(Trigger Warning: Assault, Sexual Trauma)
When I was in eighth grade at my co-ed Catholic school in Ohio, my religion/health teacher taught us about the concept of virginity in a way I will never forget. She picked a handful of students to stand in a horizontal line at the front of the classroom and gave each of them a small cup of water.
“Take a sip and swish it around in your mouth like you are at the dentist,” my teacher told them.
Looking confused, my peers did as they were told. While they completed this task, my teacher came around with the trash can and had them each dispose of their small paper cups. Then, she pulled out a larger cup and handed it to the first student in line.
“Spit your water into this cup and then pass it to the next student.”
So, they did. One by one, each kid spit their water into the cup and then handed it to the next kid until it reached the end. My teacher then took the cup of mixed backwash and told the students to sit back down.
“Now,” she said as she presented the cup to the class, “who would like to take a sip from this cup?”
Immediately, the class had faces of shock and disgust. Then, everyone erupted into shouts.
“Gross! Who wants to drink that?”
My teacher looked pleased with herself. “Exactly,” she said. “The cup became dirtier and dirtier as it went down the line. All it took was one person to taint the cleanliness of the cup. Now, no one wants to drink from it.”
She went on to make it abundantly clear that our bodies would be like the cup if we didn’t save ourselves for marriage, as man and woman are intended to do. How could we expect our future husband or wife to have to deal with something so dirty? Instead, we need to save ourselves, and only once we are bound in holy matrimony under the eyes of God can we procreate — the true reason for intercourse in the church.
Just as my teacher did all those years ago, most discussions about virginity are limited to cisgender, heterosexual intercourse that upholds archaic ideology. In other words, one can only lose their virginity once they have penetrative PIV (penis in vagina) sex.
For most straight, cisgender people, this is how they would define virginity. For myself and other members of LGBTQIA+ communities, however, virginity is much more complex.
Historically, the concept of virginity has been around for thousands of years with the sole purpose of determining a woman’s worth and ownership. When a woman’s father “gave her away” to her husband, her virginity was a way to ensure her purity and that any future children would be the offspring of the newly wedded couple.
Oftentimes, virginity is attributed to Christianity and Mariology, or the theological study of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is praised for her devotion to God and her virginal purity — Catholics believe that Mary was a virgin impregnated by the will of God. As a result, her virginal status is something that has been popularized and adored throughout history.
In the past, and even in certain places today, a woman’s virginity was “tested” through a variety of ways. Oftentimes, these practices are painful and traumatizing, and the World Health Organization has stated that this testing is, “a violation of the victim’s human rights.”
The Indonesian Army recently made headlines about potentially ending their virginity testing for women recruits. Like the Indonesian Army and many others who “test” virginal status, they assume a woman has “lost” her virginity when her hymen breaks (never mind that many people’s hymens break long before they have intercourse). Since cis men don’t have an equivalent form of “measurement,” their virginity has not been as frequently or intimately monitored.
In reality, virginity is a social construct that has been used to enforce patriarchal ideas. It has no basis in science or medical communities and has been clearly linked to gender discrimination and violence by the United Nations. Despite this, virginity is still something that is commonly valued in society, depending on a person’s gender.
While men are often praised for their sexual conquests while made to feel ashamed for prolonged virginity, women who do the same are labeled in demeaning ways that place value on their “purity.”
Since virginity is a social construct, it is open to interpretation and change. Many in LGBTQIA+ communities have altered their definitions of virginity to match their lived experiences.
Sammy Motes (she/her), a queer, cisgender social worker from Cleveland, Ohio, has worked with LGBTQIA+ communities in sex education for several years. Through the LGBT Center at Cleveland State University and Jewish Family Services, Motes has educated queer teens and adults about everything from safe sex practices to kink to recognizing signs of abuse. Even with her experience, Motes agrees that the concept of virginity can be a difficult one to pin down.
“I don’t know if I have a solid definition,” Motes told me recently during an interview. “We’re taught that virginity is equated to penetration of penis in vagina in cishetero relationships. When you think about queerness, you can have virginity for anything. Once you start to break down what you think sex is and what sex isn’t, it really broadens what virginity is.”
Motes and I graduated together from the same all-girls Catholic high school, and reminisced about the ways this type of education failed us as members of LGBTQIA+ communities. After high school, Motes said her definition of virginity, “evolved to be more diverse and inclusive.”
Trying to summarize her feelings and experiences, Motes said she would best define virginity as, “a culmination of experiences or feelings that relate to vulnerability and intimacy that we want to have with others.”
This definition, she says, “has created a better understanding of people and not such a narrow view of the world.”
Virginity can be a very intimate concept fueled by personalized definitions that, like us, grow and develop over time.
Below are five definitions for virginity that some members of LGBTQIA+ communities use to reclaim their sexuality.
I define virginity as having not yet participated in a consensual sexual act involving one or both/all participants’ genitalia.
– Bisexual (attracted to my own and other genders) cis female
Personally, I define my virginity around penetration, top or bottom. But I also do not really care how other people choose to describe it for themselves.
– AMAB (assigned male at birth) gender queer bisexual
I would define it as more of a social/borderline religious construct referring to having sex. Since there’s not one definition of sex, and it differs based on the individual and their identity/experiences, I think it can be kind of difficult to define virginity. I think it’s very subjective, but I would say it means that you have never had sex with another person, and this sex is not exclusive to penetration. This sex is any way that you sexually pleasure another person.
– Bisexual/pansexual(?) female
The first time you had sex.
I would define virginity as the time before first having sexual intimacy with someone. It’s not something particularly valuable or essential to the essence of a person, just a social milestone.
– Polyqueer female
While there’s certainly power in claiming truth based on your lived experience, it’s also important to recognize the damage that traditional definitions of virginity can cause.
For survivors of sexual trauma, virginity can be a difficult concept to reconcile, especially when outdated versions of the word prioritize “purity.”
“I think the way that virginity is perceived, it’s really hard for people when they don’t lose it by consent,” said Motes. “I wish there wasn’t so much emphasis on this thing socially so that you don’t feel like, when something like that happens to you, that you missed an opportunity.”
Because LGBT people are nearly 4 times more likely to experience violent crime than non-LGBT people, it’s vital to emphasize that virginity is a man-made concept founded in patriarchal ideas that have no actual bearing on a person’s self-worth.
At the end of the day, your sexual experience is yours to define. Whether or not you relate to one of the above definitions, make sure you have your own.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Gill Platek (they/them) is currently the Storytelling Media Organizer at the GSA Network. Before that, they received their Master’s in Education from The Ohio State University and taught in Chicago. Their work has been published in Xtra Magazine, Parents Magazine, and Liberal Currents.