I’ll begin with a confession (although, perhaps confession isn’t the right word; an acknowledgment? An admission? A revelation?):
I am a 22-year-old virgin.
Penetration has always been pretty excruciating for me. Whether tampons, fingers, or penises, I tend to be wary of anyone (or thing) inside me. I have only been with men, and of those men, I have tried having sex with two. I describe my experiences with those two men as attempts. They were never able to penetrate – endeavouring to get inside me for only a few short moments before retreating, glancing at me like they had shattered my sexual facade, realizing the utterly breakable virgin which lay beneath.
Recently – with three years of sexual exploits in Montreal under my proverbial belt – this has become less excruciating and more nerve-wracking. I have yet to master the art of the ‘virginity discussion’ and while I don’t feel the need to talk about it with all of my sexual partners, I do consider its admission to be central to my own enjoyment of sexual encounters. I feel more confident expressing my needs after I’ve voiced the reality of my…well…relatively narrow vaginal canal.
The start of this discussion is often the same: a dark room, a bed of messy sheets, and two people undressing one another. It is in this moment of kissing and fumbling that I usually decide whether to state “I’m not going to have sex with you” or “I’m not going to have sex with you…because I’ve never slept with anyone.” I have learned to be stern and straight with both statements; I have no interest in ambiguity. In a society in which sexual refusal can be flirtatious and silence misconstrued as consent, my vocality is my security.
Still, a deep anxiety roots itself within my chest before these conversations. I haven’t reached a point at which I can boldly state that I am a virgin without a cascade of justifications. I usually stick to, “No, but seriously, I swear it’s not like I’m a religious zealot or anything” and “I guess I’ve just dated shitty dudes.” Mainly, I try to express the fact that I have waited (and am waiting) to be with someone I trust. To be clear, I am not waiting for a bed of roses, nor a soulmate. I am, however, waiting to be with someone with whom I can discuss sex (or my lack thereof) openly and honestly. While I don’t question my decision to keep most Ps out of my V, I nonetheless sense that these justifications are necessary – for myself, partners, and friends. Although reactions to the news vary, responses from guys (especially those interested in pursuing a more long-term hookup) generally range from neutrality to negativity. Furthermore, I find that my explanations usually fall within three realms: the realm of my sexual identity, my feminist identity, and my hazy identity as a twenty-something.
* * *
Following the initial – and incredibly unoriginal – question of “why?” I usually confront three follow-ups: why play into a false notion of virginity? How can you be so sexual if you’re a virgin? And, in so many words, are you damaged goods?
Of those three questions, a critique of virginity is the only conversation I find worthwhile. In any discussion of ‘virginity,’ a consideration of vocabulary is central. The North American notion of virginity is steeped in racialized, classed, and heteronormative assumptions, and to ignore these would be irresponsible as a self-proclaimed feminist and, more importantly, as a critically-thinking human being.
Stereotypical images of virgins get recycled throughout our media; I would argue, though, that few virgins manage to fulfill them. These images include not only an intact hymen but also a sense of sexual innocence and virtue (traits, I might add, that seem more politically powerful for the patriarchy than for virgins themselves). This imposed fragility eclipses the wide-ranging reality of virgins. Since arriving in Montreal, I’ve met countless women who break the virgin mould. Some of us are waiting for marriage and some of us are waiting for someone to bother putting sheets on their bare mattress; some of us have never been kissed and some of us regularly bring partners home; some of us have had penetrative sex but still choose to self-identify as virgins. And yet, we only have this one word – a word that has been raked over and imbued with meaning and politically mobilized – with which to describe ourselves. The idea of virginity and its accompanying expectations has become yet another site for the control of female sexuality and, when discussing it, I am reminded of the fact that this word utterly fails to speak to my experiences.
Nevertheless, I use the word virgin. More than anything, I use it for its ease; I use it because blurting out, “I’m a sexually active woman who has had a couple penises kind-of-inside-her-but-not-really so please be aware of my needs” is an awkward sentence, and would delve into a conversation that I’m not always interested in having with casual partners. Basically, I use the word virgin with partners to describe my own needs. For me, my virginity – whether a construct or not – means that putting a penis inside me is going to be difficult. It means I need someone who will be careful and understanding. I know a lot of women who do not identify as virgins who still require that from their sexual partners. But for me, there can be a lot of comfort in playing into this trope when I renegotiate those meanings for my own experience.
Problematizing the notion of virginity, however, is rarely a question I face in the bedroom; more often than not, my sexual subjectivity is questioned. Picture this: I am on my 16th-floor balcony with a guy – a very handsome guy who studies music and tells funny jokes and is a truly charming human being. We spent the evening in general revelry, dancing and imbibing and, later in the evening, kissing in a corner of the bar. Before heading home, I made it clear that I didn’t want to have sex, and out on the porch I decided to tell him the whole truth (and nothing but the truth…so help me God).
His response to my declaration – like countless others before him – was, “But you’re so…sexual.”
In my experience, this is the most frustrating (yet amusing) response. I am, in fact, a woman who holds her sexual subjectivity to be central to her identity. For my music man, it was confusing that I could have possibly cultivated such sexual understanding and – even more surprising – that I was so comfortable expressing that sexuality.
I do my best to be aware of my sexual needs, to be open to new sexual encounters, and to put myself in situations in which I feel happy, sexy, and safe. Still, I often confront a narrow image of virginity – one in which virgins are angelic and uninformed – which stands in direct contrast to my identity as an outspoken sexual subject. Does being a virgin make me less of a sexual subject? And does feeling like a sexy lady make me a bad virgin?
At times, I feel trapped in a strange space in between. It can make me feel uncomfortable, insecure, or even angry with myself (which, inevitably, leads to my feeling angry with the social constructs that made me uncomfortable/insecure/angry in the first place).
There is a sense of shame deeply ingrained in virgins, especially those of us over the ‘appropriate’ age of virgindom. It is not that my friends and partners’ issues make me reconsider my decision to have not had sex up until this point; it is more that I feel like I deserve to be an oddity – like maybe I should feel more inclined to question myself. I feel trapped within a strange Foucauldian cycle in which I must constantly talk about not-wanting-to-talk-about my dirty little secret. I’m not sure whether to desperately search for a means of liberation from this cycle, or whether it’s a meaningful space within which to dwell.
* * *
Fast forward two years from the music man and I am once again standing on my balcony. I have a new haircut and a new man with me. This time he is a chef and has just made a crude joke about a blow job.
He is expecting one because I am a virgin and I am feeling angry because that is unacceptable. This sense of entitlement – derived from my virginity – is weird and something I’ve encountered often. Some guys, not often as explicit as my chef friend, expect a consolation prize for the lack of penetrative sex. If I don’t mention my virginity, I’m usually regarded as a tease – so sexual and yet not willing to ‘go all the way.’ These are my least favourite kinds of sexual encounters and, needless to say, I kicked out my chef friend (as I do with any man who treats me this way).
Friends and partners try to make sense of my decisions by positioning me within a set of acceptable tropes that, when considered together, are pretty ludicrous. Being a virgin is complicated and awkward and strange and sometimes it really does make me feel like damaged goods. Rationally, I identify that much of this discomfort comes from the problematic images of female sexuality that I confront throughout society. To repeat the oft-mentioned and nevertheless well-founded argument, we consider women as existing at two ends of the spectrum. If a woman isn’t having all the sex all the time, she’s probably having none of the sex(ual encounters) none of the time. Furthermore, if a woman isn’t out and proud about whatever sexual decisions she’s making, then she is probably working through some serious sexual issues.
The radical feminist within me feels the need to constantly debunk whatever title it is that I am expected to embody in any given moment. All I know is that these typecasting experiences make me feel worn out. I am tired of feeling obligated to explain that yes, I just want to trust my first penetrative partner and that no, I do not know why I haven’t met someone like that yet. Instead, I’d like to hold a sign that reads:
If I’m okay with my sexual history, why does everyone else seem so preoccupied with it? And why (why, why, why) does it feel like my virginity keeps sabotaging potential relationships?
* * *
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m writing this three days, seven bottles of wine, and countless self-deprecating jokes out of a two-month (non)relationship. As it was a (non)relationship, my previous partner was not my boyfriend; we did not discuss exclusivity nor did we exchange anything but meaningful “I really like you”s. We did, however, kiss each other in front of our friends; we celebrated my mother’s birthday on a double-date with her boyfriend; he slept in my childhood bed with me; and we discussed – honestly and candidly – my insecurities about being a “virgin.”
As such, I’m feeling pretty blindsided, pretty dispirited, and pretty full of rage – depending on the moment you catch me and the amount of liquor I’ve consumed. For us, sex became elided with relationships, which became elided with cold feet and a surprise break-up.
To avoid diving off the deep end into a pool of bitter diatribes, I will stay concise. I cared a lot for him. It was a mixture of both trust and timing that kept me from sleeping with him. I needed to trust that he would still be around two imaginary weeks from now – inviting me to shows and drinking beer on my couch. But he won’t be. He ended our (non)relationship because “sex means different things to us.” And, admittedly, it does. While a sense of pride makes me want to indignantly argue that he stop assuming what sex means to me, I was pretty forthcoming on the subject. I do feel indignant, however, that he did not communicate honestly with me prior to ending things. His quiet brooding on the subject of my sexuality makes me really hesitant to be quite so straightforward next time.
So, in launching into the future of Montreal dating, what do I do? If I keep scaring everyone off with my ‘virginity,’ how will I get to a point at which I trust someone enough to sleep with them? Do I heed my own advice and stop talking about it? Keep it quiet until I’ve ensnared someone using my virginal wiles?
As indicated by my choice to publish a Daily article about my sex life, I clearly don’t intend to follow those paths. It was a strange series of events that led to this ‘coming out’ article, and it has been a thought-provoking process. Why don’t I stop talking about my virginity and just go have some casual sex? And moreover, why would I write this if I want all of you to stop talking about my virginity?
I guess, though, that this question of why is exactly what’s been plaguing me. Why am I so sexual and why am I virgin and why do I feel the need to write about it? I think, oddly enough, that my response to all of these questions is the same: because in this moment, it feels right, it feels exhilarating, and it feels true. As my sexuality continues to evolve, so too will these answers. I hope that this piece can become situated within a broader discussion that questions not why I am a virgin, but rather, why everyone else cares.