The Fluidity of the Conceptual Argument for “Virginity”
The traditional heterosexual theory of virginity involves two main components.
The first is the gender specific physical barrier- the female hymen. In some cultures, the woman is required to “prove” her purity by bloodshed during the consummation of marriage. However, in reality, the hymen is easily “broken” without any prior sexual activity- particularly sports or any other strenuous physical activity. Thus, the anatomical hymen is not an accurate indicator of virginity. The second component is the metaphorical barrier, which symbolizes personal holiness. The sacrilege of the body is emphasized, and any penetrative penile-vaginal sexual intercourse jeopardizes the innocence of a person. Based on these beliefs derived from mainstream religious ideologies, many abstinence-only sex educators use metaphors such as “chewed piece of gum” or “unwrapped present” to discourage premarital sexual behaviour. The pressure for girls to take “virginity pledges” along with the association of guilt and shame with sexual behaviour results in many remaining unfamiliar with making critical personal choices in regards for sexual health.
Alas, normal adolescent development progresses regardless.
Interestingly, many are engaging in alternative sexual behaviours to retain their virginity status. Uecker et. al (2008) notes the prevalence of “technical virgins”, which are those who practice sexual substitution. Technical virgins abstain from specifically vaginal sex, but still engage in other forms of sexual activity like oral sex and anal sex (p. 1201). Within religious communities, premarital non-vaginal sex is not as stigmatized as premarital vaginal sex. Thus, by resorting to technical virginity, sexually active virginity pledgers are able to conform to cultural sexual scripts and release sexual feelings and urges, whilst also avoiding the violation of religious teachings on vaginal sex.
Therefore, the assumption that virginity pledges will reduce or deter sexual behaviour appears to be ineffective.
In fact, Bruckner (2005) reveals that there is a large disproportionate amount of pledgers that participate in “oral sex but no vaginal” and “anal sex but no vaginal” versus non-pledgers. Furthermore, STD rates between pledgers and non-pledgers do not differ, and pledgers are less likely to use condoms and test for STI’s. While virginity pledges delay their first sexual experience slightly longer than non-pledgers, 52% of pledgers are married by the age of 25 (as opposed to only 34% for non-pledgers). Pledgers are also less likely to seek medical help for any sex related diseases or concerns (p.276). These findings raise questions about the positive impact of pledging and highlight the apparent lack of agreeance on what defines virginity in regards to sexual behaviour. A closer look reveals that “sex” as a definitive term is not as fixated as we thought.
The act of “sex” also appears to be extremely varied in terms of personal interpretation.
Based on Bersamin et. al (2007), a survey revealed that:
• 2% considered deep kissing as “sex”
• 40% considered oral sex as “sex”
• 81% considered anal sex as “sex”
• 99.5% considered vaginal sex as “sex”
These behaviours are undeniably sexual, yet many consider these actions as abstinent. Some participants were also more likely to consider oral sex as “sex” if orgasm was reached. So does reaching orgasm determine virginity? What about in contexts of rape? Is consent being taken into account? The diverse interpretations of sexual behaviour reveals inconsistent definitions in both sex and virginity. Virginity, it seems, is more than just a track record, experience, or an insertion into the body. It is a much more complex phenomenon than it appears to be on the surface.
The idea of virginity emerges to be a socially constructed phenomenon that is extremely fluid.
It is adaptable based on a person’s individual morals and boundaries. While the flexibility of virginity definition may not seem to some to be an issue in itself, the ignorance to existent sexual behaviour is. If young adolescents are not admitting to sexual activeness and taking proper precautions, it may increase their risks to STI’s and other health related risks. Tied with the motivation to hide their sexual behaviour due to shame and guilt, the phenomenon of rationalizing one’s state of virginity inherently causes negative consequences for adolescents who are uncomfortable with their sexuality.
Should the concept of virginity be abolished altogether?
Although socially constructed, the reality is, virginity is extremely personal. It is undeniably important and valued by many, therefore ignoring this concept and advocating for its dismissal may not help individuals who struggle with developing sexuality. Instead, many believe we should advocate for a healthy outlook on virginity to be derived from personal beliefs, free from indoctrination, and not determined by outside perspectives such as society, organizations, or other people. The fluidity of virginity is also aligned with the dynamic definitions of sexual acts and “sex” itself. The ambiguity of “sex” calls for the need for further comprehensive sex education, with an emphasis on accurate terminology, to ensure greater consistency in the definitions of sexual acts and the protection of those engaging in it.
Written by Westland Researcher Adrianna Xue
Bersamin, M. M., Fisher, D. A., Walker, S., Hill, D.L., & Grube, J. W. (2007). Defining Virginity and Abstinence: Adolescent’s Interpretations of Sexual Behaviours. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41 (2), 182-188. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.03.011
Bruckner, H., & Bearman, P. (2005). After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36 (4), 271-278. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.01.005
Ueker, J.E., Angotti, N., & Regnerus, M. D. (2008). Going most of the way: “Technical virginity” among American adolescents. Social Science Research, 37(4), 1200-1215. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2007.09.006