New research proves that a generation of women knows there’s nothing wrong with having sex – no matter what the purity-obsessed crusaders say
It’s been six years since Miley Cyrus showed off her purity ring alongside her virginity-touting teen pals. It’s been 18 years since the US government made its first major (and ill-advised) investment in abstinence-only education. But in the year 2014, with the Disney-approved virginity pledges and federally-funded, fear-mongering sex-ed classes fading away, extensive research now shows that women feel less and less guilty about losing their virginity – indeed, that those feelingshave been on the decline for an entire generation.
Is this the beginning of the end of virginity – at least, “virginity” as we’ve been bullied into knowing it? Are there even any virgins left?
Because, really, “virginity” doesn’t mean much of anything. As I reported in my 2009 book, The Purity Myth, there is no widely-accepted medical definition of virginity. At the time, historian and author Hanne Blank told me that despite vast libraries of medical knowledge, there is no “diagnostic standard for virginity”. As far as I can tell, there still isn’t.
There can’t really be a definition of something that’s so subjective, but we’ve managed to create one anyway: virginity is normally understood to be heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Is this not the 21st century? Oral sex doesn’t count? Do only straight people lose their virginity? Virginity is an outdated standard that has been used more to shame than mark sexual initiation.
Not only is first-sex guilt declining, but according to that University of Illinois study, conducted over 23 years, following nearly 6,000 young people and published this summer in the Journal of Sex Research, women are enjoying their first sexual experience more than in years past. This is important, because as writer Amanda Marcotte points out, there’s been a lot of effort put in by the Christian right “pushing the idea that virginity equals purity”.
Making women feel dirty or somehow tainted by sex has been a linchpin in conservative efforts to roll back women’s rights and maintain traditional gender roles. Hopefully this study is an authoritative, unambiguous sign that the strategy is failing. We already know, of course, that abstinence-only education was a huge public health failure and that virginity pledgers don’t keep that up for too long, either. And now that young people are online and more active than ever, they’re less likely to fall for purity talking points. Teens are taking to Tumblr to protest dress codes, and students are recording the shame-based nonsense they hear from abstinence speakers.
Little things like scientific research and basic human decency haven’t stopped purity pushers from continuing their crusade, of course. Abstinence-only education programs in the US, Canada and elsewhere are still trying to convince students that condoms don’t work; organizations like the National Abstinence Education Association are still claiming that teen sex is comparable to drug and alcohol use. But the truth has put them on on the defensive – so much so that virginity-obsessed abstinence programs like Choosing the Best, one of the largest suppliers of abstinence curricula in the US – have had to directly address their lack of facts and love of shame right in their FAQs. (Their case isn’t helped by lessons that force students to pass around a rose, taking petals off – when the petals are gone, teens are told the rose “represents someone who participates in casual sex” and that every time someone has sex, they “lose a sense of personal value and worth”.)
It looks like the only mass cultural and political relevance the purity movement still has going for it … is held up by the Duggars, which may add up to a lot of folks in one family, but 20 kids and counting does not a movement make.
Don’t get me wrong: people should wait however long they’d like to have sex. Have a lot of it, don’t have it at all – it’s none of my business. But holding on to antiquated notions of sexuality that make men feel confused and women feel dirty, obsessing over whether or not young people have had sex instead of whether or not they’re healthy – it’s not just damaging to young people, that’s ensuring you’re on the wrong side of history. Maybe it’s time we all just, you know, lose our “virginity”.