Thanks to everyone who commented in the virginity discussion on Facebook last meeting! This post was inspired by those comments. Cross-posted to A Life Unexamined
Virginity, especially the losing of one’s virginity, is one of those things society classes as a Big Deal (TM). It’s seen as a marker of innocence as opposed to depravity, ignorance as opposed to experience. It’s seen by many people as an essential rite of passage, a marker of adulthood.
It’s insanely problematic, especially from a feminist or queer perspective, and even more so from an asexual perspective. There is so much hype around losing your virginity, and it’s harmful and nonsensical. There are two main streams of thought around virginity, and I argue that neither has a place in feminism – at least, in my particular concept of asexual feminism.
First of all we have the rhetoric of negative virginity loss, coming from the outdated, patriarchal idea that women who have not had sex are innocent, pure and unsullied. As such, losing one’s virginity was (and in many contexts still is) seen as something shameful. Virginity in this sense is just one way of policing women’s bodies and sexualities.
Against this there is the more sex-positive rhetoric. It points out exactly how outdated and sexist it is to conflate purity and virginity, and how little value that has for society. The more liberal view of virginity in the West nowadays is that losing one’s virginity is something that inevitably happens, something natural and healthy and empowering. Naturally, there is still a lot of policing of when it is appropriate to lose one’s virginity: too young and you are frowned on as not being ready for it, too old and you risk being laughed at. Often virginity is still conceptualised far to narrowly, excluding the experiences of queer or trans* people by maintaining a strict focus on penis-in-vagina sex. But in general terms, many people have moved away from virginity loss as something negative to it being a rite of passage, something generally positive.
The problem with this view is that as much as it admits that virginity is an outdated concept with problematic connotations, it is still centralised in discourses about sexuality. So much emphasis has been placed on the role of first sexual experiences without actually analysing the assumptions associated with it. Losing one’s virginity is still seen as a Big Deal (TM). I have to say, there has been a lot of focus on making first sexual experiences much more safe, valuable, pleasurable and consensual, and that is really excellent, because it’s obviously very important to people considering or having sex for the first time. But overwhelmingly virginity is still central to our ideas about sexuality and indeed, to being a human being, which completely marginalises those who don’t actually see sex as that overwhelmingly huge factor of their lives.
I could say that I’m a virgin if I wanted to. I’ve certainly never had sex – defined in any way. But for me, and I think for a lot of other people, the experience of sex for the first time isn’t something that I find makes a difference to me. It’s just like any other experience: my not having had sex is just like my not having been bungee-jumping or not having been to Africa. I think that both feminism and society would benefit from a decentralisation of sex from being, because conflating humanness with sex is not helping anyone.
I realise of course that sex can be a big part of people’s lives. But different people put different values on different experiences, and sex is one of those experiences. And more importantly, sex isn’t automatically a positive part of someone’s life. Elizabeth at Shades of Gray has written an excellent piece on the neutrality of sex which I very much agree with, as has Framboise at The Radical Prude. There is nothing about sex that makes it intrinsic to existing as a human being (especially seeing as we’ve moved past the idea of sex purely for procreation), so the whole concept of virginity and the significance of losing has become kinda useless for feminism.
I don’t have sex, but I do not see myself as a “virgin”. Sex just isn’t a thing for me, and I don’t really place any value on the fact that I haven’t had sex, so the whole concept has no relevance for me. If I ever do decide that I want to have sex with someone, then I’m sure it will be pretty momentous for me. But not because I consider it a rite of passage, or something I just have to experience, or something that tells me I’m not young and naive anymore. It’s just another experience, with the potential to be good or bad or neutral.
Obviously society will never move past sex, and it is a large part of some people’s lives. But I think feminism especially needs to recognise that sex has different levels of meaning for different people, and sexuality is not something that can be assumed in everyone. The concept of virginity, and all the significance that is placed on losing it, does just that: it assumes sexuality, often only heteronormative sexuality. Participating in the dichotomy of virgin and non-virgin, experienced and inexperienced has nothing positive to give: so it’s time to ditch the concept completely.