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Like a Virgin

A naked young woman with small breasts and narrow hips dangles a bunch of cherries between her open thighs. “Pussies this fresh and tight don’t come along every day,” says the text beneath her photo. “It’s a miracle a girl as hot as Lily has made it to 18 untouched. Watch as her lucky boyfriend tenderly reveals her sweet, pink cherry before taking his time popping it.” The creepiest thing about BreakHerHymen and other “virgin porn” sites is how familiar the images and language are to anyone who’s been subjected to the new wave of abstinence education materials currently in circulation. Add clothes and cut the obscenities and you could be looking at any one of a growing number of save-yourself-for-marriage sites aimed at teens.

The porn sites tell us that virgins are precious, rare and worth 30 bucks a month; Christian sex-ed tells us that virgins are precious, rare and worth “a price far above rubies”. The porn sites show teasers of their “virgin girls”, starting with breast-flashing and becoming more revealing over weeks or months leading to the “event” itself; abstinence education sites sell T-shirts bearing slogans like “I’m sexy enough to keep you waiting.” Virgin porn is obsessively focused on whether young women’s vaginas have been penetrated; a great deal of religious-based discussion obsesses over exactly the same thing. However, while pornographers and abstinence cheerleaders may produce the most extreme examples of virginity fetishism, they didn’t create it and they aren’t alone in perpetuating it. The fetishisation of female virginity is older than sin and more widespread than any religion.

Consider Tony Abbott’s remarks about virginity quoted in the January issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly: “[What] I would say to my daughters if they were to ask me this question, I would say … it is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that is what I would say.” Many people blanched at the use of the word “gift”, but the idea that sex shouldn’t be entered into lightly was uncontroversial. Commentators – from fellow Catholics to secular feminists – defended Abbott, arguing that it was perfectly natural for a father to give such advice to his daughters. “What’s Tony supposed to tell his girls?” asked Jess McGuire of the decidedly non-conservative blog Defamer. “‘Have completely unpleasant intercourse with the first meat-head footballer who shouts you a few drinks with my blessing’?”

Boys are not taught to think of themselves or their virginity as something to be offered up, unwrapped and enjoyed.

But Abbott needn’t have brought his daughters into it. He could have responded with generalities or with reference to his own experiences – or he could have declined to answer at all. If pushed to reveal his specifically fatherly advice, he could have said that discussing his daughters’ potential sex lives with a national magazine would be inappropriate. But he didn’t, and while what he said tells us something about Tony Abbott, the ease with which so many people accepted the public nature of his comments tells us that our society still views the virginity of young women as an acceptable topic of public discussion.

We can’t know whether Abbott’s comments would be the same if he had sons instead of daughters, but it’s a reasonable bet to say his language, if not his central message, would have been different. Boys are rarely told that their virginity is a gift, or indeed that their sexuality is about “giving” something to another person – lightly or not. Boys “get laid”, “get lucky”, “get some”. They “take a girl’s virginity”, “take advantage”; if they’re thoughtful, they “take their time”. Boys are not taught to think of themselves or their virginity as something to be offered up, unwrapped and enjoyed.

While the virginity of men has never mattered very much outside specific religious contexts, the virginity of women has long been used to determine their social worth and their marriage (and therefore economic) prospects. Since a woman’s testimony has never been considered enough when it comes to her virginity, various notions and methods of ‘proof ’ have been devised over the past couple of millennia, the most common being evidence of the spilling of blood when a woman’s vagina is penetrated. Lack of blood (common, given that many women don’t bleed the first time they have penetrative sex) has been reason for suspicion – if not outright conviction – about a sexual history, and has led to shaming, shunning and, in some cases, murder. The belief that virgins always bleed is still remarkably prevalent, as is the idea that sexually active women lie about what they’ve been up to. As a result, there’s a more or less constant stream of rumours and baseless scandals about girls who do “everything but, including up the butt” in order to keep their hymens intact. After years of writing and reading in this area, and of speaking to and corresponding with teenage girls, I can confidently say that “technical virginity” as a widespread practice is an urban myth.

Undoubtedly there are some young women who, due to cultural or religious pressure to produce that magical blood-spot on the wedding night, avoid vaginal penetration while enjoying other activities, but these women aren’t kidding themselves that they’re virgins. For these women, preservation of the hymen is a matter of social, and occasionally literal, survival and so they do what they have to. (One of the options available to women under such pressure is hymenoplasty, in which a surgeon uses remnants of the hymen or tissue from the vaginal wall to create a “new hymen” that will break and bleed during intercourse. In France, there has reportedly been an increase in demand for hymenoplasty after a French court annulled the marriage of a Muslim couple on the grounds of “breach of contract” because the bride had claimed to be a virgin, but was not.)

Kelly†, a 17-year-old from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, scoffs at the idea that an intact hymen is proof of virginity. “Everybody knows hymens can break from all kinds of things. It doesn’t mean anything. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m a virgin, and having a doctor say ‘Oh yes, you’re still sealed up’ wouldn’t make a difference to that.” Kelly and her friends talk about virginity “all the time. We have different opinions about what counts. Most of us have done stuff that’s not … not the thing that’ll get you pregnant, but you wouldn’t want your dad to walk in, you know? It’s a matter of opinion, I guess. One of our friends got raped, but she says she’s a virgin. I think that’s OK. I think it’s up to each person to say whether they still feel like a virgin or not.”

I tell Kelly that back in the fourth century, Augustine argued that there existed spiritual as well as physical virginity, and that while ideally the two would coexist, in some circumstances – rape, for example – one would remain a spiritual virgin despite the forcible loss of the physical virginity. If rape could end virginity, he reasoned, then virginity was never a virtue of the soul to begin with. “Exactly,” she responds. “Not that I think it’s a virtue or whatever, but it’s not just physical. I think if you were to do it when you were totally drunk and couldn’t remember, well, that doesn’t count because it’s just something that happened to your body. Your mind has to be in it, too. It has to be a conscious decision.”

Asked whether she thinks most people share her definition of virginity, Kelly shrugs and says: “I think most people my age do. Except the churchy kids; they have their own weird rules. But even some of them … A girl I know did that pledge thing [a ceremony in which teenagers stand in front of their Church and pledge sexual abstinence until marriage] but I know for a fact she’s had sex, because she did it with one of my friends and he’s not the type to lie … I don’t judge her. If my family and everyone were there watching and expecting me to [take the pledge] I probably would. It’s not anyone else’s business, so I don’t think you should feel bad about lying in that case.”

“She told us to imagine if on our wedding night the handprints of every man who’d ever touched us appeared on our bodies – how ashamed we’d be for our husband to see these dirty handprints all over us.”

To those with a more traditional definition of virginity, the way Kelly talks about it may seem so liberal as to slip into meaninglessness, but her view is an increasingly common one. Rachel Hills, a writer and social researcher at the University of New South Wales, is currently conducting research into sex, status and identity among members of Generation Y. “Virginity is a very confused term,” she says. “The standard definition is ‘penis in vagina’ … but not only is this an exclusively heterosexual definition, it also presumes a smooth transition from virgin to non-virgin when that’s not what most people experience. For most young people, it’s more productive and less angst-producing to think of virginity loss as a process of discovery rather than one great defining moment.”

Kelly’s friend Marie is yet to embark on that particular process of discovery. Marie is the only one in her group of friends who will say definitively whether she’s a virgin: “Totally,” she tells me. “I’m the virgin queen of [my school]. I’ve never even seen a dick.”

“Aw, poor Marie,” says Kelly, throwing an arm over her friend’s shoulder. “I’ll send you a photo tonight.”

“Ew. I’ve seen photos. High definition close-up.” She gives an exaggerated shudder. “But real life, no go.” It’s not a religious or moral decision for Marie, it simply hasn’t happened yet. “There are heaps of things I haven’t done. Going overseas, skydiving, uni … It annoys me that people make judgements based on whether you’ve had sex or who you’ve had it with and how many people. It’s illogical. But so many people do that I think … maybe it’s me; maybe something does happen when you have sex that changes who you are … But from where I’m sitting, I can’t see it. My non-virgin friends, such as this ho here—” she jerks her thumb at Kelly, who gasps “bitch!” and dissolves into giggles “are the same people they were before [they had sex]. I don’t feel there’s some big divide between us now.”

I get another perspective from Cara, a 16-year-old, church-going student, whom I meet in a park near her home in north-western Sydney. She’s dressed in an oversized hoodie and slouch jeans. Several times I have to ask her to speak up. Many of her answers end with a mumbled “sorry that didn’t make sense”. She oozes insecurity, yet is clever, thoughtful and determined to have her say.

“I lost my virginity last year,” she says. “It was with Paul [her boyfriend of two years]. It’s hard because everybody at our church is waiting for marriage and we pretend that we are too. Every time I hear someone say ‘true love waits’, I cringe. They talk like it’s so degrading to have sex. We had this guest speaker and she told us to imagine if on our wedding night the handprints of every man who’d ever touched us appeared on our bodies – how ashamed we’d be for our husband to see these dirty handprints all over us. Anyway, Paul said that the boys’ talk was the same, except they were told to imagine the wife’s body, to imagine their handprints on someone else’s wife.” Cara laughs. “That’s what it’s like. I just nod along.”

Cara’s parents “would freak out” if they knew she and Paul were sleeping together. “It’s dumb. They love Paul, know that he loves me, but at the same time, don’t trust him at all. They think if I’m alone with him, he’ll turn into an uncontrollable sex monster and I’ll be overpowered or something. It wouldn’t occur to them that I could be the one jumping his bones the minute we’re alone.”

According to the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, over 25% of Year 10 students and around 50% of Year 12 students self-report as being sexually active. Given how easily discussions about teens and sex can escalate into moral panics, it’s important to remember that when we talk about “sexually active teenagers” we’re mostly talking about 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds and even then, not the majority of them. Indeed, Rachel Hills reports that the young people she speaks to “don’t think that casual sex is the norm. People in this age group tend to see themselves as non-judgemental, but they think that others will make moral judgements based on their sexual behaviour. So sometimes girls might tell themselves their feelings about a person are more serious than they are, because they feel they’ll be judged for having casual sex.”

If young women feel judged for their sexual behaviour, it’s hardly surprising. It’s not only Tony Abbott who’s passing judgement on the value of their virginity, it’s also the op-ed and blog writers, and the radio and TV panel-show guests picking apart every nuance, every possible element of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of premarital sex. It’s the 2008 survey, conducted by men’s magazine FHM – and reported widely – which found that 28% of the 57,000 men who responded hoped to marry a virgin. It’s the glamorous current pop stars (Taylor Swift, Jordin Sparks, Miley Cyrus) boasting about their chasteness, and the fallen pop stars (Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears) being mercilessly shamed for their failure to remain virginal, then mocked for their failure to remain sexy. It’s the glossy magazines endlessly fussing over how girls should dress and act so as to be sexy without being cheap. It’s the way girls see middle-aged men leering at them on the bus or drooling over issues of Barely Legal magazine in the newsagency.

No teenage girl is spared this constant, confusing, contradictory stream of messages and judgements about her sexuality, but for young lesbians the effect is different. Senthourn Raj, a 21-year-old research assistant and advocate for gay and lesbian rights, observes that “sexual minorities don’t have access to the same kinds of scripts about virginity and sex as heterosexual young people do.” On the one hand, young lesbians can disregard messages about whether their sexual behaviour or appearance will cause men to desire them; on the other hand, the culturally dominant idea that “real sex involves a penis” can make young gay women feel excluded from the public discourse about sex and sexuality. If you believe that penile penetration is the way to virginity loss, then many lesbians will be virgins forever regardless of how much sex they’re having.

Given the multiple manifestations of virginity fetishism, it’s clear there is more going on here than superstition and fear of infection.

Which brings us to the story of Rosie Reid. In 2004, as an 18-year-old student at the University of Bristol, Reid auctioned off her virginity in order to pay her student debts. The winning bidder was a 44-year-old divorcee and father of two, who paid Reid 8400 pounds so his penis could be the first to enter her vagina. If that seems a crude description, I apologise, but I don’t know how else to describe what it is that this man paid for. Reid is a lesbian who was open about the fact that she was living with her partner at the time of the auction. Her virginity could be described, at best, as technical, yet hundreds of men bid for the right to “take” it.

Last year, 22-year-old American student Natalie Dylan defended her decision to auction her virginity (reported highest bid: US$3.8 million) with an article on The Daily Beast website. “Idealized virginity is just a tool to keep women in their place,” she wrote. “I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism … For me, valuing virginity as sacred is simply not a concept I could embrace. But valuing virginity monetarily – now that’s a concept I could definitely get behind.”

But if it’s obvious that the young women selling their “virginity” don’t attach moral or sentimental value to it, what of the men who are buying? What is it about being the first man to vaginally penetrate a woman that is so appealing? As historian Hanne Blank writes in her 2007 book Virgin: The Untouched History, it would be a fine trick indeed if human males had an inherent desire for female virgins given that virginity is an intangible quality that one cannot see, touch, smell or reliably identify.

There is a long, tragic history of myth about the magical healing qualities of virgins, which has sometimes led to the rape of virginal young women and children. Today, there are still many people who believe that sex with a virgin is a cure for sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS – a myth that contributes to the devastating incidence of child rape in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Men seeking the “virgin cure”, along with those wanting a guaranteed disease-free prostitute, also drive the demand for child sex slavery in South-East Asia.

Given the multiple manifestations of virginity fetishism, however, it’s clear there is more going on here than superstition and fear of infection. From viewing virginity porn, you might conclude that the attraction has to do with pain and power. The “hymens”, shown in extreme close-up, are quite obviously fake, as is the blood that is splattered over the withdrawing penises, but that doesn’t matter. The erotic thrill, it seems, is in the fantasy of breaking a girl down (“It took us months to talk this virgin into showing us her cherry.”) and then making her bleed (“You have to be gentle with them, the first time hurts!”). Mallory Rae Murphy, an 18-year-old from Dallas who allegedly lost her virginity in a porn film last December, played the role of fetishised virgin perfectly, saying at the time, “I got hurt, but it’s OK, you’re supposed to.”

Part of what makes this kind of porn so disturbing is its synchronicity with the values of contemporary society – with girls standing on stage and pledging their purity in front of everyone they know, with the image of a naked bride covered in dirty handprints, with the well-meaning cries of “don’t give it away lightly”, a message that echoes Freud’s idea that the first act of intercourse would bring about a state of “thraldom” in the woman so that she’d never again so much as glance at another man. It all adds up to a society in which teenage girls are treated as delicate halfwits, so vulnerable that sex with a man causes their hot, sexy bodies to bleed and break, and their soft, squishy hearts to be forever changed.

Virginity matters to teenagers, but it matters in a way that most adults don’t understand. For teens, it’s about figuring out a whole new aspect of identity. They’re excited, apprehensive, terrified and/or thrilled. They care about what their friends are doing, not – or not only – because they love salacious gossip, but because they’re going through it all together. Losing your virginity is an obsession in your teens in the same way parenthood is in your thirties: even if you’re not interested in doing it, you can guarantee that everyone around you is, and will want to trade stories, commiserate and celebrate accordingly.

The ways in which virginity matters in the long-past-virginal adult world is altogether different. The silly, superstitious, dehumanising, backwardness of the virginity obsession would be funny if it didn’t so often result in pain, shame, oppression and exploitation. We know – don’t we? – that the porn hymens are fake, that sex with a virgin doesn’t cure AIDS, that no mystical change occurs in either man or woman when a penis enters a previously unpenetrated vagina. We know – don’t we? – that teenage girls have erotic lives that are entirely unconnected and unconcerned with the fantasies of middle-aged men; that a woman’s identity, sense of self and value as a human being cannot be instantly and irrevocably altered by a single sexual encounter. And we know – don’t we? – that virginity is a human invention, that we are the ones who invest it with meaning, even as we’re unable to accurately or consistently define it.