Like A Virgin
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So here's a topic I've been pondering over for a while but never really
got around to sitting down and writing about: virginity tropes.
you are a Westerner (as in, you are a member of Westernized culture,
not like you are a cowboy), you are probably familiar with the way our
culture -- particularly American culture -- gets super confused about
sex. The demand to be both sexualized and virginal is extraordinarily
high, particularly for young women. It seems like girls rarely get a
chance to think about and decide what THEY want. Society's already right
there telling them to be more this, less that. Half of the voices are
screaming that they be sexually available and that their bodies are
public property, the other half are yelling at them to keep their legs
closed and stay "pure." Oh, and that it's their fault if some guy got
too handsy, of course. Sometimes these voices even come out of the same
mouth. Talk about confusing.
Today I wanted to explore the many little ways in which writers (of
books, television, music, fan fiction, and more) reinforce the idea that
virginity is equal to goodness, that sex is something that can "ruin" a
girl, that it's supposed to be a gift given only to certain special
people, and basically that a girl's sexuality doesn't really belong to
her. It belongs to the man (it's always a man) she decides to "give" it to.
Before I continue, I just want to make something clear: I am not
opposed to abstinence as an option for sexual health. Not at all. One of
my points with this post will be to talk about how sexuality belongs to
a person, and one way many people choose to own their sexuality is by
remaining abstinent until a certain point. Whatever reason a person
chooses to remain abstinent is their concern and theirs only. Whether
they choose to have sex with one person or one thousand people, the most
important thing is that it's what they decide. The key to this is
flipping the coin to the other side -- if abstinence is a reasonable
option for expressing sexuality, so is becoming sexually active. Neither
option is superior, and one should never be used over the other as the
standard of how girls and women should make their sexual choices.
EDIT: (I also wanted to add that if someone doesn't want to have sex AT ALL -- if they're not interested in it or choose to remain celibate indefinitely for whatever reason -- that is also a perfectly normal way to own one's body and sexual self.)
So let's talk about some virginity tropes that we regularly see in media for young people, shall we? SEXAY.
Good female characters are virgins. Bad female characters are "sluts."
think people would get tired of this trope, yet it persists. The
protagonist and many/most/all of the "good" characters, the ones we're
supposed to like, are virginal. Maybe they've made out or participated
in some heavy petting, but they haven't had The Sex. Not even The Oral
Sex, because GROSS, right? Meanwhile, the "bad" girls, the mean ones
you're supposed to hate, are repeatedly described in such loving terms
as sluts, skanks, hobags, etc. Because, you see, only trashy mean girls
have "meaningless sex" or give blowjobs.
So let's get this straight: unless you have a very specific and
special kind of sex, than you are a gross Slutty McSlutbags. It's not
possible for a girl to be both sexually active with multiple partners or
with someone that they don't want to date and also a good person. I
hope it's obvious why this is problematic, but in case it isn't:
sexuality is not an all or none deal, and it in no way applies to a
person's moral fiber. And this is not about having sexually experienced
protagonists -- YA is largely about firsts, including first sex. It only
becomes an issue when there's a theme of virginity being for "good
girls" and sexuality being for "bad girls."
Guys aren't virgins. At least, they aren't confirmed virgins. Unless they're holding out for the protagonist.
look, a double-standard! Shocking! For some reason, writers like to
make a point of their female characters' virginity while completely
ignoring exploring the boys' sexual history. It's either assumed, or
outright confirmed, that penis-carrying members (lulz) of the population
are sexually experienced. If a point is made to establish a MALE
character's virginity, it's usually with the express purpose of showing
how romantic he is and how he purposely waited for "someone special"
(aka the protagonist), or it's used to ridicule him.
A girl's first sexual intercourse is painful and almost always bloody. There's also mention of tearing, pinching, or breaking.
is a difficult one to overcome. On one hand, many girls and women have
experienced painful first intercourse. Some hymens are more closed than
others, sometimes you're very nervous, sometimes you're both kind of
clueless and figuring it out as you go... and sometimes all your life
you've been led to believe that the first time you have sex is supposed
to be painful, so you just go with it. Here's the thing: intercourse is not
supposed to be painful. Not your first time, not your six hundredth
time. Uncomfortable or weird, maybe, but not PAINFUL. If intercourse is
causing pain, something isn't as it should be.
This is a lie that we are STILL telling young women through their
media. First intercourse is described as pinching, burning, hurting.
There's blood. Characters say "yeah, it hurts, but it's a GOOD hurt."
Not too long ago, I read a series that's considered pretty feminist and
sex positive, and the protagonist STILL had ouchy-bleedy first-time sex.
Teenage girls and YA authors: properly stretched hymens do not break. I
repeat, THEY DO NOT BREAK. Except for some rare cases where a doctor
and minor surgery may need to be involved, hymens are supposed to
STRETCH, not break. This idea that if a woman is experiencing pain
during her first time, she's just supposed to push through it? That if
you don't bleed due to a torn/broken/popped "cherry," something's wrong
with you? Really not accurate. First intercourse is often awkward or
uncomfortable, but I wish we could stop perpetuating the idea that a
certain amount of pain or bloodshed is just the norm and should be
expected. If there's blood, then something's WRONG, not right.
Anything but penetrative heterosexual sex "doesn't count" as sex. But it can still make you a slut!
a YA series floating out there somewhere with a protagonist who balks
at the idea of giving boys oral sex and actually thinks something along
the lines of, "Only desperate girls will let themselves be USED that
way," implying that giving a guy a blowjob is essentially the same thing
as letting him use you as a sex doll. This is another head-scratcher.
When we talk about virginity, we're typically talking about penetrative
sex. You can apparently still be a virgin while giving and receiving
oral or digital (hand) sex. But not really. Because sexual activity,
even if it's not intercourse, is still slutty. Or something.
also this idea that if lesbians decide to have sex, they're not having
"real" sex. This is a very straight-and-narrow (pun intended) view of
sex and virginity. When you think about it, what exactly IS virginity?
Lack of sexual experience? An intact hymen (and what's the equivalent
for guys)? Not having penetrative sex? Keeping your body free of the
taint of sexual desire? It's very unclear. People have very different
definitions of virginity. And that's the thing... virginity is really
just a construct. An abstract concept. You've either had what you
personally feel is sex, or you haven't. There's no ultimate qualifier,
no "test." Basically, it's trying to build a wall around sexual
experience that can't really be built. Which brings us to...
Virginity is a quantifiable thing that you can lose, give as a gift, or have stolen from you.
your virginity" is common vernacular, and the way most people tend to
describe the first time they have sex. It the media, virginity is a
THING, something tangible that you
can keep locked in a box or give away like a prize. It's valued, sought
after, idolized. Think about this for a second. Think about this idea
that an abstract concept -- an experience -- can be considered an actual
object. Something a person can be gifted, can keep forever. That's
really pretty messed up. The very language and metaphors we use to
describe virginity imply that it's ultimately something that's taken
away from you, never to be returned. Something that you have to keep
carefully hidden away until you find the right person to "give" it to.
Something that can be violently ripped away from you.
is just full of guilt-inducing and disturbing imagery. Someone else has
a piece of you FOREVER. And just... no. The first time you have sex is
just that... the first time you have sex. It may be very memorable to
you and an experience you remember fondly (or prefer not to remember at
all), but it's built into some sort of idolized THING, even though I can
almost guarantee you that you will have much, much, MUCH better and
more memorable sex than that first time. And this is not to suggest that
first times should be a throwaway. Just that the fact that we put such
immense pressure, weight, and imagery on it is... well, it's messed up. This is not a carnival teddy bear. It's your sexuality. It
always belongs to you.
Girls are sexually naive and need to be
shown the ropes by a guy. If the girl initiates sex, if she tells the
guy what she wants, she needs to be shut down and shown the "right" way.
For her own good!
This ties directly into the idea that guys
(even inexperienced guys) just know more about sex and desire than
girls do. Hell, they know more about the girl's own desires than
she does. If she takes the lead and says she wants sex, and she wants it
THIS way, the guy has to deny her, because he knows best. He's supposed
to be the aggressor, not her. If she says she wants it rough, he acts
shocked and tells her that he won't do that to her because he "doesn't
want to hurt her."
This is often framed in a way that suggests
that Boys Know Best and that they're trying to protect their delicate,
innocent little flower of a girlfriend. It's pretty rare for a male
character to say, "No, I don't want to, I'm just not ready," which would
be a perfectly reasonable response. Instead, it's more like, "No, YOU
aren't ready. I won't do that to you." Just one more way to take a
woman's sexuality out of her hands and put it in the hands of men. It
all comes back to the idea that men are sexual beings while women just
put up with sex to please them. For a girl or woman to be a sexually
realized being on her own is, apparently, ludicrous.
isn't high-stakes because of the trauma it inflicts or the commentary on
a sexually violent culture, but because it could, HEAVEN FORBID,
relieve a girl of her precious virginity, which must be protected at all
If you see, read, or hear a rape or attempted rape
scene where the main takeaway is that the highest stake was a
character's virginity, than that writer has written a rape scene wrong.
If the attempted rape scene was also used as a method of ensuring the
male love interest saves the victim in the nick of time, thus also
protecting her virginity, then it's a double-whammy of suck. If it's
framed in a way that implies the girl would have become corrupted or
rendered impure by such a violation, KILL IT WITH FIRE.
not sex. Rape is the use of sex as a weapon. It's intended to humiliate,
disempower, or torment the victim. Sexual violence has no place in
discussions about purity or virginity, especially since, as discussed
above, virginity is an abstract concept. For someone's first sexual
encounter to be framed in the context of a sexual assault has much
further-reaching connotations than simply being horrified that someone
would steal their virginity away before they could give it as a
neatly-wrapped gift to Hottie Love Interest. It's fairly unusual for a
woman to come out of a sexual assault thinking, "Oh no, my virginity has
been tragically stolen!" or "Whew, still have my V-Card!" No. Such an
experience will likely have a lasting impact on the victim's psyche and
sexuality. To layer on top of that this idea that a rape has stolen
something irreplaceable from them or rendered them impure is, frankly,
abhorrent. Assault victims need to hear that their body and sexuality
still belongs to them, not that they've been broken.
whether someone chooses to identify as a virgin or not, whether they
choose to remain abstinent or not, comes down to personal choice.
maintain that virginity is a social construct without much concrete
meaning, but I still think the definition is personal and what you
choose to make of it for yourself. Sexuality comes in a multitude of
expressions, and to vilify some while lifting up others misses the point
entirely and continues to breed a culture where girls believe their
sexuality is not their own, that it's normal if sex hurts or they don't
really enjoy it, and that feelings of desire are wrong. These social
attitudes won't change until the media does. So where will you start?