Virginity is the state of not yet having engaged in sexual intercourse. It is impossible to see if a man or woman is a virgin just by looking at them. Virginity is a concept—there is no medical or biological definition of virginity. It is a mythologised status, the idea of a transition from one state to another, an initiation after which the informal status of a person has changed.
There are many myths and lies surrounding the idea of virginity. Even if you are already sexually active, you may still have questions. We need to expand and develop the public conversation around virginity and ‘losing it’, as it is closely related to both our sexual health and general wellbeing and we want to stop transmitting myths and falsehoods to future generations.
Virginity is a cultural concept—it is the period of life before sexual relations. The loss of virginity is often associated with penetrative vaginal sex, but a sexual experience can also be had orally, anally, or from manual stimulation. The difference with vaginal sex between a man and a woman is that it has the potential for procreation while the others do not, but all are sexual relations.
Stress, fear, and expectation—for many people these words are synonymous with having sex for the first time. One of the most enduring myths surrounding the first time a woman allows a penis inside her vagina is that this is sure to be painful for her. This does not have to be so. It is fear and worry that cause the muscles of the vagina to contract and hinder vaginal lubrication; these circumstances would make penetration unpleasant for anyone.
If you are able to share your first exploration of sexual intimacy with a trusted and considerate partner, you can take your time and learn about what feel good together. But for most of us, those first experiences are less than ideal because we don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t know how to talk about it.
Another common misconception is that rupturing the hymen—or ‘popping the cherry’—is painful. This is also a myth.
The hymen is a small, uneven membrane located just inside the vaginal opening. Although it may provide some protection against bacteria before pubic hair begins to grow, most medical communities recognize the hymen as simply a vestige of vaginal development.
Even using a mirror and a flashlight, it is almost impossible for a woman to discover her own hymen. It looks pretty much the same as the other membranes in your vaginal flaps and folds. A partner is also very unlikely to be able to identify it.
In some cultures, an ‘intact’ hymen is thought to be proof of virginity—if a woman bleeds when she has sex for the first time, it is thought that this is because her hymen has been ruptured, which means she has lost her virginity.
In fact, the hymen has no nerve endings, which means you can’t feel it—but it does have a few small blood vessels that maintain the health of the tissue. These may rupture with intercourse, which helps perpetuate the myth, but the other tender genital membranes are just as or even more sensitive.
Another myth some young girls are told is that they can lose their virginity by using tampons. In fact, in most girls the hymen does not entirely cover the vaginal opening but is more crescent shaped with an aperture that allows menstrual blood to flow and is usually large enough for a tampon. If the opening seems too narrow, use sanitary napkins instead; you can always start using tampons later. In any case, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor or gynecologist for advice!
There is no one kind of normal for a hymen. Many women never notice they have had one, and some baby girls are born without one. In a very small number of women, the hymen covers the vaginal opening entirely.
In some cultures, young women without a hymen are encouraged to have a hymenoplasty operation to ‘restore their virginity’, so that the hymen appears intact and a woman can ‘pass a virginity test’ to prove to her prospective husband that she has not had sexual relations.
In fact, any number of physical activities can wear away the hymen, including gymnastics, horseback riding, biking, using tampons, or masturbating and this has nothing to do with virginity. In liberal democracies, where women are respected as independent, such practices are considered a violation of a woman’s rights.
Male, female, or intersex, there is no way to know if a person has ever had sex or not. No physical or biological change occurs once a person has had sex for the first time, and it is impossible to judge by a person’s performance in the bed. Just like anything else, sexual experience is acquired over time; some people are more active and interested in learning about the nuances of sexual pleasure, while others may have relationships and sexual partners but do not develop their understanding.
Another important thing to remember is that sex and love don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Some people absolutely need to feel in love to make love—for them it is an important precondition to a fulfilling sex life. But this is not an absolute truth that applies automatically to everyone.
If you feel pressured into doing something you don’t want to, it will not lead to safe, pleasurable sex.
The first time is often unforgettable; however, these memories are rarely pleasant and wonderful. As always when you start to do something new, you tend to focus on the way of doing things and therefore you don’t enjoy the process because of stress. For most people, it gets better over time and the times to come will be unforgettable thanks to the much more pleasant emotions and sensations. No one was born with broad knowledge of the art of making love; it is learned over time with practice as well as by being interested in the theory.
Another myth about virginity, one with potentially life-changing consequences, is that a woman can’t get pregnant the first time she has sex. Sexual intercourse can lead to pregnancy the first, fifth, or twentieth time! If a woman engages in penetrative sex where a man ejaculates into her vagina without protection, and this coincides with those days in her menstrual cycle when she is ovulating—the most fertile days—then pregnancy can be a very real consequence. To avoid unwanted pregnancy, get to know your body—learn about and track your menstrual cycle and be sure to use contraception. Remember, you can get an STD (a sexually transmitted disease) the first time you have sex, so use a condom. Save the experience of unprotected sex for when you are in a committed sexual relationship and neither partner is having unprotected sex elsewhere.
Losing your virginity is not necessarily a reason to see your doctor, but regular medical care is an important part of sexual health. Whether or not you are sexually active, it is important to see a health care professional at least once a year. Once a woman does become sexually active, she should find a gynecologist to consult about her sexual and reproductive health, including contraceptives. Remember—just like using tampons, a pelvic exam will not tear the hymen! If you do experience troubling or unusual menstrual pain, abnormal discharge, genital or pelvic pain, or notice any sign of infection or sexually transmitted disease, seek help without hesitation! And a man can turn to a urologist to consult about his sexual and reproductive health.
Most often we hear about women suffering the first time the have sex—it’s painful and there is bleeding, but sex can be stressful for men too. They feel under pressure to perform, especially the first time. Worry and stress can make it difficult to get an erection, and you can’t put a condom on a soft penis. Or they can’t sustain the erection—it fades too quickly, before the moment of truth. Or the ejaculation happens too early and the man is finished before the woman has a chance to get started. Relax and communicate. As you gain experience you will better understand how your body works, what feels good, and what turns you on. Attentiveness to your partner, the willingness to surrender to the sensations you feel, and a good sense of humour will get you where you want to go. Being a beginner is wonderful because things can only get better.
There is no perfect age or time to lose your virginity. The younger a person is, the less they know about sexuality and contraception and the more likely they are to be influenced by stereotypes, myths, and assumptions.
There is no need to rush into losing your virginity! Emotional maturity and responsibility will only enhance the experience of your first time. Don’t worry if your friends have already done it. Don’t let peer pressure make you take a step you aren’t sure about! It must be your own personal decision.
If you start having sex because you don’t want to be considered an outsider, before you are emotionally and physically prepared, you may end up feeling worse than when you imagine you are the only virgin left in your circle of friends. For some people rushing into sex has had far-reaching negative consequences. After all, sexual intimacy requires vulnerability. By respecting your own inner voice, you will find the pace that suits you. Consider not only the sexual attractiveness of your potential first sex partner, but also their emotional maturity and trustworthiness. Do you feel confident you both have each other’s best interests at heart?
The right time to lose your virginity is when it feels right for you—that is, when you (not others!) feel the desire to begin exploring that part of yourself.
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