Feels Like the First Time: Thoughts on Virginity

By Sophia Rosenthal '17
Sex Columnist

Content Warning: sex, sexuality, trauma

It was summer break, and I was sitting in my room talking with friends from high school. We were talking about sex, because, well, that’s what we did. All of a sudden, one of my friends turned and looked at me, scrutinizing me closely, and asked “Wait, when did you lose your virginity?” I know this sounds like the beginning of a coming-of-age movie, but bear with me. I distinctly remember just staring at her blankly, which made everyone turn and look at me even more expectantly. The truth was, I didn’t know how to answer her question, because I didn’t have an answer. Maybe it was because I had already been at Scripps for a few semesters, but a part of me had actually forgotten that the concept of “virginity” existed. I mean, I obviously knew, but I had forgotten that it was an idea — and a question — that I could be expected to apply to myself. In my mind, there was no “first time”; there was a collage of many different first times. But since I didn’t have the speed or the heart to say, “Actually, I prefer a more nuanced, non-violent, non-binary, fluid understanding of sex,” I think I said “Erm...uhh...that depends.”

Fairly recently, various feminist and sex-education platforms on the internet have deconstructed traditional notions of virginity as an anatomically irrelevant weapon of the patriarchy used to police the sexuality of, in the most popular narrative, cis women (say that three times quickly. No, don’t, you might get dizzy). There are so many things wrong with the ol’ “losing/taking someone’s virginity” thing that someone could write a book about it — and of course, people have (here’s looking at you, Jessica Valenti). Without even touching on the ways purity, virginity and sexuality have operated in society (“True Love Waits”...wait, does it?), here’s the quick and dirty version of why “virginity” has been deemed total BS:

For one, the verb “to lose” has a blatantly negative connotation and ignores the fact that no one actually loses anything during sex. Except maybe the feeling in your knees. Or a condom.
The point being that value, morality and general wonderfulness do not decline with increased sexual activity.

Second, there are the anatomical myths about vaginas and “first time” penetration (more on that later). No, it isn’t supposed to be excruciatingly painful, the hymen is not a steel door that must be broken through and “tightness” is simply one of many states a vagina can occupy. (I may actually create a “not sufficiently aroused” sign that I can whack people with the next time someone seductively croons “You’re sooo tight”). Cherries don’t “pop.” They just taste really good (I mean the fruit, gosh not everything is about sex).

Then there’s the fact that “virginity” is not queer-friendly, in almost any sense of the word. When do you “lose your virginity” if your sexual experiences extend beyond the realm of penis-in-vagina sex, or penetration of any kind for that matter? If you’ve been in a sexually-satisfying relationship for years but have never had sex with someone who has a penis, are you “still a virgin”? Or — even if we decided that vaginal penetration is the defining aspect of sexual activity, which it isn’t — what if I’ve been happily getting off with a dildo since I was fifteen, but haven’t had partner sex? It’s penetration, it’s orgasmic...does it count as “real sex”? Of course it does. Or at least, it sure as hell should.

Hence why people like sex-positive educator and YouTube goddess Laci Green have adopted phrases like the “sexual debut,” which sounds more like a sexy sweet sixteen party than the annihilation of a sacred treasure: “After my sexual debut, I went out for froyo!” versus “I lost my virginity… have you seen it?”

But I have to confess...I’m not the biggest fan of “sexual debut” either. Okay, maybe I’m just not a fan of labels in general when it comes to this topic. To me, “sexual debut” still suggests one catalytic sexual initiation, and that doesn’t work for me.

I can’t pinpoint my sexual debut. A single “first time” does not exist in my sexual history.
Instead, there are many first times. It’s like if someone were to ask me, “when was the first time you travelled?” Well...that depends: there was the first time I travelled away from the safety of my mother’s arms. The first time I travelled across a room (picture that adorable baby-waddle).The first time I rode in a car. The first time I rode a bike around my neighborhood. The first time I got on a plane. The first time I got on a plane alone. The first time I travelled abroad. The first time I travelled abroad by myself.

There wasn’t one “first time” I travelled, there’s a whole collage. Each one was new, and each one taught me something; some experiences were better than others (is there a sexual metaphor for flight delays?), some places I’ll travel to again, and some I won’t. But no single experience or location shaped who I am as someone who moves and travels. Just like no single experience shaped who I am sexually. And sure, some might place more significance on an adventure abroad then a five minute bike ride on training wheels, but at the time, riding a bike alone was something new and exciting that I’d never done before. And it isn’t fair to invalidate that.

My point (in case you didn’t believe there was one) is not that virginity doesn’t exist and if you’ve included the term in your sexual history you’re an ignorant victim of sexual repression. My point is that we need choices, and the virginity narrative cannot be the only one. Maybe you do identify with a single first time, and it was really special and you want to remember it. Or maybe you do feel like you lost your virginity, and you want that trauma to be acknowledged. Or maybe, like me, you don’t identify with a first-first time. Maybe you’re still waiting for your sexual debut. Maybe you like reading about sex, but have no desire to partake yourself (I’m assuming you like reading about it because, well, here you are). Whatever your story, it is valid.
Did you know that according to some Greek translations, virgin just means “one unto [her]self”?  If that’s the case, I plan on being a virgin for the rest of my life.