During my Freshman year, I wrote a paper entitled “Virginity: A Social Construct.” Recently, I read a book entitled The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti. When I stumbled across the book in Barnes and Noble, I recognized the title from my research findings two years ago, so I felt compelled to read it. Valenti’s book is what inspired me to write this post.
Initially, my interest in virginity as a social construct sprouted from this photo:
My familiarity with the concept of social constructionism was slim, but it has increased astoundingly over the past two years. The original paper I wrote is ten pages. Fortunately for you, this post won’t be unbearably lengthy.
Now, let’s start out with the concept of social constructionism. Constructionism is the opposite of essentialism. Essentialism is objective, while constructionism is subjective. In other words, one is fact while the other is opinion.
Social constructs exist within the boundaries of a society or culture. Meaning, without people to create and reiterate the definition, the concept would be irrelevant and useless. However, it’s rare that we question social constructs because they’re norms in our culture. The issue arises when social constructs create problems for sub-groups in society.
However, before we get to that, I want to explain why virginity is a social construct.
According to my previous research, virgin originally meant maiden, an unmarried woman. Maidens were assumed to be sexually inactive because that’s what was socially acceptable. Around the time of Saint Augustine, the definition transformed into the one we’re familiar with now (if you’re interested in the specifics I can send you the article I read about this). It’s clear that because virgin originally meant maiden that women who are “virgins” in today’s society are valued more than those who aren’t (specifically if they’re unwed). Women were assumed to be immoral if they were sexually active Virgins (i.e., Maidens).
The reason why virginity is a social construct is pretty simple: it’s subjective. As previously stated, the definition has changed over time. Obviously, the definition of virgin is constructed by society. It’s dependent on our culture.
I think the most widely used definition of virgin is someone who hasn’t engaged in sex. Here’s another issue: there is no universal definition of sex. Meaning, there’s no universal way to determine whether or not someone is a virgin. Some might define sex as a penetrative act involving male and female genitalia. Whereas, others might include oral and/or anal sex (which is appropriate since it avoids heteronormativity). However, if we can’t agree on how someone “loses” their virginity, then how do we know when they experience that “impactful” loss?
That’s one thing I dislike about the concept of virginity: the idea that a person “losing” something. Especially the idea that girls are subject to lose it, while boys are on a mission to “take” it. It ties into the “she’s a slut, but he’s a player” narrative. Although they’ve slept with the same amount of people, one receives backlash instead of praise. Girls receive backlash when they aren’t virgins, and receive praise when they are. Guys receive backlash when they are virgins, and receive praise when they aren’t (especially if their body count is sky high).
Interestingly enough, there is no physical way to determine whether or not someone is a virgin. People used to swear by the “popping of the cherry” myth. In sum, this meant that if the woman bled due to penetration, her virginity was (previously) intact. Hymens exist, but they’re not the reason for bleeding during (penetrative) sex. That, my friend, is a lack of lubricant (this is why sex education is important).
Did you notice that the only physical way people thought they could determine virginity is a part of the female genitalia (i.e. the hymen)?
Good, just checking.
Of course, there’s no way to determine whether a guy is a virgin or not. It’s not necessary because only girls’ sexuality is worth controlling (duh). Females are supposed to be passive, and males are supposed to be aggressive. So, is sex associated with aggressiveness? Or is it just not passive? Is a sexually active, unapologetic female threatening to our gender norms? Is that why non-virgins are considered less desirable? Because they don’t fit the patriarchal mold? (*insert non-feminist eye-roll and feminist laughter*)
We shouldn’t teach girls that they’re less worthy if they’ve had sex, and we shouldn’t teach boys that they’re superior if they have. No one should be taught that they have a “prize” to be won and no one should be taught that they’re some sort of lion on a prowl.
Now, I’m not advising that anyone go out and have all the sex in the world since virginity is a social construct (virginity might be a social construct, but STIs are not). I’m saying that we created this term and we continue to reiterate it. Unfortunately for us, it wreaks havoc by shaming females and praising males for doing the same thing. All it does is further inequality. Men gain, while women lose.
Isn’t it time for things to change? It’s interesting to see how just one word can reinforce patriarchal standards. Fight it.
Down with Patriarchy,