Virginity: It's an obsession that spans the globe, and a concept that is often used to determine girls' value as human beings.
But what is it, exactly?
The answer is more nebulous than you might think. Despite its near-universal cultural influence, there is no biological definition of virginity, just a popular understanding that a "virgin" refers to a person who has not had sex. Given that people define sex differently, however, that common definition doesn't really work.
At its core, virginity is just an idea. As Everyday Feminism's Melissa A. Fabello points out in her discussion of virginity myths, as cultural trends shift, so do our ideas about sex and sexuality. Ideas change, and that's a good thing. We're long overdue for a societal shift in the way we approach sex, especially when it comes to policing women's purity.
To that end, here are six myths about virginity we have to stop telling America's women — and boys:
1. Losing your virginity requires a penis and vagina.
The most common (mis)perception of virginity centers on a heteronormative, penis-penetrating-vagina understanding of sex. But this ignores a plethora of other sexual possibilities, including LGBTQ couples, oral and anal sex, digital penetration (either by someone else or yourself), mutual masturbation, instances where it "didn't go all the way in," or sex toy play.
Emily, a self-described asexual woman in her early 30s, perfectly captured this sentiment when she told Mic:
"I lost my virginity to a man but I still think, 'Well, when did I lose my virginity to a woman? Was it that? And when I hooked up with that other person, did we actually have sex, or just fool around?' There's a worship of the idea that 'P-in-V' is the only way you can lose your virginity. That is kind of ridiculous and contributes to that really black-and-white idea of what sexuality is."
In other words, there is no one way to define sex, so why try to retrofit a definition of virginity?
2. Virginity makes you "pure."
As the Guardian's Jessica Valenti put it, virginity is "a moral ideal above all else" that pits women against each other by constructing a "narrative of good girls and bad girls, pure girls and dirty girls." This myth dates back to biblical times. Indeed, as Audrey, a 26-year-old self-proclaimed virgin, told Mic, "It's the Madonna and the whore dichotomy: Women are either out being like slutty sex fiends or they're sitting at home under their parents' watchful eye."
This is an unfortunate, not to mention misguided, view of women, who are so much more than their levels of sexual engagement. And it functions to create a class system of women in which some are valued more than others, and presumably treated differently, based on whether they still hold their "v-card."
It also ignores the reality of women (and men) whose "first times" aren't consensual. This further complicates the value judgments placed on "dirty" girls, who in cases of rape and sexual assault, did not lose their "purity" through any fault of their own.
3. Men are in charge of defining — and taking — virginity.
Even though penis-in-vagina isn't the only type of sex, our current concept of virginity shifts the sexual power balance in favor of men: If men are the ones who "take" women's virginity, they become empowered over women's sexuality by default.
This (im)balance gives credence to what Therese Shechter, director of the 2013 documentary How to Lose Your Virginity, calls the "magical penis," the idea that the all-powerful male member literally changes women, who are passive participants, through intercourse.
If women are merely "taken" in sexual exchanges, it deprives them of their own sexual agency.
4. Virginity is a commodity, just like a woman's body.
From teens obsessed with "v-card collecting" — in which they try to sleep with as many virgins as possible — to young women auctioning off their virginity online, virginity has become a commodity. The result? Once the "transaction" is complete, that person is devalued and their perceived worth plummets.
Furthermore, the loaded language of "losing" one's virginity reinforces the notion that virginity is a real, tangible thing to be taken or given away, in turn advancing it as a commodity.
5. Hymens are a sign of virginity.
For eons, the hymen — tissue that partially or totally occludes the vagina — was thought to be the physical indicator of a woman's chastity. If it was broken, she was no longer a virgin.
But, as Mic previously reported, "Hymens usually become worn down throughout adolescence, and can be torn by everything from jumping on a trampoline, to horseback riding, to simply playing sports. Some women aren't born with one at all."
Despite the fallibility of the unbroken hymen test, its mythical importance lives on — to a dangerous extent. Globally, women and girls are subject to degrading, invasive "virginity tests," and some women are even undergoing painful surgery to "restore" their virginity.
6. A woman's chastity should be preserved at all costs.
When a woman's worth is directly correlated to her perceived purity, she is at an increased risk for violence.
As Lori Adelman wrote for the International Women's Health Coalition, "From forced child marriage, female genital cutting and breast ironing to slut-shaming to the deliberate withholding of information on reproductive and sexual health, the emphasis on preserving virginity has pernicious consequences for girls in the West and beyond."
And all of these practices are part and parcel of cultures that value girls' chastity above their actual well-being.
Clearly, it's time we kiss "virginity" goodbye. When you step back and evaluate the concept, it becomes much less a rite of passage and much more an irrelevant abstraction that does little more than perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women's worth.
When it comes to engaging in sexual intimacy — whether for the "first" time or the millionth — what matters most is your comfort level each and every step of the way, not your adherence to some outdated myth.