“Queer Sex Doesn’t Count” And Nine Other Myths Uncovered- And Debunked- at the Harvard “Rethinking Virginity” Conference

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.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Comrade Kevin

    I still find it incredible that some of these myths persist. But I sometimes have to take myself back to a place where I was a decade ago or longer when these sorts of fabrications were often still espoused by people I knew.
    Time and experience is an educator, but it would be better if people didn’t have to go through a process of discovery that is frequently uncomfortable to understand.

  • NotSoSexyLibrarian

    I don’t know any teens who wants to talk about sex with their parents.
    I have always found that school classes where much more informative and less embarrassing than talking to your parents.
    I think all schools should have comprehensive sex-ed programs because some parents are also misinformed, anti-sex, or don’t want to talk about it.
    I never wanted to talk about sex with my parents and was more than happy to get info from classes and the internet.

  • jayjay323

    Re: Multiple virginities –
    “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.”
    Totally! As a guy who’s becoming sexually active a couple of years later than most people, I totally subscribe to this. Kissing, petting, joint nudity, oral sex, penetration – all new and exciting new milestones of sexual discovery. Still, each milestone can only be taken once, and, as such, *is* a very special occasion in everyone’s life, hopefully a good one.
    In this light – re: definition of sex – of the factors mentioned in the article, I can really only understand the one about lack of consent, and potentially intent. All others don’t make much sense to me.

  • Agnes

    I agree, I would have died of shame if my Mum had tried to talk to me about sex! Not because she would be in any way judgement – my older sister provides her with literally every detail about her sex life – but because I would just be so embarrassed. I’m now 21, have had at least 4 sexual partners that she knows of, and am currently in a long term relationship, but we STILL pretend that sex doesn’t exist. I suppose that’s a shame and more indicative of me needing a better relationship with my Mum, though, rather than me not wanting to receive sex education from my parents for any abstract reason…

  • gypsy

    I would have talked to my mom… I “matured” WAY before the school offered “family life” (can’t actually SAY sex to the impressionable middle schoolers… :p ) and yeah – it would have been nice to know what was going on.
    What I GOT from my mom was “don’t have sex.” “don’t get pregnant, but if you do, don’t ever have an abortion.” oh, and that she kept pads under the bathroom sink. That was it. So my parent’s failed.
    Unfortunatly, the school wasn’t allowed to teach us about birth control, condoms, how to prevent (or get tested for) STD’s, where to go to get a checkup, or anything about healthy sexual relationships. (yay! puritanical old people making decisions for horney teenagers!)
    I shook my head at the irony of having two girls in my freshman health class re-taking it because they were having babies when they should have had it the year before. But I knew as little as they did about how to use a condom. Our school failed.
    You’re right – I DID get ALL of my info from friends. And I’m still thanking the gods that they had correct info! :p
    it’s a bad system. I dont’ know WHY schools don’t teach reality – my mother sure couldn’t…

  • partenope

    I find it problematic to be calling it “multiple virginities,” especially when coupled with the verb “to lose”:
    “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 … we all have multiple virginities to lose over the course of our sexual lifetimes…”
    I would prefer the word “virginity” be ditched altogether, but if it is re-appropriated I would like it to be away from the “losing” concept, as though you are less, or as though you have something that makes you a “virgin.”

  • KianG

    I really liked the article, but I just wanted to make one small point. The term “female-bodied” isn’t very specific and can include all sorts of people who consider themselves female, like trans women. The term “female-assigned at birth” makes more sense, as it is more specific without dismissing trans identities. For instance, I am a trans man. I was assigned female at birth, but I am not female-bodied.

  • anamo52

    Really love this article; lots of great points were made. I really wish I could have attended the talk.
    As far as virginity goes, I feel like Voltaire summed it up best:
    “It is an infantile superstition of the human spirit that virginity would be thought a virtue and not the barrier that separates ignorance from knowledge”.

  • OKathyS

    I can’t believe that people are so dumb.
    My mom talks to me a little about sex, and I’m not especially embarassed by it. Probably because the classes we had at school sucked.
    At one lesson, they had this big black bag and we were supposed to reach in and pull out one of the “consequences” of premarital sex. There was a tile with “for a good time call Sally” written on it. I had a hammer, which stood for court. There was a broken heart and a tombstone. Like you can’t catch an STD from your spouse. The whole thing was just f—ed up.
    My Sociology teacher was the only one with any sense. When we complained about that in his class later that day he said, “I’m not going to lie to you; sex is GREAT! But, you’ve got to be careful.”
    Words to live by. Thank you, Mr. P!