30 April 2010

Virginity! Turns out, it's an utterly stupid way to conceptualize sex. Who knew?

Disclaimer: This post is about sex. Specifically, my own sexual experiences. If you know me and don't want to read about that, no more reading for you.

Amanda and Sady had a conversation about virginity over at The Sexist today, and it illustrated how very useless the concept of virginity is in describing how sex is actually experienced by actual young women:
AMANDA: Oh wonderful! Well I’m personally excited to commence Rethinking Virginity … out of existence! For it has never really worked for me.

SADY: Oh, no? Please do detail the manner in which it failed to work!

AMANDA: “Failed to work” may actually be the operative term here? Because if someone were to ask me When I Lost My Virginity, they would then be subjected to a series of stories about Those Times It Almost Went In, But Didn’t. I tried REALLY HARD to lose my virginity! I was like, Out, Out, Damned Virginity! But it just … it just didn’t work. Physically. For a long time. And now I don’t fucking know/remember when it happened. It was late.

SADY: Right. The definitive moment at which you become an Anti-Virgin is hard to peg! In fact! And, honestly, gives too much credit to the first person to definitively Stick It In. Like, it’s not like no-one has visited these territories before! Those dudes are like Christopher Columbus. They, like, Claim This Land for Spain, but fail to notice all the people who were already there. Uh. Sort of.
FRIENDS. I have had this experience before: Person X asks me at what age I Lost My Virginity. I ask what they mean by that. They answer, when you First Had Sex, of course. I ask what they mean by sex. They get irritated with me, because the type of person to ask you when you Lost Your Virginity is the kind of person who thinks that the process is simple and straightforward, like getting your driver's license. And it may have been simple and straightforward for some ladies, but it was not for me. I could honestly answer 15, 16, and 19 to that question. But, as Amanda points out, when your experiences don't match up with the traditional Virgin to Not-Virgin narrative, you tend to just make up an answer to those sorts of questions:
AMANDA: RIGHT. (?) And everyone pretends it’s this really objective moment that’s defined from the outside, but I’ve found for most people you just have to Decide when it is, and pretend that that time syncs up with whatever everyone else is talking about. I count myself as lucky to not have a very intimate relationship with Virginity and Non-Virginity, though. Fuck that noise.
There's something kind of attractive in Deciding your own answer to those questions, like you have a say in deciding what Virginity means. But as Amanda makes clear, Deciding also means "pretend[ing] that that time syncs up with whatever everyone else is talking about." Which means that if I answer any age (even one I just make up, or the age at which I thought I knew what I was doing sex-wise, or one at which I felt comfortable with having sex, or whatever) to the When Did You Go From Virgin to Not-Virgin question, I'm still participating in the creation of a narrative that has nothing to do with my own experience of sex. Excessively long quote time!
Sady: [...]But what I had NEVER been taught, apparently, was how to respect what I wanted, and to ask for it, and how to say “no” if I did NOT want something he wanted. I mean, I didn’t even know how to say “ow” or “yikes.” My impression was that one could Have Sex or Not Have Sex, and so my first few experiences were like, “oh, so apparently sex is AWFUL? It seems weird that people are so into it! But, OK! I am Having Sex!”


Amanda: Right. And I think it goes back to what we were talking about before, which is: Sex being defined as this very heterosexual experience of having a Penile Apparatus stuck into our Vaginal Apparatus in an Act That Could Potentially Produce Offspring (if you don’t make his weiner wear an outfit, or whatever). Like, OK: There are a lot of things that are pretty darn sexual, which this description of Sex does not cover! And I am struggling to say this without sounding like some kind of creepy Tantric sex instructor, but: If you’re like, “OK. So somebody is going to stick that into the other thing, and then you will Have Had Sex,” you’re missing out on (a) much of what makes sex fun or enjoyable, (b) much of the potential complications, and (c) the fact that sex, ideally, should not be some sort of terrifying Bene Gesserit test of fortitude? Like, that thing where they stick Kyle McLachlan’s hand in the box and are like, “WITHSTAND THE PAIN OR DIE” so he can’t take his hand out or the space nun will kill him instantly: Sex should, ideally, have little or nothing in common with this experience. Why can’t we all just enjoy ourselves? By, like, respecting what feels good and what doesn’t?

AMANDA: Right! And I’ll add that making the definition of “sex” “Penile Apparatus stuck into our Vaginal Apparatus in an Act That Could Potentially Produce Offspring” also includes “rape” as a thing that is “sex,” and so perhaps we should move toward a definition that includes shit that people want to do, and also expels the word Virginity from existence, because it doesn’t mean anything and it’s stupid.


SADY: [...] I mean, I would classify several of my experiences, especially early experiences, in the “consensual but not okay” zone of sexual activity. Not to make this a big downer of a chat. But, the idea of Sex or Not Sex means that sometimes you don’t say “no” because you don’t totally have it in your mind that you CAN say “no,” because you don’t have any idea in your mind that Sex is not just one big package that you are either OK or not OK with. So, like: You go along with it, and you even say “yes,” so there is consent although it’s not enthusiastic, but that is in large part because Boundaries are not really a part of the understanding you have of Sex. Or maybe that is just me! Maybe I am just a people-pleaser! But I don’t think I am! Because I please very few people, really, on a daily basis.
THIS. This so much. The problem with the concept of Virginity is that it proceeds from this very heterosexist, limited definition of Sex, a definition that not only covers rape, but doesn't match up to how actual people experience actual sex. Even for heterosexual people, Sex includes more than just "insert penis in vagina." And when we use this definition to say Don't Have Sex, we're being neglectful. People need to be encouraged to to be okay with saying "ow" or "yikes" or "I'm not comfortable with this thing we're doing, how about we try something else?" in addition to just plain "no." And people need to be encouraged to accept and respond appropriately to those things from their partners. Because, when I was in high school (where my school apparently solved the sex ed problem by not having it at all), there was this understanding that if you consented to some things (beyond a certain point), you consented to all things. If you said to your boyfriend, for example, that you wanted to Have Sex, that meant you didn't get to pick and choose what parts of Sex you wanted to do. Well, you could, but he might get all pissy with you, like you lied or something. Which leads dangerously into the "consensual but not okay" territory, or even rape territory.

The slow process that I went through tended to be less traumatic than my friends' experiences of Sex in high school. My boyfriend was non-communicative about sex, but totally intimidated by me, so while I still had the "consensual but not okay" experience, I at least didn't feel like consenting to some Sex things meant consenting to all Sex things. Which is not to say that my first sexual experiences were great or even pleasurable, just that they WEREN'T AWFUL. And I count myself lucky that they weren't awful. Which is fucked up? Is awful really an ideal baseline for first sexual encounters? We should expect women to enjoy sex. And the only way to do that is to value female pleasure and emphasize consent in sex education (and in everything else).

Tomorrow: Doctor Who and cosplay and race! Because this is the blog where we TALK ABOUT DOCTOR WHO ALL THE TIME.


Anonymous said...

I'm still participating in the creation of a narrative that has nothing to do with my own experience of sex.

Yes! Hell, that happened to me JUST LAST NIGHT, in a conversation with someone who seemed to have a more, uh, heteronormative take on things. And I just kind of went "mm yeah" and waited for the subject to change because I felt like I couldn't explain that my own experiences differ without it potentially getting awkward. I like that she felt comfortable talking about her own sexual experiences. Seriously, hooray for that. But I felt like my own contribution was limited by some basic assumptions, and that's something I see playing out again and again.

Momo Berry said...

It wasn't just your high school. Mine was (and probably still is) the very same way - you consent to one kind of sex and all of a sudden it's assumed that your boyfriend can go ahead and do whatever he wants without consulting you first. Not cool at all.

I always viewed my virginity as something I just wanted to get rid of, and get out of the way - but I never thought about what virginity actually is. For a while I thought that, for a woman, it was her losing her hymen - but there are so many ways that can happen that AREN'T sexual. Then I figured, well, PIV sex for the first time. But the more I think about it, virginity is, to me, a ridiculous concept I should never have wasted my time thinking about. Thanks for this post, it was really interesting.

Liz said...

You know I think this is a really important concept, because although my first P in V encounter wasn't pleasurable because it did hurt, it wasn't unpleasant, because my virgin boyfriend and I were just like... well whatever... lets see if we can work out the mechanics of this... and it ended up being fun.

That being said, I think there is a certain dialogue about The First Time being a certain way: if a comedy, its short, if its a romantic movie its magical. But its always SOMETHING and I think that has turned The First Time into this epic thing that MUST MUST MUST be something. For most people I know, it wasn't.

Which is why P in V (heterosexism aside) has become to be the defining moment for virginity. Because for most of us, the entrance into our sexual lives is a slow progression. Very few people go from total abstinence (no orgasms ever) to sexually active, but we're still be fed this narrative that we need to cross some big epic threshold into sexual adulthood, when its simply not how most people do it. And yet the establishment or whatever still clings to this notion because it is still a way to police people's (largely, women people's) behavior.

Great post.

Fin said...

love this post and the original conversation. nine (from above) pointed me here, and i'm glad. i can totally relate to the various ages for various acts. in fact, because i'm queer, i have even more - the age i tend to pick for people's handy "what age" question is 18, but that's the first time i had sex with a woman; there was plenty of sexual stuff going on as far back as 15, and the first time i had heteronormative, PIV sex was actually 21. so confusing! but so freeing, in some ways, and i've had a lot of good conversations about what actually constitutes "sex" as a result.

also, i'm a liberal, queer feminist who lived in del rio for three years. boy, can i relate to your quandary. i do miss taco cabana though...nice to meet you.

Courtney said...

Thanks ladies!

Good to meet you, too, Lindsay! Also, I just found out they don't do breakfast tacos in non-Southern states, and it made me super-sad about ever moving. For the first time ever. :)

Fin said...

oh man, they don't. it's so sad. like, chorizo? or green tomatillo? they know not. and if you're a whataburger fan, stock up.