Outlook & Opinions


by Jessica Valenti

While researching her 2007 book "Virgin: The Untouched History," Hanne Blank went to Harvard's medical library looking for a definition of virginity. She was surprised by what she found: nothing. That's right, there's no accepted medical definition or diagnostic standard for virginity.

Why, in such an out-of-the-closet world, do we still define sexual initiation -- and in many quarters, virtue -- by such an artificial and old-fashioned standard? And why don't we mind that, increasingly, that standard is more about image than actual purity? Tween pop singers are trotted out wearing both miniskirts and promise rings, allowing their handlers to profit off the girls' sexuality without offending anyone's parents.

Promise rings, virginity pledges and other efforts to enforce chastity aren't just backward -- they're a failure, and they may even endanger teenagers. A 2008 study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that pledgers are just as likely to have sex as non-pledgers and are more likely to have that sex unprotected. And researchers from Yale and Columbia report that teens who take virginity pledges are also more likely to engage in oral and anal sex than their peers. (Somehow, I don't think sodomy was what the creators of virginity pledges had in mind.)

These are the predictable results of telling teenagers that sex is wrong and that the only pure thing to do is wait. A teenager who takes these messages to heart won't in good conscience keep condoms -- much better to get "carried away" than to plan for an impure act. He or she may, however, look for loopholes, often dangerous ones. The health and the lives of young people are not worth risking over an arbitrary definition. And teaching young women -- and let's be honest, this is mostly about women -- that they must "save" their virginity only conflates their worth with their sexuality.

It's fine to have some way of demarcating sexual initiation, but old-school definitions of purity aren't it; they're more about inflicting shame than celebrating rites of passage. It's time we talked about sex as something healthy and natural. Losing "virginity" is one step in that direction.

Jessica Valenti, the founder and editor of Feministing.com, is the author of "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women."

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