The Virginity Myths We Need To Stop Believing

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
"People think that I’m saving myself," Lesli tells me. There's both amusement and exasperation in her voice. "Typically, it’s tied to Jesus, which, you know, him and I are friends, I don’t really have a problem with him...[but] that's not what I'm doing."

Lesli is a 25-year-old Texas native, incoming law school student, abortion rights activist, and Beyoncé fan. She has also never been sexually active, and this fact about her has a tendency to overshadow the others. "I don’t have a problem telling people that I’m a virgin," she says. "I feel like other people have a problem with it, therefore I don’t talk about it that much, because I've had a lot of people be like, 'You? But you’re in law school and and you wear makeup'... I can possess a hymen and still know how to do a cat eye!"*

I first connected with Lesli after I wrote a column on how losing my virginity taught me that sex doesn't have to be unwanted to be not the sex you want. In other words, my first time wasn't great. My 19-year-old response was to dye my light hair jet-black in a friend's bathroom sink a few days later (change your hair, change your life?), but this adjustment didn't erase my impression that I had squandered some precious, irretrievable commodity on an undeserving recipient; that process took time and perspective and the thoroughly good sex I fortunately went on to have. Part of moving on was telling myself that first times are very often endured instead of enjoyed, and that they open the door to more fulfilling sexual experiences. That's exactly what Lesli reached out to tell me she doesn't want. She is a virgin — what she calls a "secular virgin" — for a very simple reason: not because she has taken a vow of abstinence or has never been presented with a sexual opportunity, but because she has never been presented with a sexual opportunity that appealed to her. And she sees no reason to act on one that doesn't.

In our generation, she is far from alone in abstaining. A study published last week in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior rocked the internet with its finding that millennials born in the 1990s are twice as likely as the preceding generation to have had zero sexual partners in young adulthood, or since turning 18. The drop in sexual activity is particularly pronounced among women, with the percentage of women who have been sexually inactive in young adulthood tripling between Gen X women and 1990s-born millennial and "iGen" women. Experts have pointed to a handful of potential reasons: We spend more time behind screens and less time interacting IRL; we are more focused on academic and professional achievements than sexual conquests; we are wary of STIs and rape. Another possible explanation: Young people are pickier than our predecessors about the sexual activity in which we engage. We're waiting for people or situations we really like.
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I can possess a hymen and still know how to do a cat eye

Sometimes, we're looking in the wrong place, as Katie Heaney, author of the book Never Have I Ever: My Life So Far Without A Date, now knows she once was. Just after the book, Heaney's account of her lifelong single status, was published in 2014, Heaney shared her feelings about being a 27-year-old virgin on the podcast "Death, Sex & Money." "I really don't like [talking about] it," she said. "And I also hate that I don’t like it. Because that feels like conceding that it bothers me and that I am susceptible to the opinions of others." Last month, Katie returned to the podcast and shared that she is now dating a woman. "Now, I feel like I can be like, 'Well, I was not pleased with the offerings,'" she said. "I was not into what I thought was available to me."

Not only women who are attracted to women but also women who are attracted to men can lack enthusiasm about the offerings. On its face, virginity is obvious. You are a virgin if you've never "had sex." It's when you ask what constitutes sex that things get murky. Are you a virgin if you have had sex other than penetrative vaginal sex (or, perhaps, "half a virgin," as Mean Girls' Regina George put it)? Or are you only one if, like Lesli, you have never engaged in any kind of sex — manual, oral, or vaginal? Are women who have sex with women and don't have penetrative vaginal sex "virgins"? The fact that this seems absurd suggests that virginity is defined, at least in part, by context.
"Virgin" is that rare label we assign based on what someone doesn't do instead of what they do; we have no equivalent phrase for the opposite, for a sex-haver, because we don't assume that a single label could possibly describe all of the many people having many kinds of sex. But there are many ways of not having sex, perhaps as many as there are of having it, and the stereotypes we have developed about abstinence and those who practice it are cripplingly narrow. When you think of a "virgin," who springs to mind? Is she hyper-religious, wearing a purity ring and a judgmental frown? Is he anxious and awkward, sacrificing social interaction for action figures à la Steve Carrell's Andy Stitzer in The 40-Year-Old Virgin?

And then there's the assumption that people who are abstinent must also be devoid of desire. "It’s almost like people tie virginity with asexuality," Lesli notes. "While asexuality is something that is real for a lot of people, it's not for me... I just haven’t found somebody." Nor has Lesli experienced same-sex attraction, she says. Sexually repressed? It's not that, either. "I masturbate," she says. "I really enjoy being at one with my nakedness — I’m very pro-naked. I like seeing my body... I know what kind of sex I want to have, and therefore I know I couldn’t have had that type of sex when I was 18, 21, 22. It just wasn’t possible."

The stereotypes we have developed about abstinence and those who practice it are cripplingly narrow

"Virgin" is a label you shed by doing something that there are countless reasons you might not want or might not be able to do. Maybe you're queer and you haven't yet had the opportunity to express your sexual identity; maybe you're asexual and you're already expressing it. Maybe you have chosen to wait for marriage; maybe you are struggling with a mental health problem, or you are differently abled and can't physically have certain kinds of sex.

And maybe you just don't think it's too much to ask that your first time be enjoyable, and you haven't found a prospective partner who makes you feel confident it will be. I had my first kiss at junior prom — a little later than my friends, but at a pivotal American Teen Moment nonetheless, and during a slow song, exactly the way movies had instructed me to — because I didn't want to be The Girl Who Has Never Been Kissed. I had sex for the first time because I didn't want to be The Girl Who Has Never Had Sex. I followed the scripts, and I didn't much enjoy either experience. And I admire the choice to hold out for something more fulfilling: not marriage or love, necessarily, but pleasure, agency, reciprocity, and yes, maybe even romance. "I still want the person I have sex with to give me flowers," Lesli says. "It almost is kind of lame to be like, 'I want the fairy tale,' but it’s also kind of super empowering to be like, ‘I want the fairy tale, because I have masturbated on my own and I know what I like and I know what I would be excited to try.'"

"I feel like sometimes as women, or just people who don’t identify as straight, cis men, we’re kind of expected to get what you get and then keep moving forward until you get what you want," she adds, "and it’s like, 'Well, can’t I just get what I want the first time around?'"

In response to the idea that Lesli should "just get it over with," or that the first time is "never good," she's asking, But why? "People who are sexually active get this wide variety of narratives, all of these really awesome intersectional narratives and identities that weave into their lives and are very exciting to see expressed," Lesli points out, but "the sexual revolution also includes me. I may not include somebody else in my revolution, but I’m still active. I still engage with sexuality. I still engage with sexual expression." That kind of critical engagement with the sexual scripts we're handed deserves respect. The idea that someone's decision to abstain from sex implies any one set of character traits, meanwhile, is not only misguided, it is silencing. And ultimately, the more license we give others to set the terms of their sex lives — whatever they do or don't include — the more permission we give ourselves to do the same.
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I've updated this story to more accurately reflect Katie Heaney's message in her appearance on the podcast "Death, Sex & Money."

*To put Lesli's quote in context, I should have stressed that the idea that
hymens "break" inside of us is another myth, as is the idea that "breaking" a hymen is relating to losing your virginity. Thank you to the readers making thoughtful points about this article — it's appreciated! I welcome further discussion about it, so feel free to contact me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29.com if you'd like to talk.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good.Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.
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