The most robust and pervasive of all sexual myths is that of virginity. It has been with us for thousands of years and it is almost as strong today as it was during the cloistered middle ages. While the legal, social, and financial value of virginity have somewhat declined in modernity (despite a slight jump in importance over the last 30 odd years), the underlying myth has been strangely persistent. Even sexually knowledgeable modern pundits still float the concept in their writing. One young woman, whose blog I follow, wrote recently that a girl should expect her first time to hurt, stating, "that's just how your vagina works."
I was shocked by her warning given that it is completely without scientific support. How could someone who is otherwise well educated sexually remain so miss-informed on this issue? And what does this kind of misinformation do for our culture of sexual violence?
Broadly defined, many people conceive of virginity as the coin of sexual purity. This coin has two sides, physical virginity and "emotional" virginity. You can trade the coin, give the coin away, have it stolen from you, or simply lose it, but you'll never get another one so barter carefully. While both sexes are taught the virginity myth, it is girls who bear the brunt of this culture of misinformation — sometimes to dire consequence.
For a girl, the physical side of the virginity coin is thought to be the hymen which, when torn, is said to provide irreparable evidence that she has lost her coin. Once a girl allows her vagina to be penetrated she becomes less valuable to society, a fact she will be unable to hide because her hymen will permanently tear, forever testifying of the penetration — or so the tale goes. On the spiritual side both guys and girls are told that they will undergo permanent, albeit less noticeable, change. The idea is that the sex act (often defined exclusively as penis in vagina penetration) will psychologically alter the participants to reflect their new status as non-virgins and if this change happens under the wrong circumstances (i.e. outside of marriage) the consequences will be disastrous. We are told that no amount of piety will ever allow illicit participants in the sex act to reclaim their former (purer) condition.
But I'll let you in on a big secret ... Virginity is a baseless myth, there's no such thing! There is no way to reliably tell if a person has had sex in the past. A victim of violence (such as rape) might exhibit physical signs of that violence, but for most girls, there is nothing permanently different between the legs before or after the first (or any other) penetration. The same can be said for what's between everyone's ears. Sex just isn't that kind of event. There are no permanent psychological changes connected with sexual activity. Some people get hurt by a bad breakup, or by sex undertaken with dubious consent, or from sexual trauma, or from an STI, but nothing about the physiology of sexuality causes any permanent change.
Virginity is nothing but a lie. Where it comes from is a story for another article, but virginity is basically a property idea. Back in the days before paternity tests and birth-control, who a girl had sex with told a lot about who got her pregnant; and pregnancy was the key. In early patriarchal societies, men in leadership roles needed labor to increase productivity. That labor came from large collections of children and controlling those children was necessary for continued control over wealth and eventually political power. In response, patriarchal societies developed a system of control over male access to women. If a head-of-household could be sure that the women under his control were not having sex with anyone outside of his knowledge, he could also be sure of the parentage of resulting offspring.
This system became institutionalized in the virginity myth. If girls were lead to believe that their sexual exploits would become permanently recorded on their vaginas, they'd be less likely to consent to sex outside of approved marriages. Religions of the book, which stem from the patriarchal societies of the ancient world, subsumed this concept and, over time, it became a central tenant of many religious doctrines. Thus the practice was carried throughout the ages to us. Despite its pervasive nature, the virginity myth is based entirely on misinformation and has no correlation to actual fact.
While there is a hymen (it's now often called the "vaginal corona"), and it can (and sometimes does) tear during sex, it heals quickly just like any other cut or scratch and once healed it’s no different than it ever was. It does not cover the vagina like some kind of gate. It is actually tissue that tightens across the top part of the opening to the vaginal canal. Having sex 1,000 times won't make it permanently any looser than it was the first time. It can be stretched like any other tissue and not using it for a while will cause it to tighten (just like not doing yoga for a few days tightens up your hamstrings).
For younger girls (or anyone who hasn't had penetrative sex for a while) inserting something the size of a penis into a vagina without proper preparation can hurt (hence the possibility of a tear), but sex, even first time sex, does not have to hurt. Just as a gymnast wouldn't want to drop into a full spread-eagle without warming up, participants should ease into penetrative-sex. If a girl is ready to go (usually from some good foreplay) she generally won't experience any tearing or serious discomfort during penetration.
The perpetuation of the virginity myth stands as one of the greatest travesties of our day. The virginity myth motivates much of the sexual violence around the world, unnecessarily limits the legitimate sexual behaviors of both males and females, tells young women that the physical pain and bleeding associated with violent male-centric sexuality are a natural part of sex, and contributes to our culture of sexual shame and guilt — particularly for girls. It's time to put this particular sexual myth to bed.