Rethinking the birds and the bees

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March 25, 2008

5:32 AM

Ah, spring is in the air. Flowers are blooming, the sun is shining and the birds and the bees are preparing for a little excitement. The Cherry Blossom Festival will soon take place in D.C., and thousands of cherry blooms will be popped. And let’s not forget, it’s the mating season for many animals. Given the time of year, I think it’s apt that we have a little heart-to-heart about the concept of virginity and what it means to American sexual culture.
At first glance, virginity seems like a pretty simple concept: someone has lost his or her virginity if they have participated in vaginal intercourse. There, that’s it. End of column.
But, that isn’t it.

p. In today’s sexual world, there are many other things that come into consideration. For instance, what if you do not identify yourself as heterosexual? If you never have vaginal intercourse in your life, are you still a virgin? Here’s where the whole situation gets muddled. Most gay men would say that their loss of virginity happened when they first had anal sex. Many lesbians would say oral sex is what did it for them. However, some straight couples avoid the loss of virginity by participating in those very acts.
Many middle and high school students (usually heterosexual) take virginity pledges, by which they promise themselves that they will not have vaginal intercourse before marriage. The April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health reports that, while teenagers taking virginity pledges begin having vaginal intercourse later than their peers, the percentage of these teens with STDs is comparable to that of nonpledging teens. How can this be?

p. Well, the 2006 Harvard Journal of Medicine found that 45 percent of girls who signed a Virginity Pledge found ways around vaginal intercourse, including anal and oral sex. But when asked, the girls maintained that they had not broken their pledges.
So, is virginity different for different people, or has the whole concept become outdated? Let’s start with where the idea comes from: Anthropologists believe that it originated in the Neolithic Era, around the time humans started building permanent settlements. It has taken on enormous importance since then. Among other things, it has been an expression of commitment to God, a reliable contraceptive, a system of control, a source of honor and a way of ensuring paternity (and thus avoiding “The Jerry Springer Show”). Since, for many years, sexual acts such as oral and anal sex were considered aberrant behaviors, they were not factored into the definition of virginity.

p. Much emphasis was placed on the idea of “popping of the cherry” — or breaking the hymen. The hymen, also called the maidenhead, is a mucous membrane attached to the vulva, the external female genitalia. When it breaks, there may be some discomfort and blood. There are many rituals associated with the display of fresh blood on a new couple’s sheets as a symbol of the purity of their marriage.

p. Nowadays, however, the hymen is often broken before sexual intercourse. It can be popped as a result of bicycling, horseback riding, masturbation, inserting tampons or any number of other activities. It’s no longer a good litmus test for virginity.
There are other problems with the concept. For instance, if someone is raped, is he or she still a virgin? St. Augustine believed that, so long as no part of that person’s mind consented to the act, their virginity remained intact. But if virginity is to be interpreted in the strictest sense of the word, any form of vaginal intercourse compromises one’s virginity.

p. There has also been a movement of “revirginization,” whereby a person takes a Virginity Pledge from that moment forward, excluding past sexual experiences, even if they were consensual. In addition, there are operations that will surgically alter the hymen so that it seems as if it has never been penetrated, thus allowing a woman to “become a virgin again.”

p. But what about the emotional component to all of this? If you have sex — whatever your definition may be — but don’t feel anything, is your virginity still intact?

p. Or can virginity be compartmentalized, meaning that you can be a vaginal virgin but an anal connoisseur?

p. For all of the questions virginity raises, it seems that there are even more answers that can be supplied. So what’s the use of this concept anyway? Since it can’t be objectively measured, determining what makes someone a virgin can be as vague or precise as one chooses. For my part, I think virginity is overrated (how like a sex columnist). It implies a binary: either you’re a virgin or you’re not. But sexual experience is a spectrum. So as you listen to the birds singing or avoid getting stung by bees, consider what virginity means to you — and maybe pop a few cherry blossoms.

p. Maya Horowitz is the Flat Hat sex columnist. She excitedly awaits the Cherry Blossom Festival.

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