Language Matters: Virginity

April 22, 2009 § 4 Comments

Courtney’s response to Jessica Valenti’s latest book, The Purity Myth, discusses society’s construction of virginity – because indeed, there is no scientific definition of the concept; it is purely (ha! purity puns!) social in origin. From her post:

But the trouble with [recognizing that virginity is scientifically mostly bogus] is what to do about it, right? I mean knowing race doesn’t technically exist doesn’t mean you can start acting like Stephen Colbert and pretending to be color blind. Likewise we can’t act like our societal value on purity isn’t affecting girls just cause it’s bullshit. So I came up with a few things we can personally do in reaction to the learning that virginity doesn’t exist:

1. Language matters. Stop talking about the first time you “lost your virginity” and start just referring to it as sex–especially when you’re interacting with younger women.
2. Tell people far and wide about the fact that there is no scientific definition of virginity.
3. Get involved in the movement to make sex ed comprehensive far and wide! Check out RH Reality Check, Shelby Knox’s work, and other great blogs for the best way to do that.

Great advice. She even uses this series’ moniker! I’m particularly struck by the importance of being conscious of how we talk about our own sexual experiences, both to combat internalized sexism and slut-shaming and to set an autonomy-positive example for those younger than us. I’ve been reminding myself to use the phrase “when I had sex for the first time” instead of “when I lost my virginity” or, in my opinion even worse, “when I gave it up.”

Commenter Caro13 adds,

A note on linguistics: I’ve recently been thinking about how many women will say that they “lost their virginity TO x-guy,” rather than saying “lost their virginity WITH x-guy.” Saying “with” at least implies that having sex for the first time was an experience that you shared equally with a partner (whether or not it was also their first time). Saying you lost it “to” someone seems to say that you’ve passively allowed someone to take something important away from you, and now they hold a piece of your identity because they “took” your virginity.

I agree. The linguistic implication that sex is a commodity that we give to other people, instead of a collaborative experience that we share with partners, inherently lends itself to inadvertently heavy statements about the “value,” “worth,” and “price” of said interaction.

Previously in Language Matters: Part One: “Hey Guys!”; Part Two: Choice and Life


§ 4 Responses to Language Matters: Virginity

  • Aileen Wuornos says:

    I really really want to read that book.
    I also find that the term “virginity” becomes totally fucking useless when the first time you have a sexual encounter is non-consensual, because like countless psychiatrists and psychologists have told me, it doesn’t count as a “first” if one or more parties aren’t in compliance with it.

    • mirandanyc says:

      Absolutely. I feel like the term has potential to exclude many women whose first sex-related encounters fall outside the norm: women who are raped or assaulted (though rape is not sex), women who just aren’t interested in penis-in-vagina sex.

  • Lemur says:

    I just also wanted to come in here and say, my first time having sex was with a lady! And it counts! When people ask, that is what I tell them! My first time with a dude was after that!

    Just wanted to put that out there! And also overuse exclamation points! =)

  • […] is an issue I think about a lot. I’ve skirted the topic of my own sexuality here on Women’s Glib, for many reasons. Though I don’t print my last name or my school, […]

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