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“Does virginity really exist? And if it does, why do I have to care about it?” These are the questions that Sara, a 20-year-old from Long Island, NY, started wondering as she entered high school. She’s not alone.
No matter how sex-positive it seems like our society has become over the last couple decades, the concept of virginity still holds a lot of power, and has strong religious, historical, societal, and personal connotations. It’s something that you either have or you’ve “lost,” no matter your gender or sexual orientation — though some are taught they lose more than others. Some of us want our first sexual experience to be special; others believe the concept of virginity is a complete construct. Many people both believe virginity we’re taught about isn’t real, but still view their own first times as important. “Some people in my liberal college argue that virginity is a myth, but I disagree,” says Ava, 18, from New York City. “I believe virginity is a subjective concept.”
Gen Z is the first generation in which everyone born into it has entered adolescence in the information age — everything they want to know about anything, including sex, is a Google search away. But all that information doesn’t mean that there aren’t still pervasive misconceptions around virginity and first-time sex, and a stigma attached to people who choose to become sexually active earlier (or later) than others. And Gen-Z isn’t necessarily getting an unbiased education: Per a 2020 study from the Guttmacher Institute, 28 states mandate that schools promote abstinence when teaching students about sex. In comparison, only nine instruct teachers to emphasize consent. Some states don’t require sex education at all.
According to Brittany McBride, a sexual education director who works with sexual health and wellness organization Advocates for Youth, many misconceptions about virginity begin at school. “I think for adult educators, unfortunately, a lot of them are still teaching and relaying this very outdated, irrelevant message around the concept of virginity,” McBride tells Refinery29. “It feels as if all conversations around virginity seem to be tied to people who have a vulva and never around a person who has a penis.”
Today, many people with conflicting opinions on the concept and existence of virginity still agree that sex, and first-time sex, should be taught differently. Becca Mui, GLSEN’s Education Manager, tells Refinery29 that broader, more subjective definitions of sex wouldn’t just alleviate shame and confusion, but would promote safer sex for LGBTQ+ teenagers.
“I think the fact that we categorize virginity in such a narrow way, and the idea that it is a quote unquote ‘milestone,’ is damaging to all teens. For LGBTQ+ young people, specifically, this can be even more challenging as they try to determine what sex is for them, in addition to wrestling with these external opinions about what quote unquote ‘counts’ and doesn’t count towards their virginity status,” Mui says. For transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming teens and young adults, these “narrow” definitions of sex and virginity can also cause dysphoria.
Another problem people face is that ideas around having sex are often conflicting; there’s some pressure to seem experienced, and also a push to wait for the “right” time. “I think that if we had a more healthy view of it and didn’t overvalue it so much, there wouldn’t be either the shame of not being a virgin or feeling like you need to have sex,” says Grace, 21, from Garland, TX. “I didn’t rush into anything with anyone, but I know a lot of people do because they feel like it’s been too long or they don’t want to be a virgin anymore, and I think it leads to a lot of unhealthy behaviors.”
Maybe that’s why, in recent years, we’ve begun defining virginity, sex, and abstinence for ourselves. “What we’re hearing from our young people and specifically from Generation Z is that, for them and for the rest of the world, virginity is a social construct,” McBride says. “It’s something incredibly personal to each individual person and not something that can be easily defined in a three-second sound bite.”
Refinery29 spoke with 13 teenagers and young adults about how they’d define their own first times having sex, what they were taught about virginity, and what they believe today.
Palo Alto, CA
I’ve never had a boyfriend, so for me, I kind of more just wanted to trust the person and feel comfortable with that person because I feel like there’s this whole stigma, especially in high school, that you have to date. You know, you have to do it with your boyfriend. I want to say it was the beginning of my junior year, and I had known the guy since middle school and we were pretty good friends and, I guess, kind of talking, and I really liked him. It was kind of in the moment. I knew it was going to happen, and then afterwards — I don’t know, I feel like it changed our relationship.
I think it was a positive experience. I didn’t get ghosted; we still kept in touch. Since we were never dating, he wasn’t mine to have, if that makes sense, and I wasn’t his. But I think, looking back, I wish that I’d been in a relationship and it was more meaningful than it was. I feel like people dated overall more when our parents were our age, and now, I just don’t think dating is as common as it was back then. So it’s kind of hard to know, “Do I feel comfortable enough with this person, even though I’m not dating this guy?”
Once I got to college, I started becoming sexually active, but I didn’t have full intercourse until I was 22. I think my first actual time having sex was with this guy that I met on — I think it was probably — Tinder, and at that point I was super comfortable. It was not a big deal at all, and it was not his first time and he was really considerate and interested in making me feel comfortable. It was intentional, very much ideal, the person that I want to lose my virginity to. Although I was never like, “I need to lose my virginity to a special person,” it was just the right time, I guess.
Even though I personally told myself, ‘I’m not actively trying to lose my virginity,’ I still found myself subconsciously not mentioning it to people, or trying to kind of skirt around the conversation when people brought up how old they were when they lost their virginity or their first times. I think it’s one of those things that’s definitely still shameful in a way — it’s one of those things that isn’t accepted, being an older virgin, and I think that is probably equally as harmful as letting people [shame] you for having sex early. You should feel comfortable having sex or not having sex at whatever age.
New York, NY
I just think there are other ways to build intimacy in relationships, which is why I want to save this for after [marriage]. Plus, the religion aspect of: I think this is what I’m supposed to do. But also, I think sex is cool, and I do feel like a very sexual human being, so there is a lot of temptation around waiting for marriage. I also wish people talked about sex more. I feel like there’s a bit of, you have sex and you talk about it, or you don’t have sex and you don’t talk about it. I still have to sit down and talk with my friends who are having sex and be like, “I have so many questions because, since I’m waiting ’til marriage, nobody talks to me about these things.”
I still feel weird about people knowing that I’m waiting until marriage. It’s never something that I fully bring up because I’m automatically a loser — it’s not cool to be 24 and not having sex, and then it’s hard when you find guys who are very against that and won’t even give you a chance because you want to wait until marriage. It’s a choice to wait until marriage, but that doesn’t make you bad. I wish people didn’t think we were losers but, at the same time… I wish we also talked about how important sex is. I wish the reasonings for why I’m waiting were also talked about.
I was someone who, for a very long time, conflated sex positivity with needing to have lots of casual sex. Because of this, I was steadfast on losing my virginity and did not give a shit about respecting myself in the process. Because I was and still am fat, society had made me falsely believe that I had very few options in terms of a partner, and so the first opportunity I had to have sex with someone, I took advantage of that. The time lapse between my first kiss and the time I lost my virginity was about 45 minutes.
I thought losing my virginity would be this form of third-wave feminist empowerment, but I just felt so confused and somewhat tortured by my own body. This was especially clear when I went to take Plan B the next day and was told I was too fat for it to work on me. I also became obsessed with the high school rom-com timeline of losing my virginity and beat myself up for not having had sex at 18. I lost my virginity at 19.
New York, NY
Some people in my liberal college argue that virginity is a myth, but I disagree. I believe virginity is a subjective concept. The idea of being a virgin remains important for many people, and policing or invalidating their experience with their bodies feels wrong of me. However, the fact that virginity has been used to police and oppress femme-aligned people for centuries cannot be overlooked. I do not need a man to usher me from girlhood to womanhood. I am not recreated or changed significantly in any way if my hymen is broken. My choice to have sex or to not have sex is a personal and spiritual choice that no one else is permitted to comment on.
Even defining my “first time” is such a murky undertaking, but I would say I had sex for the first time with a woman. This was the first time I felt fully at ease in the presence of another body, and the fact that I could choose what I considered to be sex in my own life was deeply revealing. Virginity is a belief, not a fact. Nobody is wrong for believing in it or choosing not to.
New York, NY
The actual act of it and day of it was fine. We were out of town, our friends were in the other room. It was sweet. I wasn’t wearing makeup, I was just wearing his T-shirt because we’d been sweating or whatever. It hurt really bad. It was not pleasurable, really, at all, but I remember being like, “He was so nice,” and then we started hooking up a lot.
I don’t speak to him now. Looking back on it, I regret it because I really don’t like him now, but at the time, I thought it was nice. But looking back, I just wanted to get it over with, and I feel like after that, I just don’t really value it. It’s not something that’s special for me, and I just see sex as being very transactional. It’s not something that feels very intimate or special to me at all.
I kind of had the Bible shoved down my throat from a young age. Christianity was all my family knew – I’m still the only person in my family that’s not a Christian. For me, what I don’t like about virginity is the idea of it being a sign of purity. So personally, for me, losing my virginity, I was raped. It took me a long time to get to the point of the idea of losing my virginity in terms of admitting the fact that I was raped. In that case, what do you call that?
I’ve talked to a lot of rape victims myself, and often it can go either in a way of being very open to sex or very closed to sex. And for me, I was very closed to sex. For about a year and a half, I didn’t have sex with anybody. I was scared of it, and then I got into a relationship – I think it took probably 11 months into my relationship to be able to have sex again, to trust somebody. But then eventually after high school, I went to rehab and I got a really good therapist, so that’s where I dealt with trauma. That’s actually where I figured out that I had been raped and that it wasn’t my fault. Because up until then, I figured that I was just fucked up, and you know, it was my fault, but [...] then the whole idea of virginity comes to a stop in my head. And it’s kind of twisted, to me, like, who’s to say who took my virginity? So in my opinion, I think it’s kind of up to you.
My family is very religious and Catholic […] It was always kind of glazed over as, “This is something that you shouldn’t do because you’re not ready for it.” So whenever I learned about it in school as well, I kind of viewed it with that lens. I lost my virginity to my high school boyfriend. I remember when I was kind of coming to the conclusion of if this was something that I should do or not, I kind of went into it with the mindset of, I don’t necessarily feel, like, sexually attracted to him in the way that I want to have sex with him, but I think this would be a good opportunity to kind of get it out of the way, in a sense. At least this is someone I know and I care about to a certain extent and not someone I randomly meet in college. I still had that lens of like, sex is a big deal and it’s valuable to share your body with someone in that way, especially when it’s your virginity.
Overall, it was a pleasant experience. I don’t think it was earth-shattering. I definitely felt very guilty after the first time I had sex – I was like, “Maybe I should go to confession and tell my priest about this.” And one of my friends was telling me, “You know if you think that now, that means you really can’t have it again until you get married. Confession only really works if you’re completely sure that what you did was wrong.” And that was an interesting way of kind of separating my actions from the way that I had been taught to view them.
I think that we’re taught we owe it to ourselves to remain pure, but we owe it to everyone else to open ourselves up sexually. Personally, it’s also confusing just because I was sexualized from a fairly young age. I was experiencing catcalling from sixth grade on. So I think there’s also this level where sex, for many people, tends to mean both earning social acceptance, but also you conflate it with danger in a lot of situations.
I think the internet also complicates this. Before, it was kind of this immediate thing where you were either a virgin or you were having sex — there wasn’t really any in-between. And now, you’re pretty ruined at a young age to accept sex as a part of your life. You can be reached out to by men on the internet or have some of those microcosms of a nonconsensual sexual experience at a pretty young age. I think it kind of allows girls to believe that’s okay, and then they enter real situations outside of the internet when they’re older and carry that sort of trepidation but also reluctant acceptance with them. And it’s really sad to me.
Ann Arbor, MI
I’m from a super liberal, progressive place, so at least my senior year of high school was around the time when everyone was like, “Virginity’s a social construct.” But I also don’t think I fully knew what that meant for a long time. It was just something that I think my friends were saying to sound cool and edgy. I get it now. But prior to that, I guess… I thought I was straight, so I just thought virginity was a man puts his dick inside of you and ta-da, you’ve lost your virginity. But I also wasn’t having sex. I didn’t even kiss anybody until I was like, 17, so I was a very late bloomer. By the time I did have sex, I had a much stronger understanding of what sex was and could be and what could constitute sex. And I “lost my virginity,” quote unquote, to a woman, so that looks different.
When I first had sex with a woman, I think I mostly thought of sex with women as being oral – and we didn’t, my first time, it was just fingers, but it was very obvious to me that that counted at the time, which is not something that I necessarily expected going into it. I say it’s my first time having sex, [but] truly, when I was 18, I hooked up with this guy who went down on me, but that was pretty much all we did, so hypothetically, that could count. But I feel like if I were to say that that was how I lost my virginity and then explain the story, people would be like, “Obviously, that is not losing your virginity because he did not put his dick inside of you.”
New York, NY
Within my close circle of friends and family, having sex for the first time was definitely a big deal. However, the opposite is true of the social climates I grew up in. I heard stories about people having sex with each other all the time. Due to the polarizing viewpoints on sex in the environments I grew up in, I was both pressured to have sex from peers who were sexually attracted to me, as well as to not have sex from my parents who believed sex should be reserved for marriage.
I don't believe in the concept of virginity. I think too much of a crippling emphasis is placed on it, especially for non-men in our society. I truly believe virginity was invented to keep people of marginalized and excluded genders from exploring their own bodies and becoming intimate with themselves, and to uphold the patriarchy in the sense that men lose nothing when they “lose their virginity” but non-men supposedly lose their innocence and purity.
From my family, mainly, I was taught that it was something super important, a thing that you can only give to the right people. I grew up with Catholic guilt, I think, but more societal, how it is in Mexico City. I was taught that it’s super, super important, something you had to preserve and give to the perfect person.
It gets so built up and it’s always disappointing, unless you have an amazing first time with the person that you love so much, but honestly, it usually ends up being like, you don’t feel any different. There’s all this shame around it. I grew up with so much shame, and in college, whenever I started hooking up with people — because I did not hook up with people in high school — my one thing was, I could do anything I wanted except sex. And it just kept building and building until finally, I had sex because there was so much emphasis on it. And once I actually did, then I felt shameful. Overall, I hate the emphasis that people put on your first time, even your first kiss or anything, because everyone tells you it’s supposed to be this magical experience when, in reality, it’s not.
Long Island, NY
I wasn’t adamant about it, but I guess my default was a “wait for marriage” kind of thing… It’s just like, that’s what I’d been told. I was like, Okay, no need to question it. I went to a private boarding school for most of high school that was away from home, and so that was when I started to challenge a lot of my beliefs including that. I started my first real relationship and was also just learning a lot more about this kind of stuff from my peers. It was a much more diverse community than just my local community. And I guess that’s when I was like, What is the reasoning behind this whole concept of virginity? Does it really exist? And if it does, why do I have to care about it? Why does it matter so much?
It didn’t have to be this absolutely super-special godsend kind of thing, but I definitely wanted to be with someone that I knew I cared about and I knew cared about me. That was something that was important to me, especially thinking about coming from this background of, Oh, my default is wait until marriage. But then I decided, I don’t really want to do that, but I also have to figure out what I want. That was what I came to, where it didn’t have to be something super crazy special, but it was safe, comfortable, and with someone I knew.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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