Back in high school — at least the one I attended — “doing it” was an absolute event. Most of my gal pals were guarding their virginity like excusable absences, and the loss thereof was earth-shattering. It was a milestone to be discussed in hushed whispers with one’s confidantes, and a slight stepping-stone towards 11th grade superiority. At overnight band, thespian and sports retreats, we’d stay up late, polling our roommates to find out who’d gone how far, replete with gory details that somehow still left the listeners dying to find out what it was “really” like.
Inevitably, one adventurous soul would divulge a whole string of torrid experiences and then stop short. Having seemingly done everything a human being could possibly do with their hands, lips, hips, breasts or musical instruments to titillate another. They’d be breathlessly asked: “Well … didja do it?”
“No, I told him I wanted to save myself” seemed to be the normal, shameless response. I knew a lot of these “technical virgins,” as they might call themselves, and I’m willing to bet you did and may still do. A story that ran during the last week of January in the St. Petersburg Times proudly trumpeted that “more and more” teens are deciding to hold on to their v-cards for a while. But, as I’ve griped before, everyone seems to have a different operational definition of virginity.
Semantically, a virgin is someone who has “never experienced sexual intercourse.” That’s Merriam-Webster for you guys. Intercourse is generally defined as penis-vagina contact, but that’s problematic in more ways than one. First off, are we going to say that nothing else counts? Gay couples might have an issue with such a hetero-centric classification. Secondary definitions for virgin are: pure, spotless and chaste. Given these criteria, I think we need to turn to logic. Is a person who has gone down on six people more of a virgin than another who has gone all the way with only one? In this day and age, given that so many women play sports, use tampons, etc., an intact hymen at first intercourse is rare so a scientific definition of an intact hymen being tantamount to virginity is out of the question. I don’t want to call people hypocritical on this subject, but maybe we ought to reserve the distinction of virgin for olive oil. Count me, then, among those who see virginity as something a little bit more complex than a tenuous membrane. Let me tell you — and I hear the snickers from the peanut gallery already — that I firmly believe that the loss of my sexual innocence began quite some time before I started getting physical. It happened well before my first “hot” make-out session, before my high school boyfriend kissed my breasts, before anyone’s hands ever slipped below my belt and way before I — all a-tremble — gave myself to my first lover. Looking back, I don’t remember thinking I was a real virgin when I supposedly transformed into a person who was not. My sexual awakening, as I see it, began very early on: whether it was knowingly touching myself, watching whatever TV hunk I knew would make the parts of me that I couldn’t name yet tingle or going through whatever stages of petting I permitted a certain grade-school Casanova to attain. Certainly, I did all these things knowingly with the intent to turn my partner and me on, and the flavor of sensuality sweetened it all. What does all this mean if we are to be considered stainless until penetrated or penetrating? And what does this ambiguity do to the perception of the estimated 11 percent of Americans who, according to statistics from the editors of Human Sexual Behavior, are still virgins at marriage? This doesn’t mean that innocence is a block to be gradually chipped away at until there’s nothing left. If Madonna could feel “like a virgin,” then anyone else can, too, regardless of how many “bases” you’ve covered or how many times. Like so many other gray areas in life, virginity is a state of mind, and a lot of what we consider virgin is a system of societal mores we’ve been spoon-fed. Sex starts eroding innocence only when it’s not right for you, and nothing can make you feel worse than exploiting your sexuality, even if you haven’t “done it” yet. As Dr. Ruth, sex therapist extraordinaire and my personal idol, puts it in Sex for Dummies, “It has to be right for you.”Please don’t get me wrong, or write a reactive letter fuming that I’m desecrating the very notion of sex, because nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, I ask you to consider than so many more things than intercourse are sexual and that we ought to weigh the decision to do them with as much gravity, because they have the same potential for disaster and for passion. And definitions aren’t decisions. So call yourself whatever you want, but respect what I think about myself, too. I’m not your friendly neighborhood fundamentalist’s “good girl.” I have and enjoy sex. I have explored and enjoyed kink. I’ve watched, read and gotten off — by myself, no less — with pornography. I’ve owned several sex toys. I have a whole shelf of dirty books, and I am published weekly talking about naughty things. I’ll tell anyone within earshot that if it keeps you mentally and physically healthy and feels good, go for it. And that’s just the tip of my sexual iceberg.