The virignity issue

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” ( 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.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. What an interesting post!

    I”m comfortable with “virginity” having more than one meaning. Most English words do.

    I can see the need to narrow down how the word will be used in a study or survey, but would that be necessary for most classroom communication?

    It isn’t that hard to talk of oral virgins or vaginal virgins. So long as the speaker makes clear what he or she is talking about, why not let them use whichever definition they want?

    That’s how I see it. Yet, there is this whole issue of the politics of word choice that you hinted at. Depending on what you might have to say about that, you might change my mind.

  2. In addition to a clear need to clarify just what the speaker means by the word “virgin”, possibly as Paul Sunstone suggests by using a modifier, e.g., “penetrative anal virgin” or “dry humping virgin” or “receptive handjob virgin”, shouldn’t we be concerned about the very word itself? Its history is all about what we stand against: male proprietorship over female sexuality. Using it to refer to a boy/man who has not penetrated a girl/woman is already ludicrous – but part of the lived language. But still, regardless whom it is applied to, the word has to do with control by some over the sexuality of certain others. There is nothing mutual or respectful in any use of the word.

  3. This is a topic I think about a lot; my first sexual experience was being raped by a woman (and when I say first I mean that literally – there had been no kissing or groping or whatever for me before that)

    I recently read “Virginity Lost” by Laura Carpenter, and I was shocked by how much sexual experience people had before they lost their virginity. One guy had even anally penetrated one of his male friends before his first experience of penis-vagina sex, which he considered the time he lost his virginity. This was a huge contrast to my own experience which was a bit like being hit in the face with a plank of wood.

    I don’t think it right to allow each individual to ave their own definition of virginity. Language is a public tool which individuals use to communicate with one another, there needs to be some common understanding of what words mean for communication to be possible.

    In my view the whole problem is the notion that there can be such a thing as “virginity”. We don’t have a word to describe the experience of never having opened a bank account, or never having had a job or owned a house, and why would we? These are all important life events but we don’t single them out by giving them a special word.

    Instead of asking “when did you lose your virginity? (whatever ‘virginity’ means)” I think we should be asking questions more like “what were your early sexual experiences like?” or “when and how did you learn to have sex?” It gets the thinking away from the notion of a discrete event with a before and an after (with the individual irrevocably changed as a result) to thinking about gradually learning about and building experience of something that you will be doing hopefully for most of the rest of your life.

  4. Paul Sunstone and Paul Oakley: I look forward to continuing this conversation with you over the next few days. As I said, I am deeply conflicted about this word. Sharing experiences and particularly first experiences is such a vital part of education. But this word has so much baggage that comes with it. I look forward to what both of you have to say about these books I will be reviewing.

    Robert: Thank you for sharing your story, and your sudden awareness of the differences between your first intercourse experience and that of other people’s. Learning how our experiences differ from other people’s can be a real shock – sometimes one that support survivors’ evolving sense of self and identity, sometimes one that might pull them in the opposite direction.

    I agree with all of you about the need to be more specific, precise, in our language about sexuality. That is the case in many areas, “first” sexual experience being one of them.

  5. Here’s a radical thought … Why does our society continue to prize “virginity” and “purity”?

    Think about it — only in the area of sexuality do we exalt ignorance and inexperience.

    Does that mean I should favor rushing young people into sex? No, but it does mean I prefer they be smarter about it. And I don’t see how keeping them in the dark about their options does them any real good.

  6. The question becomes, do we prize virginity? With movies like “The 40-year Old Virgin” and such, do we not look down on people who don’t lose their virginity (whatever that may be) in their teens? I know a lot of my college peers find it odd when someone says they are a virgin at our age.

    Also, as far as people I talk to, virginity can be modified but most commonly it refers to intercourse. My own personal philosophy however probably involves nailing it down more accurately.

  7. Hi Karen,

    Three cheers for Tyler Carpenter’s take on what constitutes “sex.” I’d have to go out to my office to find the reference, but according to a college-level sex-ed text from a couple of years ago there’s some measurable fraction of people who won’t even agree that PIV intercourse necessarily counts as sex.

    Meanwhile there’s an enormous amount of activity that precedes intercourse that bloody well does count as sex. And so rather than narrow it down I agree with Carpenter that it’s probably more practical to be as expansive as possible rather than as narrow. Specifically, doing so would cover ridiculous hair-splitting evasions such as the ones Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton practiced. (They weren’t even teenagers!)

    I’d add that another very good definition, though a very modern and depressing one, would be it’s sex if you can contract or transmit an illness while doing it. That would definitely include holding hands and kissing since (to name a few) viruses like HPV and herpes, and bacteria such as syphilis and chlamydia can be transmitted that way. On the other hand it too is not a complete definition as it doesn’t cover non-contact sex acts such as phone or cyber sex or watching each other in person.

    (I wonder if it’s significant that I took the Unitarian sex ed course in the 8th grade, back in the 1970s? Expansive definitions are consistent with overall UU educational philosophy.)

    Whatever the outcome I’m glad to hear the sex-ed community discussing the question.


  8. @Paul Oakley #2:

    I think you’ve put your finger on the main issue with the word — what I like to call “the politics of the word”.

    It seems to me “virgin” and “virginity” have had a long history of being closely associated with patriarchy, and that the value placed on virginity has been derived not from the virgin’s point of view, but from the patriarch’s point of view.

  9. I’m sorry! I forgot to add, “In short, Paul, I agree with you.”

  10. […] regardless of our conversation last week about what does or should constitute first-time-sex, most of the stories I read in Shawn’s book […]

  11. It’s interesting how you’ve opened up new perspectives to an old discourse. Excellent post… And I have to say… I couldn’t agree less.

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