From the “V-card”, to “popping the cherry”, to “deflowering”, “taking” it or “losing” it: society has long contrived an image of virginity as being central to the identity of a young woman. A perverse obsession with female virginity has existed throughout the centuries, from virginity checks and purity balls, to female genital cutting and selling your virginity on eBay. Even our prime minister has gotten in on the act. Tony Abbott said in 2010 that “virginity is the greatest gift you can give someone … don’t give it to someone lightly”.
Why is this wrong, and how can we construct a better ideal of sexual experience?
This imaginary female virginity is simultaneously constructed as taboo while also being valorised, romanticised and upheld. Sexual double standards are at play, as men’s active sexual prowess is celebrated, while women who exercise their own agency around their virginity are shamed as sexually licentious. Women are simultaneously encouraged to save their virginity for someone “perfect”, irredeemably losing their virtue if they drop their guard, but also to see virginity as a burden and the state of being an adult virgin as being more painfully unbearable than even having to walk through Union Court during election week.
The virginity complex, then, is one of the many remaining manifestations of patriarchy. It is an obsession with controlling, demarcating, and owning women’s sexuality, which has long been seen as an existential, unpredictable, mystical threat to the civilised order of male society. To control this, we have deemed the status of a woman’s virginity to determine her very identity. The dichotomy of virgin/non-virgin still holds strong among us, a double-bind which encases women.
It has never been clearer that virginity is a social construct. What act do we speak of when we say that a virginity is “lost”? Is it any type of sexual experience? Vaginal penetration? How relevant is this to non-heterosexuals, who may well never lose their virginity according to that definition?
The patriarchy-derived virginity complex hurts men, too. Men who are not as sexually experienced are stigmatised and have their masculinity and virility questioned. Men feel compelled into sexual activity earlier than they may feel comfortable with, and are enculturated into pressuring women into “giving up” their protection over their virginity.
Your first sexual experience does not compromise you as a person. It is a rite of passage, where you step into yourself as a sexual being, rather than falling into a ravine. It is not something either to be fearful of or impatient for. American sex educator Laci Green calls it, brilliantly, your “sexual debut”. Sexual experience is an iterative process, through which education and skills are slowly obtained. Your first time will probably not be mind-blowing. But it also shouldn’t be shameful. It is the first step in an exciting, pleasurable, journey of discovery.
At university, we’re all in such close contact that feelings of FOMO are frequently intensified. But it’s not the case that “everyone around me is doing it”. My own assumptions and prejudices about the sexuality of those around me have frequently been shown to be wrong. Whether you have or haven’t had sex, this does not constitute your identity, your morals or your values. Your sexual debut is an experience no more than any other.
There is nothing wrong also, in making the choice not to have sex, whether due to religious reasons, sexual orientation or other personal factors. The decision to save sex until marriage, as one example, should not be made through social pressure or shame at a “purity ball”. It is an informed, considered choice, made by an individual as a covenant with God, as a crucial part of their spirituality and religious observance, rather than about policing the “possession” of virginity.
If you do choose to take this step for the first time, here are some tips for making it as good as possible for all involved. Don’t set unrealistic expectations, particularly for orgasms—enjoy the moment and the process of learning and exploring. Foreplay is important, both for enjoyment and the intimacy with another’s body. It is not a case of “hit it and quit it”; at this stage, penetration probably isn’t the most pleasurable part of the experience. Use lubrication and protection. Create a sense of trust and comfort, where both parties are actively and enthusiastically consenting. Remember, your first sexual experience does not define you. You have the choice and ability to define you and your sexuality for yourself.