Definition of virgin?

Dear Alice,

How do you define a virgin? I have never had any sexual intercourse. However, I live in with my girlfriend and we often have "intimate actions" and oral sex. Are we still considered virgins?

Sign me,
Cherry picker

Dear Cherry picker, 

Confusing as it may be, the simplicity of your question belies the complex definition of the term "virgin." There is no one definition of virgin. To some, a virgin is someone who hasn't had vaginal penetrative sex. To others, a virgin is a person who hasn’t engaged in any intimate acts, including deep kissing, genital touching, and oral, vaginal, or anal sex with a person of any gender. There are also individuals who allow certain intimacies, such as kissing and touching below the belt, while excluding other sex acts. Some people believe they’re a virgin until they have sex with someone of a different gender, while others believe that people who exclusively have same-gender partners can and do lose their virginity. However, it may be useful to know that these potential definitions all fall under more modern usages of the word. The association with sexual behavior and "purity" developed through a long history of patriarchal societies using virginity as a means of social control and judgment against women in their families and communities. Given the past uses of the word, you may find it helpful to think about what type of definition applies to you and partner and whether or not it even matters to you both.

Why the variation? Definitions of virginity are often deeply personal and frequently stem from religious, cultural, historical, and family influences that emphasize different values. Historically speaking, “virgin” was a term used to describe a woman (or a goddess) who was autonomous, or on her own, not owned by any man. Over time, virginity became associated with whether or not a woman had penetrative sex. Being a virgin prior to marriage was and still is considered of value in many communities, and it had the ability to affect her social standing and who she could marry. In the past, and in some cultures today, virginity among those with hymens was and is tested by checking if there was blood after they had penetrative sex for the first time. The hymen is a thin tissue near the vaginal opening that may stretch when having sex for the first time, causing pain or bleeding. Research has shown that equating virginity with a stretched hymen isn’t an accurate measure as some individuals may have tissue that is naturally more open, while others may have stretched their hymen during other activities. There isn’t an analogous test for those with penises. The presence of these tests for people with hymens and not penises note the double standard that exists when it comes to virginity. While people identifying as women are expected to obey one set of rules when it comes to sexual behavior, men aren't expected to follow the same rules nor are they met with the same social consequences. And with any test, interrogating the “results” and why the “test” exists in the first place may help make assumptions and underlying values more transparent. Why does it matter if someone has been sexually active in the past? Does it matter equally for every person, or do you think it matters more for people who have certain genitalia? What’s informing and guiding your answers to these questions? Most critically, do your answers to these questions align with your personal values and worldviews? Answering these questions may help you start to understand what virginity means to you.  

Given changes in the ways the term “virgin” has been conceptualized over time, it's not unusual to question whether you’re still a virgin. It's also common to come up with your own definition of what it means to you. This may be an opportunity for you and your girlfriend to open the conversation about the many ways of being sexually and emotionally intimate. You might start by thinking about these questions: What behaviors are included in identifying as a virgin or not? Is being a virgin of value to you, your partner, and or your family? How so? Thinking through these answers, maybe you can reach a definition that feels right for you. 

Like so many of life's grey areas, only you can determine if you're "still a virgin" or if it even matters. You might find guidance from your partner, family, friends, a health promotion specialist, a medical professional, religious leaders, teachers, counselors, books, articles, or other sources. Ultimately, defining such a seemingly simple word could lead to a rich process of self-discovery and growth. Enjoy the journey! 

Last updated Sep 17, 2021
Originally published May 01, 1994

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