The concept of virginity has always been a poisoned chalice: simultaneously something to be revered and given away as quickly as possible.
Young people are both fascinated and terrified by the idea of ‘losing’ one’s virginity- a process based on the idea that something intrinsic to innocence has been ‘lost’ or ‘given away’.
Pedro* was 15 when he lost his virginity in the storage building of a rugby club.
“It was like two seals slapping their flippers together” he recalled, “Then the cold caught up to me.”
Fionnuala* had sex for the first time on Valentines Day when she was 16.
“Mine was grand,” she said, “His parents were out, we exchanged gifts, and then we…did the diddle.”
For better or worse, all of us remember our first sexual encounter. But what actually is virginity? And why are we still so obsessed with it?
To begin with, there is no medical or scientific origin to the concept of virginity.
While the “breaking” of the hymen was traditionally seen as proof that intercourse had occurred, science tells a different story. The hymen can be stretched (NOT broken) be many things, including horse riding, using a tampon, or having an intense workout.
Traditionally, penetrative sex between a male and a female is cited as the instant when one’s virginity is lost – but this definition is highly flawed because it excludes the experiences of many in the LGBTQ community.
In her 2002 study on “Gender And The Meaning And Experience Of Virginity Loss In The Contemporary United States”, Laura Carpenter found that lesbians and gay men were far more likely to see losing their virginity as “ a step in a process because, for them, virginity loss was closely intertwined with the process of coming out”.
Karl* (23) would agree. He was 17 the first time he “tried out the sex thing” but considers having sex with his first boyfriend at 20 the real moment he lost his virginity.
“I think it was like a coming of age thing, even though that feels stupid to say,” he said, “Because I didn’t really know who I was at 17”.
The idea that female virginity, in particular, is integral to identity often isolates victims of sexual assault, who did not choose or consent to their first sexual encounter. Carpenters study found that women were more likely than men to believe that a non-consensual sexual encounter did not count as losing your virginity.
In 1973, David Berger and Morton Wenger suggested that our fixation on virginity is because it “serves the interests of men as a class by giving them overall control of women as property but it also serves women’s interests as individuals in that they find society legitimising their control (marginal though it may be) over the only scarce resource available to them, the sexual and ego gratification of men.”
In summary, virginity is an awful lot like Brexit: There’s no reason it needs to exist, it’s not based on factual evidence, and the more you look into, the more confused you become.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees