Up Front by Emma Hart


Just Like Unicorns

For those of you who aren't obsessive about every detail of my life, I work and write at a co-operative writing site. We make stories together in a way that's more about the joy (and frustration) of the process than the sparkling end result. Sometimes, that process involves jarring lessons in other people's value systems. 

A while back, we'd reached a point in a story where we needed to talk about what happened next. One of our writers had a great idea. What if, he suggested, the Evil Cult kidnapped my character, to use as a virgin sacrifice? 

What boggled me about this (all right, what boggled me about this the most) was that the character he was talking about was not only sexually-active, but involved in a sexual relationship in that story. Yet by his cultural construction of virginity, she was a virgin. How? She was a lesbian. 

That was the beginning of a process of thoughtful consideration which has brought me firmly to one conclusion: virginity doesn't exist. It doesn't exist in any kind of objective scientific sense, anyway. It's pure social construction. 

So in this case, my social construction had run smack into his. I couldn't fathom how you could consider someone who'd had lots of sex and many orgasms to be in any way a virgin. But then, if I was counting manual and oral sex as sex, didn't that mean I was saying a whole bunch of heterosexual people who regard themselves as virgins because they haven't gone "all the way" are just kidding themselves? 

You might very well think that, etc. What I'm saying out loud where other people can hear me is that I can't fathom how anyone could not regard lesbian sex as sex – especially as the people who get all het up about virginity are often also the ones who get very exercised about The Gays. You can't have it both ways*. 

Now, some of you are thinking, wait a minute, whether you agree with him or not, that guy had a point. The Lesbian in Question hadn't had penis-in-vagina sex, so she still had an intact hymen, so by that possibly ridiculous measure, she was technically a virgin. 

Hymens, right? There's this impermeable membrane that stretches across the vagina, deep inside it. It can only be broken by a penis, and that's why when a woman has sex for the first time it's really uncomfortable and there's bleeding. This is why a woman could have her virginity "inspected", and why bloody bedsheets would be produced after wedding nights. You wouldn't want to buy a woman who'd already had her safety seal popped. I mean, sometimes that doesn't happen, true, but that's because the girl has had some kind of tree-climbing or horse-riding accident that's broken her hymen in a perfectly sensical way. 

All complete bollocks. These are the three truths nobody seems to tell girls about their own bodies. Clitorises are enormous. Placentas are arseholes (figuratively speaking). And hymens aren't real. 

Okay, there's a thing that's called a hymen, but almost everything historical romance novels (and indeed, 50 Shades of Grey) taught you about it is purest fuckery-bollocks. It's not a solid membrane, it's a mucosal body. It's just inside the vaginal opening. It's permeable, (of course, because periods), stretchy, and in almost all women doesn't cover the whole vagina. It's not possible to damage your hymen by playing sport or falling down: probably these women simply never had any significant hymen. 

Many, many women don't bleed the first time they have penis-in-vagina sex. Bleeding is probably from damage to the walls of the vagina, and can happen at any time, not just the first time. Your hymen doesn't go anywhere. You still have it, as much as you ever did. So in a way, I suppose, we're all virgins. 

So even this most restrictive-seeming definition of virginity, which only applies to straight women, is meaningless. There is no tamper-proof seal on women, and there never has been. It's almost as if the myth of physical, hymenal virginity was just invented to stop women having sex. 

So with that dismissed, when we try to define virginity, what we're really asking is "What counts as sex?" 

I have trouble answering that question as reasonably as Scarleteen have there. I can no longer really fathom how anybody could regard many hours of rolling around giving and receiving sexual pleasure that happens to not involve penetration as "not sex". Same-sex couples have sex, and we really need to stop being so heterocentric in our definitions. 

And if, say, manual sex counts as sex, does it have to be someone else's hand? Why? If there's pleasure, if there's orgasm, if there's expression of sexuality, in what way is that not sex? It might seem going a bit far for me to suggest that anyone who's had a wank is no longer a virgin, but Jesus said it counts if you just think about it. So Christians should believe your virginity is shot at "impure thoughts". 

Now, if you're thinking, "There's another of those third-wave feminists, pushing 'sex-positive' into 'sex-compulsory'"; no. I don't want to place value on virginity at all, positively or negatively. Particularly the way it's currently constructed, as positive for girls, and negative for boys. If someone wants to place value on their own virginity (however they choose to define that), I'll happily respect that. What I won't happily respect is placing value on someone else's virginity. 

The joy of realising that virginity is subjective is that you get to decide for yourself what it means, and if it matters. It can be the first time you have sex you actively chose to, or the first time with someone of your preferred gender. It could be the first time you have sex in a particular way, or the first time you orgasm. If you happen to be a young girl who's been told her virginity is precious, and who has been sexually abused, that can mean the world. Much less seriously, I can relax about not being sure when I lost something I never really had.


*Bless. Of course you can.

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