I had sex. Then went about my life. And that’s it – I didn’t lose a damn thing.
I’m here to tell you that the concept of “virginity” is a myth, and a harmful one at that. Think about the words and phrases we use to talk about virginity or first time sex: purity, innocence, a gift, “saving it,” “losing it,” de-flower… UGH, I could go on.
Virginity is not something that is tangible, and it’s not a state of physical being (you bet we’re going to tackle the hymen). We don’t “lose” anything the first time we have sex, and our value is definitely not decreased because we decided to consensually touch another person’s genitals.
Teaching young people that their virginity is something that defines them as pure, wholesome, sacred, or clean (*shivers*), places unnecessary stress and expectation on the act of having sex for the first time. The idea that virginity is something that is given away leaves people feeling empty and worthless when their first sexual experience doesn’t go the way they expect it to, or the way it is romanticized in pop culture.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Did Sex Ed Scare You?⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Fear-based sex education is a missed opportunity to set young people up for healthy sexual relationships across the lifespan. Common messages people report hearing in sex ed equating folks to chewed gum, a flower with no petals, tape that has lost adhesive, or spit in a cup of water are not only innacurate, they’re creepy, and only intended to attach guilt and shame to sexuality.
Conversations with young people about sex should focus on what really matters during a person’s first and ALL sexual experiences: communication, consent, and safety. When the focus lies in perpetuating outdated sexual scripts and myths, actual beneficial education tends to go out the window.
Unlike virginity folklore, you CAN get an STI and you CAN get pregnant during your sexual debut. Abstinence-only sex education (mandated in 29 US states to be stressed, while only 17 states require medically accurate information in schools), MIGHT emphasize these truths, but NOT the tools people need to prevent them, like communicating with partners about barrier methods, STI testing, and when relevant, contraception.
Know the Facts
Speaking from my own first experience, I was way more concerned with bleeding through the top bunk in my dorm room than asking my partner to wear a condom. Now as a sex educator I hear similar sentiments from others – we anticipate pain and blood and hear scary stories from older sisters and sleepover talk about getting the first time over with because it is an unpleasant rite of passage.
It is absolutely normal to experience discomfort with something new, but sex shouldn’t be painful. Tools like communication and lubrication (pro tip: lube is for everyone, of all ages and all genders, and makes everything safer and more fun) are your best pals in helping you and your partner have a more comfortable and pleasurable experience.
A lot of the fear I had about my first time can be attributed to not understanding (and being quite scared of) my hymen. The hymen is often thought of as skin that covers the entrance to the vagina, needing to be torn or “popped” (i.e. “popping your cherry”) for penetrative sex of any kind. The hymen is actually thin, stretchy tissue SURROUNDING the vaginal opening, not sealing it closed – more like an elastic scrunchie as opposed to a barrier.
The hymen is built to stretch and move with natural activities like exercising, using tampons, masturbating, and yes – having sex. This area can potentially bleed during sex, but most often it’s a very small amount, not like I anticipated in high school.
There is no one “right way” for hymens to look – they vary from person to person and can change over time. It is completely normal to have a hymen that doesn’t appear present at all, before or after sex. It is also normal for a hymen to cover a lot of the vaginal opening. There can be abnormalities (such as covering too much), but these are uncommon and can be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional.
What the hymen is NOT is a measurable tool to define one’s sexual activity, and especially not their worth. Contrary to popular belief, there is no physical way to tell if a person with a hymen has or has not had sex (*major eye roll at T.I.*).
Real Sex Isn’t One Answer.
Lastly, defining losing one’s virginity as having penetrative penis/vagina sex (and even the obsession with hymens) implies that only penis/vagina sex = “real sex.” Heteronormative p-in-the-v definitions and scripts around virginity leave an entire group of people out of the discussion.
What about oral, handjobs… anal? There are other ways for people to have sex that have nothing to do p’s OR v’s, yet only 11 states in the US require sex education to be LGBTQ+ inclusive. What message does this send to young LGBTQ+ people about queer sex? And how does this translate to making safer choices?
Your sexual experiences and the way you define them are exactly that: YOURS. Sex looks different for everyone, and I’d argue that’s the beauty in it.
I say we ditch the whole idea of virginity and work to talk about sexuality (across the lifespan, not just our first time) in a way that focuses on pleasure, not pressure.
The best way to prepare folks for healthy sex lives isn’t with outdated myths meant to complicate and shame sex. It is talking openly and honestly, sharing accurate information and setting realistic expectations.
About the Author
Jenny Waugh is a Sex Educator & HIV Prevention Specialist who works closely with us to help normalize sexuality and fight stigma through education and conversation. We encourage you to check out her Insta, @sexpositivesexed, for more sex positive sex education!