I first questioned the concept of virginity’s validity when I was eighteen. I had just watched a Laci Green video entitled ‘Let’s Lose Virginity,’ and it depicted ‘virginity’ as a harmful myth created to oppress women. Reading Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex,’ a text that demonstrates why the myth of virginity was established and is still believed, reminded me of this video.
The concept of virginity was introduced during the Neolithic Era, when proving paternity by refraining from intercourse gave women access to shelter, food, and goods. Birth control didn’t exist, and remaining celibate proved to a man that a woman was responsible. Non-virgins were typically seen as unmarriageable and often forced into prostitution. The construction of virginity is tied to the commodification of the female body and is still used as a weapon of shame and control. De Beauvoir states, “Man’s hesitation between fear and desire, between the terror of being possessed by uncontrollable forces and the will to overcome them, is grippingly reflected in the virginity myths. Dreaded or desired or even demanded by the male, virginity is the highest form of feminine mystery.”
The contradiction between women being looked down upon for being virgins and for not being virgins at different points in history in different places represents the struggle women face to both be chaste and not. De Beauvoir points out that thirteenth century Tibetans did not want to take a virgin woman for a wife because it indicated lack of desirability, while to this day certain French villages display a bloody sheet after a wedding night to prove that the bride was a virgin.
The sheet ceremony represents man attempting to dominate woman by using the construct of virginity as a weapon. De Beauvoir states, “What determines women’s present situation is the stubborn survival of the most ancient traditions… In the patriarchal regime, man became woman’s master; and the same characteristics that are frightening in animals or untamed elements become precious qualities for the owner who knows how to subdue them… Therefore, he wants to annex woman to him with all her riches intact.”
The notion that the woman is viewed in the same light as the animal is an appalling one, but the metaphor is unfortunately accurate. Just as men are praised for teaching a ferocious lion to perform circus tricks or commanding a pet dog to sit down on cue, so too are they congratulated for ‘mastering’ the body of the woman. Like the lions and dogs, the woman is rewarded for her obedience; she abstained from sex until her wedding night and is praised as being ‘good’ and ‘virtuous.’
One might question why women continue to buy into a concept that was created only to control them. De Beauvoir provides a solid explanation: “Men’s economic privilege, their social value, the prestige of marriage, the usefulness of masculine support–all these encourage women to ardently want to please men… She thus has to be described first as men dream of her since being-for-men is one of the essential factors of her concrete condition.”
As Green points out, women are still being killed around the world because of the value people place on the idea of virginity. Because a woman abstaining from sex until marriage is equated with purity, some families are considered dishonored unless they kill their ‘soiled’ daughter after she has premarital sex or is raped. De Beauvoir explores man’s obsession with controlling everything: “He finds the mysterious alchemies of life repugnant, while his own life is nourished and enchanted by the tasty fruits of the earth; he desires to appropriate them for himself; he covets Venus freshly emerging from the waters.” Here, De Beauvoir focuses both on man’s longing to dominate naturally occurring phenomena and on his fear of what is uncontrollable. Man sees the non-virginal woman as a wonder who has experience that does not rely on him—she does not need him for pleasure—she can find it elsewhere. This ties back to the fear men feel about a woman’s autonomy, so rather than acknowledging the sexually active woman as a person who can take charge of finding her own pleasure, she is cast off as something defiled, marking her broken instead of strong.
It is not enough for man to just love or to even make love to woman; he is driven to feel that he must have dominion over her body. The female is converted from human to object–easily quantified and stolen. This gives rise to man’s fascination with reducing woman to mere body parts and numbers. She is a set of breasts. She is a pair of legs. She is a seven or a nine or just a four, but a four with a really nice ass. Can they boast that they’ve slept with a dozen or two dozen or one hundred women–the quality of the women nothing, the quantity everything? How many ‘virginities’ can they crow about having ‘taken’? When men had control over all land, businesses, and property, women were seen as mere objects to be controlled. The idea that a construct that has been inherently oppressive is still in use demonstrates how much progress is left to be made in terms of gender equality. The subject of equality itself brings to light another issue: virginity is a construct built on a heteronormative model that excludes the queer community.
Still, what about the men (we must always ask this question)–the man ‘virgins’? Men and boys who haven’t had sex are derided for their abstinence and are made a mockery of in films such as ‘The Forty-Year-Old Virgin’ and ‘American Pie.’ Though the patriarchy harms them too, compelling them to mutate into the abominable bros crooning about their ‘number of conquests’–even if imagined–women are still made to suffer further in the presence of the label of virginity, as De Beauvoir asserts, “Undoubtable, there are stylized images of man as he is in his relations with woman…but men are the ones who have established them, and they have not attained the dignity of myth… while woman is exclusively defined in her relation to man.”
The man’s fear of being cast-out for not having sex causes women to suffer by being even more readily degraded. Because men feel their masculinity is validated by treating women like commodities, women are placed at an increased risk for being used and/or abused. Men feel they are placed in a situation where it’s ‘me or them:’ I can either treat this woman like an object, or I can be the object of humiliation of all of my friends.
“Perhaps the myth of woman will be phased out one day,” De Beauvoir writes, “the more women assert themselves as human beings, the more the marvelous quality of Other dies in them.” Green makes a point for the power of language. She posits that by replacing the phrase ‘losing virginity’ with ‘making the sexual debut,’ a shift of power occurs that does not look at something being lost, but a natural occurrence taking place. ‘Virginity’ shouldn’t affect a person’s perceived value, and intercourse shouldn’t be seen as some transformative experience that is more powerful than all other forms of sex. “I like to think that in reframing and taking the power away from that concept,” Green states, “we actually give power back to people.”
By allowing room for a shift in speech, we create room for a shift in thought. We have the power to challenge the way future generations think and feel about sex and their self-image. Women have been chastised for too long over an irrelevant status, and the only way for things to change is to examine why these ideas have continued to persist for so long.