Mmmmmmmmm, virginity. Such an interesting idea/topic/concept. What constitutes a virgin? No vaginal penetration? No sexual activities of any kind? An emotional sense of not having shared a spiritual moment with a special person? If it means no vaginal penetration (either giving or receiving) then would a gay man who has never had sex with a woman be a virgin? If it means the first time penetration of the vagina by a penis then would a gay woman who has only ever had strap on penetration be a virgin? Seems to me that all this amounts to is a heteronormative, sexist, authoritarian concept that is impressed upon people primarily from a religious or moralistic perspective.
I don’t have a problem with people being virgins and I certainly don’t support sexual debut that happens before the participants are good and ready however I also don’t support the pushing of moralistic dogma which shames and denegrates, mostly women, for enjoying their sexuality with as many or as few partners as they might like. So it was with interest that I popped my advance copy of Tuesday night’s Insight episode into the DVD player to watch with my partner’s little brother (nearly 19 years old).
The conversation is unfortunately limited, like so many televised conversations of this kind are and considering the huge range of ideas, preferences and questions that a topic like this rises it’s not surprising that it really doesn’t get to the crux of anything in the single episode. However it’s definitely worth watching, for, if nothing else, the opening up of a converstaion in your household about what virginity is, how it works, why we care about it and when you or your family/friends are ready to explore beyond it. My only real disappointment with the program was its heavy focus on religious reasons for not having sex before marriage (we mostly already know what they are) and its failure to adequately describe to key factors in the conversation about virginity. These being the hymen and its related concept, bleeding on first vaginal penetration.
Let’s start with the hymen.
According to “experts” on Insight, the hymen is a “flap of skin” that is formed as a part of the formation of the foetus and is associated with the fact that as little humans we don’t grow in a logical and simple manner but as different parts of what will eventually become the whole. So as the vagina develops it actually isn’t “in” us, it’s kinda, separate from us and the hymen is an element of that left over when we are eventually all one perfect (everyone hopes) tiny woman. This concept that we have a “flap of skin” as perpetuated by the Insight speakers is entirely false. It’s not skin, it’s a fragile membrane that is pretty significant at birth but wears away considerably and is ordinarily pretty non-existant by the time the tiny women become bigger women. If you’re interested in reading and understanding more about the accurate physiology of the hymen before you watch Insight on Tuesday with anyone impressionable and or with whom you want to have a good conversation check out these places;
My Corona: The Anatomy Formerly Known as the Hymen
Both the above articles include lots more links to lots more things.
Among the guests on Tuesdays Insight are two doctors, one who performs “hymen” reconstruction and one who issues certificates to say that a woman’s hymen is intact (even if it isn’t). Sadly, no doctors are included that will challenge the existance and possiblilty of any of these procedures which means the show is wildly biased towards and outdated and dangerous practice of insisting virginity is something that can be “proven”.
Secondly and intricately connected is the concept of blood on first intercourse, an issue which is also dealt with in the articles I have linked to above. On the show you will hear from a Tongan woman who went through her culture’s tradition of presenting the bedsheets to the family after the wedding night to prove that sex happened and that the woman was a virgin. Because there would be blood on the sheets. This is a dangerous and damaging myth that extends FAR beyond the family honour because the reality is that most women do not bleed on first intercourse and the reasons for blood on first intercourse ARE NOT GOOD, even if you believe in the hymen myth. The most common reason that women bleed during ANY sex is poor lubrication and a partner that is too rough. NEITHER OF WHICH ARE GOOD THINGS AND NEITHER OF WHICH HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH A FLAP OF MYTHOLOGICAL SKIN. The idea that my parents would WANT me to have bad, painful and traumatic sex the first time is not just disgusting it’s sets young women up to expect sex to be bad and painful. Sadly Insight fails entirely to approach this concern except for in the form of text on screen quoting the incorrect and clearly easy to challenge statistic that only 40-50% of women bleed on first intercourse.
As a sexuality educator I know that with comprehensive sexuality education, giving quality and correct information to young people and encouraging young women to safely and positively explore their sexuality before and during sexual debut would significantly change this statistic to include only the 0.5% of women who have a membrane that has not worn during life for various physiological reasons and those women whose first sexual intercourse is forced or coerced. In that case we would be having a very different conversation about virginity, hymens and blood on the sheets.
I encourage you all to watch Insight on Tuesday night, among all my complaints there are positive moments, there are young people on the show who unashamedly own their sexuality and other participants who really try to steer the conversation towards a more positive and constructive path. Insight now has twitter feeds so we can have our opinions known and heard (read) during the show, which will obviously not change the outcome but might encourage a new and different dialogue elsewhere. I have a huge amount of respect for Insight and Jenny Brockie and I trust that both can recognise who poorly they researched and developed this episode and how much better they really could do and I REALLY hope that they do, do that.
Lastly, I’m really pleased to have had the opportunity to watch this episode with a young man with an open and questioning mind who was able to recognise the dangerous themes, apply some of the information to his own life and ask careful and knowledge seeking questions of me. If you have a young person in your life watch the show with them. If you work with young people use the show in the future to discuss this issue with them. If you care about relevant and useful information being shared with the general population get onto twitter and make your opinions known during the show. We can do sexuality education better and we can talk about virginity and sexual debut with more clarity and usefulness, but Tuesday night’s Insight is a start.