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Three on virginity, ideals and regrets

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reynolds1990 asks:

I know that it takes a woman up to 7 years, after having intercourse to become a virgin again. Is that true? Is it also the same for a girl between the ages of 12 and 15? If they are both true, could you please explain to me how that happens? If you could get back to me as soon as possible that would be fully appreciated.

Heather Corinna replies:

We talk about this a lot here at Scarleteen: virginity isn't physical or anything that can be universally proven or disproven with body parts.

It's an intellectual concept, an idea, a belief, and perhaps most accurately, a word for identity some people use, usually to identify when they or others have not had certain sexual experiences. What those experiences are vary, because not everyone has or uses the same definition of this word. All people also don't share the same experiences or definitions of sex, or certain physical activities which are sometimes sex, but aren't other times, in large part because any activity which can be sex can also be rape or other kinds of abuse. Too, a definition of virginity or partnered sex based in something physical, being done to or with the body without accounting for everyone's motives and feelings could not only be sex or rape, it could also be describing things that can be part of in sexual healthcare, bathing, grooming, itching (literally, not figuratively), childbirth, various kinds of injuries, curiosity, or masturbation.

For a very long time, there was a fairly global belief that virginity was physical, and something only applied to women's bodies and women's social status. The belief was that virginity was effectively about the hymen -- or corona, a very thin, flexible membrane that is usually just inside the vaginal opening at birth -- not being fully intact or visible, and that what happened when virginity was "lost" or "taken" was that the hymen was broken. What that belief overlooked, in large part because people didn't know better, was that that tissue not only is not some kind of seal, it's supposed to degrade over time -- both wearing away and back, winding up with its edges surrounding the vaginal opening in some way -- and will usually tend to do that with or without any kind of sex at all. (If in doubt, consider how many young women you probably know who have not had any kind of sex, but have their periods, which couldn't flow out if the vaginal opening was sealed shut.) It also overlooked that when intercourse was and is something the person with said hymen desired, felt ready for and gave consent to, and when they had a partner who was attentive, hymens don't tend to "get broken" at all, but instead, just wear away a little more sometimes with genital sex.

In some areas and some places people still believe the things above that we know now are not true, or don't believe them, but choose to behave as if they still are true. But they're not, and acting as if they are won't make it so.

I suspect what you're asking is if the hymen can grow back once it has worn away, in whole or in part. It can't. As I explained, it's supposed to wear away, and once it has, in whatever way it has at whatever pace it has, it's not going to magically grow back. You might also be asking if there's a certain time period where if someone doesn't have given kind of sex if it physically might feel like their first time again, per feeling very tight or painful. Maybe, but maybe not: not everyone's first times are painful or uncomfortable, especially when sex is wanted and something people are ready for. If after going a while without a certain kind of sex, it feels painful, that's most likely about someone doing things in such a way that make them painful or unpleasant -- like being scared, not using lubricant as needed, or rushing into intercourse -- rather than because of any physical changes to their bodies.

While I suspect that may answer your question all by itself, I'd like to talk a bit more about this, and address a couple other recent questions we've had on this subject.

Anonymous asks:

Can I become a virgin again? I already had sex. It wasn't terrible, I wasn't forced into anything it was okay I guess. But my boyfriend and I broke up a while back and it wasn't as perfect as we all want the first time to be. I want a do-over. Can I get one without pretending to be something I'm not or lying about having sex before?

Yes, you can! In fact, you can get as many do-overs as you want without pretending or lying.

I'll be forthright about my personal feelings about virginity as a term: I don't like it. That isn't to say I have any issue with, or am not supportive of, people deciding to give whatever weight they do to their experiences and ideals. I also am completely supportive of anyone deciding, before, during or after, that any given sexual experience (or lack thereof), activity or scenario has a particular value to them. My issue is with the term itself, which has long been intensely sexist and associated with an awful lot of misogyny, sexual violence and other violence against women and other forms of oppression. In a word, I know too much, and what I know sucks.

While I think we can reclaim some words, potentially shifting them from an oppressive negative into a powerful positive, I'm not sure how with this one. The history around this term is just so awful, and our culture is still so sexist and uses the term for some ways of oppressing people, not to mention that it's so vague a term it's all but meaningless in some ways. As well, what I notice is that people who use it usually subscribe to some of the ideas or ideals affixed to the history of the term, like suggesting sex is about taking something away from someone, rather than making something new, like presenting women's bodies as property in some way, like affixing a social status to people based on their sexual experiences or lack of them, so I'd not call that reclaiming. I would suggest folks at least consider choosing to describe what you would with that word with different words, more positive words of phrases, language that is more clear and less mired in bad stuff.

That's my own opinion. Your own, whatever it is, is no less important or valuable. If it's a term you want to use, and which you feel works for you, then you get to use it. But for the sake of trying to use language that isn't steeped in big yuck, and with the aim of giving more meaning and clarity to things you want to be meaningful and clear, I want to propose some alternatives.

For instance, instead of saying "I'm a virgin," or "I'm not a virgin," or "I wish I could be a virgin again," how about:
"I haven't participated in [whatever kind of] sex yet."
"I haven't had vaginal intercourse before."
"I haven't had sex with someone I love before."
"I haven't engaged in sex I felt satisfied with yet."
"I haven't experienced sex that felt like sex to me yet."
"I was sexually assaulted or abused: I haven't yet had consensual sex."
"I've changed a lot since I did sex in the past, so I feel like I'm starting over with it."
"I haven't been part of sex with a partner of [whatever gender] yet."
"I haven't had sex when I identified as [whatever gender, orientation or other identity] yet.
"I haven't been part of sex yet that I've actually enjoyed."
"I did have sex already, but it just wasn't what I wanted it. I want to have sex that's the way I envision it at its best."
"I haven't experienced sex in this kind of relationship before."
"I haven't been involved in sex since I knew what I wanted or felt able to ask for it."
"I haven't had sex since I really felt ready for it."
"I have had sex before, but I wasn't happy with it, and I feel like I'd like to restart my sex life fresh, and aim to do that."
"I didn't realize what sex was before and that's what I was doing, so I feel like now that I do is when I'm really having my first times."
Or, what you said yourself: "I already had sex. It wasn't terrible, I wasn't forced into anything it was okay I guess. But my boyfriend and I broke up a while back and it wasn't as perfect as we all want the first time to be. I want a do-over."

All of those things are okay things to say, and they are things that people talking honestly and openly about sex and their sexual history do and may say. If you think you'd be the first person in the world saying them, you'd be wrong. It also may not be the first time any sexual partner you may have heard something like that, either, and you may even run into a partner who also feels one of those ways themselves.

That said, for someone who does want to use the word virginity and not an alternative, because virginity is not physical or factual, and because its definitions are myriad, arbitrary and often personal, I don't see any reason why any given person isn't entitled to their own definition, too.

That's the precedent that's long been set, after all: whole cultures have created their definitions for their own purposes or agendas, including definitions that were knowingly false, and a whole lot of people have too, often people who weren't even identifying themselves, but prescribing identities, statuses or values to others. So, I figure you get to decide what it means just as arbitrarily as anyone else, especially since since no matter how you use it, there is still not going to be any unilateral definition where everyone you say it to will know what you mean or won't just assume you define it however they do.

I do think it's important to be honest with sexual partners and to avoid any words or language that are dishonest or knowingly give false impressions. Saying or implying you haven't had a kind of physical contact that you have can, for example, incline someone to choose to take potential health risks they wouldn't choose to take otherwise, or to ditch safety measures they'd otherwise insist on. That's not cool. Plus, we're all generally most likely to have satisfying sex we feel good about when we are who we are, and represent ourselves honestly, including our life experiences. Do make sure that whatever words or phrases you choose to use, they're honest and express what is true.

I want to talk about that perfect you think everyone wants the first time to be. Not only is everyone's idea of perfect different, in reality, that "perfect" you have in mind probably doesn't exist or, at the very least, is more likely to be a reality much further down the road than with a first time. You're talking about an ideal, possibly even a fantasy. There's nothing wrong with having those, but when we do, we have to acknowledge that's what they are, and while our realities can sometimes resemble them, or wind up meeting the needs we have in them without being just like them, they're still not realities, but ideals or fantasies. In reality, the first time people have any kind of sex is often a lot like the first time we do anything new: it's really far from perfect because we haven't had any practice at it yet and are just trying it for the first time.

I'd say that sex is one of those places and things in life where our imperfections get shown up a lot more than perfection does, and that isn't a bad thing, but one of the best things about it. Sex can be a place where everyone can be human -- sticky, sweaty, fleshy, awkward, clumsy, murky, newbie, dizzy, silly, super-quirky-human -- and thus, necessarily imperfect, and enjoy and celebrate themselves; be accepted and accepting. It's a place where we or anyone else should never have to be perfect or feel like we have to, which can be an awfully nice break from the situations in life in which we're given a lot less freedom and latitude to be imperfect.

Ashley_Nicole asks:

I think I'm physically ready to have sex. But on the emotional side I'm fractioned...1/4 of me says no and the other 3/4's says yes. I don't want to have ANY regrets, what do I do?

There is also nothing we can do, in sex or any part of life, to assure we won't have any regrets. Ever. If there was, and I knew about it, I promise I'd tell you. I just explained to someone else a couple of weeks ago that there is no perfect sexual choice, just like there's no perfect any choice. All there ever is is the best choice we can make for yourselves with the information, insight and skills we have at a given time.

However, there are some things we can do to best avoid regret, and some things we can do to manage feelings of regret when and if we have them and use them to help us out.

One of the big things you've already identified is paying attention to your own feelings and instincts. That 25% of you that says it's not right yet? Listen to that part. Give it weight and value, acknowledging it to be as deeply important as it is (which is deeply important). When sex really is right, the first time or the 501st, your heart and your head will tend to be in alignment. As much of yourself as can say go to something will be cheering for the same team. While our intuition and feelings aren't all we need to make our own best choices, paying attention to them and not acting against them is crucial.

What else? Information. Do you feel like you're pretty filled in on what to expect -- for as much as we can be -- with sex and what people tend to need to be really ready for all of it? Feel like you know what you need to to both make your choice and manage your choice? If not, you can look at something like this, or this, or this, or this to get some more information to inform your choices.

Since there's more than just you involved in partnered sex, you can talk about your feelings and thoughts about this with the other person involved. That's not required, and some people don't or don't always. But when we're feeling uncertain, it's a good call to talk it out with our potential partner. If this does have an emotional aspect for you -- and really, all sex does for everyone to some degree, even the most casual of casual sex -- then you probably want to talk about this together. Filling them in on what you think and feel, seeing how they react to what you say, and then finding out how they feel can give you information you wouldn't otherwise have to help you (and them) make your own best choices.

Do you feel like you -- and whoever the other person potentially involved is -- have the skills you need to manage sex well at this time? Are you in a place in your life where sex will add the good stuff, rather than adding anxiety, stress, heartbreak or drama? Try and be as honest with yourself as you can about what you really feel able to handle right now, and if you think now's not the right time and space to handle all that we may have to with sex, emotionally and practically -- opt out until you feel more capable, and invest some time and energy in cultivating the skills you think you may need to build up more, like good communication and negotiation skills or assertiveness.

One other thing to know is just like with any other sound choice and agreement (in this case, you and someone else agreeing to have whatever kinds of sex you are in the ways you're agreeing to have them), you should always feel you can opt out. That's not anything exceptional: for sex to be healthy and consensual, everyone always should be able to opt out at any time, even if and when you've agreed and then you're about to do whatever it is and find you suddenly feel like it just isn't right. Having that be a constant given is a really important part of consent, which you can read up on here.

Once people have started going through puberty, most people are pretty much physically "ready" for sex per their bodies being able to function sexually. But since there are so many kinds of sex and many don't require any one way of the body functioning, I'd say that "physical readiness" is the least important part of this that there is. If sex was only about our bodies, that'd be the only thing we'd need to consider, but it's so not.

I hope you can see from the questions above yours and my answers to them that obviously some folks do experience regret or wish they'd made choices differently. Now, some of what's in that probably isn't just about how people made their choices, but about the many people conceptualize sex, sexuality and sexual experiences. Some of those conceptualizations are problematic for various reasons. For instance, when we hear from people who regret their first sexual choices, so much of the time it's because they're thinking they only get that one first time with sex, when in fact, we get first-times all the time, whether that's because we have a new partner or just because we're trying or experiencing something in a different way than we did in the past. The truth is, our sexual choices are always important, not just once. Hopefully that doesn't make you feel more stressed out, because that's not what I intend: I just want to make clear that we are always making these choices and they are always important, so if any one time we feel like we got it wrong, we always have more chances to get it right. As well, we always need to recognize that getting something just perfecty-perfect right the first time out is as unrealistic with sex as it is with anything else. We get better at this, all of us -- having kinds of sex and making sexual choices -- with practice over time.

So, what if you find that even when you do all of what I'm suggesting here -- trusting your heart and your head both, having lots of information that you use in your decision-making, talking with partners honestly -- you make a choice you regret in some way? Well, first of all, if you do all that, you probably won't. Most people who voice feeling regret with these choices didn't do those things.

But in the case you did, then you'd cut yourself a break, acknowledge you did all you could do to make your best choice, and remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes or only learns certain things through error. None of us come into this life knowing all these is to know, or done with our learning at birth: we all learn as we go, and probably don't ever know all we could know, so we're bound to make mistakes or missteps now and then. If you ask me, if we are kind to and thoughtful with ourselves and others, if we do our best to be as self-aware as we can, and we make sure we're never leaping into things we know we or others don't want or just can't handle, then whatever mistakes we make, they're just not going to be that bad. We'll live, seriously, and something we think is the most horrendous mistake at a given time in life tends to soften over time, and we'll often realize was even of value to us because of what we learned through it.

I want to leave all of you a few more links to look at, with my best wishes, and my hope that all of you, whatever your choices in the past, present or future, feel empowered to seek out what you want and think of yourself and your sex life in ways that make you feel good about yourselves.

written 19 Dec 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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