The trouble with virginity: What America's sexual language leaves out

Our limited concept of "losing your virginity" ignores the importance of consent

Published February 23, 2014 9:00PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>dspn</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(dspn via iStock)

Virginity looms large in the American consciousness. But looking at how we actually start having sex, the binary of virginity does an embarrassingly bad job describing how young people come to embody their sexual selves. The whole virginity concept -- a switch that gets flipped with or without our intention -- is at odds with the idea of consent in sex. Can we have both virginity and consent? And if not, which one are we prepared to let go?

It’s nice to think that we’ve largely talked ourselves out of the corrosive history of virginity that associated literal monetary value with women’s bodies (not so long ago, an engagement ring was compensation to a woman for giving up her chastity). But if you thought that chapter of history was over, you might be disappointed. Therese Shechter’s new documentary, "How To Lose Your Virginity," walks us through the fascinating past and present of virginity: from the Roman Vestal Virgins choosing celibacy to carve out a modicum of autonomy in a world where they had no control, to radically morphing definitions of virginity over Christian history, to “virginity kits” and online virginity auctions. Shechter’s movie, with breezy, watchable, funny delivery, walks us through the simple argument that baked into the very term virginity — one that we still use freely — is an idea of a woman's body as an object for transaction.

Women’s virginity is protected by a father and then “given” to a husband, words we use to this day. Shechter draws on colorful characters and leading experts to retell the story of virginity, an ancient-sounding history that bleeds, quite disturbingly and no pun intended, into the present. While Shechter isn’t anti-virginity per se, she is adamantly in favor of women being able to define their experiences for themselves, without the interference of institutions with bad track records of recognizing wom...

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By Melissa T. Goldman

Melissa Tapper Goldman creates content sometimes about other media and sometimes for its own sake.

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