I am one of six student editors of the University of Sydney Union’s monthly BULL Magazine, which explores the intersection of pop culture, politics and identity through features and columns.
This issue (full pdf here), we covered small penis body acceptance, cultural divides in Sydney’s football scene and westernised Chinese cuisine. I also wrote a feature on varying experiences of virginity, below.
The Virginity Taboo
A bowl of condoms is handed to first year students at law camp. “If you’re going to have sex, be safe,” they’re told. Everyone giggles and makes a dirty sex joke. Yet no one has sex that night. And many never have.
Virginity: more taboo than anal sex, pornography or masturbation. For some, virginity is a flower to be treasured. For others, it’s something to get rid of.
From the USU’s Radical Sex and Consent Day to the family planning booklets that pop up on campus, sex is commonly on the agenda at university. Hollywood movies like American Pie and The 40 Year-Old Virgin tell us it’s unusual to still be a virgin by the time you finish high school.
One quarter of Australian Year 10 students have had sex, according to a national survey by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society1. That figure jumps to a third of Year 11 students, and half of Year 12 students. The report finds around 70 per cent of people aged 16-29 years are sexually active and that people are now having sex at a younger age and with more partners than their parents did.
Jess* is a 21 year-old heterosexual virgin. To her, having sex for the first time will be a big deal. Jess is not religious, instead describing herself as a romantic idealist who sees sex as an emotional and intimate act that you only share with someone you’re in a committed relationship with.
But coming to university has challenged her idealism. “I literally thought that people wait ‘til marriage to have sex until maybe a few years ago when I started to hit year 12 and uni and realised that actually, people sleep with the person after meeting them for one night,” she says.
“So more and more I’m realising my vision of love and sex and all of that is probably a little bit out-dated, or it’s a very idealistic version that isn’t quite realistic or true to modern society.”
Jess says there is a dichotomous pressure on women to keep their virginity but also to lose it. Women are expected to remain “pure” virgins or risk being deemed a slut, but popular culture also enforces expectations that women be “sexy, desirable, available and not prudish, and ready to have sex with someone.”
“For women to feel desirable, they increasingly need to be intimate with men because it’s all about men and what men find attractive. It can’t just be about women being attractive in their own right,” Jess says.
Sometimes, Jess’ lack of sexual experience affects her approach to dating. “If you really believe that most guys our age have already slept with someone then you can’t help but feel at the back of your mind: well what’s going to happen when he finds out that I’m a virgin? Maybe he won’t want that kind of baggage.”
Ultimately, a woman should be able to choose how she treats her virginity without being confined by societal expectations to lose or keep it, she says.
Jess admits though that she feels like a “dying breed.” Bisexual media student Claire Jewell, 22, leans more towards having casual sex. “Once you get into the adult world or university life, virginity is a little less spoken about. It’s sort of assumed that you’re not a virgin,” she says.
Jewell first had sex at the age of 18 with a man she was not in a committed relationship with. “To be honest, the actual act was kind of forgettable. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t feel sad afterwards,” she says.
However, having sex with a woman for the first time when she was 22 felt more significant even though she’d already slept with several men. “It was the quintessential experience of virginity that I didn’t have with a boy. Like you start becoming super attracted to them and start getting some sort of attachment emotionally,” she says.
For the queer community, heteronormative definitions of virginity and sex are rife with problems.
The Oxford Dictionary defines sexual intercourse as “sexual contact between individuals involving penetration, especially the insertion of a man’s erect penis into a woman’s vagina, typically culminating in orgasm and the ejaculation of semen.”
But lesbian sex, for example, does not fit within this definition. Under the heteronormative definition then, sexually active lesbians would still be classified as virgins.
Jewell believes the dictionary’s emphasis on penetration and male ejaculation is a social construct that does not apply universally. “Men just think lesbian sex is girls wearing strap-ons. It’s still a very male dominated idea of penetration.”
Despite growing up in a Christian household that advocated saving sex for marriage, Jewell disagrees with expectations that women remain pure. “This whole purity bullshit around [virginity], I think is ridiculous,” she says. “No one really gives a fuck about a boy losing his virginity.”
It’s uncertain why a female’s virginity has historically been held with higher regard than a man’s. Historian Hanne Blank suggested on SBS Insight the disproportionate emphasis on female purity may stem from the need to identify the father of a child. “If you’ve prohibited sexual access to that woman by anybody else but one man, then you know who the father of that child is.”
Nowadays, women who retain their virginity do so for a variety of cultural, religious and personal reasons. Author Kate Monro draws on hundreds of interviews with people about their first time having sex in her book The First Time: True Tales of Virginity. She writes, “The loss of a woman’s virginity can still cost her at best her reputation and at the very worst her life. Even now, women are being brutalised for ‘losing’ something that is almost impossible to quantify or define.”
For men, while the pressure to remain pure is significantly lower than it is for women, the pressure to lose their virginity seems much higher.
“At a certain age of being a man, you can feel fairly worthless as a virgin,” music student Oliver*, 21, says. “It relates back to that whole perception of the ‘basement dwelling virgin creep’.”
Though he’s bisexual, Oliver says he feels the strongest pressure to be sexually active with a woman. Friends played a big role fostering this attitude by engaging in sexualised talk in the playground. The immense pressure Oliver believes many men feel to lose their virginity and have sex “causes me to be dishonest in the way I talk about myself sexually,” he says. “Friends made many rude jokes and innuendos and I didn’t really see the value in it or get it; I guess [this is] somewhat because of my sexuality.”
Oliver classifies himself as a virgin because he’s never had penetrative sex – even though he has had some sexual experiences with both men and women. His relationship with virginity is complicated. “I feel that heteronormative penis-in-vagina sex doesn’t define me,” he says. Yet he feels many people consider him to be a virgin because he has yet to engage in this act.
Many of Oliver’s beliefs regarding virginity were formed during childhood, in which there was little informed discussion surrounding sex and sexuality. Oliver grew up in a religious household and didn’t learn about sex from parents or teachers, instead turning to films and television for sexual education. “I was only really exposed to [sex] in movies,” he says. “I didn’t really understand and thought sex was a man and a woman being naked together and doing something.”
Differing to the other male students BULL interviewed, the desire to lose his virginity does not exist for James*. The 21 year-old psychology student identifies as an aromantic asexual, meaning he does not experience romantic or sexual attraction.
Despite being aware of the sex culture at university, James chooses not to partake in it. “It’s not because I’m afraid to or because I’ve commanded myself to be celibate,” he says. “It’s almost like an innate distaste [towards sex], almost the same as just not liking a particular flavour of something.”
To James, a person’s attractiveness is purely a theoretical assessment based on Western constructed standards and sex is an entirely biological act. “I can only look at it from afar, from a distance as a whole and all I see is the physical act,” he says.
As a result, “virginity is not relevant to me”, he says. “It’s not [a big deal] because I treat having sex virtually as any other kind of behaviour that I haven’t done. It’s pretty much the same as ‘oh I haven’t been to America’.”
However, this can sometimes be a barrier in conversations with friends who talk about their sexual experiences. He, too, fleetingly feels the pressure to lose his virginity in order to belong. “I understand what they’re talking about but I just can’t relate to it. It’s very frustrating at times,” James says. “And sometimes, I just think: wouldn’t it be nice if I could just get it over and done with? But then I think, no that would be detrimental…possibly damaging because I’d be forcing myself to do something that I don’t want to do.”
No one should feel ashamed for where they sit on the spectrum of sexual experiences – yet some admittedly do.
“I see it as a personal thing,” Jess says. “And if people say, ‘well I should be able to have sex and people not judge me for it’ then I would say, ‘well I should be able to not have sex and people not judge me for it’. I don’t have to be incredibly religious to want to be a virgin or I don’t have to be really old-fashioned or elitist.”
Jess believes men and women shouldn’t feel the need to compare sexual milestones based on social expectations. “Why is sleeping with someone seen as a measure of who you are or your value?”
*Names have been changed
* Face the Facts Briefing, 2014. Young Australians and Sexual Health. Vol 1, No. 5.