Americans live in constant fear of sex. While other countries (literally) school the U.S. in terms of comprehensive sex ed (Norwegian teens can learn about sex on TV), Americans still perpetuate wildly damaging myths about this totally natural, biological phenomenon.
But it's not just sex we lie about: We also encourage moral panic and a strange fascination around those who have never even had sex. In fact, an entire industry has been generated around the concept of virginity, ranging from expensive purity balls held across the country to reality TV shows that capitalize on the concept to, incredibly, medical procedures that claim to reinstate virginity.
These powerful industries are based more on cultural fallacies than they are on facts. Here are the lies we need to stop telling about virginity, according to the experts.
1. Virginity is a tangible thing.
Conventional wisdom about breaking the hymen — and virginity in general — is largely based on heterosexual, penile-vaginal intercourse, Sari Locker, a sexuality educator at Columbia University, told Mic.
That our culture still upholds this heterosexist standard of virginity, Locker said, "reflects the flawed conception of sex in America that sex should fit into a mold made by past culture or even by today's media, rather than allowing sexuality to be what it truly is: individual."
In addition to being heterosexist, virginity has also undeniably been historically gendered. "Male virginity wasn't even discussed as a thing until the 20th century," Therese Shechter, creator of the documentary How to Lose Your Virginity, told Mic. "Whether a man was sexual or not had little bearing on his character or value."
"The concept of virginity is all too often tied to how we talk about women's morality and sexual choices," Shechter said. "I think people should define virginity however they want, or dismiss the concept it altogether if it's not useful to them."
2. Virginity is valuable.
Virginity has also historically been defined in terms of deeply gendered morality and economic ownership. According to Shechter, virginity "was and is a conversation about women, and has often reflected a deep need to be able to categorize and assign value to women on the basis of whether their vaginas had ever had penises in them."
Historically, the Atlantic's Nolan Feeney noted in 2014, virginity was largely used to determine paternity specifically to ensure the resources men devoted to pregnant women weren't essentially wasted on another man's offspring. Virginity tests — such as the "string test," which bizarrely determined virginity based on measurements of a woman's head and neck — were even employed for this reason, Feeney writes.
3. Virginity is a label, not an experience.
In modern times, virginity has emerged as an experience, which Hanne Blank, historian and author of Virgin: The Untouched History, told Mic, "has different kinds of values put on it depending on where you go or who you talk to, but is no longer linked to property or paternity."
Take, for instance, the fact that during the slave trade in the U.S., black women and girls were sometimes sold for higher prices based on the claim that they were virgins. Since then, that's manifested as a "history of ownership of black women's bodies and presumptions about what that means," Blank said. This includes the incorrect but often automatic, racist assumption that black women "have these exotic or outrageous sexual habits."
Even today, virginity is still "a very personal experience," for anyone, Blank said: "There's a lot of baggage that has historically been laid onto that, yet that still to many people is a watershed experience and so it is actually perfectly OK for it to be a watershed experience in whatever way that might happen. It can look like a lot of different things."
4. Virginity is virtuous.
Americans still overwhelmingly view virginity as "something valuable that should be saved," Locker said. It's viewed as a form of protection — from pregnancy and STIs, certainly, but of "emotional strife and moral struggle," as well.
But, Shechter said, this moral focus on virginity actually "separates women from their own sexuality, takes away any control they have over their bodies and sexual decision-making, and puts this control into the hands of the men in their lives: their father, their husband and their God."
Furthermore, it hardly protects women from slut-shaming, she added. Since women are constantly told their bodies are inherently sexual and that they are in charge of controlling the temptation they inspire in men, women still must "constantly monitor their actions and their bodies," no matter the state of their virginity.
None of this is to mention that these purity ideals are hardly bolstered by reality. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans lose their virginities in the context of supposedly sinful pre-marital sex. Approximately 95% of Americans have sex before marriage, according to the Guttmacher Institute's research, and that has been true for decades.
5. Choosing to be a virgin is anti-feminist.
Blank said that while third-wave feminists especially have framed virginity as an "oppressive construct that was laid on women by a patriarchal culture" and have diminished it in the hopes of liberating women, this also denies the experiences of women who do choose not to have sex.
Amanda McCracken, a writer who is outspoken about her virginity, wrote about her perception of feminists' reactions to virginity in a recent Al Jazeera op-ed. Feminists claimed that by abstaining, she was "relenting to pressures set up by a patriarchal society," she writes.
McCracken, however, took issue with this notion. "Just because we have the option to have sex, though, doesn't mean we're betraying our feminist forebears if we choose to refrain," she writes.
Blank agrees. The feminist movement's understanding that "a properly liberated woman would always embrace her sexuality left a lot of young women, including young feminist women, without a way to talk about that decision [to remain a virgin]," she said. "Where is the room in that way of thinking about women's sexuality to embrace a sexuality that isn't active or isn't active with other people?"
6. Virginity is an affront to men and justification for violence.
The concept of virginity for men was historically nonexistent, according to Blank. It has only recently become a social concern about men obtaining an experience that "makes them into men," she said.
"There's a growing community of angry, sexually dissatisfied men who blame both women and other men for their situation," McCracken writes in Al Jazeera. Men, she adds, have suggested that McCracken was "selfish" and a "mean tease" for not sleeping with the men she dated — especially when she engaged in other intimate acts with them.
This sense of entitlement is not just restricted to men who attempt to have sex with female virgins, but is arguably augmented among men who are virgins themselves — especially those who are involuntarily so, known as "incels." It is this aggrieved entitlement that can even lead to violence. Elliot Rodger, for example, cited sexual rejection and his own unwanted virginity as a main motivator for his 2014 killing spree.
"As sex becomes increasingly synonymous with human rights, incels feel denied what they consider 'rightfully' theirs," McCracken writes. Sex is "wrapped up in masculinity," Shechter said, and many men believe that "having intercourse (even one time) will make them a man."
Myths perpetuated about virginity are therefore harmful for everybody, not just individuals who identify as virgins. They reveal and reinforce damaging conceptions about sexuality overall and extend far beyond the act of intercourse itself.
"You can't understand rape culture, reproductive rights or slut-shaming without first looking at how our society's ideas around virginity affect women," Shechter said. "Every time a young woman gets a dress code violation for wearing a tank top, she's getting that message. Every time a woman is raped and then blamed for it, she's getting the same message."
Ultimately, we need to broaden our understanding of virginity — not just in terms of acceptance of a specific group of people, but for the sake of all.