What’s up. Let’s talk about something. And by ‘something,’ I mean talk about the shifting social constructions of virginity and myths popularised by the media and society around having sex.
Sex and having sex is something that’s been both glorified and banalised by people for as long as we’ve been doing it. The concept of “virginity” in particular is one that has a complex social and political history, and then that’s overlaid with cultural significance too.
There’s so much agonising around virginity: what it means, what happens when you “lose it” and for young women, in particular, it can be fraught with a lot of associations around purity. Let’s set the record straight once and for all: whether you’ve never had sex or had sex a billion times you are no more or less of a whole person, who deserves respect. If you have had sex a billion times though, please let me offer you this Gatorade, you champ.
Syrup sat down with We-Vibe ambassador and sex educator Georgia Grace (@gspot._) and psychosexual therapist Christine Rafe to chat through virginity. What it was, what it is, what it’s not and it’s probably less relevant to the conversations we have around sex now.
What is virginity? (Or what did it used to mean?)
“What culture and social media would define virginity as traditionally would be sex that’s more than ‘foreplay’,” explains Rafe—we’ll come back to the issues around the word ‘foreplay’ later.
“Traditionally it used to mean penis-in-vagina or some sort of penetrative sexual intimacy,” she continues, however, “Because the concepts of what sex is defined as changing, virginity is kind of becoming this interesting fluid term, that probably isn’t even necessary in our terminology.”
“We’re starting to see a movement where we are rejecting the word virginity,” Grace tells Syrup. “The term ‘losing your virginity’ is becoming redundant. It also has a lot of shame and stigma and a whole lot of other associations to it. When I’m speaking to people about having sex for the first time, I work with those words.”
Is virginity a social construct?
A quick bit of sociology theory here, a social construct is basically something that doesn’t exist in “reality” but is formed and given shape because of human interactions. For example, money is a social construct—we, as a society, give it meaning but in reality it’s just plastic/paper. Virginity? Another great example of this.
“Virginity is certainly a social construct,” says Rafe. “What virginity means is very much based on what we hear and what our friends tell us—even the concept of ‘losing’ your virginity or losing something.” “
As well as the way we talk amongst ourselves about virginity, cultural and religious constructs can play into it heavily. “Depending on your culture,” Rafe explains, “someone might remain a virgin until marriage, and then they would ‘lose’ their virginity to their husband and there would be a big process or even a celebration around that.”
Can only girls be virgins?
Big ass nope. “All people are born not having sex and then have sex for the first time,” says Grace. So in the sense of not having sex or a sexual experience yet? Being a virgin is an even playing field.
This archaic idea, she says, “comes down to the construct around virginity, saying that, you know, it’s desired for a woman to be a virgin. But that’s a really dangerous rhetoric and conversation to be having.”
In biblical texts and social perceptions throughout history, the idea of the virgin did used to be associated with women who were yet to have sex, a status “proven” by her intact hymen. This plays into all sorts of heteronormative bullshit: that women need to “protect” their virginity while men are often lauded for having sex, that women who have had sex are somehow “impure”, that you’re less valuable as a partner if you’re not a virgin. Be assured, regardless of your gender, all of these ideas are trash, and people who think them? In the bin.
If you want to dig a little further into this misconception and some of the biological contributors to this perspective, check out our deep dive into hymens.
Does being a virgin still mean anything?
So we’re doing the work of uncoupling virginity from the idea of being “pure” or that virginity is a thing that is forcibly taken or reluctantly given. But does being called a virgin still mean something?
“I think it certainly does,” says Rafe, “because this is still what we read, listen to, are told and it’s even what people still talk about with their friends. Because of that, I think that the concept of being a virgin is still relevant and obviously make sense to a lot of people and maybe it’s the easiest way to explain like the concept of never having been sexually intimate.”
Rafe posits the idea that there might be scope to redefine for ourselves what the word means, but we’d also add that if it’s a term you despise then feel free to yeet it into the sun.
Is there an average age people stop being virgins?
Firstly, a note about wanting to know the age people “lose their virginity” from Grace: the average age people become sexually active isn’t really relevant to your own sex journey.
“There’s research around it and there is an average age, but I don’t think it’s useful to speak about this,” she explains, “It ingrains those ideas of needing to fit a norm when it comes to sex and every time that we try to fit a norm when it comes to sex it often leads to not having very good sex.”
And because we know you’re going to Google it anyway, Rafe says that while the research varies from country to country, “In Australia we’re probably looking at a rough bracket between 15 to 20 that’s reasonably common for people to start becoming sexually active.”
Most of the noise around virginity is just that, noise. You can shut it out if you don’t give a shit about it, you can challenge it if someone’s spouting off sexist or misogynistic garbage, and you can reclaim the term and wear it however you like if you want to. People’s sexual choices and history are their own, and we’re not here to be prescriptive about it.
At the end of the day, none of this is who you are. That, after all, is determined by your star sign.
(Am I kidding?)