Frequently Asked Questions: All About Virginity

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Virginity is a complicated subject with many myths and misconceptions. This FAQ addresses many common questions about virginity.

virgins

Photo: Fedor Rerberg

A Russian painter's concept of ancient Roman "Vestal Virgins" (temple priestesses).

Frequently Asked Questions is a new series that tackles common questions about different aspects of sexuality. This week, we’re examining the concept of “virginity.”

What “counts” as losing my virginity?

To answer this question, we must first have a working definition of virginity – a task more difficult than it may seem.

There is no official medical definition for virginity, although it is often described as a state of never having experienced sexual intercourse – that is, penile-vaginal penetration. The word “virgin” is often described in terms of femininity. The Latin word for virgin (virgo, virginis) literally means “maiden” and is a feminine noun. Similarly, a dictionary will provide a sub-definition that specifies the word as being “often a woman,” or as “an unmarried woman.”

There are several obvious problems with this definition. Clearly, a virgin can be a person of any gender identity. There are many sexual experiences outside of intercourse that some consider to “count” as a loss of virginity, including manual stimulation (“fingering”), oral or anal sex, even masturbation. Additionally, the intercourse-based definition of virginity invalidates the sexual experiences of the LGBTQ community by suggesting that anyone who has not had heterosexual coitus is a virgin.

It may be helpful, as a society, to brainstorm more inclusive criteria for virginity. For instance, losing one’s virginity could be broadened to being the first time one has a consensual sexual experience – this may help to validate the experiences of rape survivors, as well as to emphasize the importance of consent in sexual behavior. Perhaps it could be defined as the first time one orgasms (with or without a partner) – promoting the idea of sex serving primarily for pleasure rather than for reproduction, particularly for females.

To summarize, virginity can be viewed as largely socially constructed notion that each person must define for themselves. 

What “counts” as losing your virginity if you are a member of the LGBTQ community?

Since losing one’s virginity doesn’t necessarily mean having sexual intercourse, gay and lesbian individuals are not necessarily “virgins” their entire lives. As stated above, a person can have a variety of sexual experiences, any of which they can use to self-determine whether or not they are a virgin. 

 Does the hymen exist?

The hymen (also known as the vaginal corona) is a thin layer tissue around the opening of the vagina. This tissue serves no known purpose (but is believed to be a remnant of fetal development). In some cases it may partially cover the vaginal opening, but it is rare that it covers the vaginal opening entirely. It may be unnoticeable or virtually non-existent in some women. It may stretch as the result of masturbation, sexual intercourse, exercise or tampon use. The presence or absence of a visible hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity.

There is a cultural myth that women will bleed their first time during intercourse due to the hymen ripping or breaking. In most cases, it’s more likely that bleeding will result from rough sex, insufficient foreplay, or vaginal dryness and friction. It is perfectly normal to not bleed as the result of first intercourse.

Does using a tampon affect my virginity?

Using a tampon can cause the hymen to stretch, but this does not mean you are no longer a virgin.

What is the normal age for losing my virginity?

Just as there is no real definition for virginity, there is no specific age at which it is “normal” for a person to lose their virginity. Becoming sexually active is an intensely personal decision that is affected by many factors, and no one should feel pressured to do so simply because she or he has reached a certain age.

Is it normal to hurt or bleed the first time I have sexual intercourse?

It is often assumed that women will experience pain, bleeding, or both during their first sexual intercourse. This is because intercourse can stretch the hymen, or irritate vaginal tissues due to friction and lack of lubrication. However, many women do not feel pain or bleed during their first intercourse experience. It all depends on individual anatomy, lubrication, and arousal levels.

Although men are not thought to experience pain during first sexual intercourse, it is possible for men to feel discomfort due to a latex or spermicide allergy, irritation of the skin, or other physical conditions.

It is possible for people of any gender to experience pain during their first intercourse due to lack of foreplay, lack of  adequate lubrication (adding a water-based lubricant can be helpful), or even anxiety.

Can I become a virgin again after having had sex?

In her book The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti discusses the notion of “secondary virginity”. Certain organizations promote a recommitment to abstinence after sexual activity and market it as regaining one’s virginity. While the definition of virginity is up for interpretation, most consider losing their virginity to be a one-time event. This doesn’t mean that it is anything to be ashamed of, or that a person is less “pure” if she or he has had sex. Again, becoming sexually active is a personal decision, and “losing it” doesn’t necessarily mean that one has lost anything at all.

Can you get pregnant or get an STD the first time you have sex?

The possibility of becoming pregnant or of contracting a sexually transmitted disease is always present during sexual intercourse, whether it is one’s first, tenth, or fiftieth time. This is why use of birth control and STD prevention is recommended each time one has sexual intercourse.

Additional Resources

 Our Bodies, Ourselves

 Palo Alto Medical Foundation

Planned Parenthood

The Purity Myth, by Jessica Valenti

Madeline Crone is working towards a BA in psychology with a minor in biology at Mount Holyoke College. Her interests include intersections of feminism with sexuality as well as sexual psychophysiology.

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