Virginity in a sex positive world

The sex positivity movement is important, but not perfect

For virgins seeking to participate in sex-positive discourse, well intentioned writing can have unintended impacts. For virgins seeking to participate in sex-positive discourse, well intentioned writing can have unintended impacts.

I have always been curious about sex. Throughout high school, I was the most sexually adventurous of my friends: I read all the magazine articles I could find, I scoured Tumblr and WatPad for the juiciest stories, and I was a huge Laci Green supporter. When I came to university I was even more excited by the prospect of entering the next stage of my sexual journey: penetrative sex. Only it never happened. Due to a combination of medication, medical conditions, and mystery, my only sexual experiences were painful and ended premature of my goal. As time passed and I got older (I’m currently 23), another opportunity for sexual engagement with a partner hasn’t arrived. Pretty quickly I learnt to be ashamed of this fact about myself, to stop watching Sexplanations, to stop talking to my friends about sex, and to withdraw from the sex positive community for fear someone would realise my V-card disqualified me from joining, or even being interested in, the discourse.
I commend Courtney Thompson for calling out a problem in the sex positive community that few seem to notice in Honi last week. In order to be considered sex positive, you have to have a lot of (often) great sex. Sexual empowerment is equated to sexual experience; heaven forbid you try to have one without the other! What Thompson doesn’t seem to realise, though, until the very last sentence of her article, is that speaking over virgins, asexuals, and celibates in order to share your overturned virgin status perpetuates the circle of shame and silence that you’re trying to stop.
Thompson’s article falls into a rarely identified pattern of virgins-in-retrospect writing think-pieces about what it used to feel like being a virgin and how those feelings look post-sex. In June this year, the sexuality podcast Why Oh Why, hosted by Andrea Silenzi, interviewed an anomaly: a 26-year-old virgin. Except she wasn’t. While she was 26 when she had sex for the first time, this occurred prior to her interview. It doesn’t just happen with sex. Laurie Penny, in an edited extract from her book Bitch Doctrine published by the Sydney Morning Herald in September, outlined the reasons why she believes women should remain single in their 20s. Of course, Penny is in a committed monogamous relationship. These articles are a call across the void from the people who have escaped the stigma and shaken off the shame and embarrassment that you, the sorry sod reading, still shoulder.
Let’s be clear: the intentions of these writers and speakers are good. They want to reassure people that if they can do it, you can do it, too. But in response to Thompson’s article, and the many like it, writing about virginity and not having sex from the perspective of someone who has had sex reinscribes the exclusivity of sex positive discourse where only the “sexually active” can participate, telling the readers that you cannot feel normal and okay about your sexuality and sexual history until you have had sex. Asking us to step into the conversation and share our experiences while simultaneously talking about how you used to feel ashamed and alone like us but now, after having sex, feel a lot better, isn’t inviting. And we’re all still trapped in the narrative of shame when you frame your history as an admission, a confession, a dark secret you’re now free from and thus able to discuss and discard.
For anyone reading this who isn’t having sex, whether you want to or not, a reminder: you are already okay. You are already normal. You do not need to have sex to know that.