Why virginity myths are harmful for everyone

Nick Dunne, Head of Business Development, discusses how the socially constructed concept of virginity perpetuates gender norms and stigmas and how this can impact people across all genders and sexualities. 

The subject of virginity has been brought to the forefront in recent months with a ban on virginity testing being included in the Health and Care Bill evoking conversations around the term ‘virginity’ both online and within the education lessons we deliver at Brook. 

The term ‘virginity’ has been used for thousands of years to describe the state of not having had sex. It is a term that is used across genders, although the stigmas and stereotypes of the term differ greatly in expectations for how men and women should engage sexually.  

Often, when people talk about ‘having sex’, they are referring to two people having penis-in-vagina sex, or vaginal sex. So, having sex for the first time or ‘losing your virginity’ is often code for having vaginal sex for the first time. This is linked to the fact that historically a high value is placed on women’s ‘purity’ or ‘virginity’ and the idea that she should be not have sex until she is married to a man.  

Virginity myths rest on and perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Through my work at Brook, I can see the impact this has across genders and the harmful way it reinforces gender norms. The idea that only vaginal sex counts as ‘losing your virginity’ is something I have been asked about in education sessions frequently, in particular from boys and young men. 

This construct leads to girls and young women being told to ‘preserve their innocence’ – the term in itself is distressing when you think about it – and in some cases puts pressure on them to engage in other types of sexual activity because they are not considered to be ‘sex’ in the same way. For example, girls may be told that they could or should agree to anal or oral sex because then they will still be a virgin.   

Equally, I’ve had very frank and open conversations with boys and young men about sex and the expectations placed on them re: ‘losing their virginity’. These experiences have allowed me to gain an understanding of how BYM may feel under pressure to have sex before they are ready or with someone they don’t want to, especially if they think their friends are all having sex before they are.  

Existing narratives reward men’s early sexual (heterosexual) experience and focus on men’s sexual performance. They also denigrate men who are considered to be sexually inexperienced as ‘un-masculine’.  

On numerous occasions, boys and young men have discussed with me the pressures they face for the first time they have sex, both to be able to perform and to be the ones who take the lead in initiating sexual activity.  

Through our education work we seek to challenge narratives like these that result from and perpetuate unhelpful gender stereotypes. Education messaging must be inclusive of all views and work to destigmatise the concept of virginity and the harmful myths that exist around it. In doing so we can debunk gender norms, which is beneficial to all the young people we engage. 

Myths and stigmas relating to virginity also have an impact on people who are LGB+, non-binary and transgender. Reducing the idea of sex to penetrative, vaginal sex ignores the many ways in which people of different genders and sexualities experience physical intimacy and define sex. 

In an education session, a young gay person asked me ‘if I never have sex with a woman, does this mean I am a virgin for the rest of my life’.  

This question demonstrates how the construct of virginity impacts and reinforces gender stereotypes beyond cis-gendered/heterosexual sexual activity. 

At Brook, we use the word ‘sex’ to include all sexual activity, not just relating to penetration. There are many different ways to be sexually intimate with another person, to feel sensual, or to orgasm; so ‘sex’ and having sex ‘for the first time’ can mean different things for different people. For instance, oral and anal sex and hand-to-genital sexual contact are all types of sex. 

Whether or not you have had sex, regardless of your gender, has no impact on your worth as a person.

When working with young people, we should always be empowering them to make choices about their bodies and what they want to do with them. It is their right to decide if they are going to participate in sexual activity, whether that is for the first time or any other time. 

I would like to see a move away from having sex for the first time as some grand, life changing point in someone’s life. The reality is people have all kinds of sex with all kinds of people at all kinds of times in their lives. Lots of people choose to delay having sex for the first time until they are married or until they are older, while others begin being sexually active when they are teenagers, and some people never have sex with anyone.  

There is no right or wrong time or way to have sex for the first time, including not having it at all. Focusing on first time sex as a key event detracts from the important principle that all sexual activity should be chosen and explicitly consented to every time.   

Read our position statement on virginity.

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