Virginity Tropes Like Woah

| Friday, September 14, 2012
Today's Tune: 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.

If 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."

You'd 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.

Oh 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.

This 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!

There's 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.

There's 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.

"Losing 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.

This set-up 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.

Rape 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 costs.

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.

Rape is 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.

Ultimately, whether someone chooses to identify as a virgin or not, whether they choose to remain abstinent or not, comes down to personal choice.

I 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?


{ Loralie Hall } at: September 14, 2012 at 5:12 AM said...

Very well said, thank you :)

{ JeffO } at: September 14, 2012 at 6:19 AM said...

Great post, Stephanie. So much of this comes down from society, and is so ingrained in our minds it's hard to break that mold. I will have to keep this in mind when I read over my resting WiP, as part of it does deal with a young lady's choices, and with others trying to control it.

{ Lydia Sharp } at: September 14, 2012 at 6:26 AM said...

So many things to love about this post.

{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: September 14, 2012 at 7:16 AM said...

This blows my mind. So much of what you've written are things that have bothered me in fiction and that I've just not been able to quantify. Thank you!

Though I admit that I've fallen for the kind of narrative traps you describe, thinking to myself "Oh no, this VIRGIN is going to be raped, how horrible!" And that reaction makes me feel a little sick at myself. I try to break out of the ingrained responses heaped into fiction like that, especially when it comes to my own writing.

I'll be keeping this article bookmarked so it can help me do better in the future.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: September 14, 2012 at 8:41 AM said...

very insightful. you actually brought up some things i've never thought about, such as different beliefs about virginity or whatnot... just never thought about it. good one, maybe! :)

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: September 14, 2012 at 10:49 AM said...

Ditto what Lydia said. Thank you for taking the time to write out your thoughts so eloquently and then share them.

{ Leigh Covington } at: September 14, 2012 at 2:13 PM said...

OK... so I just had a very long conversation with a bud of mine about things like this and can I just say... LOVE that you've shared here!!! Thank you!

{ Yael } at: September 14, 2012 at 7:47 PM said...

I agree with most of what you said, minus the part about "it shouldn't hurt." Although actual bleeding is very rare, sex actually CAN be quite painful the first few times. This isn't the case for everyone, of course, but it also isn't a myth meant to scare women away from sex. (I feel weird mentioning this online, but you did bring it up.)

{ House of Walcott } at: September 15, 2012 at 1:02 PM said...

Thank you so much for writing this. As a 36 (soon to be 37) year old virgin, I often get the message from society, the media and my own family that I am a freak.

Your post made me realize that this whole notion (that I believed society had brainwashed me into believing)of their being one way to be in the world is complete BS. I feel as if I have been set up to believe that my high school experience should have been one way, i.e., lots of friends, late nights in the woods drinking, boyfriends, make-out sessions etc. Since my high school experience wasn't like that I not only felt like a freak but I felt as if I was missing out on the very stuff of life.

When I was younger my parents wanted me to stay away from boys. They didn't want me around men period. They were always worried that I would be molested. I wasn't allowed to date until I was sixteen years old (a junior in high school)yet my mother expected me to have a date to prom. I never understood that. After sixteen years of being told to stay away from boys how was I supposed to conjure one up for prom? Now my mother acts as if my virginity is some sort of aberration. There are so many mixed messages there that I can't even being to untangle them. Your post has helped me to start.


{ linda } at: September 16, 2012 at 12:42 AM said...

Great post! We definitely need more well-written YA novels that are feminist, sex-positive, non-slut-shaming, and all the rest.

{ Adrianne Russell } at: September 17, 2012 at 5:18 PM said...

The good girl/bad girl trope is all over horror movies too. The virgin usually lives while the sexually experienced girl meets a grotesque fate because she dared to "put out." I was so glad when Wes Craven turned that trope on its head in "Scream."

As a young girl, you're taught that your virginity is precious, it's a gift, that you shouldn't just give it away. That's a powerful, ingrained social construct. It's so prized in some cultures that women can be justifiably murdered or maimed for "giving it away", and it doesn't matter if it happens consensually or not.

I'm glad you mentioned males who are virgins. I'm a bit weary of the "I was waiting for you" trope, but it seems to me that in YA fiction having a male character who doesn't want to have sex because he's afraid or unsure or any reason other than waiting for his one true love is a rare thing. Are we supposed to assume that no guy alive would turn down sex for any reason?

{ hgh } at: September 18, 2012 at 4:38 AM said...

A very nice informational blog. Keep on making such important blog post. Your work is really being appreciated by someone.

{ Laurel } at: September 23, 2012 at 6:24 PM said...

Thanks for writing this. Good stuff, as usual.

Like House of Walcott up there, I'm still a virgin (29), and sometimes get weird, intrusive comments directed at me as a result. The main thing is people always seem to want to know WHY--like it's any of their business what I have or haven't done with my nether-parts.

I used to be pretty self-conscious about it--and still get that way sometimes--but mostly, I figure sex is just something I'll get to eventually, when I have the time, interest, and a willing partner. Like I'll eventually visit Australia. Or learn how to apply liquid eyeliner. It's on my To Do list somewhere. And that's the beginning and end of it.

Speaking as a writer, the protagonist of my current WIP has already had a few sexual partners before meeting the LI. It didn't occur to me as I was writing that I might be making a statement about female sexuality, but I like that I didn't make her "save" it for her One Twu Lurve.

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