I’ve been pondering virginity again recently.  A couple of things have come up, directing my attention there.

First, I was contacted not once, but twice within the same week by authors of new books on virginity, asking me to review their books (reviews are in coming posts – this is a multi-post issue if I ever saw one!).  Both of these books are essentially a series of personal stories by real people about their experiences loosing their virginity.  Second, an e-mail list of sexuality educators I take part in was discussing virginity and how to define it.

These two event came together in interesting ways for me.  In the e-mail conversation, most of the sexuality educators agreed that “virginity” is too hard a term to nail down.  Because we don’t want to define “sex” as exclusively “intercourse,” we don’t want to continue to give societal weight to the act of coitus that the term “virginity” does.  There are all sorts of other issues and questions about the loss of virginity, including notably sexual orientations other than heterosexual, but then also when someone has experienced child sexual abuse, rape, or copious oral or anal sex.

But then when have we thrown the door open too wide?  The conversation was drifting in the direction of: everything counts as sex!  I thought one of the participants on the list serve had a response that warranted a wider audience.  Tyler Carpenter, an Our Whole Lives (OWL) sex educator for a Unitarian Universalist church, agreed to let me re-post his words here:

“… it was made clear that sex included all kinds of sex, …”

Really? All kinds of sex includes a *very* wide range of behaviors, many of which would be considered “sex” by some but not by others. Personally, I consider *any* partner-oriented sexually arousing behavior to be “sex” and don’t define some arousing actions as “sex” and others as “not sex”. To me, such a “sex/not sex” distinction makes no sense, and I’ve never heard a convincing argument otherwise. So to me, fully clothed dance-floor “grinding” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grinding_(dance)) or open-mouthed kissing is every bit as much “sex” as desired penile penetration into a willing partner’s genital orifice. The definitional lines that we draw between behaviors seem purely arbitrary and change depending on a wide variety of personal, cultural and historical factors.

So a question like “is s/he still a virgin” is a trap, as it forces you to define the term in a way that is almost guaranteed to be inaccurate to some in the class. In some cultures, only penile-vaginal penetration counts, and mutual consent is irrelevant — a rape victim is a “nonvirgin” but a person who engages in anal intercourse with hundreds of partners is still a virgin.  And in general, the cultures, groups and individuals that make the distinction between “virgin” and “nonvirgin” tend to have the most socially conservative views of sexuality in general.

IMO, and the best thing to do with this question is to put it back to the class. If they, as a group, wish to define it they can. But if they really want an answer from you, then you (the leaders) need to define the term as you see fit. The definition I like is this:

“A person is no longer a virgin when they, and they alone, decide that they are no longer a virgin“.

If you define virginity as “lacking in sexual experience”, you can even say (truthfully, IMO) that by taking the OWL [human sexuality middle or high school] class, they are no longer “sexually innocent”, and that means that they are no longer virgins.

Just as nobody gets to tell me that the god to whom I pray doesn’t qualify as God, nobody gets to tell me that my most intimate experiences don’t qualify as “sufficiently sexual” to be sex.

But what about an experiencing being so sexual that it is necessarily sex?  Can we choose, as individuals, that anal sex “counts” but oral sex doesn’t?

Among people who think about these issues a lot, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus.

But among the authors and storytellers of these two books on virginity, there seems to be a lot of consensus.  And the consensus is penile/vaginal intercourse.  Even in the stories where coitus did not occur, the authors often feel the need to explain – oral sex did could, they thought, which is why they are telling this story rather than the apparently more obvious one.

At the same time as having mixed emotions about the word “virgin,” it is clear from reading these stories and talking to all the young people I talk to, that the first intercourse, particularly, is something that needs talking about before someone does it.

And who is going to do that talking?  Too many parents and teachers are afraid of talking about sex with young people – afraid they will put ideas into their heads, afraid they will accidentally encourage them, afraid afraid afraid.

But I am more afraid of what happens when there is no information, no conversation, no knowledge, and no skills.  The first forays into sexuality can be bumbling, humbling, and scary.  They are rarely (although occasionally) joyous and pleasurable.  These books certain show those aspects under a bright light.

So I will review these books properly for you over the coming week.  But I wanted you to have a sense of my state of mind, a mixture of trepidation and delight at having found books that hang this first experience with intercourse out on the clothesline, before I dive into the books themselves.