Rethinking Virginity—And Examining Our Assumptions About Sex

What are the historical roots of virginity? How do queer people lose their virginity? And in an age where teens claim virginity while having anal and oral sex, what does virginity really mean?

I spent yesterday thinking through these questions, and many more, while at Harvard's Rethinking Virginity conference. Organized in response to statements made by True Love Revolution (Harvard's abstinence group), the conference featured a wide variety of speakers (including myself), all hashing through the thorny issues of sexuality, identity, and the notion of "purity."

After some opening remarks from organizer Lena Chen, the conference kicked into gear with Virginity: A Historical and Cultural Primer, a discussion of how the definition and significance of virginity has shifted over time—and how what it means to be a virgin continues to shift as we travel around the world. Other panels examined the pernicious effects of slut shaming (I moderated this one), examined the many behaviors that may (or may not) be considered sex, discussed the concept of queer virginity (a panel I spoke on), and, as the day drew to a close, took a look at possibility of a sex-positive abstinence message.

Though the discussion was too long—and too nuanced—to sum up in a condensed form, I would like to share some of my favorite points from the day (for a more detailed rehashing, check out what ended up on Twitter).

From the first panel, I learned about the ways that virginity has historically been used to aid in the commodification of women: a woman as a "pure" vessel is a valuable, marriageable commodity; while one who has been tarnished is no longer worthwhile. Similarly, IWHC and Feministing's Lori Adelman offered insight on how seemingly old fashioned ideas about sexual purity affect the lives of women around the globe, with the emphasis on maintaining a woman's chastity until her wedding day leading to an astonishing prevalence of child marriage. (The sooner she's married, the less time she has to go out and bang people, right?)

In the slut shaming panel, we discussed the ways that sex-related shaming is used to silence and discredit women—and, perhaps more troublingly, discussed how slut shaming often comes from unexpected, seemingly enlightened sources. (Remember Tina Fey's SNL rant about Michelle "Bombshell" McGee? Or the way the left foamed at the mouth when homophobic beauty queen Carrie Prejean was revealed to have a sex tape? Yeah, not the most woman-friendly behaviors.)

During the queer virginity panel, we examined how the notion of virginity—traditionally correlated with penis-in-vagina intercourse—transforms when mapped onto a queer identity. Though one panelist felt that the idea of virginity lost its meaning outside of a heterosexual relationship, I still feel that the experience of one's first sexual relationship (however you define that) is significant enough to transcend gender, sexuality, and identity. In fact, in a queer space, loss of virginity can sometimes be more significant, as its that first sexual experience that solidifies an identity that might initially have been considered "questioning" or "curious."

In the last panel, none other than Shelby Knox reminded us that abstinence is nothing more than a method of birth control—not the loaded, value-laden signifier it's come to be seen as. And abortion activist Sarah Morton offered up one of my favorite sentiments of the day: rather than focusing on being "sex-positive," perhaps we should work on simply being positive, a body-friendly mindset that leads us to valuing our sexuality as a part of ourselves.

After all the commentary and discussion, no one walked away with a solid definition of what, exactly, virginity is (Tiger Beatdown's Sady Doyle even tweeted, "I have personally re-considered my virginity like 90 times today. I might still be a virgin! I have no idea anymore!"). But perhaps it's for the best. While the concept of virginity does have practical applications—in the public health sphere, as a personal milestone, or whatever it means to you—sexuality and sexual experience are too personal, and too nuanced, to benefit from any broad, generalized categorization. Rather than asking teenagers—or even ourselves—to uphold some arbitrary standard of "purity" (or, on the opposite end, virility), perhaps we should be teaching them to be true to themselves, their morals, and their desires.

At least, that's what I'd like to see.

Rethinking Virginity [Tumblr]
Relive the Twitter backchannel: #rethinkingvirginity