Virginity Is A Social Construct — But What Does That Mean?

by Kristen Mae

Labeling something as a social construct, in a way, is weird. It can sound as though we’re trying to invalidate, or even erase the existence of, the thing we claim is a social construct. That’s not the case though. Gender, for example, is a social construct, but it’s still real in the sense that many people consider their gender identity and gender expression important parts of how they present themselves to the world and how they see themselves.

Money is also a social construct, but identifying it as such is not to claim it doesn’t exist or is a lie. It does exist. It’s a social contract we all agree to in order to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.

Social constructs are ideas that shape our understanding of the world. They also influence our thinking and behavior.

Virginity As A Social Construct

Virginity is a social construct. It is not something you can hold in your hand or see, but it’s something we as a culture have decided exists. It’s a tool we use to mark “before” and “after.” More ominously, it’s a tool we use to rate the chastity of girls and the experience of boys. A pre-intercourse girl is pure. A pre-intercourse boy is inexperienced. A post-intercourse girl is defiled, impure, loose, immoral. A post-intercourse boy is experienced.

Some cultures and communities place so much importance in the idea of virginity that they conduct “virginity testing.” This practice is condemned by the World Health Organization as a violation of a person’s human rights. It is sometimes done using the “two finger” method of testing a woman’s vaginal opening to determine if her hymen is still “intact.” It is also common to check for blood on the sheets after intercourse — blood means she was a virgin before intercourse. No blood means she was not a virgin. In some places, it may be seen as evidence she has defrauded her husband and may be subjected to punishment or even death.

It’s obviously wrong to assess a person’s value as a human being based on whether or not they’ve had previous sexual partners. But there also isn’t actually any scientifically reliable way to test a person’s virginity. Despite the persistence of the myth of the hymen being a sexual snitch, it just … isn’t. And science has known this for decades.

Popping Some Hymen Myths

Many people still think of the hymen as a membrane that stretches completely across the vaginal opening, covering it like a drum. But the hymens is simply remnant tissue left over from prenatal development, and it is far more likely to be crescent- or ring-shaped than to cover the entire vaginal opening. Some vaginas have almost no hymen at all. (Don’t people who believe the “drum” concept wonder how period blood exits the body prior to intercourse?) The hymen may tear during first intercourse; it may not. If properly lubricated, odds are higher the hymen will not tear.

The myth about the hymen being an indicator of virginity is bad enough; the myth that it must be broken or “popped” in order to “take” virginity only adds to the problem. It implies violence. The truth is, the hymen can lubricate and stretch. It does not have to tear the first time, or any time. Also true is that all sorts of non-sexual activities can contribute to the tearing of the hymen, from exercise to the inserting of a tampon to using one’s own fingers during masturbation.

Misunderstanding about what the hymen actually is has prompted some people to adapt their language about it. For example, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) has been using the term “vaginal corona” in place of “hymen.”

The Concept Of Virginity As A Tool Of The Patriarchy

Virginity is a tool used to dominate and control female behavior. It’s a tool used to shame, and to promote the idea that women are responsible for the behavior of men. If a woman is not a virgin at marriage, surely it’s because she “tempted” a man. Her “impurity” is a result of her immorality. And we frame virginity differently for boys and for girls. The virginity of men often isn’t even addressed unless it’s in terms of his experience, which is viewed as either a neutral or a positive.

In a world where men are generally given a free pass and women are locked down and oppressed, the onus of respectability somehow continues to fall on women. The cultural idea of virginity has the paradoxical effect of turning women into priceless jewels to be cherished while also threatening them with the idea that one wrong move can turn them into worthless trash. The “priceless jewel” bit is conditional. Cherishability is conditional.

Like the rose that gets passed around the room of teenagers in conservative Christian “True Love Waits” abstinence campaigns, girls are viewed as wilted and damaged once they’ve had “too many” hands on them.

The Concept Of Virginity Is Heteronormative And Harms Survivors Of Sexual Abuse

Generally, we frame virginity in a heteronormative, penis-penetrates vagina kind of way. This leaves queer folks out of the construct altogether. (Actually, as a queer person, I’m not sure I mind being left out of heteronormative social constructs. Ew.)

But the truth is, sex is many different acts, some penetrative and some not. Framing “virginity” around the act of penetration — specifically vaginal penetration — doesn’t work. It simply isn’t accurate.

For those who have been sexually abused, the concept of virginity literally adds insult to injury. Sexual abuse often involves penetrative sex. I was sexually abused at age seven but did not have consensual sexual intercourse until quite a few years later. At which point was my virginity “lost”? Was I robbed of it at seven?

Having Sex For The First Time Is Not A “Loss”

Virginity is a social construct, but that doesn’t make it less real. It’s real because we believe it’s real, in the same way we make money real by buying into the notion that it has value. But with virginity, we have the power collectively and as individuals to define it for ourselves.

One thing consensual sex is not is a loss. The language around first-time sex is inherently negative and shame-inducing. But people with vaginas do not “give” someone their virginity. We do not “lose” our virginity, and it cannot be “taken.” We do not lose any part of us by consensually engaging in one of the most natural human experiences, and no one can take any piece of us by force or coercion.

A person’s consensual first time sexual experience can be momentous and special, or it can be blah and forgettable. It can be gross, or it can be awkward and embarrassing. Society does not get to dictate how a person should feel about their first time. Society does not get to imbue that experience with a predetermined meaning. Our virginity is ours and ours alone to define, to interpret, or even to reject altogether.