When Susan* had sex for the first time she considered whether she felt substantially different to before. She didn’t. No less pure, no more empowered, about the same.
For Rachel* the situation was similar; the morning after that ‘momentous’ night she felt like exactly the same person, unchanged by the experience she had been told would definitively alter her.
The reality for these girls was that the act itself was both mildly unpleasant and multi-facetedly anti-climactic. Both from non-religious and quite liberally progressive backgrounds, they placed little importance on their virginity, and yet were strongly aware of society’s obsession with it.
Susan, a second-year arts student, believes that whether you’ve had sex more than zero times is less important than how much you’re enjoying yourself.
“I think of people who haven’t had that much sex as ‘virgins’, [because] for me it has connotations of being a ‘sex novice’”.
For Susan, the transformative moment is when there’s pleasure in the encounter and you’ve gotten beyond the “awkward slapping of pieces of skin on each other”.
Rachel ‘lost’ her virginity during her second year of uni. For her, having sex was simply a change in the way she expressed her sexuality – from orgasming by herself to orgasming with another person. “It’s pretty clear that society has a thing about who’s done it” she says, “but that really doesn’t reflect the fact that women are multifaceted and complexly valuable individuals, not just vaginas with additional extremities.”
For Julie*, this kind of attitude is present in the way we talk of virginity as a possession that can be ‘given’, ‘lost’ or ‘ taken’: “It’s funny, because virginity isn’t a real thing you can lose, it’s just a random social construct”, adding that the general tendency of people to phrase it as something a girl ‘gives as a gift’ and a man ‘takes’ is a sexist conception of sexual encounters.
However Julie is also concerned that some attempts to embrace sexual expression have distorted virginity into a supposed negative. “I’ve met a fair number of people who sell themselves as hardcore feminist, yet they still think that girls who haven’t had sex aren’t ‘using their womanhood’ or whatever.”
It seems like a misinterpretation of the intentions underlying sexual liberation to stigmatise a lack of sexual conduct, just as that movement condemns the stigmatisation of sexual conduct.
As a queer woman, Monica* thinks that the focus on vaginal penetration by a penis reinforces the idea that homosexuality is weird or abnormal.
“To me, having sex always meant getting a penis in your vagina. As I started to discover my own sexuality, I became more and more confused as to what ‘sex’ and ‘virginity’ really meant.”
She now thinks of sex as a time when you orgasm, although she recognises that such a definition, as any must be, is imperfect.
“After I had ‘sex’ for the first time, it certainly felt like sex to me. Later when I had hetero sex for the first time, it felt like losing my virginity for a second time” she said.
In this way, Monica doesn’t think people somehow flick a switch to ‘non-virgin’ “I think I can still lose it again, every time I try something new”.
*Names changed to protect privacy.