The Politics of Language: On Talking about Virginity

woman unwrapping present

just as long as your husband has the proof of purchase, right?

In a culture as sex-obsessed as ours, discussions of virginity will inevitably raise some tempers and blood pressures. Most of us have been raised to think of virginity as something tangible: you’re either a virgin, or you aren’t, and there is no middle ground. We talk about virginity as if it is irretrievable: it’s either “lost,” “taken,” or “given.” But virginity isn’t a tangible object: it is a concept, and a shakily-defined one at that.

A virgin is, in the simplest terms, a person who has not had sex. But we can’t really agree on what sex is or isn’t. Many people, like a certain president in the 90s, think of sex only as a penis entering a vagina. But what about anal sex, or activities involving hands, mouths, and toys? What if none of the participants reaches orgasm? Is it sex if a person is coerced into doing it?

In some extra-conservative circles, hugs, kisses, and even thoughts can be considered sex acts. Some people value virginity so much that they believe any penetration of a vagina outside of marriage — even rape — makes the owner damaged goods. In some places, unmarried women who are unable to prove they were virgins when they were attacked cannot prosecute their rapists.

A large part of the virginity dialogue focuses on the vagina. Often, the status of a hymen — in particular, whether or not it “breaks” and bleeds — is used to judge whether or not its owner has had sex. The “two-finger test” that was commonly used in the past to test the laxity of vaginal muscles and to verify the presence of a hymen — and which is still used, in some regions — is notoriously unreliable and dependent on the subjective “deductions” of the person performing the test. Using the presence or lack of a hymen as the criterion to judge virginity ignores the fact that hymens may be disrupted by physical activity, masturbation, and tampon use, as well as the fact that some women don’t have hymens large or thick enough to be disrupted by penetration.

All this focus begs the question: what about the virginity of men? If there is no reliable way to prove whether or not a vagina has been sexually active, what should the procedure for proving the virginity of a penis be?

Because of this, when abstinence-only sexual education programs liken people who have sex with multiple partners to pieces of previously-chewed gum or a cup of spit, that sense of sex as a corrupting element gets applied — in the larger conversation — to women. And because the concept of virginity is defined almost exclusively by the concept of sex, a young person’s sense of self-worth may be easily damaged by acts of violence or aggression.

woman chewing piece of gum

chewed up and spit out.

Consider Elizabeth Smart, who was 14 when she was kidnapped by a cultist couple. Their prisoner for nine months, Smart was repeatedly raped by John David Mitchell, who had named her as his wife in an unofficial religious ceremony. In a speech given at Johns Hopkins University in 2013, Smart cited her sexual and religious education as contributing factors to her lack of escape efforts. Being told in school that having sex was like being a chewed piece of gum, and being taught that God intended sexual activity to begin between a husband and wife on their wedding night, Smart felt — after she was initially assaulted by Mitchell — that she had no value left. Because she had never been taught that rape was not sex, Smart internalized her rape, and considered it as legitimate as consensual sex as far as her virginity was concerned.

This leads us to the now-infamous Duggar family, who covered up eldest son Josh’s prolonged sexual abuse of several young girls when he was a minor. Much of the conversation surrounding the abuse focused on Josh: whether he had been punished, received counseling, etc. Very little took into consideration his victims, especially the four little girls — now teenagers and adult women — who were violated by their brother and then forced to live in close contact with him for years.

The Duggars are part of the hyper-conservative ilk mentioned above, who believe that kissing, frontal hugging, and “impure” thoughts are sexual sins that damage a person’s moral value. Guidebooks from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, with which the Duggars are affiliated, ask victims of sexual abuse to reflect on what they did to cause the crimes committed against them. In a toxic environment that links virginity with marriageability and claims marriage and childbearing to be religious duties, these sentiments are even more harmful to young people. At least we can rest assured that the Duggars won’t have a national platform from which to spew such vitriol anymore — since TLC just announced that they are canceling the family’s popular reality show 19 Kids and Counting.

I don’t know if the Duggar women considered themselves virgins after their brother’s abuse. I don’t know if Elizabeth Smart considers her 2002 ordeal to be the end of her virginity or not. What I do know is that our culture compels young women to link their senses of self to what has happened — or not — to their vaginas. This practice does not, in its strictest forms, allow victims of sex crimes to heal and recover.

By upholding outmoded concepts like virginity, we’re complicit in the pain, anguish, fear, and self-loathing of victims like Smart and the Duggars. They deserve better. We all do.

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