April 15, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Amanda Bradley, Amelia Allen, and Eleanor Scheetz | Illustration by Iris Guo
Middle school sex education classes detail what happens when you “pop your cherry.” Some might learn that popping your cherry is sinful, some may learn that it should only be done after marriage, but most of us learn that it involves penis-vagina penetration. In these classes, many details about one’s first time having sex are omitted because of historical definitions or social stigma. We’re here to provide a brief overview of the social construct that is virginity.
“Popping your cherry” is the mythological breaking of the hymen, a film-like tissue located at the opening of the vagina. What most aren’t taught is that for someone with a vagina, having sex for the first time doesn’t actually include the “popping” of your hymen. While the hymen itself is real, it is rare that it provides full coverage of the vaginal opening: most hymens have a natural hole that allows for menstrual blood to escape.
“Losing your virginity” is often described to those with vaginas as a painful, sometimes bloody process because of the “breaking” of the hymen. In reality, the hole can be stretched during sex, but does not always lead to blood or pain. This stretching is not caused exclusively by penetrative sex, but also by everyday actions like playing sports, riding a bike, or inserting a tampon. It’s quite possible that your hymen was first stretched by a bumpy bike ride when you were seven. Surprise!
“Virginity” elicits different connotations for everyone, depending on one’s first introduction to sex. Many people think of a young woman alongside the term “virginity.” Equating “virginity” with purity is actually an age-old way to control female bodies. The socially constructed emphasis on female virginity originated as a way for men to ensure the parentage of their child, so they knew their blood would inherit their property. Constructing virginity as an important aspect of a woman’s value was a way for men to ultimately secure land and power.
Along with this expectation that women remain “pure” is the expectation that women also “guard their heart.” Men are often portrayed as unable to control their sexual impulses, whereas women are depicted as taking a more measured approach to sex. There is the conception that women lose some of their “emotional purity” when they fall in and out of love with other people, and become “damaged goods.” Multiple relationships in the duration of a woman’s lifetime were frowned upon because men wanted to be the sole “owner” of a woman’s heart. In this historical definition, women must be vigilant of their emotional andphysical purity.
Virginity is often misunderstood as experiencing penis-in-vagina penetration for the first time when, in reality, having sex for the first time means different things for different people. Sex is not just penetration; it includes oral sex, anilingus, fingering, and many other sexual acts – the School of Sexuality Education defines sex as anything that makes you feel aroused.
Even for the word ‘arousal’ there is no true definition. Sexual arousal and desire comes and goes at many times of the day, thinking about many different things that aren’t necessarily related to genitalia or sexual acts. In this, any act that produces the downstairs tingle in some way can be classified as sex – it is not just penetration.
A quick Google search of “having sex for the first time” brings up tips and tricks for penis-vagina sex. Articles dive into what will happen when you may “break” your hymen, and to lay down a dark towel or be prepared for blood and pain. While this may happen for some people, creating these normative expectations about sex can only be confining. To learn about non-penetrative sex, one must research under the terms, “gay sex” or, “losing your gay virginity.” Implications of this wording are not only homophobic (is gay sex not the type of sex we value?), but also enforces borders on what sex means, when in reality, it’s about any form of arousal.
Because of this broad definition of sex, the definition of virginity acts as an exclusive word choice. Its history values only cisgender, heteronormative sex and devalues anything that does not fall into a binary. At its core, many people use the words ‘virgin’ and ‘virginity’ as words that are conflated with having sex for the first time. Now that we know about its troubled history, how about we start valuing all sexual acts in the same way as we value “popping our cherries?”