Yesterday, Chloe and I had the privilege and honor of speaking at the Rethinking Virginity Conference at Harvard University. The conference was organized by Lena Chen, blogger extraordinaire and recent Feministing Five interviewee, and brought together an incredibly diverse and impressive group of feminists, who dropped some serious knowledge on all things virgin-themed. One of the most interesting parts of the panel was learning how much misinformation exists around issues of virginity, sex, and our bodies. This isn’t exactly breaking news- in fact, our very own Jessica Valenti wrote an entire book about it. But the quest to educate and rethink harmful cultural norms and standards is never finished. So I’ve compiled ten myths we uncovered- and debunked- at yesterday’s conference:
Myth #1: The hymen is THE definitive marker of virginity. There is no one physical trait that indicates virginity or sexual activity- not even the presence of a “hymen.” I put hymen in quotes because I’ve come to learn that it is really a nebulous entity. At yesterday’s conference, Professor Kathleen Kelly of Northeastern University discussed the history of the hymen and highlighted the way our understanding of the hymen has become misinformed. As she puts it:
“What we recognize as the hymen today was not always considered as such….If we trace the etymology of the word hymen from Greek through Latin to English, we can observe how the word progressively narrows in meaning, first denoting any sort of bodily membrane, then referring to the womb, and finally coming to mean almost exclusively “virginal membrane” in the early modern period. ..The hymen is an overdetermined, widely misunderstood sign precisely because it has never been a fixed part of anatomy…the hymen is both an anatomical part and a metonym.”
So it’s- surprise!- incredibly oversimplified to think that there is some magical vaginal barrier that only virgins have. Sometimes it works like that, sometimes it doesn’t. In part for this reason, back in December, a Swedish sexual rights group renamed the hymen the “vaginal corona.” Food for thought.
Myth #2: Valuing virginity protects girls and women. Nope, valuing virginity puts girls and women at risk of violence, abuse, and assault by members of a society that believes a woman’s worth lies in her sexual behavior. As I discussed on my panel, violations of girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health occur every day in the name of preserving and protecting girls’ virginity, delaying sexual activity, or controlling the circumstances under which girls and women lose their virginity. From forced child marriage, female genital cutting, and breast ironing to slut-shaming to the deliberate withholding of information on reproductive and sexual health, the emphasis on preserving virginity has pernicious consequences for girls in the West and beyond. I can do without that kind of “protection” thanks very much.
Myth #3: Queer sex doesn’t “count”. As the panelists yesterday pointed out, heterosexual vaginal intercourse is often privileged above other sexual acts because of its association with reproduction (and because of good old-fashioned heteronormativity and homophobia), and so people often rely on a problematic concept of “virginity” that can exclude, marginalize, and ignore the experiences of queer folk. But in rethinking virginity yesterday, panelists said: F that! It’s important for us to create and reinforce alternatives to this heteronormative penetration-focused view of virginity and how it’s “lost”. What about a female-bodied person whose sexuality does not involve being penetrated? Are her sexual experiences somehow less valid? Part of rethinking virginity has to include incorporating a more nuanced and more queer-friendly concept of sex and virginity that doesn’t serve to devalue the experience of any person or group of people.
Myth #4: You can only “lose it” once. This myth is false on a number of levels. First of all, the term “losing your virginity” is problematic, as it suggests that something is inherently lost as a result of sex and therefore engages in slut shaming. Secondly, many people find the idea that you can only experience something new once to be limiting and/or oppressive. The alternative concept of having multiple virginities was talked about a lot yesterday- some found this concept useful and meaningful, some less so. The idea is that there’s a first time for lots of things, not just penetrative vaginal intercourse, thus, we all have multiple virginities to lose over the course of our sexual lifetimes as we take part in new sexual experiences that are meaningful to us. I find this concept useful because it’s not specific to one particular kind of behavior, and emphasizes sexuality as an ongoing journey rather than an all-or-nothing situation in which you’re either completely abstinent or fully sexually active. It also seems to make more room for queer folks whose sexuality includes being attracted to more than one sex or gender, as well as trans people who may have had sex before transitioning as one gender, but have yet to experience sex as another gender, and anyone else who has had what they define as sex in the past but feels for some reason they now approach the same activity from a new mindset or attitude.
Myth #5: Sex within marriage is the “healthiest” kind. Unfortunately, a marriage license isn’t a magical key to a “healthy” and pleasurable sex life. In fact, sex within marriage is not even always consensual, and sadly, rape occurs within the institution of marriage every day. Remaining a virgin until marriage doesn’t guarantee a “healthy” sex life any more than having sex before marriage does.
Myth #6: There’s one universal definition of sex. This one’s also false. In fact, there seem to be just about as many definitions of sex as there are people in this world. Among yesterday’s conference participants, some people thought oral sex should be considered sex, and some people didn’t. Some people thought the context of the situation determined whether or not it was sex- for example, if proper consent was obtained for a certain act (Some survivors of forced first intercourse identify as virgins because they consider rape to be an act of violence, not sex). Others took into consideration whether or not the partners had intended to “go further” but were interrupted for some reason. Some common factors that folks seemed to take into account when deciding whether something “counts” as sex or not:
-when and how consent was obtained
-number of partners
-existence of orgasm and/or ejaculation
-length of time engaged in activity
-intentions of the people involved
Perhaps most importantly, we established that even though there are many different ideas of what “sex” is, my definition of sex and your definition of sex can coexist simultaneously. One doesn’t invalidate the other.
Myth #7: Slut-shaming plays an important social role by discouraging “risky” behavior. Um, yeah. This is actually a more prevalent idea than you might think. We’ve covered this a lot here at Feministing, so I’ll keep it brief: Slut-shaming (as opposed to educating and empowering by providing comprehensive sexuality education) doesn’t discourage risky behavior or encourage healthy sex, it simply perpetuates a culture of shame, fear, and silence around sex and sexuality that has very real and dangerous ramifications for everyone, not just girls and women. Also, it’s important to note that while feminists have talked a lot about the harmful nature of slut-shaming, virgin shaming can be just as harmful, and is something we need to actively discourage as well.
Myth #8: Teens should learn that sex is dangerous so they won’t put themselves at risk for unwanted pregnancy and/or STIs. This myth is so pervasive that the government has bought into it: all federally funded sex ed is currently obligated by law to teach that sex before marriage will do psychological, physical, and emotional harm. It’s true that sex has consequences, and unsafe sex can be deadly. We need not look far to be reminded of this- HIV infection rates are unacceptably, devastatingly high, and we are in the midst of a global epidemic. Yet our response must not be to spread fear and misinformation. Physical risk can be mitigated with reliable facts and access to services and contraception. And arguments about the emotional consequences of sex won’t ring true for anyone who knows the great pleasure and intimacy that can come as a result of sexual activity- including teens- unless it paints a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the wide range of emotions that can come as a result of engaging in a sexual relationship with a partner, rather than making blanket statements about what teens might feel based on pseudo science and moral judgments. We must arm our youth with the skills they need to navigate their sexual lives with safety and emotional maturity. Why are we traumatizing the next generation with misinformation and scare tactics? Let’s stop policing people’s sexualities and start educating them to make informed decisions about their bodies and their lives.
Myth #9: Teens don’t want to talk about sex with their parents. As the ever-sharp Shelby Knox pointed out, surveys consistently show that teens would prefer to receive sexuality education from their parents. And when you don’t have a community that supports you, no amount of sex ed in the world will suffice.
Myth #10: There is no such thing as sex-positive abstinence. This myth is sometimes even found in feminist circles when people assume that abstinence can’t be taught as part of a comprehensive sexuality curriculum. This is false. When included as part of a comprehensive and factually accurate program, abstinence can and should be taught as an excellent method of birth control and STI prevention, as well as a valid and legitimate choice for sexual beings of any age. In fact, this is a crucial part of any sex positive curriculum.The unfortunate prevalence of this myth is indicative of a much greater need for inclusivity and sex positivity in sexuality education: now that we know that our ideas and experiences about sex and virginity aren’t as simple as they seem, sexuality education programs really need to catch up and become more inclusive of a fluid range of experiences, sexualities, and attitudes about sex.