So I’m purple with envy (yep, that’s one stage beyond green) at the folks who were lucky enough to attend the Rethinking Virginity conference at Harvard last week. I’m no longer a practical expert – why, my virginal days lie deep in the previous millennium – but I’d be a virgin at this sort of conference, one that straddles the academic, activist, and bloggy worlds. Oh, and it’s not just that I’d be mildly starstruck, though I’d love to meet Shelby Knox. The less famous folk had equally smart things to say. If you too want to feel mopey about staying home, Therese has got a very nice link farm from the conference.
Anyway, I’ve been mulling over those posts and triangulating them (hexatulating?) with Hanna Blank’s marvelous essay on process-oriented virginity in Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. I’m basically on board with Blank’s suggestion that the world wouldn’t end if each person demarcated their virginity on their own terms. I especially love her idea (going back to St. Augustine, I shit you not!) that a rape survivor can define for herself whether she still wants to claim the title of virgin.
But part of me wants to say, Fuck virginity! What did it ever do for me, anyway? And can we cut out all this silly rhetoric about “losing” virginity? Grooving on my newfound sexual experience was pure win for me. I’m leaving out a few messy stories, sure, but on balance: pure fucking win.
And maybe we could just ditch virginity. Let it go up in smoke. Maybe we could talk instead about desires and acts and those particular people who set us humming.
But there is something important about “coming of age” sexually, and I wouldn’t want to lose that. Lux Alptraum’s wonderful Jezebel post on her conference panel provides the killer argument for why we still need “virginity.”
During the queer virginity panel, we examined how the notion of virginity—traditionally correlated with penis-in-vagina intercourse—transforms when mapped onto a queer identity. Though one panelist felt that the idea of virginity lost its meaning outside of a heterosexual relationship, I still feel that the experience of one’s first sexual relationship (however you define that) is significant enough to transcend gender, sexuality, and identity. In fact, in a queer space, loss of virginity can sometimes be more significant, as its that first sexual experience that solidifies an identity that might initially have been considered “questioning” or “curious.”
My own coming-of-age story was relentlessly heterocentric, yet I totally get what Lux is saying about the formation of identity. Our first really significant sexual encounter shapes our sense of self – not immutably, but importantly. And it’s not just a matter of sexual-orientation as identity, though that’s obviously a huge deal. The demise of virginity can also be about claiming adulthood, learning a serious new way to play as an adult, relating differently to one’s body, moving a relationship to a deeper level, realizing that sex isn’t always linked to love. And that’s a short list of how our early sexual experiences may mold our identities and body-mind loops; maybe you’ve got more? If so, please bring ‘em up in comments.
So how would I redefine virginity? As much as I like Blank’s model, I think it’s too purely personal. We also need a more interpersonal way of understanding virginity. That is, unless we want to say masturbation counts as unravelling virginity – but I don’t want to go there, not least because I value the interpersonal dimension. Masturbation also opens the door to virginity loss among the under-three set. This seriously squicks me. The small people need to freedom to discover boyparts and girlparts without the baggage of innocence and experience. (Baby Jesus, for instance!) Let’s just stipulate: no virginity loss for the sippy-cup crowd.
For the rest of us? Well, I sort of like the idea of seeing a “first orgasm” (also from Blank) as the watershed. But for some of us, the orgasm gap could mean we’ll be in our forties when we shed our virginity. Great for Hollywood, just not what I sought at age 20.
So how about this: Virginity ends the first time you engage in partnered sexual activity and have an epiphany – either during or after – with orgasm or without – when you suddenly know: “Oh, this is what all the fuss is about!” This needn’t be penetrative sex; anything that makes you seriously swoon could count.
Alternative definitions, refinements, personal stories – all are welcome in comments!
Every sex post deserves a tulip, wouldn’t you say? I’m sure I’ve already recycled Luce Irigaray’s pun on “two-lips” (that meet as one). Photo from in front of my house about ten days ago.