How can women who sleep with women know when they have lost their virginity?
Heather Corinna replies:
What you're discovering is one of the many ways in which virginity as a concept often doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Let me be plain: if you two pursue sexual pleasure together, however you choose to do it, whatever your bodies are like, I think you're having sex; you'll have had some kind of sex. That's not only the case for women partnered with women and men partnered with men, but also for women partnered with men, or people having any kind of sex together of any given gender or gender identity.
We cannot easily define what sex is or is not for all people, because when we try and do that, we usually wind up leaving out a whole lot of people and their sexual experiences. For example, you might not say that sex is having your neck rubbed, if I feel sexual while I someone is doing that to me, my partner feels sexual while doing it, and I reach orgasm that way, to boot, how is that not sex? Conversely, while so many people define vaginal intercourse as sex, if a given woman never enjoys that, if it doesn't feel sexual to her, and she never gets off with it, how does it make sense to define that as sex for her? Ultimately, we have to leave it up to everyone as individuals to define what sex is or isn't, because our experiences and sexualities are just too diverse to try and fit us all into one box, and how I might define it for you is inevitably going to be biased based on my own personal experiences, ideals or agenda.
Let's take a look at some of the conflicts the concept of virginity may pose to you and has posed for many.
We explain a lot at Scarleteen that virginity is not a medical term. However, historically, many have made an attempt to try and make it a medical term by considering the "loss" of virginity to be the "breaking" of the hymen for women (there has never really been any such attempt to medicalize virginity for men). That's something we've known to be flawed for some time now, for a bunch of reasons.
The hymen or corona is a very thin, elastic membrane tethered just within the vaginal opening -- which tends to kinda-sorta cover it through childhood and some of adolescence. It usually gradually erodes over time until it's indistinguishable from the vaginal opening, a process that most typically starts around puberty, and which can last anywhere form several years to even decades.
That wearing away is typically due to a lot of different things: due to vaginal secretions and menses, the increase of estrogen in the body with puberty, general physical activity, partnered genital/vaginal sex or masturbation of several types, even childbirth, since for some women, the hymen will not have completely eroded by the time they give birth. In late childhood or early puberty, the hymen will typically start to develop what we call "micro-openings," which get larger and larger over time, until eventually only a trace of the hymen is left -- and usually remains through life -- just inside the vaginal opening. What the hymen looks like as it wears away varies among women, and what rate it wears away at also varies among women.
While some women may have a hymen earnestly break or tear -- rather than gradually wearing away -- due to genital injury, rape or very aggressive vaginal sex, for most, "losing" the hymen is not a one-shot deal, something that happens all at once when any given woman has intercourse or any one kind or incident of vaginal sex. Some women even become pregnant with their hymens still largely intact (thanks to those little micro-openings and the oft-mistaken idea that direct genital contact with an intact hymen is safe), which is an occasional reality that flies in the face of the historical notion that no previous vaginal intercourse or a seemingly intact hymen means a woman's progeny can easily be tracked to the man responsible for first intercourse with her or "breaking" her hymen.
Even for heterosexual women who define first sex as intercourse, if what virginity is defined as is the "loss" of the hymen, then plenty of women who have had intercourse will leave it still being virgins. Conversely, plenty of women who have never had partnered sex, but whose hymens have worn away or been torn would not be considered virgins. There was so much ignorance about women's bodies for so much of history that until relatively recently, people just didn't know all of this stuff, and in some places still, they still don't know it, or choose to deny the reality of our anatomy in order to hold up a cultural belief. These are some of the reasons why defining virginity that way is seriously problematic, and why it is not a term you are likely to hear a sound sexual healthcare provider use.
Since virginity as a concept has historically nearly always been -- and usually is still -- about heterosexuals and also about marriage, when we talk about virginity, we're going to find ourselves talking about heterosexuality, heterosexism and heteronormativity a lot. If you're looking in history for inclusion of lesbian women, or bisexual or heterosexual women who have had sex with other women, when it comes to concepts of virginity, give on up. There's nothing to find.
However, even for heterosexual women, defining when they have had "real" sex as when they have had vaginal intercourse is a strange thing to do since a majority of women, vaginal intercourse isn't an activity where they are even likely to reach orgasm or experience as much pleasure as they might with other activities, like oral or manual clitoral stimulation. Like so much else when it comes to virginity (and even sexuality as a whole) as a concept, this is another area where what sex is and is not is being defined not based on all the bodies and persons involved, but on one: while most women do not reach orgasm from intercourse alone, most men do, and that's who, through most of time, has also been in charge of defining sex and virginity.
Lastly, I think the idea that when we choose to be sexual with someone else, we "lose" something is pretty crummy. When we choose to share our sexuality with someone else who also wants to share theirs with us, we are creating something which did not exist before, not losing something or taking something away from someone. We're making something new! While sometimes the notion of sex as loss is about loss of childhood, the idea of sex as a loss mostly tends to come from places you probably -- especially as someone who loves women -- would not appreciate; from ideas about women as property, women as nonsexual beings, women's sexuality as an object or something to "give" to a husband or man who "takes" it away, or women's sexuality as something rapists rob from us. One would hope that those kinds of notions would be left well outside the bedroom in a healthy sexual relationship between equals and partners who are seeking to share mutual physical pleasure and emotional care or love.
What sex is and is not for any given person or couple just isn't something we can easily or universally define, because we are all different, our sexualities all vary somewhat, and our sexual experiences vary. How we have sex with someone isn't one given thing: some days, we may want to have oral and manual sex, some days, manual sex all by itself, some days, shared massage with intercourse (and women who want that with female partners can experience that with hands or sex toys), some days, a lot of kissing, verbally sharing fantasy and mutual masturbation. We find out how we have sex with a given partner by talking with them, communicating in other ways, and experimenting together to suss out what feels good and what doesn't. That's a constant process, too (and part of what makes sex exciting): we don't learn how to have sex with any given activity once, and then do or enjoy it exactly the same way every day or with every partner.
As well, what sex is and is not is not so simple as talking about what tab is in what slot: it also has to do with what's going on interpersonally, emotionally and psychologically, which is, for example, why rape -- for the person being raped -- is not sex, even though some of the same things may be happening physically which two people choose to do when both people are consenting and are seeking shared pleasure and/or union.
Frankly, I'm a proponent of throwing away the whole notion of virginity. This is the 21st century, after all, not the 10th.
Personally, I just feel like it is a concept so steeped in the oppression of women (and which historically and globally has been and is sometimes still rife with violent and tragic consequences for many women), in ignorance about sexuality, and in defining sex in ways that strike me as counter to healthy, positive sexuality that it's way past reclaiming. Now, you may have a different opinion, and find that it is something you want to reclaim and redefine for yourself. Some women, despite the history, do find concepts of virginity personally liberating. If you do want to do that, then the answer is that you get to define it however you choose, in whatever way makes sense to you and fits your reality. I can't tell you how to do that or what that will be, because I have no way of knowing what your experiences will be like, what sexual activities you two will engage in, or what each of your personal values are: this is one of those things you're going to have to find out about for yourself.
But what I'd suggest is that you consider allowing the sexual experiences you two have together to determine what is meaningful and enjoyable for you both: not for anyone else, just for the two of you.
I would also suggest that by all means, if you want to recognize and celebrate any or all of your first-times with sex or a partner, that you feel free to do that -- however you define those first times -- with the love, awareness, reverence or delight you feel. First-times of all sorts are important to many people, and we can recognize and honor them whether or not they have anything to do with anyone's pre-existing ideals or standards: we all get to determine what our own milestones are. I would suggest that you focus not on any kind of loss, but on the quality of the sex and relationship you are discovering, creating and cultivating, and on you two exploring sexual activities together based on what feels authentic and good for you both -- physically, intellectually and emotionally -- and which is a unique reflection of who you both are separately and together as a couple. I'd suggest that you bear in mind that despite numerous attempts to try and make it so, there never has been and never will be a one-size-fits-all definition of what sex is or isn't for all of us. Sex between people, or even alone with masturbation, has always been diverse and highly individual when people let it be that way, rather than trying to do what they think they're supposed to, or try and fit someone else's set of ideals or cultural mandates.
The great part about approaching sex with someone in these ways is that this kind of approach also tends to be what results in a sex life which everyone involved will feel best about and enjoy most.
Here are a few additional links to round this all out for you:
- Magical Cups & Bloody Brides: Virginity in Context
- 20 Questions About Virginity: Scarleteen Interviews Hanne Blank
- Yield for Pleasure
- Sexual Response & Orgasm: A Users Guide
- How do lesbians have sex?
- How do I have sex with another woman without a vibrator?
- Reciprocity, Reloaded
- What is Feminist Sex Education?