Friday, January 29, 2016

Like a Virgin



A Washington state Representative found herself in a bit of hot water last week during Planned Parenthood’s Teen Lobbying Day, an event in which students are supposed to gain a deeper understanding of the lobbying process.  According to the Seattle Times, Rep. Mary Dye berated a group of five female students about their virginity before proceeding to express her “motherly” concern over their V-cards and why Planned Parenthood is such a bane on their vaginas.  As a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood told New York Daily News:

“We know going in that certain legislators will disagree with our stances on certain issues, but we weren’t expecting for the teens to face the level of disrespect and shame that Dye presented.”

Not only do Dye’s ideals represent the ongoing furor over female reproductive rights in this country, often fueled by misinformation and myth, (Just ask David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt), they also expose what is quite possibly the oldest system of sexual control in the world.

Virginity has a long, sordid past that has often equated women to chattel, kept genitals at bay beneath hellish lock and key, and systemically defined many of the norms of society we still see today.  In America, brides still wear white as a sign of purity, their father’s handing them off like prizes to be won at the county fair.  In parts of Africa, women, are subjected to virginity tests before theyare awarded an education.  And in Muslim communities everywhere hymenoplasty is all the rage with the college kids—those that couldn’t wait until marriage but want all that virginal realness restored for when they finally tie the knot.

But what is virginity?

According to Amy Jean Jacques (2008), virginity is the absence of any penetrative sex in which the hymen is damaged.  But get two people in the same room and ask them the same question:  What is a virgin? and the results are akin to two witnesses giving details on the same car accident.  It all comes down to perspective.  

Overall, the big V doesn’t have a singular definition, but is more of a system of personal, cultural, ethical, moral and/or religious values we subscribe to. 

But what about blow jobs? 

Masturbation?

What about the queer community out there?  Virginity has to look different for them, right?

Virginity is such a tricky thing to pinpoint.  The word “virgin” didn’t rear its chaste head until the Dark Ages when—lo and behold!—the virgin Mary was born.  After that, the hymen became the focus of our attention, literally, by poking and prodding a girl’s female bits to make sure that the pesky little bugger was still intact.  With all this poking and prodding, one might think the misconceptions surrounding the hymen might have lessened over the last millennium, but people still cling to these patriarchal ideals of the vagina like the chastity belts of yore.

Here's the hymen in a nutshell:

The hymen is a piece of the female anatomy—a stretchy membrane surrounding the vaginal opening that can sometimes tear during intercourse.  It can also tear putting in a tampon or masturbating, or any number of ways.  Every vagina-bearing woman experiences their vagina differently.  Nothing is “lost” during first intercourse.  Dick isn’t some magic wand to be waved around and POOF the hymen disappears.  The hymen doesn’t go anywhere.  Sometimes women bleed the first time they have sex, but a lot of times they don’t, so go ahead and dispel those images of “busted cherries” that virginity sometimes elicits in our mind’s eye.    

The hymen has been such a pain in the ass lately that a Swedish sex ed council decided to change its name from “hymen” to “vaginal corona” in order to alleviate some of the myth and misconception surrounding it (Cinthio 2015), misconceptions which seem to stem primarily from religion.  In her research, Hannah Cinthio found girls were disappointed at the prospect of not bleeding on their wedding nights.  After all, they were saving themselves up for it and had heard all of this horrific shit about the big day.  Cinthio points to hymenoplasty as a manifestation of the ideals of virginity that seem so solidified in the minds of these girls.  She writes:

“The idea of controllable chastity and the methods—surgical and others—that have developed in order to ‘‘rescue’’ young women who worry about not bleeding on the wedding night have dominated the heated Swedish public debate on virginity.”

Closer to home, people aren't as extreme about their V-cards.  Instead, we just swear it off when the spirit moves us.  Abstinence pledges can be thought of as marrying god.  You promise to remain chaste and you get a little ring as a symbol of your commitment...which is great in the moment and if your heart is into it.   The problem is that they're not!  According to Landor (2014) religiosity tends to make people sign these purity pledges, but their hearts--and genital--just aren’t in to it.  This leads to some questionable and risky sexual behavior, as a growing body of evidence is proving.  Just ask Josh Duggar how his pledge went.  While an extreme example, in his adult life it is clear Josh simply didn’t know how to navigate his own sexuality honestly, a problem I’m sure was exacerbated by the ultra-conservative community he surrounded himself with.

There is also the queer community to consider when talking about virginity.  After all, wherever you fall on the sexuality spectrum, the almighty V is a question that plagues each of us at some point in our lives.  But how do you define virginity to a marginalized community whose sex-lives don’t necessarily conform to the heteronormative ideas of sexuality for which the concept was constructed?  According to Everett (2014), the issue of virginity isn't as pressing as the coming out process.  Even so, sex is so ingrained into our culture that the first time can be a source of anxiety if the proper resources are not made readily available and there isn't any discussion.   

The idea of virginity, besides being a patriarchal farce used to manipulate women, is a double-edged sword.  People sometimes cling to it because of some deep-seeded religiosity or cultural fear of what the first time will be like, while others, horny and driven more by lust than education, run out and fuck without any real knowledge of the risks involved.  Research has shown time and again that abstinence only education leads to poor sexual decisions, yet that is what classrooms and churches across America preach.  In the same vein, abstinence is not to be dismissed.  The first time can be extremely personal, and it is important to remember the decision not to have sex can be just as powerful as deciding to have sex for the first time.  Furthermore, the hymen, or vaginal corona, isn’t something you lose, yet girls everywhere succumb to this bloody myth and, after my research, I’m beginning to think it isn’t because of some misguided notion of the female anatomy.  As one mother is quoted in Hanna Cinthio’s (2015) research:

“We accept what you are saying but please, don’t tell our daughters!  If they learn there is no hymen to be broken, how will they behave?”

Like a virgin—that is how they will behave.  Just like you and I bumbled our way through our first time, so will your daughters and your sons.  I like to think it’s the natural order of things.  With a little education, however, it doesn’t have to be so awkward and—who knows?—it may even be a positive experience.  Because in the end, isn’t that what sex is supposed to be about?  Why does virginity have to be something that is “lost”?  If anything, a person’s first sexual encounter should be something that is gained—trust, communication, pleasure.  So the question still begs to be asked:

What is virginity?

Bullshit, that’s what.


Refrences:

Amy, J.  (2008).  Certificates of virginity and reconstruction of the hymen.  European Journal Of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care, 13 (2), 111-113.

Cinthio, H. (2015). 'You go home and tell that to my dad!' Conflicting Claims and Understandings on Hymen and Virginity. Sexuality & Culture,19(1), 172-189.

Landor, A. M., & Simons, L. G.  (2014).  Why virginity pledges succeed or fail: The moderating effect of religious commitment versus religious participation.  Journal Of Child And Family Studies, 23(6).  1102-1113.