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.