PURITY CULTURE: WHAT IT MEANS & WHY IT NEEDS TO GO

Guest Written by Xenia E. (she/her), a freelance sex and mental health writer. Xenia focuses on sex work, LGBTQIA+ issues, menstrual equity, gender, and trauma. She holds a BA in writing from The New School. Follow her on Twitter @_xeniae!

It’s impossible to gauge whether someone is a virgin by looking at their hymen.

What were you taught about virginity? Probably something along the lines of the following: a woman has a hymen which breaks when she loses her virginity. And the hymen is the only veritable way to measure if virginity is still intact.

Ready for a plot twist? What you’ve been taught about virginity is a myth. The virginity myth was constructed to uphold patriarchal, puritanical, and religious standards. Also? Using the hymen as a barometer to measure virginity is just plain wrong, anatomically speaking.

Jonathan Schaffir, MD, OB/GYN at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, explains that one of the myths around the hymen is that it is this penetrable barrier of flesh that covers the entire vaginal opening. Hence, the myth about it breaking and resulting in blood when someone loses their virginity makes sense, right? Schaffir dismantles this myth; the hymen is actually quite malleable.

Hymens also look different for everyone. Instead of being breakable like, say, a piece of tin foil, the hymen is more elastic. Because they don’t magically “pop” upon penetrative sex, it’s impossible to gauge whether someone is a virgin by looking at their hymen.

QUICK LINKS:

  1. Why the Patriarchy Values Virginity
  2. What is Purity Culture?
  3. The Language of Purity Culture
  4. Defining Virginity
  5. Myths About Virginity

Why the Patriarchy Values Virginity

Historically, the myth relayed is that hymens break, which signifies the end of virginity— but have you ever considered why there’s no marker to tell if a man is a virgin? Let’s make one thing clear: the emphasis behind virginity myths has always been to control and police women’s bodies, never to foster or indicate healthy sexual development.

Virginity is not a medical phrase but a societal construct.

The virginity myth relies on medical inaccuracy because it’s near-impossible to ascertain if someone is a virgin by what’s between their legs. When a “woman” loses her virginity, she’s seen as impure or of cheapened value (again, this isn’t the same for when a man becomes sexually active.) In some cultures, women are murdered for not proving their virginity because they are then seen as damaged.

Virginity myths perpetuate violence. Certain cultures use blood on the sheets after a wedding night as a sign that virginity is lost. Some cultures go so far as to inspect the sheets for blood after the wedding night as a marker that the bride was, in fact, a virgin. But blood on the sheets might sooner indicate sexual trauma than a broken hymen, as we’ve learned hymens are quite stretchy.

In earlier patriarchal societies, the virginity myth functioned as a way to secure wealth in families. If women could be scared into abstaining from sex by the threat of a permanent physical marker, they were more likely to stay a virgin and keep the lineage “pure.” The myth works to uphold patriarchy and scare women.

Purity Culture Has Got to Go

What is purity culture? It’s usually valued by white Evangelical Christians and teaches that you are to stay sexless until marriage. You might pledge your virginity with purity rings or at purity balls to show your devotion to remaining a virgin until marriage.

Purity culture upholds cis heteronormative values such as women being responsible for the sexual thoughts and choices that men make. It also teaches that heterosexual desire is the only normal form of desire. Purity culture is fear and shame-based because it emphasizes that virgins are pure; loss of virginity before marriage makes one tarnished.

We live in a society that praises virginity and says that women are more valuable as virgins. If you’re looking for a metric on this, you might explore how women auction off their virginities for inordinate sums of money. Virgins are seen as “pure,” innocent, and coveted. Our culture demonizes women for being anything but the former (consider any of the hosts of slurs meant to shame women for being sexually active and how there is no male equivalent slur.)

Language Matters

Language around “losing” virginity breeds unhealthy attitudes toward sexual development. We are taught that someone loses their virginity rather than wins or gains anything valuable. Consider any other term about becoming sexually active: “deflowering” or “popping your cherry” both imply the loss of something precious that you won’t be able to get back.

Your value is not dependent on whether you are or are not sexually active.

Verbiage around hymens might induce fear, anxiety, and the idea that P-V (penis in vagina) sex will hurt. The myth is that you’ll bleed when your hymen “breaks,” so it would make sense that if you’re taught about something inside of you breaking and bleeding, you might expect penetrative sex to be excruciating. In reality, ample foreplay and lubrication would facilitate a better experience; unfortunately, foreplay is rarely taught in sex ed.

You Get to Define Your First Time

How we define “losing virginity” is utterly dependent on how we define what counts as sex.

What is sex? You were most likely taught some iteration of cis-hetero norms like P-V intercourse is the only way to have sex. These antiquated teachings exclude a spectrum of queer identities. If the only way to lose your virginity is from P-V sex, does that make queer sexually active folks all virgins?

In reality, sex looks and feels different for everyone. For some, it might involve penetrative sex. Sex can also include oral, anal, clitoral stimulation, toys, and an array of other activities. You get to define what sex is, regardless of which genitals are involved, even if there’s no penetration at all.

Changing the Script

Your value is not dependent on whether you are or are not sexually active. And when you become sexually active, there’s no physical marker that might make people know this. As Schaffir points out, the only way to tell if someone is a virgin? Ask them.

To right the wrongs of virginity myths once more:

  • Your hymen is not indicative of whether you are or are not a virgin
  • You probably won’t bleed the first time, if you’re warmed up
  • Your virginity does not determine your worth
  • Marriage doesn’t mean you are ready for sex; only you know that
  • The right time is when you decide you’re ready
  • P-V sex is not the only way to have sex
  • You get to decide what counts as your first time

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Further Readings:

The Flaw at the Center of Purity Culture: The Atlantic
How Purity Culture Enables Rape Culture: Medium
How to Heal from Purity Culture: Autostraddle

WITH PLEASURE,

LOVERS