It seems society still loves a bit of hymen. When Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said in a magazine article that he would tell his daughters that virginity “is the greatest gift that you can give someone”, he whipped media commentators other politicians into a frenzy. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard misinterpreted the comments as a blanket statement directed at all women: “Australian women want to make their own choices and they don’t want to be lectured to by Mr Abbott.” And while I’m sure that’s true – nobody wants to be lectured by Mr. Abbott – it’s not the point. Tony is well within his rights to give whatever advice he likes to his own children. But I do have to wonder – is it good advice? Is virginity really all that special and is it something we should just lose, or give away?
I took a look at 43things – an interesting social website for listing your goals, how you achieved them and whether it was worth doing – at the various virginity related goals. “Stay a virgin until marriage” has 35 people that Want To Do It, and only one that said it was Worth Doing. By contrast, “lose my virginity” has 1,299 people that Want To Do It – 768 of whom listed it as a 2010 resolution and 817 people have said it was Worth Doing. On the sex-crazed internet, I suppose that’s to be expected somewhat but even if the numbers are skewed somewhat I still think it’s an indication of attitudes among young, tech-savvy people. The majority of reasons listed for why users said they wanted to hold onto their virginity were religious: “Staying virgin until marriage is one of my promise to God, i hope i can keep this one until i got married.. because for me it is sacred, and it is not a sin when you do it after you’ve blessed by God.” writes one advocate of god-based virginity. “Sex outside of marriage has painful and dangerous consequences……but inside marriage it is one of Gods most sacred gifts” writes another.
I think that like so many things that are done “because God said so”, the importance placed on virginity is probably a result of old-fashioned, misogynistic attempts to control and subjugate women, and demonise sex as a dirty thing that should only be done for procreation. After all, more often than not when talking about virginity it’s about female virginity – hence why Miss Gillard saw Abbott’s comments as directed at all Australian women. For some reason men have always placed a high value on virgin women – whether offering them as sacrifices, promising that heaven is full of them or insisting that girls are chaste until their wedding night. Why? What’s the big deal? I don’t know. I don’t see the appeal. My guess, though, is that there’s perhaps three or four underlying reasons. Firstly, men want to know that any child is definitely theirs, because otherwise they’ll bunk off like arseholes and not stick around to support it. Not so much a big deal in these days of DNA testing, but historically I guess it was an issue. Then again, men love to be explorers. For some guys, no doubt, being the first man to explore that uncharted territory is an achievement for them to celebrate – every man has a little bit of competitive spirit in them. And speaking of competition, men don’t like to be compared. If your wife has never had any other partners, you won’t hear “Well I’ve had better” after sex. And of course there’s scarcity – since virginity is a ‘once-off’ (when you’ve lost it you can’t get it back) it’s unique. Rarity always increases value. I think all these reasons have, over thousands of years, led our patriarchal society to place undue importance on keeping women chaste until marriage.
But I don’t think it’s right. I think virginity is largely insignificant these days. One’s First Time is significant, of course – it’s a developmental milestone, a marker on the journey of personal growth. But virginity itself isn’t a “special gift” – usually, it’s quick, awkward and slightly painful. As Jessica Valenti writes in her book The Purity Myth, “I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact”. Virgins are, by definition, inexperienced. When given a choice between a partner who’s been around the tracks a few times and can show me a wild ride, or a first timer with no idea what they’re doing, I’ll choose the wild ride thanks, and make it a double. Sex is a journey of self-discovery that should be celebrated, not shamed and avoided. Women – and men – should have their first time when they are comfortable, with whoever they’re comfortable. Placing undue significance on the event only puts more pressure on the participants, which rarely makes for good sex. It stands to reason – the more sex you have, the more you’ll enjoy it. So let’s stop worrying about the first time. I wanna see a world where the 500th time is significant. When people choose to give their 1000th time to the right person.
As some media commentators have suggested, notions of virginity are closely tied to marriage and Abbott’s comments were seen also as an endorsement of waiting until marriage. How the hell are you supposed to know if someone’s right for you, until you’ve shagged them? Face it, sex plays a huge role in relationships these days. How many marriages are ruined by cheating husbands, frigid wives or vice versa? If couples don’t test their sexual compatibility before signing up to have and to hold till death do they part, they’re ASKING for a divorce. Try before you buy is critical. But the same logic applies whether you’re waiting for marriage, or simply “meaningful relationship” – What’s the difference between having sex a week before your wedding, compared to on the night (except that a week ago you were sober and hadn’t spent the whole day in insanely pointy and uncomfortable shoes making boring small-talk with relatives you barely know while struggling to breathe in a dress that’s three sizes too small)?
Try before you buy isn’t something teen-writer Alexandra Adornetto condones, when she writes in The Age that her “problem with casual, random sex is that while it might be physically pleasurable, it cannot possibly be meaningful or allow for personal growth.” Actually, Alexandra, it can. That’s one of the many beautiful things about sex – it gives you a moment, whether brief or long, where you can connect on a very deep level with your partner. But she’s right – not all sex involves a melding of two souls into one. And nor should it. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake isn’t a bad thing, and if we try to turn every sexual encounter into a spiritual awakening then we’re going to be very sorely disappointed. Alexandra also sees a direct connection between casual first times and “damage” she feels will inevitably occur afterward. I wonder how well documented or lasting this damage is? Alexandra has turned the debate on virginity into a debate on casual sex.
As long as you’re mentally and emotionally ready for it, and you use protection, and do it with someone you trust and will treat you with respect I don’t see that it matters when or two whom you lose your virginity.
On the notion of virginity being a sacred, ‘special gift’, I think Marieke Hardy (Disclaimer: I have a slight crush on her) said it best in her blog on ABC’s The Drum:
I lost my virginity (I shall use that idiotic V plate term when you hold a gun to my head) at a relatively young age to an absolutely wonderful boy with whom I was tempestuously and passionately involved. I don’t regret a moment of it, nor do I feel in that submitting to a beautifully awkward and momentarily painful experience left me with nothing left to “give” a suitor (limping along with merely a personality and mind to offer potential husbands, the shame of it).
This article is deliberately incomplete. Throughout this piece I have ignored a problem that would appear to be at the very center of the discussion, a critical question at the heart of the matter. What, after all, is virginity? Do we stick to the traditional, Oxford definition of penis-in-vagina sex that leads to orgasm? Surely that completely sidelines oral sex and digital penetration – are they less significant acts than PIV sex? Are gay couples necessarily virgins? Surely a young lesbian needs a “special gift” to give her beloved wife – I mean, partner? But I’ve deliberately not addressed that question because it’s largely irrelevant. Virginity is an abstract concept, imposed by grumpy old men thousands of years ago that holds no relevance today. So just as worrying about virginity is pointless, so is defining it.
What do you think? Am I way off the mark? Is there some importance to virginity that I’ve overlooked?