In an effort to be an inclusive and supportive voice in the arena of sexuality, I do a lot of work to temper my feelings on most topics. I write several drafts and attempt to build understanding around the nuance and diverse opinions on a topic. This column is going to look and sound differently because this is a topic that I am not all that interested in finding nuance or supporting all sides. Pardon me while I pull up my soap box.
If you missed it earlier this month a celebrity mentioned on a podcast that he accompanies his daughter (who is now 18) to her yearly gynecological exams. He does this to make sure the doctor determines his daughter’s hymen is still intact, which he uses as evidence that she is still a virgin.
HymenThere is no way to measure virginity.
I’m going to yell this for the folks in the back who may not be listening. THERE IS NO WAY TO MEASURE VIRGINITY.
The hymen is a thin tissue that looks different on different bodies and changes throughout the development of a body. It is a myth that the hymen is intact until intercourse occurs for the first time. It is widely accepted and understood in the medical community that the hymen can be torn by riding a bike, jumping, leaping, and other non-sexual activities. Youth with vulvas are just as horny and hormonally charged as youth with penises. It is completely plausible that a hymen would be torn through masturbation. It is also understood and accepted that in many cases of first sexual intercourse the hymen does not tear.
This means that the hymen is an unreliable and inaccurate measure of virginity.
What is virginity?Virginity is a construct of religions and the patriarchy. A concept that a pure female is somehow better than an active and sexually aware female. The measure of virginity is absolute in its sexism because male bodies do not have a physical determinant of virginity. Despite debunking the effectiveness of the physical exam of a female’s hymen, the practice remains to label and shame female bodies. Society expects penis owners to share honestly their sexual status with an unrealistic pressure to have had sex early and often (see my earlier column We need to teach heterosexual, cisgender men about sex). In the same breath, society wants all female bodies to be sexual and pure, which can not be self-determined but only labeled by Men.
Hymen owners are not to be trusted! They must be checked! They must be pure! When purity is tarnished the value of the entire being is lowered. Can we just stop and think about how ludicrous this sounds?
Virginity exams are a farce and only propagate the cultural lie that virginity is somehow the holy grail of sexuality. Much like the overselling that an orgasm is required for every sexual encounter. These lies help to suppress pleasure, safe sexual experiences, and sexual empowerment for all bodies.
None of this should matter because hymen owners should be able to be as sexual or non-sexual as they want. We shouldn’t have to have these discussions over and over, and yet, here we are again. Debating what one group of people should do with their bodies while others are not held to anything remotely comparable – Kavanaugh, Weinstein, Trump are a small sampling of aggrieved men who are targeted because they are/were doing what boys do.
Meanwhile, female bodies are told to be sexy but not too sexy. Be hot but not slutty. Be turned on whenever he wants it but don’t have too many partners. Be adventurous in bed but don’t be assertive outside the bedroom. Be pure until they take you.
My outrage at this story stems from the constant subjugation of female bodies and the forced binary discussion that follows. Imagine if your body does not fit neatly into male or female or your definition of sex does not include penetration. How are you supposed to reconcile your body and your sexuality in a world that constantly ignores you? Not to mention the countless lives lost due to hate that led to murder or suicide.
What to do instead: Communicate! So you, as a parent, want your child to not have sex until marriage. Or you want them to wait until they are 18, 25, 33 years old. Fine. Tell them that. Communicate your values, your beliefs, your religious doctrine, your fears, your history, your bad experiences, your opinions! There is no law preventing you from espousing your values on your children; and as a sex educator, I regularly tell parents to be the teacher of values.
Do not, however, take these values and force them physically on a child. I can think of nothing more horrific than unnecessary medical procedures to shame, belittle, or scare a child about sex. This applies to circumcision of penises, too (more on this later*).
Communication! Thoughtful, respectful, informed, and honest communication will go much further with kids and teens than invasive doctor appointments. Ongoing discussions about bodies, health, sexual behaviors, consent, and relationships is how we, as parents, create a safer, more empowered generation of sexual beings.
I much prefer taking action to create change rather than yelling into the ether. Sometimes yelling is warranted and when voices are raised together change can occur. I am not the only person to respond to this practice of measuring virginity by hymen status or the bigger discussion to dismantle virginity all together.
It is heartening to see and hear a diverse number of voices raised in a battle cry to end this archaic and sexist practice. To see female bodies as more than receptacles for the pleasure of penises. To celebrate sexuality by how an individual defines their needs and desires rather than via a goal to not be a virgin. Letting go of beliefs that do more harm than good is part of social evolution and we need parents to talk to their kids in order to lead that evolution.
Need help starting these conversations? I regularly offer workshops for parents on how to talk to their kids about sex. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
*A note on circumcisionCircumcision is most frequently done for religious reasons. I advocate for the complete cessation of circumcision on infant penises. When a person turns 18 and wants to have circumcision done for any reason, fine.
Erin Brandt (she/her/hers) has been a sexologist for 15 years. When she’s not spreading sexual knowledge, Erin can be found learning from her child, hiking with her partner, cuddling with her pitbull, knitting with her cat, dancing with friends, and searching for the nearest hammock and ocean breeze. Want more? Visit www.positivesexed.com