By Hayley White
With Christmas just around the corner, the topic of Jesus’ birth and how Mary conceived him as a virgin (the Immaculate Conception), will once again take the stage. Even though we all know it is not possible to conceive a baby and still be a virgin, this Biblical sentiment has been followed for hundreds of years and is a focal point for a lot of Christian beliefs – namely, the belief of no sex before marriage.
Virginity is an important aspect of culture even apart from Christianity, and ‘no sex before marriage’ is preached all over the world. Virginity was conceptualised around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and is generally used as a marker for women’s purity and sexual chastity. But many people seem to forget that virginity is only a social construct.
In fact, there is no way to determine if someone is biologically a virgin. I guess you could make the argument that an intact hymen (thin tissue at the opening of the vagina) signifies that a girl is still a virgin, but that would not be 100% accurate either. There are many ways a hymen can break: by riding a bike, wearing a tampon, or even just doing sports. Auckland-based sex therapist Edit Horvath agrees, saying there is no true biological method to prove that virginity exists.
“It is a social construct; it is a cultural construct; it is used to control – especially women,” she tells me. “It’s a very gendered, heteronormative thing that the female has, this ‘losing their virginity’.”
Even so, a lot of girls guard their virginity and say it is something very important, which it can be! There are several different words to describe it, too, like v-tag, v-card, and in the process of losing your virginity, the common phrase is ‘popping your cherry’. One of the most famous words for it is ‘deflowering’, because it is seen as taking away something so pure and beautiful.
A woman’s virginity was especially important in the Roman Catholic church because of their devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ and God, and Queen of Heaven. She is one of the most honoured figures in the church and was believed to be a virgin for her whole life. As a result of this, virginity was praised and became the ideal for women of the Catholic faith. This belief applies not only to the Catholic church; virginity is a concept that exists all around the world.
The concept of virginity in contemporary China is a strange one. Though there is little to no spiritual backlash when it comes to sex, there is moral backlash. In most Chinese societies, virginity is only relevant to women, and the loss of a woman’s virginity at a young age brings dishonour – not only to the woman’s family, but also the community. To this day, a virgin wife is highly prized. Zhou (1989) surveyed 56 male university students and found that 51 of them stated that they would not want to marry a nonvirgin. The high value placed on female virginity is also said to be reflected in wedding costs. The groom’s family usually pays for the wedding, and how much they are willing to spend hinges on whether the bride is a virgin. In cities, if a woman is not a virgin, the couple must pay for their own wedding, and the groom’s family contributes little, if at all. In more rural areas, it is customary for the fiancée to give their betrothed’s family gifts – as often as five to six times a year in Hubei and Hunan provinces. However, if the fiancée is not a virgin, the gift giving drops to two or three presents a year – and the value of the gifts also drops (Zhou, 1989).
Islam places specific emphasis on virginity, attributing it to three main morals: purity, honour, and modesty. Though it is expected of both boys and girls, it is demanded of girls. The loss of a girl’s virginity is a point of shame for the whole family. So, it is up to the father and brothers to make sure her virginity stays intact. It is such a big deal that there are acts in accordance with the Qur’an to ensure Muslims follow these rules.
Edit says she often comes across Muslim and Hindu couples who have similar cultural expectations, but that they fight these norms in their own ways. “I had Hindu couples where the female has had several sexual partners, and the male never did anything before they got married, and vice versa, so even though there are rules, believe me, people break those rules even when they are under strict religious domain. When you have the box, people rattle the box,” she says.
When talking about how Muslim and Hindu women are affected by this enforced virginity status, Edit says it mostly comes across in their lack of sex education.
“I have several clients who either struggle to make a baby or struggle to have intercourse, because of a lack of knowledge of how sex works. Sometimes they don’t even have basic biology. This idea of clitoris – I have to talk to them what the clitoris is and how things work, and I’m amazed how basic knowledge is missing for some people,” she tells me.
“It’s just because they don’t have any sex education. In New Zealand, sex education is not the best by miles, but at least we have some basic stuff. But believe me, there are some places and cultures where you don’t talk about anything. So, if you think about that, there’s nothing; no idea of what’s gonna happen on your wedding night, that sort of thing. But the expectation is, you shouldn’t have any ‘nookie’ before that.”
The most interesting thing when it comes to virginity, says Edit, is that the concept is rarely applied to men or boys. This is seen all throughout history and shows a common cultural double standard. Once people started learning to collect land for their own use, rather than for tribes, it became important to know that a man’s children were genetically his own for inheritance purposes. Men did not want to raise a child and give them his land if the child were not his biological offspring. So, prior to marriage, a woman’s sexuality would be controlled to prevent her from sleeping with multiple people. However, while women were expected to be chaste and reserved for their husband, men could sleep with as many people as they wanted.
“But the lack of emphasis on men’s virginity these days can be a point of conflict for some men,” says Edit. It is pretty rare that you hear men say they lost their virginity, or a father says their son lost their virginity. For some, it is a point of pride that they lost their virginity. Because of these social expectations, Edit says it makes it harder for men to say ‘no’ if they do not feel they are ready – especially in the age of female empowerment.
“Because females are a lot more empowered, and a lot of females think males want to have sex, this is what the males say: ‘It was expected that I perform, is what it was, I had no other choice but to do something I wasn’t ready to do’,” she tells me. “So, it’s almost as if we need to change the perspective and allow a male to say, ‘I’m not ready’ and that is like woah, you know? It normally – whatever normal is – comes out of the female’s mouth that ‘I’m not ready’ because the male is supposed to be the one who says ‘I wanna have sex all the time with any woman’.”
The concept of virginity is not only gender discriminatory but also difficult to apply to LGBTQIA+ communities as well. Usually, people attribute losing their virginity with sex that involves penetration, but what about couples that typically do not classify sex in that way? Edit says that sex is a spectrum that cannot really be defined by one specific action.
“It’s intriguing how people perceive losing their virginity,” she says. “For some people, sex is only when there’s a penis in the vagina and it’s like, okay, so what is oral sex, is that not sex? I always sort of gently make them realise that kissing can be sexual, but when you kiss your grandma on the check that’s normally not sexual. It’s at what point do people call something sex? Most people call intercourse sex, but, of course, with lesbians you need different things to create pleasure.”
For the most part, the Western world is a fairly sexually liberated place. It can be rare to come across people who still care about their virginity. In saying that, not too long ago, a comedy movie was released centred around three parents making sure their daughters did not lose their virginity on their prom night (called Cockblockers, give it a watch). If anything, it shows how outdated the concept of virginity is. Edit is right in saying that since women have become more empowered, it’s very hard to relate to virginity with the same level of respect as hundreds of years ago. Virginity is also extremely subjective. Whether or not someone wants to save their virginity is a completely personal choice that should not be influenced by anyone. If only people understood that all those years ago, I wonder how different things would be.
Sources: 1. Zhou, X. (1989). Virginity and premarital sex in contemporary China. Feminist Studies, 15(2), 279. doi:10.2307/3177788