Virginity as a social construct- why is it taboo and how can we destigmatise it?

 “I don’t think I stopped to consider if I actually wanted to do it or not.”

Sex is everywhere, undeniably. From casual innuendos to integral plot lines, it surrounds us both in the media and in person.

I’m not going to sit here and say that I think sex should be talked about less; the more we talk about sex and sexual matters, the less taboo the subject becomes. However, what remains an often equally as stigmatised subject is not having had sex, especially by a certain age.

In the UK, you can legally consent to sexual intercourse, penetrative sex and sexual touching at 16, but there is an increasing societal pressure to use this number as a target, as a goal to achieve in order to claim status.

To gain more of an understanding towards people’s different perspectives, I gathered some anonymous responses from students at the university to see how they view virginity.

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I began by asking what virginity means to people; by doing this I was trying to remove the societal definitions and expectations for a moment and focus on what they think without outside pressures. Honestly, as one of the more open-ended questions I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I did see a pattern in the answers.

More people than not held the view that while virginity was a big thing when they were younger, the concept is now of less importance to them. Granted, however, this may be because many of them have now ‘lost’ their virginity, therefore altering their perception on the matter.

“Virginity used to be a big thing for me when I was younger. However, as I’ve gotten older, it’s nothing major really and doesn’t define someone.”

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Delving into the question that kickstarted this article, I asked if people actually did believe there was any stigma, and I did anticipate the answers that I received. Despite the largely positive viewpoints on virginity so far, it seems that there still remains a stigma that has and still does negatively impact a lot of people.

“I think the stigma around has grown larger than it’s true meaning”. This is definitely true; the concept of virginity has gotten lost amongst all of the meanings that society has attached to it.

Virginity tends to create a stereotyped perception of a person, usually not in the most positive light and untrue to reality.

“People make far too many assumptions about a person’s character or life choices if they have or haven’t had sex. People assume a virgin could be naive where culturally, society places a lot of emphasis on sex almost everywhere all the time.”

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From the the perspectives of people from the LGBTQ+ community, it was quite clear that the heterosexual definition of sex, reduced down to penetration, is found quite damaging.

“I think it’s incredibly harmful to LGBTQ relationships, and diminishes the experience or importance of other sexual acts, which can be just as or more pleasurable.”

Penetration is seen as the main aim of a romantic relationship for a lot of people and, as such, other acts seem inferior. An interesting (but somewhat harmful) perspective is to look at it as levels;

“I wouldn’t say it’s been reduced, more just categorised. Obviously there are ‘bases’ for different things however; it’s like winning a trophy. You have to beat the best of the best to win it. So to lose your virginity, you have to do the biggest thing for the majority of people, which is penetration.”

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Peer pressure is something that teachers and parents have no doubt always told you not to give in to. But it’s rarely as simple as that, especially when it comes to doing something that is the ‘norm’ for most people.

The result of stigma often forces people into doing these expected things at a time or place that they aren’t comfortable with.

It was rightly noticed that “Sex is such a big talking point in our generation, so I think there is pressure to lose it so you can be involved.” No one wants to have FOMO, but the reality is that we do, from joining in conversations to playing games; ’Never Have I Ever’ is a virgin’s worst nightmare…

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As the world has evolved, social media and the media in general has heightened and intensified the stigma surrounding virginity;

“From my own circle there wasn’t pressure, but maybe in a broader aspect social media or movies made me feel like I was ‘behind my schedule’”.

Often, such pressure can ultimately stop any enjoyment or pleasure that it should typically naturally have.

“I remember feeling like I wanted to just get it out the way so that I didn’t worry anymore, and I read lots of articles about the best positions for it to be comfortable. I was worried about how much it would hurt. I was excited but also quite scared, and felt like I wanted to make my partner happy, and I don’t think I stopped to consider if I actually wanted to do it or not.”

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As with most areas of society, gender inequality and double standards weed themselves into every aspect of life, especially when in a sexual context. Therefore, the reality is that the stigma can look a little different for each gender.

I didn’t ask for the genders of recipients, but I did get a response from someone who willingly gave me a male’s perspective. He agreed that he felt pressure, saying that, “I was the first one in my friendship group to be in a relationship and, honestly, I as a male felt ugly as I’d never received validation, and sex was my way of getting that.”

And for females, it’s apparently a fine line to balance on; “I think girls are expected to protect their virginity more but also treated like they haven’t experienced enough of life if they haven’t had sex yet.”

Too early and you’re easy, too late and you’re a prude? It seems that females can never win.

“There are girls I know who lost their virginity not because they wanted to, but because their female friends ‘virgin-shamed’ them.”

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So with the general consensus accepting that there is a stigma affecting people, I wondered if and how people continue to perceive virgins.

“Tad naive, admittedly.”

I had to stop and consider this response for a second. I won’t say that they are wholly wrong, because I understand the [sentiment] of the message, but I don’t think that ‘naive’ is quite the right adjective. The definition is ‘a lack of awareness, wisdom and judgement’.

Lack of experience, yes, but not awareness and certainly not the two latter.

“[When engaging in sexual activity] I would treat them with understanding and support because each situation is different.” and “I would discuss boundaries and consent in greater detail”

These are both ‘correct’ in my opinion. However, you shouldn’t ever feel the need to praise someone for supplying the basic requirement of consent. This, you should never have to ask for and should always expect.

Revisiting male and female differences, someone said that, “It depends on gender. As a male, you’d go a bit slower with the [virgin] female because of how the body reacts. Whereas for guys who are virgins that worry might not be the case.”

Thoughts?

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Talking about something is the first step to destigmatising it, and I wanted to know how comfortable people were answering these questions, because even anonymously, they’re pretty personal. I was glad, however, to have most people display some degree of comfort;

“More happy than not. Quite glad to answer since it is a taboo subject and it should be normal.”

“Quite comfortable and a bit introspective. I feel like these conversations should be more normalised to challenge ideas and expectations in society and relationships.”

“It was alright. Never thought about a couple of things so it was eye opening on some scale.”

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So to break the stigma of all things sexual health, *including* virginity, talk about it! It appears that a lot of people hold similar views and yet a stigma still exists, my guess is largely propelled by the media. Let’s try to live more in the real world and not see sex as the be-all and end-all of a person.

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