Ripping off the duct tape: an analysis of virginity
I remember high school sexual education well. Sophomore year, a modestly dressed woman came into our classrooms and pressed chunks of duct tape onto the hair of our forearms. After a short introduction, we were told to rip them off. This, she said, was symbolic of losing our virginities.
I suppose now is a good time to point out I graduated from an all-girls private Catholic high school. Sex education, for me, wasn’t about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and condoms. Instead, it was about purity and God, and taught us the only type of safe sex exists within a perfect Catholic heterosexual marriage.
I should also point out, during the entirety of these discussions, 15-year-old me was cross-legged in the back corner of the classroom, frequently rolling her eyes.
Christianity is not the only culture to approach sex like this. There are cultures all over the world that glorify virginity – equating it to a sort of effervescent purity and look down upon any individual who engages in premarital sex.
The United States, though far more progressive than some countries, still has 23 percent of its schools teaching abstinence-only sex education, according to a survey of 4,000 seventh- to 12th-grade teachers by the Alan Guttmacher Institute survey, a non-profit health research organization in New York City and Washington D.C.
But what is virginity, really?
Merriam Webster's Dictionary defines virginity as “the state of never having had sexual intercourse.”
Sounds simple enough to me. Yet, if we look at virginity through a societal lens, we see so much more than the literal definition.
The language used to talk about virginity is consistently problematic. When we have sex for the first time it is called “losing your virginity,” implying virginity is a physical part of who you are, in danger of being accidentally and forcibly misplaced, and with sex as the cause of the unfortunate “loss.”
In other words, once the duct tape is ripped off, the teacher was erroneously suggesting you can never get those lost hairs and skin cells back. She tried to show in this odd analogy that once you lose your virginity, you will forever be missing something sacred, something that defines who you are.
The male counterpart, then, has been reduced to a used piece of duct tape. And, naturally, we are supposed to be disgusted by this, as if a sexually active man is forever burdened by the repulsive pieces of every girl he’s ever slept with.
Is “giving someone your virginity” within the confines of marriage any better, then?
In the terms of purity, sure. The verbiage, however, makes it seem as if your partner is immediately claiming ownership of your sexuality. This idea of possession creates a clear sense of codependence that is surely a key ingredient of an unhealthy marriage.
What about “taking someone’s virginity?”
As a teen, I was taught my purity was something I should have desperately wanted to hold on to. It was also implied, then, that my male peers would want to try to take this from me, as if pubescent boys are just sex-hungry animals with little self-control.
We’re dealing with a very strong sense of sexism here. Women are characterized as submissive and passive, while men are characterized as the aggressors. Classy women should have no innate hunger for sex and men are to be feared as impulsive beasts that cannot control their sexual urges. (Cue eye roll.)
And why shouldn’t women be curious about exploring their sexuality? Aside from the apparent despair that will be caused by losing part of oneself, society seems to absolutely guarantee that it’s going to physically hurt. Therese Shechter, creator of a documentary entitled How to Lose Your Virginity, has “spoken to a lot of women who are just terrified of having sex because they think it's going to be this horrible pain and [they’ll] bleed gallons of blood.”
Those of us who have had sex know this is absolutely not the case. I think a considerable amount of non-virgins would admit their first time wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Sure, the experience is different for everyone, but I can honestly say I’ve never met a single person who has felt so absolutely changed as a human being simply by engaging in consensual sex.
The fact is sex is a personal matter, and how one chooses to handle their virginity should be dictated by one’s self and not cultural or religious standards. Societies all over the world are inviting themselves into people’s bedrooms, only to scrutinize their sexual choices and pressure them into fitting a certain mold.
And the negative side effects of this are limitless. Because of the social constructs placed around virginity, we’re creating sexism, enforcing self-image issues and creating a sexual inequality that can harm relationships.
Jackie Graber is a contributing writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org