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Magical Cups & Bloody Brides: Virginity in Context

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Am I still a virgin if I had oral sex, or if someone fingered me?
I haven't had intercourse, so my hymen is still not broken, right?
Can my partner tell if I'm a virgin?
If I am a virgin, will I bleed a lot when I have sex?

A good 25% of all the questions we get at Scarleteen are about issues of virginity.

Most teens -- even though some talk to parents, and many have sex ed at school -- get most of their sexual education from their peers and friends. While talking to your friends is no doubt easier than to a parent or teacher, it also leaves a lot of room for misinformation, especially about something like virginity, about which there are infinite myths that have been floating in the aether for centuries.

What IS virginity, and what does it mean? What is the standard definition?

By the most standard modern-day definition, when people talk about a "virgin," they're talking about someone who has not had sexual intercourse of the penis-and-vagina variety. Throughout global history, and now still, virginity as a concept and ideal has been and usually remains focused on women and women's bodies (and women defined exclusively as person-with-vagina and person-who-is-not-a-man).

Interestingly, the English word for word virgin, however, from the Greek and Latin words for man and woman. It really means "androgyne," a person who is whole unto themselves, or "chaste maiden." In ancient Western times, the virgin huntress icon Diana was a goddess because of her independence, not her subservience or the state of her hymen -- she was on her own by choice, and not owned by any man, nor did she wish to be. However, the more common meaning and implication of the term came to change around the 13th century and derived a sexual, sexist and moralistic meaning, a meaning fairly universal when it comes to concepts of virginity worldwide.

With that change, the word now implied that staying a virgin until marriage guaranteed that a woman would uphold the family honor by passing from father to husband as an object that was owned -- her virginity, her own body, was a thing of value that would be owned by her father, until such time as ownership of her virginity, body and sexuality would be transferred to her husband. Some of the reason for this was to establish a higher "bride price," at a time when marriage was utilized to gain land and a dowry (and a virginal bride was more of a bargaining chip than a real partner in the true sense of the word). Another was that at that time, given the lack of birth control, having strict controls on virginity helped to see to it that there were fewer illegitimate (born outside of marriage) children born.

As may be obvious, none of this has a lot of bearing in our modern world, and there is NO medical definition of virginity. In fact, when you think about it, many aspects of the concept of virginity are downright insulting. It also excludes a whole lot of people from the picture.

The concept of a virgin as someone who hasn't had penis-in-vagina intercourse leaves a lot of people out in the cold. Defining sex as male-to-female intercourse would make a lesbian who has had over one hundred female partners, but no male partners, a virgin. The standard definition of virginity also denotes that a woman is not a fully sexual being until she has made love with a man. Very little of this is positive or empowering, and it leaves a lot of loopholes.

Okay, but if I still buy into virginity, how do I know if I am one? How do -- or did -- people tell if someone was a virgin?

For starters, we have more loopholes with this definition now than we did before. In the Middle Ages, you wouldn't have been able to get around this by saying "I had oral sex, but not intercourse." Rumor traveled fast, and your neighbors (and potential in-laws) would have found out about your liaisons, and what you did and didn't do would have had little relevance: you had been with a man in the Biblical sense, and therefore, were unchaste. Your value -- as a woman and object -- would be lesser.

There were also ridiculous tests done in the past: they may have conducted a urine test, under the notion that a virgin's urine should always be clear and never cloudy. They may have even looked at which way a woman's breasts point, and a virgin's breasts were supposed to point up. In old lore, women may have been given a magic cup to drink from, and those women who attempted to drink from it and were not chaste or faithful to their husbands spilled the wine. Of course, all of these things are fallacy. The color of urine has nothing to do with virginity, and everything to do with health, diet, and hormonal changes. Breast size and shape varies according to body type, shape and muscle and fat tone, and whether or not you spill your wine has to do with if you're a klutz or not -- or how much wine you've been drinking!

All that you can truly tell from all these silly tests -- and whatever modern versions of these myths we hear -- is that it's always been all but impossible to tell if a woman has had sexual intercourse or not. One of the biggest myths about being able to tell if a woman's a virgin that is still commonly accepted is the idea that you can tell if a woman has had intercourse by whether or not her hymen is torn.

The hymen is a thin membrane that was likely just inside the vaginal opening when you were born. Most women are born with hymens, but the hymen doesn't usually completely cover the opening to the vagina. It isn't like a tarp or a blanket, or even the foil seal over the mouth of a brand new bottle of aspirin. The hymen is about as thick as a piece of plastic wrap in most cases -- just a little thin piece of skin, basically, that surrounds the inside of the vaginal opening. What's more, even in women who have never had any sexual contact with anyone at all, not even masturbation, the hymens of women who have at least started puberty almost always always have small holes. Why? Because women menstruate, and because they have normal vaginal fluids, and both menstrual blood and vaginal fluids need to have some way out of the vagina.

Hymens may look any number of ways, from looking like a thin film to looking like a spindly spiderweb. The hymen is not (usually) an impenetrable shield. Even a so-called "intact" hymen doesn't fully block the vaginal opening. It stretches too, and even after being stretched, small folds of the hymen remain around the vaginal opening for the rest of a person's life.

The hymen can be stretched or abraded during intercourse or manual sex (including with female partners), with or without any bleeding. In addition, menstruation and other vaginal discharges, using tampons, general physical activity, masturbation and any number of everyday activities are part of the gradual erosion of the your hymen, and that's absolutely normal, healthy and okay. Most hymens start to slowly wear away over time even just from the hormones in the body. A "broken" or "unbroken" hymen is no more reliable a test of virginity than upturned breasts or the color of your urine.

Okay, but can my partner feel the difference if I'm a virgin? Won't he be able to tell because I bleed?

No and no.

No one can feel the difference, even though a lot of people seem to really wish that was true. Over time, the feel of the inside of your vagina may change due to certain body changes, especially childbirth or aging in much-later life, but the degree of tightness, resilience, springiness, and strength of the vaginal walls depends less on wear and tear to the vagina and more on your own skin and muscle tone and general health as well as on if a woman is sexually aroused or not.

As far as bleeding, some women bleed during their first intercourse. Most do not. According to sexpert Alice at Columbia University, "It is possible, and common, for a woman to be a virgin and not have pain or blood during her first intercourse." Part of this is about whether or not the hymen has worn away or to what degree it has worn away before intercourse, which, if you're in your teens, it most likely has to some degree. But often, it has to do with things like not being aroused and relaxed enough, not using lubricant as needed, not having enough outercourse before intercourse, and/or partners or oneself being too hasty or rough with intercourse.

We can blame much of the myth of the "bloody first time" on the whole issue or virginity, and the pressure put on women to be virgins. In some countries, this "bloodletting" becomes a matter of public display, where the sheets of the marriage bed are shown to the entire neighborhood to prove the worthiness of the wife. That's a lot of pressure, and through history, many women who had not had sex with others, but simply did not bleed (mainly in the case of lower-class women who did not have the luxury of sitting all day like upper-class women, and thus, whose hymens had already at least partially eroded due to normal physical work and activity), have hidden their shame and embarrassment by faking that blood with animal blood, or by cutting themselves. Often their mothers (who knew better from their own experience) would advise new brides to keep blood nearby for just this occasion.

Well, crud. How do I know if I'm a virgin then? Now I don't know WHAT to think!

Suffice it to say, virginity established by heterosexual intercourse (and by such things as intact hymens and bleeding) is a definition that really doesn't work in our modern world, now that we know a lot more about female anatomy than we used to, and never has worked all that well in the past, to boot. Most of us working in the sexuality field don't use that term at all. It's just too faulty, too arbitrary, has too ugly a history and doesn't give us or anyone else any tangible information.

What it means to be a virgin really can only be defined by you, and it has to do with how you define sex and if you even want to use the term virginity at all. For myself, I was raped before I had sexual intercourse I consented to. I didn't consider myself "devirginized" by that attack, and it wasn't a sexual experience for me, and I didn't participate in it. Years later, when I took a partner willingly, and we performed mutual oral sex and petting, I felt I had had my first real, major sexual experience. Some time later, I had intercourse, but I did not consider myself to be a virgin before that time. To me, sex doesn't mean intercourse, and it never has. It means that I (with or without a partner) am pleasuring myself, or being pleasured in a way that makes me feel sexual. That may or may not involve orgasm.

If your parents, other adults or teachers tell you to "stay a virgin," I can basically guarantee you what they DON'T mean is to have every sort of sex except intercourse. Most adults don't define virginity by your hymen or intercourse, as most of us know better. Women are especially less prone to use this definition, because overall, as shown in many sexuality studies, almost two-thirds of women do not experience orgasm from only intercourse (and according to two studies, The Hite Report and Women and Sex, over 80% didn't during first intercourse), but do instead by other kinds of sex (oral sex, masturbation, or mutual masturbation).

When adults talk about sex, they usually aren't talking about a single act, or something as simple as a penis entering your vagina. What they are talking about is an entire part of your life, in which you are sexually active (of any involved sort, like oral sex, heavy petting or intercourse), and emotionally and intellectually involved in that act. In fact, the transitive definition of sex, from the Latin "sexus" truly means "sexually motivated phenomena or behavior." In other words, if you're doing something because you want to get off, or make yourself feel good in a way that relates to your sexuality, it's sex. There is a difference between "sex" and "sexual intercourse" which is why we have separate terms, and while "sex" is very broad, and can include many things, "sexual intercourse" pertains only to one.

Where does all this leave me?

Where it should. Only YOU can define your sexual life. Someone else can't do it for you, and you shouldn't allow anyone else to do so, ever. Virginity shouldn't be something you use to devalue or judge others, or by which you should be judged or devalued. Even if we are treated as such, none of us are objects to be owned; we are whole people who own ourselves as well as our own sexual identity and value. Virginity shouldn't be a symbol of status (unless, that is, you still have a bride price, in which case, you have bigger problems than figuring out what virginity is), or a lack thereof. Sex isn't something that should be used as a bargaining chip for anything, or used to manipulate. If it is, you aren't doing it right, and boy, are you missing out.

Your sexuality is something you will have with you all of your life. It is yours by birth, and it starts developing before you are even born. No one can give it to you, or take it away. How much or how little value you give it is solely up to you. If you can have sex responsibly and safely and feel good about it, it makes you no less or more of a good person or a person of value that someone who feels good about being sexually inactive, abstinent, or celibate. If you feel best being sexually inactive, and like to define yourself as a virgin by whatever definition you have, that's great, too.

But that value has to lie with you -- not with current or potential partners, or with your family or friends. If the only value your sexuality has to you is what others think of it, you may very well find that your sexual life will be very empty, and you'll be apt to let others make choices for you, or influence your choices, in an arena where to be healthy, you need to be making them yourself.

Much of the misinformation, myth and practice surrounding female virginity has been cultivated in times when women could not make their own choices. But those times are past for many women, unless you choose to perpetuate them. Ultimately, it is in your hands, and those of other women right now, to take the initiative to "own" yourself and your sexuality. Whatever way you choose to do so, so long as it feels right to you physically, emotionally and intellectually, and you make your choices responsibly and thoughtfully is the right way. If you do so on your own, and own your own sexuality, by what "virgin" is really supposed to mean, well...you're being the best kind of virgin there is, the kind who is autonomous, and, like the Greek goddess Diana, cannot be owned by anyone and is pure at heart... and that's the place where you CAN tell.

written 29 Jan 2001 . updated 28 Nov 2013

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