Virginity has been one of humanity’s sorrier obsessions. Daphne ultimately preferred existence as a laurel tree to intercourse with Apollo. This seems more reasonable when one considers what met women who lost their virginity in unsanctioned circumstances. In Persephone’s case, loss of virginity resulted in forced marriage and three seasons in hell for eternity.
Christian feminists insist that Christ intended a world in which both men and women were virgins until marriage. But in practice, the worship of the Virgin Mary has exacerbated the conflation of women’s virginity with women’s moral worth. This fusion, or confusion, only increased the invidious paranoia in Europe’s approach to the intersection of women and sex. Thus “virginity,” as a facet of Europe’s greater social misogyny, meant that the average woman was less literate, more likely to be beaten or burned, and unlikely to have any agency over her sexual or marital choices.
But virginity in women was not just a proximity to God, a physical state and a moral decision; it was also a fact of family life and of the economy. Prostitutes were paid to take it away from boys, and the payment of dowries — a significant transaction in the economies of European towns — was contingent on the virginity of the bride-to-be. The European commercial tradition largely dismissed the value of male virginity. Literature has reflected this double standard. Tess of the d’Urbervilles testifies to what met unmarried Victorian girls who lost their virginity, consensually or not: destitution, depression and death.
Our times seem saner, on this count, than many that have preceded them. Some part of the 50 million records that Britney Spears has sold may be credited to the still-present belief that virginity is valuable in women, and the renaissance of “promise rings” throughout Midwestern high schools indicates that the fashion of chastity belts has not dissolved, merely changed. But the social power of virginity has generally declined as the most obvious patriarchies have been dismantled. Few women were killed in America in the last century because they were unmarried but not virgins. Few bed sheets stained with blood are seen outside New Haven windows. And even the traditional definition of “virgin” as one who has not had heterosexual intercourse is now dated.
But that the politics of virginity are no longer atrocious does not mean that America’s understanding of virginity is healthy. The sexual double standard persists. Anecdotally, we are aware of men who have waited for love or marriage, or lost their virginity to older women; we have also heard of women who have had sex for the first time, happily, with men they did not love or date. However, the loss of a woman’s “innocence” is still a subject of higher anxiety than the loss of a man’s. For whatever reason, there remains a glamour in female ignorance and a necessity in male knowledge. Modern-day virgins may resent the language that is available to describe their first experiences: virginity is “taken” or “lost” — not “given.” But really, where does it go when “taken”? The burden of the countless bits of advice that friends, family, religions, popular culture and political organizations feel qualified to give on how one should “lose” one’s virginity is great.
Sex is amazing, liberating and a power to be exerted over others. The first time is to be “gotten over with,” in the expectation of greater joys. Yet virgins are also told that sex is somehow immoral, base, salacious and meaningless if it isn’t within a marriage or a relationship. Lastly, the virgin might define “tedious” with the following question: Do you feel pressured to have sex?
This is the real grievance of virginity in our times: The discourse on virginity is neither sexy nor diverse, nor reaching, but incomprehensible, boring and fetishized. It is a cultural lie, through which we deal ineptly with our views on sex. The loss of virginity is not the moment you lose your innocence. It is the moment when you start to reinvent, and fail, at sex. Nothing is taken from you. You join the conversation. Culture hasn’t wanted women in that conversation, and certainly not women who have sex casually. Boys are supposed to rush into the conversation and conform to its assumptions. And the conversation is toxic; virgins wise to avoid it. It exists within an ethical vacuum, where men are supposed to be big and screw women hard, and women are supposed to like it and fake their orgasms and everyone pretends to be good at sex, to enjoy it, and no one’s son ever forces a girl to have sex with him, and no one talks about whether women enjoy being objects, and everyone knows that most boys are bad in bed yet your friends never date those boys. The conversation has got to get better, everywhere and on this campus. Because the conversation as it stands is like three seasons of hell for all eternity and virgins fidget, tempted by the laurel tree.
Chase Olivarius-McAllister is a sophomore in Branford College. She is the political action coordinator for the Women’s Center.