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Virginity Complex

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It seems like you can�t turn on the TV or pick up a magazine without hearing someone talk about virginity. In the last year alone, shows such as Everwood, Grounded for Life, One Tree Hill, The OC and Gilmore Girls all featured characters trying to decide whether they should have sex for the first time. On the pop music front, we�ve seen Britney Spears mocked in the press for breaking her teenage virginity vows. Jessica Simpson, on the other hand, has become a media favourite for losing her virginity on her wedding night. Why is there so much hype about girls having sex for the first time? 

It�s partly because we live in a world that hasn�t quite decided what it thinks about the fact that teen girls can be sexual. The traditional view is that girls who are virgins are pure. This means that, by default, girls who aren�t pure are sluts. And, as anyone who has even set one foot inside a high school can tell you, there are fewer things more devastating to a girl�s reputation than being called a slut. Many girls feel they have to remain virgins to avoid being stuck with such a damaging label. While this isn�t a call for girls to run out and have a million hook-ups just to buck the system, it is important to understand that many ideas about virginity and sex in general are outdated and based on misinformation. 

To help clear up some of the confusion, let�s consider five major myths about virginity.

The hymen tells all

Many people think you can measure virginity by a girl�s hymen. The hymen, sometimes called the �cherry,� is a thin piece of tissue partially stretched over the opening of most girls� vaginas at birth. No one knows exactly why it�s there, but some scientists think it might be designed to keep dirt out of the vagina until a girl gets her first period. Some people still think a girl will always bleed the first time she has sex if she is a virgin. Bleeding is assumed to mean she has �popped her cherry.�  But many girls don�t bleed when they first have sex, because the hymen has already been stretched. Many girls have thin hymens, which can stretch during activities like gymnastics, riding a horse or biking. Hymens can also stretch during sex play (like fingering) with a partner, or while masturbating. Less common, but still possible, is stretching the hymen by using tampons. Though some people think an intact hymen is proof of virginity, most would agree that a girl who stretches her hymen while riding a horse is still a virgin. With all this confusion about basic plumbing of the female body, it�s no wonder virginity is such a confusing subject to discuss.

If there ain�t penetration, it ain�t sex

Mainstream assumptions about sex usually refer to penile/vaginal penetration. Sumy , 17, says, �You can do other things like oral sex, but to me it is vagina to penis that means you aren�t a virgin.� But Christian, 16, thinks that being a virgin is different for different people. �It depends on the person. Someone might feel like they lost their virginity from oral or anal sex, like if you are gay or lesbian.� This is an important point, as the usual definitions of virginity tend to exclude queer teens. Some people also believe that you have to give consent to lose your virginity and that you can still be a virgin if you were raped. It can be tricky to create a definition of virginity that everyone agrees on, but we can start with expanding the discussion to include everyone�s experiences.  For instance, there�s no reason why a girl having sex with a girl shouldn�t count.

Girls are sluts, guys are players

Songstress Jessica Simpson won people over by proclaiming she was going to get married before having sex, and then gushing about how wonderful the experience was because she waited. But no one expected Jessica�s husband, Nick, to wait. They simply applauded him for not pressuring her to have sex before the wedding. That�s because, when it comes to sex, a double standard rules: a girl who has sex is a slut, but a guy who has sex is a player.

Giselle, 18, says, �My father feels I shouldn�t be sexually active. We come from an old-fashioned Hispanic culture and for him it just isn�t right.� Yet Giselle�s father doesn�t think it would be such a big deal if her 16-year-old brother Emmanuel started having sex. Annabel, 17, explains that her family holds similar double standards: �If a boy has sex my parents would say, �Oh good for him, he got a girl.� But if it is me � oh my God, they would kill me!� 

Teens are also buying into stereotypes about male and female sexuality. Robert, 16, says, �Some guys think that if a girl�s lost her virginity then she�s lost her purity and they don�t want to be with her if they aren�t her first.� And 14-year-old Tamara feels that among her friends, losing one�s virginity is seen as �more emotional for a girl and more of a conquest for a guy.� 

It�s easy to just assume this is what happens when you live in a sexist society still influenced by old-fashioned notions that good girls don�t. But the double standard is more complicated than that. Girls get conflicting messages about virginity from the media. As Joe Lockard says in his article �Britney Spears, Victorian Chastity and Brand-name Virginity� (Bad Subjects magazine), in western society we place a lot of importance on �a woman saving herself for marriage but being sexy for the boys in the meantime.� A girl is supposed to be sexually attractive, but not sexually available to another person until she is married. While girls are bombarded with T-shirts boasting everything from �hottie� and �flirt� to �jail bait� and �porn star,� they are often told that their reputations will be ruined if they actually do the deed they advertise. Boys, on the other hand, don�t get this message. It�s taken women years to teach the world that it�s okay for women to enjoy sex, but we�ve still got a long way to go to erase this double standard.

Abstinence or bust

Plenty of groups and organizations are aware of the confusion teens face when it comes to sex. Some teach sex ed so teens can make informed decisions. Others promote abstinence as the only way to go. One of these campaigns is True Love Waits, a Christian organization based in the United States that encourages teens to promise they will stay virgins until marriage. Teens who visit the True Love Waits website can fill out a declaration that reads: �Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.� 

Their message has also affected Canadians. As a 13-year-old from New Brunswick writes on Scarleteen (www.scarleteen.com), a teen sex ed website, �I have made the personal decision to be sexually abstinent�Since September [I] have been doing seminars on True Love Waits � at the end [we] each receive a small silver key charm, the �key to your heart,� which you give to your husband/wife on your wedding night. Our service is this Sunday night and I can't wait to get my key! I've been praying for it forever and I hope it all goes well.�

On the surface, virginity pledges can seem positive. Teens who pledge are sticking to traditional values and avoiding pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and emotional trauma. But a lot of the teens who take pledges end up breaking them and feeling pretty guilty. Sex educators warn that teens who feel guilty about sex are less likely to use protection when they eventually do the deed. Also, many teens who pledge are never taught about safer sex and the importance of using condoms and birth control because it is assumed that they won�t need this information. Some people think that teaching teens comprehensive sex education (which covers safer sex, abortion, sexual orientation and masturbation) will make them run out and try everything they learn about in class. In reality, people who receive comprehensive sex education are more likely to have their first sexual experience when they are older, and they are more likely to be safer when they do. The decision to have sex is yours and yours alone. It cannot be decided by an organization or an Internet pledge.

You�ll be scarred for life

Many teens aren�t ready to have sex, which is totally normal. Becoming sexually active with a partner can be a big deal, introducing concerns about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections into your already-complicated life. It�s important to trust your gut and not do things you�re uncomfortable with. But many people have a hard time imagining that teens can have good experiences when they start having sex.

Even adults who consider themselves progressive often believe there�s something naturally dangerous about teens having sex.  For example, Joe, 32, feels like he has an open-minded attitude about teens and sex.  But he still feels that most teens will have a negative experience when they become sexually active. He says, �Kids need to have easy access to contraception information and other tools that can help them be safe through the inevitable psychological consequences that will occur from having sex as a teenager.� 

In TV land this year, Gilmore Girls portrayed virginity loss as something that has upsetting consequences. After the smart and responsible character Rory first has sex, she realizes it was a mistake and cries about her choice. It was a mixed message from a usually progressive show. Of course, some people�s first sexual experiences are negative. Sometimes this is because they weren�t emotionally ready. Often it is because they didn�t have all the right information. But others remember their first time as a positive experience. As Mary, who is in her 20s, says, �I had sex for the first time when I was 17 and it was a really great, fun time. We used a condom and were really sensitive about making each other feel good. I went away to university a few months later but we still keep in touch.�

So there you have it -- five of the biggest myths about virginity debunked. Still confused? Don�t worry, you�re not alone. With adults, media, schools and organizations sending so many conflicting messages about the subject, it�s hard to figure out how you feel � and even harder to answer all your questions in a 2,000 word magazine article. When it comes to sex, there�s no right or wrong answer. For centuries, people have been trying to make it a black-and-white issue -- you�re either a virgin or a whore.  The truth is, it�s all the shades of gray that make life interesting.

 

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