11 Things Everyone Should Know About Virginity Culture

11/27/2013 11:03 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2016
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How do you define losing your virginity? What is it that makes our v-cards so valuable? And why do we "lose" such a thing in the first place?

Virginity is a subject fraught with issues of "morality," tradition, and gender and sexual politics. Because of how complicated conversations about the subject are, often we opt out of them altogether. Filmmaker Therese Shechter dives right into the ambiguities that surround the idea of virginity and virginity culture in her new documentary, “How To Lose Your Virginity.”

Shechter's personal experiences drove her to explore virginity culture. “[Virginity] is one of those things that almost everyone deals with or at least thinks about," Shechter told The Huffington Post last year. "It’s a pretty universal topic. I was 23 when I lost my virginity, by which I mean had intercourse. And it was really a result of years of confusion and fear and worrying.”

So why are we so infatuated with virgins and virginity? To start unpacking these questions, we rounded up 11 things we learned about virgin myths, virginity culture and female sexuality from "How To Lose Your Virginity."

1. There is no one definition of “virginity.”

The word “virgin” is loaded with all types of myths and cultural baggage, making it rather difficult to define. It may seem obvious that someone who's never had sex is a virgin -- but how do we define sex? If sex only includes heterosexual, vaginal penetrative intercourse, we’re leaving a lot of people out.

As Shechter previously explained to HuffPost:

Because of course, how do lesbians lose their virginity if there’s no penis in the room? And the whole “penetration by penis” has to do with breaking the hymen and bleeding, except not everyone breaks the hymen and not everyone bleeds. And can you get your hymen fixed up again, and does that mean you’re a virgin again? As soon as we start picking at [the definition], it’s like -- wait -- that doesn’t make sense at all.

2. There isn't a timeline for when and how to lose your virginity.

Whether you're 17 or 25 or 33, there is no "right" time to have sex. Period. You should probably lose your virginity whenever you want to and are emotionally ready to take on the responsibility of the experience. And of course, for every woman, the "right" time is different. In her film, Shechter reflects on the experience losing her virginity: ”When it finally happened, it wasn’t so much because I had found Mr. Right, but because I had grown tired of waiting for him. So I said screw it.”

3. Even the history of the word "virgin" is gendered.

The root of the word virgin is the Latin word virgo, which means young woman. While both men and women can be virgins -- and the experience of losing one's virginity can be confusing regardless of gender -- the etymology of the word points to the idea that issues of virginity are always about women.

4. Virginity culture in the United States is inextricably linked to controlling women's bodies.

Historically, a woman's sexuality belonged to the men in her life -- her father, her future husband -- and to her God. While we no longer live in a society that explicitly tells women that their sexuality is not their own, the idea is still relayed implicitly through movies, music and even our sexual education.

As author and virginity expert, Hanne Blank, explained in "How To Lose Your Virginity":

The exercise of defining virginity is not at all a merely philosophical exercise, it’s very much about real, palpable, tangible policing and control of bodies, specifically women’s bodies. You always have to ask the question when you see an apparatus of control like this: who is at the reins (who is doing the controlling) and who benefits from that control being done?

5. Integrity balls are the male-focused counterpart of purity balls.

Most people have heard of purity balls -- formal events where young women pledge their abstinence to their fathers until they marry -- but we had no idea that the tradition had an equivalent for young men. The difference is that Integrity balls do not involve a young boy pledging his virginity to his mother because he wants to stay virtuous. As Jessica Valenti explains to Shechter:

[Integrity balls are] not about ownership or I'm pledging my virginity to my mother or it's important for me to wait because that makes me a virtuous man. The language was: 'I shouldn't have sex because that's someone's future wife or that's someone's daughter.' So you don't want to do damage to someone else's property.

6. The state of your hymen is completely unrelated to whether or not you're a virgin.

As Shechter points out in the film, the connection between hymens and virginity is about as real as vampires. Contrary to popular myth, a hymen is simply a mucus membrane that is left over after the vagina is fully formed. Hymens come in all shapes and sizes and while some women's hymens break during puberty, others' don’t break until the woman gives birth to her first child.

7. You can buy an artificial hymen or "virginity kit" on the Internet.

Sadly, many people still believe that a woman's virginity can be verified by her intact hymen. Because of this false assumption, some women go to great lengths to ensure that their partners -- and sometimes partners' families -- believe their hymens haven't been torn. Often these great lengths include purchasing a fake hymen, which can be found online for only $30.

8. For most people, the "first time" isn’t that great. (Surprise, surprise.)

Whether it happens on your wedding night, on the floor of a dorm room or in the parking lot at prom, many people's first experiences with sex aren't wildly pleasurable. In fact, they can be awkward and downright painful. Like with any activity, practice makes perfect, and you probably don't quite know what to do at first. Unfortunately, our "first times" are so hyped up by pop culture, religious institutions and even porn culture that we often fail to recognize this reality.

As Shechter reflected on her first time, she realized that sex isn't always a life-changing, transformative experience for everyone. "Where did I get the idea that the penis was some kind of magic wand that will transform me forever?," she asked.

9. Messages about female sexuality are constructed by two paradoxical narratives that make it impossible for any woman to fulfill the "ideal."

As Shechter points out in her film, there is a certain infatuation with a woman who is able to have sex, but chooses not to. The "be sexy but don't have sex" message sets up a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario for women. As Ally Sheedy's character explains in "The Breakfast Club," when it comes to sex: "if you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut! It's a trap. You want to but you can't, and when you do you wish you didn't."

10. The definition of “slut” is just as loaded and confusing as the definition of “virgin.”

The word "slut" is more about shaming a woman and taking away her agency than actual sex. A woman doesn’t need to be having sex to be called a slut. If her sexuality or perceived sexuality deviates from the norm in any way, a woman can easily be labeled as one. Shechter explains in her film how confounding the term really is: "We’ve all been someone else’s idea of a slut. Even being abstinent doesn't give you immunity."

11. Knowledge, open dialogue and a little practice go a long way.

As Heather Corinna, founder of Scarleteen.com, explains in the film, the best way to debunk myths about virginity is to talk about them:

It’s as much of a benefit to have had partners before as it is to have had job experience before you have a job. You have things that you’ve learned, places you know you kind of screwed up a little. You’ve refined your communications skills which is kinda of the biggest thing with sex.

So, readers -- let's start talking.

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