“Virginity” is a concept many of us grew up with, whether it was in our own sex ed classes, our homes, our religions, on the news or really anywhere else we looked. “Virginity” is so pervasive that it can often be difficult to discern between what is fact or fiction. From the idea that all “virgins” bleed the first time they have sex, to other ideas that butts get bigger after sex. There even is a historical lineage of people thinking they could tell based on another person’s body features, specifically people with vaginas, whether or not they have had sex. But what really is virginity? The answer can vary. In this blog we are going to explore the why behind our suggestion to remove the terms “virgin” and “virginity” from sex education.
Our first reason is that there isn’t a medical definition of virginity, it’s completely a social construct. For some this social construct is really strong and can hold a lot of power in their lives and the choices they make. This means virginity can mean lots of different things to different people. We aren’t arguing against the social and/ or cultural relevance virginity holds for many, but when it comes to sex education in the classroom its important to remember that there isn’t a single understanding of virginity. For example, some of the common definitions of virginity we hear are:
- Not having had vaginal sex
- Not having had vaginal or anal sex
- Not having had vaginal, anal or oral sex
- Not having had something (object or body part) put into the vagina
- Not having had a sexual experience with another person
- Never having consented to sexual contact
While many of these definitions may overlap or get at similar ideas, they are practiced differently. For some people using a tampon may be in opposition to their understanding of “virginity”, for others oral or anal sex may be something they feel they can practice without challenging their “virginity”. So we ask then, with so many definitions, what exactly are we reinforcing by continuing to use “virginity” in sex education? The loophole isn’t by defining “virginity” either, because with no medical definition it equally means all of those things to the people who believe them. We must be cautious not to dismiss others values in our education.
We acknowledge that there are many curriculums on the market that use “virginity” as a teaching tool, to which we encourage educators to choose different curriculums. When virginity is pushed by a curriculum it is likely to re-enforce “abstinence-until-marriage” messages common in abstinence-only and sexual risk avoidance (SRA) curriculums. These lessons rely on shame and fear to try and control young people’s sexuality. These programs are ineffective and incredibly harmful (see our previous blog post: How To Spot Bad Sex Ed).
From a teaching perspective, even the way “virginity” gets talked about is problematic. Commonly “virginity” gets talked about as being “lost”, but what has been lost? A lack of experience? Or is it an idea of “virtue”, which then is a concept that arguably goes beyond our role as educators. The phrase “losing your virginity” holds with it strong implications, especially for people with vaginas, who have had a long history with their bodies being under constant scrutiny. Instead we should define sex (oral, anal, and vaginal) in a matter that youth can make the best informed decision for themsleves when it comes to STIs and pregnacy, as well as talk in context of having had sex or not having had sex. For example, if a student asks a question about virginity like, “Does it hurt when you lose your virginity?”, we can reframe this question by answering, “Different people have different definitions of virginity. If someone is having oral, anal or vaginal sex for the first time they may experience different feelings. For some people with vaginas the first time they have vaginal sex they may experience some pain or discomfort because of changes happening to their hymen. However, not experiencing any pain or discomfort is also normal. If a person continues to feel pain during sex it’s important they talk with a doctor.”
Additionally, even though “virginity” can seem like a major part of someone’s personal sexual life, it’s really not important when it comes to sex education. A person could get a sexually transmitted infection the first time, the hundredth time, or never while having sex; the same goes for pregnancy. What is important is that we teach young people to have bodily autonomy and to identify supports that can help them make the best decisions for themselves.