Virginity Is A Social Construct

19 Dec

Jezebel published a piece today with the title “Nearly 1% Of Women Claim They Were Virgins When They Gave Birth,” and, because this is Jezebel we’re talking about here, they used this as an opportunity to shame and belittle the women who say that they became pregnant while still virgins. And just so we all understand what author Erin Gloria Ryan means by virgins, she writes that they are women who,

“… were unpenetrated by the peen of a man when they became pregnant.”

She further explains,

“This doesn’t include women who became pregnant via in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination; these are women who gave birth the old fashioned way and were like *shrug! SERIOUSLY GUYS I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW THIS HAPPENED!”

Then (incorrectly) asserts,

“Getting pregnant without sex is virtually scientifically impossible, yet dozens of women in the study (who were teens when the research began) swear up and down that their babies happened sans man. This is the biological equivalent of claiming that your glass of drinking water spontaneously began boiling itself without the presence of heat. I mean, maybe it’s Unsolved Mysteries-possible, but it’s highly doubtful that 0.8% of all glasses of water boil themselves. Come on.”

Also, just so that we’re really super clear on how Jezebel views these women, the article was posted to their Facebook page with the following header:

Nearly 1% of women insist they were virgins when they gave birth, which means that nearly 1% of women are delusional.

Oh, Jezebel. Jezebel. I know all the cool kids have already said it, but damn. You sure do suck at feminism.

First of all, it is definitely scientifically possible to become pregnant without having penetrative vaginal sex. It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s possible – all you need is for a someone to ejaculate on or in close proximity to the vagina, or else have some other thing with sperm on it – a finger, say, or a sex toy – penetrate the vagina. Yes, these are unlikely ways in which to become pregnant, but they’re not within the same realm as water spontaneously boiling.

Second of all, can we not have this discussion without calling women stupid or crazy or just flat out accuse them of lying?

Third of all, can we please stop talking about virginity as if it is a real, measurable thing?

Virginity is not a thing. Not really. It is a social construct meant to make people, especially women, feel badly about their sexuality and sexual experience. It is a way of policing other people’s bodies and passing judgment on how they use them. It is, at its very core, a way of controlling and subjugating women.

One problem with the idea of virginity is that there’s no hard and fast way of deciding who’s a virgin and who isn’t. Many people would define loss of virginity in a very heteronormative sense – a sexual act where the penis penetrates the vagina. But does that mean, then, that a queer woman who has only ever been with other women is a virgin? Is a gay man, who has only ever had anal sex, a virgin? Most people, when pressed, would agree that no, those folks aren’t really virgins, even if they’ve never had penis-in-vagina-style intercourse. The flip side of this is that many rape victims don’t feel as if they have lost their virginity even if they’ve had penetrative intercourse forced on them. They consider themselves to be virgins because they don’t consider what happened to them to be sex. So taking all of that into consideration, how do we then define virginity?

Some people have said that performing any sexual act constitutes losing one’s virginity, but that seems like much too broad of a definition. Kids start experimenting with sexual play and experimentation at a fairly young age, so does it then follow that anyone who’s kissed someone of the opposite sex or shown them their genitals has de facto lost their virginity? I’m not sure that this idea makes any more sense than saying that virginity can only be lost through one very specific sexual act.

Another problem is that there is literally no way of knowing if someone is a virgin or not. Oh, people will tell you that you can check if a woman’s hymen is broken, but that’s not a reliable indicator at all. A hymen can be broken without any kind of sexual intercourse, through sports or through some kind of injury. Not all women are born with hymens. Not all hymens tear during penetrative sex. And yet we’ve all been sold this idea of torn flesh and blood on sheets as some kind of definite rite of passage for women. This idea – that you can somehow tell if a woman has been sexually active – has contributed to the oppression and subjugation of women for pretty much all of recorded history. It’s given men a way to control women, to make them ashamed of their bodies their sexuality. It’s led to a double standard where it’s fine – even encouraged – for boys to gain sexual experience, but women who are sexually active before marriage or have sex with too many people are considered to be slutty or damaged goods.

Finally, why is virginity so damn important to us? We don’t have nouns for who or what we were before we hit any other life milestones – there’s no term to refer to a person before they can walk or talk or read and write – all of which I would argue are more important achievements than getting laid – and yet it’s the sex that we focus on. Why do we put so much more weight on this one small facet of human life than we do on any of the others? Why are we still making a big deal out of who is a virgin and who isn’t?

This is the discussion that we should be having – not about whether women are lying or delusional about their virginity, but about why we still use this damaging term. We need to talk about why the idea of virginity continues to hold such sway over our cultural consciousness, and why so-called feminist websites a perpetuating the thought that virginity is a tangible, definable thing. Most of all, we need to figure out a better way to talk to kids about their bodies and their sexuality, because the way that we’re doing it now clearly isn’t working.

Even Mary agrees - virginity is bullshit

Even Mary agrees – virginity is bullshit

221 Responses to “Virginity Is A Social Construct”

  1. thealmostler December 27, 2013 at 4:34 am #

    This definitely gives me food for thought.
    As someone who was going to be a teacher for a vast majority of my life, the issue of sexual education has come up quite often.

    As a young adult, sexual education has definitely been at the forefront of my education for at least the past 7 years.

    We need to put more emphasis on self acceptance, and less on social constructs within schools.

  2. effyyinwonderland December 27, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Reblogged this on Effy in Wonderland.

  3. pdhaliwal1 December 27, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    This was amazing. This should be required reading material for everyone in society.

  4. sweetyvie76 December 27, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    is this photo is miracle type

  5. tushita90 December 27, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Virginity is taken quite seriously in certain communities and countries and it only concerns women there. And yeah, it is indeed a way of controlling women and subjugating them. Before marriage the father and the brother has control over a girl’s virginity. She is not allowed to go out and talk to other boys or men. She is “presented” to a “chosen” man by the girl’s parents. The man’s family makes sure whether the girl is a virgin or not by spreading a white sheet on the bed where the girl is baout to experience sex (for the firs time maybe). And if red spots are not seen, she is demeaned and compared to a whore.
    Ina ll this, the girl loses respect and it is not her fault at all. Such people are not aware of the true facts about hymen and losing virginity.
    To me, the whole concept of virginity is crappy.
    And when people compare a woman to a whore, they forget that she is also a woman and this mean patriarchal world has created sex workers. Their names are used as abuses that simply means people have no sense of respect for them. Nobody blames the “customers”.
    Well, not diverting the point here.
    Yeah virginity is a social construct and it’s high time people should get past this

  6. charlockslomes December 27, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    This is brilliant!

  7. The Tale Of Bitter Truth December 27, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Tale Of Bitter Truth.

  8. persianpishi December 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    I love this! Thank you for putting on ‘paper’ what we’re all thinking!!

  9. listianilian December 28, 2013 at 1:06 am #

    Reblogged this on listianilian and commented:
    Jezebel

  10. Joan Williams-Okon December 28, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    Virginity isn’t just an issue or “social construct” as you call it for women. Men have the right to say they are virgins or not virgins. To say that virginity or remaining chaste until marriage is outdated in a sex saturated society is an understatement. However, one’s virginity is not a minor detail in the events of one’s life; uniting your body with somebody else’s is also a matter of uniting your soul with that person. It isn’t healthy emotionally for women or men to consistently open their hearts and bodies to multiple people. Your mental and emotional state is harmed by repeatdly engaging in premarital and extramarital sex. I won’t even go into all the diseases you are exposed to when sharing body fluids with multiple people; nevertheless; as harmful as the STDs are to one’s health, the emotional havoc wrought on mindless bed hopping is far worse!

    • K January 2, 2014 at 5:01 am #

      We have the right to identify ourselves with words we chose; the problems come when others assign words to us without our consent or agreement.

      Also, let’s not forget that experiencing multiple sexual partners does NOT necessarily increase our risk for sexually transmitted infections, and that learning to navigate social situations can lead us to be responsible, communicative and honest adults. IE- if honest communication increases, than the risk of STIs decreases. The number of sexual partners is irrelevant in regards to STI exposure; what is relevant is whether or not your partners and yourself have been tested and can communicate and act responsibly.

      Also also, marriage is a social construct, as is human monogamy and the assumption that all people want a long-term, committed relationship. Further, premarital/extramarital sex can be healthy, fun and exciting.

  11. hippiedaniella December 28, 2013 at 5:08 am #

    Reblogged this on hippiedaniella.

  12. Royal Peace 365 December 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    Very well put together👏

  13. dederants December 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on From Slacker To Scribe.

  14. britbitchberlin7 December 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    great informative post! we women live our lives determined by social constructs…virgin/whore/slut/good girl etc etc .

  15. starchaserxoxo December 29, 2013 at 6:02 am #

    Reblogged this on starchaserxoxo.

  16. o6iez December 29, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on Thoughts εїз.

  17. Sage December 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Reblogged this on Books, Brains & Other Things and commented:
    This, this and THIS!!!

  18. ammieozx December 29, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on Things we want to say and commented:
    Bloody amazing.

  19. ammieozx December 29, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Bloody amazing.

  20. Nerija S. December 30, 2013 at 3:40 am #

    Pregnancy via in vitro = pregnancy without being penetrated by a man. It’s weird how Jezebel explicitly acknowledges this procedure, but then goes on to insist that it’s scientifically impossible for a woman to get pregnant w/o having sex with a man.

    As for the idea of virginity, as much as women get shamed for having “too much” sex, there’s also the flip side — being shamed for not having (or, heaven forbid, not wanting to have) sex by a certain age (or ever). I mean, Oprah had a whole episode on “30-year-old virgins,” and apparently the show’s producers thought it was weird for someone to not have had sex by then.

    Yep, I’d say there are definitely some problems with how our culture views sex.

  21. namrta14 December 30, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    ahhh! jst dont knw when people will stop taking virginity of girls as a tabooo…
    well witten 🙂

  22. Cassie Garbe December 30, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    I think the reason we’re still obsessed with virginity is because we’re obsessed with sex–or we at least care much more about it than we think we’re “supposed” to. We just don’t want to admit it in this prudish country of ours.

  23. Dickie James December 31, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    Really enjoyed this – virginity is a social construct which is used to define women’s and girls’ sexuality. Agree that use of these stats (not sure where they came from or how reliable they are anyway) to make women look stupid is typically

  24. Dickie James December 31, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Sorry posted by accident. … typical of underlying media misogyny. I wonder if the research even considered that in some cases, very young or vulnerable women may not know or are not able to articulate that they have experienced penetrative sex.
    Anyway, virginity within patriarchal discourse is about defining women in terms of male ownership and feminine purity. The fact it is often considered a ‘prize’ for men to penetrate a virgin evidences this.
    Great blog!

  25. pravinjeya December 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    Reblogged this on Green PhD.

  26. abhinavberi December 31, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Reblogged this on abhinavberi's Blog and commented:
    Something which men should understand!!

  27. Abhijan Barua January 1, 2014 at 5:18 am #

    Reblogged this on Nutshell.

  28. Spinning For Difficulty January 1, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    “..Second of all, can we not have this discussion without calling women stupid or crazy or just flat out accuse them of lying?..”

    The word used was ‘delusional’ which is not quite the same as being stupid, crazy or dishonest – although it doesn’t rule those things out either.

    “…Virginity is not a thing. Not really….”

    Virginity is a thing. Virginity is that thing where a person has not yet experienced sexual intercourse in their life.

    “…It is a social construct meant to make people, especially women, feel badly about their sexuality and sexual experience….’

    Well, that’s a very loaded way of putting it.

    The point of placing a value on virginity was never *just* about making non-virgins feel bad out of some kind of misogynistic spite! Instead of leaping to that conclusion it might be a good idea to consider WHY virgin girls might have always been traditionally valued by families, communities and by prospective husbands since the dawn of time….

    The most obvious reason is that a pregnant girl requires an enormous amount of resources for many years which she is unable to provide for herself (on account of being pregnant / nursing a baby. So if she gets pregnant without first getting married her extended family and/ or the local community will have to provide all those resources for her and the baby. Let’s not forget that throughout history most communities lived on the brink of starvation (many still do). The VERY LAST thing they needed was a young (unmarried) girl getting pregnant and giving birth to yet another hungry mouth to feed.

    Teaching girls that virginity was a virtue was (and still is) a very effective way to encourage them to stay clear of sex until after they have secured a mate who can provide for her and their future offspring. (Effective) contraception is a very recent invention, and cultural incentives / taboos about virginity was the prime method of ‘contraception’ (ie abstinence) for young girls for thousands of years prior to the pill/ condoms etc.

    In addition, men were unable to get near to a girls naughty bits without first signing a contract agreeing to provide for that girl for life. It’s understandable that he ight want as much assurance as possible that she was not pregnant and had not contracted any sexually transmitted diseases which might (a) kill her (b) make her infertile (c) get passed on to him. Remember diseases typically meant suffering and a lingering death.

    The whole virginity/ white/ pure thing is less about moral virtue and more about very practical assurances of good health in an age where effective medicines hardly existed. It was the equivalent of selling something on ebay and saying “unused, still boxed”.

    The marriage vow itself, and the taboo against breaking it, was an strategy equivalent to the virginity thing which ensured men also provided for the children and mother for life, and didn’t just sow their seeds and then do a runner (leaving the burded on care to the girl’s family and local community).

    Breaking marriage vows and having sex out of wedlock (and before marriage) are all examples of taboos imposed upon men and women which arose from VERY PRACTICAL CONCERNS to do with ensuring resource provision – literally to do with survival!

    You can therefore understand why the prospective husband might want some assurance that she is a virgin before signing on the dotted line! He is signing a contract to break his back providing resources for this girl – he want to make sure there are no hidden costs. From his point of view a virgin is unlikely to be pregnant by another man, and is unlikely to have any sexually transmitted diseases which could be passed onto him, or make her infertile. Remember for most of history diseases meant suffering and a lingering death.

    “…..It is a way of policing other people’s bodies and passing judgment on how they use them. It is, at its very core, a way of controlling and subjugating women…”

    Yes indeed! You might have added “… a way of controlling and subjugating YOUNG, HORNY AND NAIVE women..’

    But let’s not get pulled into the whole ‘feminist victim narrative’ ……. YES the whole virginity thing is in a sense about controlling and subjugating young horny women …..but so is the whole marriage thing about controlling and subjugating young horny men.

    And in both cases the women were as active in imposing these taboos as the men (arguably far more active). So it had nothing to do with ‘oppressive men’ imposing so called ‘patriarchy’ onto women victims. The oppressor was neither men nor women, but rather the harsh environment of a world without contraception, modern medicines and very little food!

    In our modern affluent society full of contraceptives and modern medicines and consumer advertising messages about ‘freedom’ (usually from responsibility) we tend to think of the whole virginity/ marriage thing purely in terms of strict social conventions for the sake of strict social conventions – rather than for the sake of practical survival, avoiding death, disease and other unnecessary hardships.

    In reality the prime motivation for these kinds of taboos was always the basic survival needs of the family, the extended community and ultimately the species 🙂

  29. victorialittle January 1, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on Victoria Sharples and commented:
    Virgin Mary?

  30. Sandra Stephens January 1, 2014 at 9:54 pm #

    Nice rebuttal to Jezebel. I hope they refer to it.

  31. hollikai January 2, 2014 at 3:58 am #

    Reblogged this on Eat. Pray. Fashion..

  32. bafriyie January 2, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    This is so well written. This is probably the most well written and thought out Freshly Pressed article I have ever read. I can’t wait to read your future posts.

  33. Andy Alkaev January 2, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    I had the same reaction when I read the article on Jezebel. Thank you for this!

  34. Eri Berry January 2, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I agree. Viriginity, indeed, is a social construct and its value-leaden meaning varies from culture to culture, family to family, person to person.

  35. lruthnum January 2, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

    Such a well thought out piece – really thought provoking and well written. Fascinating to think about this topic in such depth and it really does highlight that in modern day society virginity is far more subjective than ever before. I’ve always felt that virginity is something completely personal that shouldn’t be defined by society, it is different for everyone and completely changes the experience based on aspects such as love, intimacy and expectation. But, as you say, the physical aspect also changes depending on the sexual experience of each individual, the gender of each individual and particularly same-sex couples. Fascinating topic!

  36. colletteseline January 2, 2014 at 9:32 pm #

    While I agree with much of your post, I have to say, if you’re trying to advocate from a feminist standpoint, you shouldn’t be so quick to judge “virginity.” Feminism is about a woman having the right to chose whatever life path she desires, in regards to her body, soul, voice, etc. This may include virginity for some. So to say, “Virginity…is a social construct meant to make people, especially women, feel badly about their sexuality and sexual experience. It is a way of policing other people’s bodies and passing judgment on how they use them,” wouldn’t necessarily be promoting a feminist mindset, would it? All people posses sexuality whether they chose to use it or not. Thus, shaming their not using it is passing just as much judgment as someone who would shame their using it.

    For many, the desire to maintain virginity is based on religion, which one could argue is a social construct, but that is a whole other argument. And while some would say that this desire comes from a shaming created by whatever church you believe in, and a tool that uses guilt to gain power, it is much more than that. For many, it is a deeper understanding of faith and a longing and desire to be close to a higher entity. Part of these teachings don’t include virginity specifically, but they do advocate viewing the body as sacred, as a temple, self sacrifice, and waiting until marriage.

    Virginity is not constantly used as an unattainable mirage to guilt people into self hatred and obedience. It is often a deeply thought out, well educated, informed choice. And one that should be supported by a fellow men and women.

    Happy readings

    • ReneeW January 5, 2014 at 5:29 am #

      “Why do we put so much more weight on this one small facet of human life than we do on any of the others? Why are we still making a big deal out of who is a virgin and who isn’t?”

      This has really resonated with me. Over the past few years, I’ve been allowing myself to let go of a lot of baggage from my background (I was raised in an extremely Baptist household). I’ve gone from believing True Love Waits, to being a sex-positive person. But I still find myself making a big deal about sex and the consequences of sex (often imaginary ones in my head). It’s frustrating, especially since virgin=more valuable/pure is only a social attribute placed on women. One more shackle of patriarchy I’d like to cut off.

  37. iameuna January 3, 2014 at 12:33 am #

    Reblogged this on The Bookish Filipina and commented:
    Can’t believe I only saw this now. This is amazing!

  38. luna6ix January 3, 2014 at 2:51 am #

    Is The Belle Jar insinuating with this blog that none of the 1% were either lying or unaware that they had vaginal intercourse? I’d find that hard to believe. Virgin birth may not be the equivalent of a spontaneous glass of boiling water, but it’s still pretty unlikely. I’d say it’s more like throwing a basketball backward from across the court and making a basket. Definitely possible, but I wouldn’t be hitting the basket one every hundred times.

  39. Michelle January 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    I feel like most of the people in this world like things better when they’re already thought out and labeled for them, so in terms of the whole “losing your virginity” idea we’ve really just gone about using the term without actually questioning what it means. And no I don’t categorize losing your virginity the same as kissing the opposite sex, or that that’s a sexual act because (something I’ve failed to understand) I have seen mothers kiss their young sons on the lips. It’s an odd act, but you can’t say that the son just lost his virginity. All in all virginity and the negative feelings that derive from it have a major religious impact. Basically to scare us women into thinking not twice, but three times about having sex before marriage.

  40. albertvgn15 January 3, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on blog.

  41. silverdragonheart January 3, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Silver Dragon's Heart and commented:
    A fascinating viewpoint, that eloquently illustrates one of my major “issues” with Jezebel. To quote the author, “Oh, Jezebel. Jezebel. I know all the cool kids have already said it, but damn. You sure do suck at feminism.” I believe that a feminist journal should be a little less anti-female. Jezebel tries so hard to be counter-culture with their feminism, but fails so epically that they come off (to me) as my-way-or-the-highway bullies most of the time. -sea

  42. SilviaO January 4, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

    Here, here! Great post.

  43. tagdenied January 4, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    Well caught! Definitely an important topic and thanks for writing it

  44. blackbyrd January 5, 2014 at 5:16 am #

    This is a subject that has fascinated me as of late –– especially since I cracked open an old poetry notebook of mine and noticed nearly EVERY poem focused on sex, the possibility of “losing my virginity,” and the sinfulness of it all. I am really not quite sure how the idea that sex is a sin got drilled into my then-teenage brain, but I’m pissed that it did. Thanks for this post –– you have it right when you say it’s a social construct based solely on women’s affairs.

  45. Juju January 5, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    Reblogged this on Juju Bird and commented:
    This post just goes to show how far have to go as women. The fight is still very real.

  46. lizzyloveslipstick January 6, 2014 at 4:20 am #

    Love this, going to reblog it on lizzyloveslipstick. Really interesting thoughts….xx

  47. lizzyloveslipstick January 6, 2014 at 4:21 am #

    Reblogged this on lizzyloveslipstick and commented:
    Interesting way to look at Virginity and sexual activity within a modern context….

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Freshly Riffed 61: This Is It, Boys, This Is War | A VERY STRANGE PLACE - December 27, 2013

    […] Hey Jezebel — Virginity Is A Social Construct […]

  2. 7 @ 9: Settling like dust - December 31, 2013

    […] 7. The Belle Jar: “Virginity Is a Social Construct” […]

  3. 2013 In Review: Part 2 | The Belle Jar - January 6, 2014

    […] for my last post of the year (not counting the first part of my year in review), I wrote about how virginity is a social construct. And I got freshly freshly pressed! Again! For the third time this year! BLOGGING HAT […]

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