#1 Virginity is a social construct that has no evidence to support it.

A social construct, simply put, is an idea that has been given meaning but does not have any supporting evidence. For example, associating the color blue with boys and pink with girls is a social construct. Colors have no gender and, therefore, associating them with gender is how our society has given meaning to these colors, without any evidence to support it.

In human development, there is no biological or scientific evidence to support virginity as a phase or time period in our lives because there is no act or instance that determines whether or not someone is a virgin, since having sex is a universal experience and historically virginity has been used to control and exploit women.

#2 Virginity perpetuates double standards and heteronormativity.

While definitions of virginity vary, probably the most popularly accepted understanding is that one loses their virginity upon experiencing penetrative penile-vaginal sex. Three issues that immediately come to mind are the perpetuation of a gendered double standard, queer erasure, and how this understanding limits sexual diversity. Let’s break those down.

Gendered Double Standards

While across many cultures the abstention from sex is valued, it is generally more valued for young women. In fact, some groups that value virginity in women encourage their young boys to engage in sexual activity as part of the development of their manhood. This can create unequal power dynamics within relationships where men have more experience than their women partners and are seen as the authority on sexual matters, often to the detriment of the women. This dynamic can lead to women not feeling comfortable advocating for their needs related to contraception, barrier method use, pleasure, and even discomfort, pain, and disinterest.

Heteronormativity and queer erasure

If virginity is lost through penile-vaginal penetration, it elevates this act to a limited and generic definition of sex. A major issue with this is that not everyone pairs with partners who have the body parts for penile-vaginal penetration. Two people with penises have no vagina to penetrate and two people with vaginas might have a number of things with which to penetrate, but not a penis. Virginity, when defined as abstaining from penile-vaginal sex, erases the experiences of those who engage in other sexual activities. It also erases experiences of those with micropenises who cannot penetrate or those with vaginismus, shallow vaginas, or anyone who does not wish to be penetrated.

Sexual diversity

Sex is such a diverse array of activities. Limiting that variety to such a specific act does a disservice to us all. When it comes to seeking intimate experiences with a partner, P-in-V definitions not only exclude individuals who engage in other sexual activities but it also ignores individuals who see intimacy and connection as more expansive. For some, the most intimate act might be kissing, oral sex, fingering while eye gazing, mutual masturbation, bathing a partner while they have an energetic orgasm, or some other activity. Others may define their sexual experiences by the pleasure it creates or how they personally feel within a sexual interaction. The sky’s the limit as long as we don’t continue to arbitrarily impose expectations.

#3 Virginity has harmful effects within our society.

If women are supposed to remain virginal and men are supposed to have sex with women to gain experience, who are these women and what value do they hold in society? Often, women who have sex outside of their society’s expectations are likely to experience discrimination and shunning, creating a morally-based lower class.

While virginal women are seen as pure and are to be morally accepted, the consequence of this view impacts how women view themselves and how they believe they are perceived. Women may feel pressured to maintain their virginity and that it is their only way to “earn” a lifelong mate. Unfortunately, some women may feel as if their worth and identity are attached to their virginal status and therefore may find alternative ways to seek approval. Women might engage in behaviors outside penile-vaginal sex, such as anal sex or oral sex, to maintain their virginal status.

Women might also go through great lengths to prove their purity. In some cultures, women undergo routine virginity checks or female genital cutting (or mutilation) to prevent them from engaging in sex and/or experiencing pleasure from sex (other reasons include cultural aesthetics, right of passage, etc.). Some women have surgeries to rebuild their hymen and in the worst cases, women are punished for engaging in sexual activities that bring disgrace to their families, even to the extent of losing their lives as part of honor killings.

How do we shape a new social construct regarding virginity?

We throw it out altogether. One way to do that is to change the language used around initial sexual experiences. Virginity, whether you see it as something to keep or get rid of, is defined by the loss of something. An alternative to consider is a “sexual debut.” By centering the idea of a debut, we then view engaging in sexual activity as a new beginning with further exploration to come. There is no specific definition of what counts as a sexual debut, thus allowing individuals to define it for themselves. Each individual and their needs are centered to create experiences that feel safe and validating for them and their partners (or themselves should individuals choose to define solo masturbation as their sexual debut).

Contributors Ashley Townes and Yael R. Rosenstock Gonzalez co-wrote this blog. For more information, check out their live Instagram chat about virginity.