Monday, 24 July 2017

Why we should abandon the concept of virginity

On the 9th July, I moved my previous WordPress blog to this, Google Blogger domain. The old site has been deleted and I have since lost quite a lot of work (much of which is now redundant or unreflective of changes to my views). From time to time I may thread in old work here that I think readers will be interested in. One of the pieces I was glad to be able to recover through Word was a mini essay I wrote back in November 2016 on virginity and why we should abandon its concept in discussion. I reproduce it below because I like it and think it may be useful for others to refer or relate to:

***
First, a warning. This essay is about as progressive as I get. I am no liberal, and nor can I be described with any uncertainty as a feminist. But on the issue of virginity, I share some surprising common ground with those I would usually describe as opponents.

Most people who bother with the concept or losing of one’s virginity do so without fully understanding the extent of its incompatibility with contemporary society. The state of being a ‘virgin’ is one of the more frequently misunderstood labels that our culture demands we place on others; a shocking fact given the nature of its origins. I’d like to argue not only that our attitude towards virginity is largely ignorant, but that our usage of the term actively sours sexual discourse, shaming both sexes and discrediting sexual minorities.

Conceptually, ‘virginity’ is anchored in sexism, emerging from the days of female commodification. Centuries ago, patriarchal capitalism allowed for men to treat women as goods, to be sold or passed on from one owner to the next. Women were classified according to their ‘purity’, effectively transforming their bodies into reliquaries of male desire. 

Without modern medical practices, men had to be sure that any offspring they fathered belonged definitively to them. “Sexuality was also, of course, regulated by religion, which made sex shameful and taboo outside of marriage. And for the most part, contraception was unattainable, so it was important for women to remain virgins for their husbands to ensure the purity of his bloodline. Basically, virginity served as the medieval form of a paternity test”, writes Erin McKelle.[1]

But the idea of virginity in establishing status goes far beyond this. Nowadays, it is used primarily as a vehicle to shame both sexes, and – quite interestingly – for opposite reasons. Men, expected to have had as much sex as possible even at relatively young ages, are made to feel compelled to have sex, whereas women who do lose their ‘virginity’ can be demonised either for losing it too young, or for having sex far too often. Angella D’Avignon noted in a recent article that “while having sex for the first time is a universal experience, the conditions that define virginity are socially constructed and have been used to control and exploit women.”[2]

It is particularly astonishing that men, too, fall victim to this kind of labelling, given that virginity has no anatomical or historical importance to them at all. There are no physical indicators on the male body that confirm an alleged loss of virginity. Memory, being intangible and impossible to observe, does not count. Since men do not have a hymen, the ring of tissue surrounding the vagina which, when stretched, becomes the barometer for the loss of virginity, it is very difficult to assess how being a virgin actually relates to males.

Furthermore, there are a string of technical problems caused by the very definition of virginity. “The state of never having had sexual intercourse”, provided by one dictionary[3] doesn’t seem to take effectively into account that there are different types of sexual intercourse. “Someone who has never had sex”[4] also echoes this issue. Not only is sex defined (and vastly different) specifically by and for those involved in the act, it is also hard to establish objectively what we mean by sex.

In 2002, 164 heterosexual Canadian students were asked by researchers about what acts counted as ‘sex’. Results showed that “the vast majority of participants (about 97%) consider penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex. Slightly less (about 83%) consider anal sex to be sex. Less than 25% consider oral sex to be sex, and 15% or lower think genital touching is sex”.[5] 

Four years later, Trotter & Alderson concluded that “In some respects, the definition of sex is broader for same-sex couples (such as a higher percentage endorsing oral sex as sex for two female partners than they do for a female with a male partner). Definitions of sex also broaden in more established relationships; people include more behaviours as sex with a partner they have been dating for three months vs. a one-night stand. This means that the emotional connection with a partner also plays into definitions of sex.”[6]

Individuals, especially those who classify as sexual minorities (like myself), have the right to decide for themselves what sex is to them. Penis-vaginal sex holds special status in a context pertaining to procreation, but not in terms of the legitimacy of a sexual act. Homosexuals, for instance, will enjoy perfectly healthy sexual relationships and desires without venturing into a vagina or, in the case of lesbians, without experiencing a penis. Virginity, being a fundamentally heteronormative construct, tends to delegitimise the sexual behaviour of sexual minorities.

It also ignores the concerns of many women, and in some cases men, who are assaulted or abused during their first sexual experience and who may want to redefine their loss of 'virginity'. The social parameters we place around virginity and the ensuing labels make this process much harder. Free from the idea of losing virginity, or indeed of being a virgin in the first place, individuals can tailor their sexual career to their own emotional or physical needs, and can more easily ignore the ideals of wider society. They will more easily be able to view an initial painful or abusive experience as just an obstacle in the way of something greater, rather than something that person will never be able to get back.

Modern teaching would do well to phase out the importance placed upon virginity. It is a social construct that, when used as a weapon, can have devastating emotional consequences for both men and women. But most significantly, virginity reinforces our peculiar obsession with status, hoovering attention away from action or common good and attaching it to superficiality.




[1] ‘5 Reasons Why We Need to Ditch The Concept of Virginity For Good’, Everyday Feminism, [http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/08/losing-virginity-for-good/], August 2013, last accessed 18th November 2016

[2] ‘A Quick and Dirty History of Virginity’, The Establishment, [http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/05/11/a-quick-and-dirty-history-of-virginity/], May 2016, last accessed November 19th 2016

[3] Oxford Dictionary, [https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/virginity], last accessed November 19th 2016

[4] Cambridge Dictionary, [http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/virgin], last accessed November 19th 2016

[5] Randall, H. E., & Byers, S. E. (2003). What is sex? Students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful sexual behaviour. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 12, 87-96.

[6] Trotter, E. C., & Alderson, K. G. (2007). University students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and virginity loss: The influence of participant gender, sexual experience, and contextual factors. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 16, 11-29.

No comments:

Post a Comment