Such a seemingly quintessential part of self-discovery and growing up. It’s one of those things that society seems to place a lot of value on. People race each other to losing their virginity. They determine the level of sexual experience someone has by their status — virgin or not a virgin?
I know this well.
I didn’t have sex in high school. I wish I could have, honestly. When people asked me if I was a virgin, I wanted so badly to lie, or to confidently say, “No.” I wanted to find someone who I trusted enough and wanted enough to do it with, but at the end of the day, I’m picky and the world can be cruel and virginity is a social construct that I fell victim to.
I always felt inferior saying I was a virgin. I felt like everyone else with their sexual experiences held some sort of knowledge and superiority and status that I didn’t have. I felt innocent and demure and stupid. I felt like I was naive and young and less than because I hadn’t had intercourse yet.
Because here’s the thing: virginity is most often determined by intercourse, not by sexual experiences in general.
And although there are quite a few problems with virginity, this is quite possibly the biggest one. In all the talks I had about virginity with my friends and peers, we never once discussed how “virginity” spilled over into LGBTQ relationships. We never discussed how yeah, you can have sex with girls but just because you haven’t had intercourse yet, you’re still *technically* a virgin. As if sex in queer relationships is any less than sex in heterosexual relationships. As if sex is solely determined by penetration and virginity is some sort of big milestone just because you’ve had someone else’s body part inside you. I can’t express how twisted this is.
For a long time, I felt like I was being excluded from the equation because I didn’t know how to approach topics of virginity when one of the types of sex I was interested in wasn’t relevant to society’s definition of virginity. My queer friends and I talked about this all the time — what would we say when people asked us? (Not that it was any of their business, but still.) If it was some sort of status thing, how do you explain the legitimacy of your sexual experiences? First and foremost, you shouldn’t have to — no one should have to legitimize their own sexual experiences, and we shouldn’t proceed to legitimize others’. We’re all different.
And here’s the other issue: sexual experience isn’t just determined by partner sex.
Why do we pretend that people are “inexperienced” just because they haven’t had partner sex? I understand that partner sex and solo sex are two completely different experiences, but that doesn’t mean that we’re allowed to discount solo sex. I mean, sure, I didn’t have sex in high school, but I was sexually explorative with myself years before that. My queer friends and I also talked about this. When sexuality doesn’t fit into popular culture or you’re marginalized for it, and you seek satisfaction in other ways (namely, from yourself), why is that frowned upon? Why is that looked at as less of an experience than partner sex?
I considered myself pretty well-versed in sex, even though I wasn’t sexually active in high school. I knew exactly what I liked and I was fantastic with communication and I prioritized my own pleasure. I knew my anatomy, I appreciated myself for who I was, and I was willing to be patient and try new things to discover what was right for me. Little did I know, that would be so beneficial in my future sexual endeavors because it meant I had already had the chance to get to know myself and my desires before I shared them with someone else, which, arguably, is essential to being able to enjoy partner sex. I would listen to my (usually straight) friends talk about their first time. How the guy barely cared how they felt and was only there so that he could finish, and once he did, the whole experience was over. Never mind that they were in pain, or that they felt like objects, or that they were completely left out of the pleasure equation. Never mind their feelings or desires or likes and dislikes. Like most things in the world, it was focused on the male gaze — the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze.
So how can we combat this issue?
Well, one of the best things we can do is inform ourselves, and drastically change our narratives around sex and virginity. I discovered one way to approach this the other day while I was scrolling through Tiktok (yes, I’m a writer and a total nerd, but I still use Tiktok). There’s an influencer I follow by the name of Janel Vitale (I’ll tag her website below — I’d highly recommend you to check it out!). In one of her videos, she addressed the various problems with virginity, and how demeaning and exclusive it can feel to be defined by virginity in society. In her video, she suggested reframing our idea of virginity. Instead of calling it “virginity,” we can rename it a “sexual debut.” The term “sexual debut” doesn’t systematically exclude specific sexualities and relationships the way that virginity inherently does, and “sexual debut” also doesn’t imply that a partner is necessary to legitimize or introduce the experience. Rather, the term is open-minded, inclusive, and broad, and suggests that our sexualities are anything we want them to be. Our sexual debut is whatever we define it to be. And by shifting that narrative, we’re eliminating the unfair, problematic, and downright discriminatory social construct that we call virginity.
Even though the video was less than sixty seconds long, it really changed my perspective on everything. It made me want to walk up to my younger self and shake some sense into her and assure her that sexuality is not just significant when it’s experienced with someone else. I wanted to hug her and tell her that she shouldn’t feel sad and left out that she still considered herself a virgin. I wanted to remind her that knowing herself and her body was what was most important, and that she’d be grateful later on down the line.
Collectively, I believe we need to be changing our attitudes and approaches to virginity. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge someone’s innocence based on such a trivial issue. Instead of teaching young people (particularly women) that sexual relationships start with discomfort and awkwardness and confusion, let’s teach them that they can start with something different. They can start with confidence, comfort, education, knowledge. They can start with consent. Respect for one another. Love for themselves. Eagerness to explore their own desires.
And, above all, an open mind.