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Did I have sex? Did I lose my virginity?

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Roxanne asks:

I'm 14. My boyfriend rubbed his penis on my vulva and I rubbed my vagina on his penis, but we were both wearing our underwear. Am I still a virgin? Was it sex? I don't even know what it was... I don't want to lose my virginity at such a young age! I hope I didn't lose my virginity to him! Can someone please tell me?

Heather Corinna replies:

It's up to you to decide if this was sex and if this had anything to do with virginity. What I can do to help you with that is give you some definitions, backgrounds and perspective on those terms, some advice on making sexual choices in alignment with what you really want and feel ready for and, hopefully, some comfort.

Let's start by defining sex, and in a way which includes most people's varied experiences of sex. As we explain here:

Sex is any number of different things people freely choose to do to tangibly and actively express or enact their sexuality and their sexual feelings.

If "sex" was the answer, the questions would be things like "What am I doing to try and feel good sexually or to express feeling good sexually? What am I doing that feels sexual to me (or to me and a partner)? What am I doing that feels like a way to express my sexuality, or my sexual desires and/or feelings about myself or others?"

If you both did what you did to express your sexual feelings, then you had one of the many kinds of sex we can have. Some people, when they say "sex," only mean vaginal intercourse. Usually those people either haven't had intercourse to know it's not that different from other kinds of sex, vaginal intercourse is the only kind of sex they people have or they have some kind of personal, political or religious agenda. Vaginal intercourse is just one kind of sex. Because not everyone does or likes all the same sexual activities, and very few people only express or want to express their sexuality through only one sexual activity and no others, we don't just call one kind of sex sex and call everything else "not-sex." What you two did is a kind of sex people often call grinding or "dry-humping."

The only universal difference between the kind of sex you had and vaginal intercourse are the physical risks. What you did, so long as both of you did each have your underpants on and your genitals were fully covered, was not likely to present risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Vaginal intercourse presents high risks of both. Otherwise, while people's experiences and expectations vary with different activities, intercourse and grinding are similar: they're both ways people may or do express and enact sexual feelings together, seek out sexual pleasure with and both involve genital stimulation.

Virginity is a bigger can of worms. If you want one clear, simple definition of virginity, the best I can do is to say that when someone says a person is a virgin they usually mean someone has not done something that they -- the person saying who is and isn't a virgin -- consider to be sex or something they think is THE sexual experience that means a person has had sex.

I know that's murky. The thing is, while sex is something those of us who work in sexuality and sexual health try to define as clearly as we can, virginity just isn't a term we use, because it's not a term that tends to be useful to us or the people we work with.

A healthcare provider can't tell if someone is a virgin or not because it has nothing to do with anyone's body. It usually has nothing to do with how a body looks or feels, how a body is or is not different because of sex. While some people in some areas will say they can do an exam to tell who is and who isn't a virgin, that's just not true: no one can give anyone any kind of official stamp of virginity by examining their bodies unless a person had a sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy or a genital injury. But since all three of those things can happen through things other than sex, even then it's iffy. The term virginity is cultural, and often religious, not medical or anatomical. It's something people outside of sexual health and the study of sexuality have come up with and self-define.

When people say virginity, they can mean many, many different things. Some people mean any kind of intercourse (where someone's penis is going inside someone else's vagina or anus). Some people -- usually heterosexual people -- mean just vaginal intercourse. Some only use the term virginity when talking about women, while other people apply it to all people. Some consider virginity is "lost" when people have a first sexual relationship or sexual experience of any kind with someone else. Some count each different sexual activity as a different virginity: for instance, figuring they lost their oral sex virginity, but not their anal sex virginity. Some count rape or other sexual abuse as having something to do with virginity, while others only count consensual sex. Some count masturbation in their definition of virginity; others do not. Some people don't use virginity as a term or concept at all, either because most ideas about it don't usually include them, because it's just not the way they think about or have experienced sexuality or because they don't like much of what usually goes along with that word.

As a person with a sex life, a queer person, a sexual abuse survivor and as someone who works in sexuality with a very diverse array of people of all ages, I'm one of those folks who has always felt like all three of those things were big problems, and like it's just not a useful term for me or in my work, so I avoid it whenever possible. I remember being asked in junior high and high school if I was a virgin and never knowing the right answer. Did my rape make me not a virgin? If so, why? It wasn't sex for me or anything I wanted or decided. Did what I did sexually with girls count, or only with boys? If only sex with boys counted, why? Did girls not count as people or was sex with girls that felt very real to us somehow not real? Even though my first intercourse was fine, it was less of a big whoop for me than my first kiss, the first time someone gave me oral sex or the first time I had an orgasm with a partner, so why was I supposed to consider something THE big deal that wasn't my big deal?

I won't beat around the bush: I really dislike the concept of virginity. I dislike it because of the ways it's most commonly defined, because it has an ugly history that's primarily about oppression and social control of women, and because it more often seems to result in people feeling scared and crummy about themselves and their choices rather than feeling empowered and good about themselves and their choices.

I don't want to give you an unsolicited history lesson, but I do want people to know virginity, as a concept, has a seriously nasty history, just like I'd want people to know the n-word has a similarly nasty history. People have been (and still are) stoned to death, forced to have physical exams against their will, kicked out of their homes, put into marriages with knowingly abusive people, socially shunned or otherwise abused or mistreated all because they weren't or aren't "virgins," or even just because someone thought or said they might not be. Through history, when marriage has meant giving a woman's family money or goods to "pay" for her as a bride, being a virgin meant a woman cost more, and not being one meant she cost less. Often, concepts of virginity have had nothing to do with love, and everything to do with treating people -- and again, usually women -- as property and judging our value as people based on our sexual history, including things we didn't even choose to take part in.

I don't like the language that comes with virginity, either. Sex we have with people which we want and choose to have isn't about anything we lose or take from someone else. It's about what we express, create and share together. Shared, wanted sex with someone isn't a loss or a robbery: we find and discover things in sex, rather than losing anything.

It does something else that's less yucky, but still problematic. The ways most people define it usually decides what is and isn't a big deal to someone before something even happens, instead of allowing for us to decide for ourselves what's important based on what our experiences actually are when they are happening or have happened.

I do think our sexuality, sex lives and sexual experiences are important. Some of our sexual experiences do often wind up being milestones in our sexuality, our partnerships and/or our lives. But I know that what any of us finds to be a big deal for ourselves varies widely, and cultural expectations or prescriptions of what's major are often not in alignment with actual, individual experiences. I think the diversity and uniqueness of our sexuality, lives and loves is totally awesome, so I resent anyone suggesting that what was most important to them -- or, more commonly, what wasn't, but what they think should have been or wish had been -- must be what is most important for everyone.

If we believe something must be THE thing that's more important than anything else, it really discounts our experiences. Not only can we find ourselves hella disappointed when that thing isn't the big deal we believed it would be, we can miss out on finding out and honoring what is and was uniquely important to us. The concept of virginity says the first time we do something must always be the most important. I don't know about you, but I know for myself that the first time I do anything I have never done before is almost never my best or most important experience with it. More often, my best or most important experience with something happens long after the first time. As well, even when I think something was the most important time, later on down the road I often find myself saying, "No, now THIS was the best," and knowing that later on, I'll probably say it again about a new experience. Just like with the rest of life, the same thing tends to happen with sex. Saying the first time we do anything is automatically the most important time says the 5th time, the 38th time, or the 200th time is always less important, even if at those times, we have experiences which are far more amazing and which feel more like milestones than the first.

Plus, if it was true that the first time we had any kind of sex was the most important, why would we ever bother doing it again?

For all of those reasons and a whole lot more, most days I wish virginity as a concept and ideal would just go away, or be replaced by something without the negativity, discrimination and half-arsed thought usually attached to that word and idea.

What I do not have a problem with is folks having whatever terms for sexual experiences or ideals that make them feel good and don't diss, dismiss, control or oppress other people and their experiences. If your concept of virginity makes you feel good, and it isn't crummy to others, I'm pretty much down. And if you do choose to use virginity as a term in your sexual lexicon, you get to follow the same rules everyone else does.

What rules, you ask? No rules at all, since everyone uses and has always used the term the way they want. If you want to use it, you get to define it however you want, just like everyone else through history. And hopefully, if you do choose to use it, you'll choose a positive definition that makes you and anyone else you share it with feel good about yourselves, your lives and your choices.

If you want to "count" this experience as having something to do with virginity you can. If you do not want to count it as something to do with your virginity, you get to do that, too. The same goes with sex: what sex is or isn't for any of us varies because we're all so different and so are all of our sexual experiences. We don't all have the same bodies, identities, sexualities, sexual opportunities or the same sexual relationships. So long as the way you define sex feels true to you and your experiences in the moment, then that's your right definition. I say in the moment, because it's very likely you, like many people, will adapt that definition over time as you have different experiences and grow as a person.

I would urge you to be honest in how you define those words for yourself and to other people. A lot of people really aren't, which is a big part of why those words can be such big problems. If any of us use those terms and define them in ways that give people an idea about us or others we know is false or misleading, we can do other people harm, sometimes very directly. For example, we'll often hear from users here who have had unprotected anal intercourse, but who tell new partners they haven't had sex and are virgins: doing that means those new partners often make choices thinking they don't have certain risks in sex with that person they may or do have.

There are situations and times where being honest about our sexual experiences or sexualities can be very challenging, scary and even dangerous. If and when being honest means you have to also put your safety at a big risk, then I vote for being dishonest. But ideally, we all get to choose who we talk about our sex lives and history to, and who we make a part of that history. If and when we don't feel like those people are safe, our best bet is not to talk to those people about our sexuality or be sexual with those people.

I want to cover a few more bases with you. Like I explained, the kind of sex you had is very low risk when it comes to pregnancy or STIs. But when people get to the point where almost all the clothes are off, and genitals are on top of genitals, they're often moving towards sexual activities which present higher risks of one or both of those things. If the underpants come off and you did what you were doing, for instance, then some risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections would exist.

To be sure you're reducing risks of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy, and that you're only doing things you feel good about, I think it'd be wise to think about what you do and don't want to do and do and don't feel ready for. That page I linked you to earlier sex has a list of various sexual activities on it. You can take a look at those and consider what you feel like you'd feel comfortable doing now or soon and what you wouldn't. You can also use this list to do that more comprehensively, and take a look at our sexual readiness checklist. It could be very helpful to share those links with your partner so that he can consider the same things and so you two can have some talks about all of this where you have the same information to work with.

It sounds like you may not feel ready for all of this, which doesn't surprise me. While the age people feel ready to start sexual relationships at varies, a lot of people around your age either don't feel ready for all sex entails and requires -- physically, emotionally, interpersonally and when it comes to actual stuff we need to be healthy and responsible -- or not for the kinds of sex which present the highest risks of unwanted outcomes, like STIs, unwanted pregnancy or a lot of emotional vulnerability.

If you are going to move forward with any kind of sex with someone else, talk honestly with your partner about what you do and don't want to do and about your limits and your boundaries; talk about safer sex and birth control, especially if you think anyone's underpants may be coming off in the near future. Ask your partner where he's at with all of those things. Listen to what he has to say and make some decisions together based on what both of you want, feel good about and feel able to manage. The more we talk, the more likely we tend to be to make our own best choices, and to be supported by partners in those choices.

It's also helpful to have a support person to talk with about sex who is not a sexual partner or potential partner. While that's helpful at all ages, it can be especially helpful when we're young and don't have the kinds of rights, resources, confidence, experience, perspective and skills we will have or are more likely to have later in life. Before we have those things or have more of them, we can borrow from people who do.

Can you identify at least one adult who you can be honest with about sex (even if it's a little intimidating at first), who you know cares about you, who is supportive of you and is a safe person for you? That person might be a parent or guardian, but could also be the parent or guardian of a friend, a school nurse or other healthcare provider, an extended family member or older sibling, a teacher, coach or other mentor: someone you know you can count on for sound advice, perspective and support. When you identify that person, I suggest you ask them the same questions you've asked me and talk about your feelings with them. I'd hate to be the only person you ask about this, especially since we can't sit down face-to-face, I don't know you as well as someone like that can, and you don't have the kind of access to me you can to someone in person. If you feel like you know absolutely no one like that, you can drop us an email and we can probably help you find a resource in your community where you can get that kind of support.

One last thing: a lot of people present sex as some kind of Pandora's Box that once someone opens, cannot be closed. That's not a sound way of presenting sex, and is also not reflective of people's sex lives in reality. If and when we do something sexual, we should always have the choice to do it again or not, and if we want to do it again, have the choice about when, with whom and in what set of conditions. If you ever feel like sex is happening faster than you can handle, you get to slow things down or put any kind of sex on hold until it feels right to you, before, during and after. If you need some time to think things through, you get to take that time, however long it may be: everyone does. Hopefully, you have a partner who knows, respects and wants that for both of you, but in the case that you don't, know that a safe partner, a good partner, will always support that, and you also get to only choose to be sexual with safe people who respect your needs and your limits.

If you do feel good about this, and want to keep doing this kind of sex or engage in other kinds of sex, you get to feel good about it, whether you or others count it as sex or as something to do with your virginity. I hope you can figure out a way to think about all of this and make sexual choices from a place where you feel emotionally and physically good about yourself, and hope you can let your own feelings and understanding of yourself and what you want and can deal with, uniquely, take the lead in that decision-making, not general terms or ideas which are a whole lot less meaningful and valuable.

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