Content warning: abuse, murder, violence against women.
In high school, I found myself walking behind a group of boys as we walked from the bus-stop to school. The sounds of their loud conversation travelled towards me. They were discussing a recent, first-time sexual encounter of a couple in our year-level, laughing as they ascribed ‘legendary’ status to the guy and described the girl as a ‘slut’. The blatant double-standard stung me, but I said nothing.
The constant hum of senior-school gossip often thrives on questions of people’s virginity. Virginity is something that carries undoubtable social weight and often a looming threat of criticism. To be a virgin or not are labels imposed upon us, demeaning language cruelly applied by peers. ‘Prude.’ ‘Easy.’ ‘Promiscuous.’ ‘Slut.’ Insults thrown around like litter. Usually, it is women who are associated with these labels and who bear the brunt of this scrutiny over their sexual choices. For this reason, virginity is unquestionably a gendered construct.
Read more: Slut Shaming
We begin to feel this undercurrent of sexist stigma in our teenage years and it transcends the boundaries of the high school campus, relentless in its pursuit of women throughout their lives. When a young woman has sex, still too often her ‘self-respect’ is interrogated in social circles. Her personal life becomes a topic of public importance as if the experience alters or tarnishes her in some way. On the other hand, should a young woman choose not to engage in sex she may feel social pressure about her ‘conservatism’ in the eyes of her peers. Frankly, it’s a lose-lose situation, a social game rigged against women. No matter her circumstances, a woman’s sexual history can be twisted into an attack on her character.
Meanwhile, young men’s ‘decency’ is seldom the subject of social commentary. The sexuality of cisgender, heterosexual young men is often a source of praise. Indeed, problematic ideals of masculinity frame sexual activity as a rite of passage to manhood. Gendered conceptions of virginity are singed with staggering hypocrisy.
In so many societies, conceptions of virginity have severe implications beyond the realm of language or social perception. This manifests in different ways, in a variety of cultural contexts. In some communities, young women are encouraged to make ‘purity pledges’ and are exposed to abstinence only sex-education. This type of sex-ed teaches that refraining from sex out of wedlock is the way to avoid STI’s or unwanted pregnancy, rather than providing comprehensive information about contraceptive methods. This teaches girls that their moral value depends on avoiding sex before marriage and restricts them from accessing essential health information about their bodies, promoting unsafe sex.
Read more: Why Are We Not Talking About (Women’s) Pleasure in Sex Education?
In some countries, women are subjected to traumatic ‘virginity tests’ to determine whether or not they have had penetrative sex. This procedure, which has no medical basis and has been condemned by the United Nations, is used to assess a woman’s eligibility for marriage by supposedly ensuring that her reputation is ‘uncompromised’. It reduces a woman’s worth to nothing but her sexual experience, a dismissal of her humanity. In some societies, if a woman is perceived to have shamed her family through sexual behaviour, she may be ostracized or abused. She may even be murdered, her life violently stolen in the name of ‘honour’. Clearly, social conceptions of virginity can have catastrophic impacts on women’s lives.
So, comments and jokes among friends that shame women’s sexual activity or history might seem like harmless banter. But in truth these kinds of attacks are insidious – they are fundamentally embedded within a global, relentless pattern of discrimination and violence against women.
In reality, virginity is an obscure concept. When people have sex for the first time they don’t actually lose anything. Virginity has no biological or scientific basis. In fact, definitions about what constitutes ‘losing’ virginity vary significantly among people. The only tangible thing about virginity is the social stigma and harm it perpetuates. Virginity is a social construct that reinforces gender inequalities, designed to control women’s sexuality. Virginity is a weapon wielded to repress women.
Of course, first-time sexual encounters are important moments in our lives. But it’s essential to remember that virginity has no real claim on an individual’s identity and consensual sexual behaviour has no impact on one’s integrity. Sex is a normal, fun, pleasurable part of life and something that should be safely and consensually enjoyed. Engaging in sex should be empowering and have with no social pressure or shame attached. It is a decision that centres on bodily autonomy and individual choice.
Recognising virginity as a social construct unbinds us from the shackles of criticism and insecurity. Let’s remember that every woman in every society deserves to exercise choice and to live free from the socially-engineered lies of a patriarchal world.
Read more: What is Consent?
If you’re experiencing slut shaming, there are people you can speak to and resources you can use to find support. Slut shaming is a serious form of bullying. Check out our posts here to find more information on bullying and ways to get help. See our list of Support Services.
Georgia is a final-year Bachelor of Arts student. In addition to gender equality, she is passionate about her Greek heritage. On her days off, she can be found scouting Melbourne for the city’s best brunch spots.