OK, that’s sort of misleading. I have two kids. I’ve been married twice. Obviously, I escaped long ago.
But as a mother of adolescent daughters and an unofficial counselor (however undeserving of the honor) to a handful of young people misguided enough to listen to me, I have to come clean:
I reject the Virginity Cult.
I was a member once. As a good girl, a God-fearing young lady raised in the rural Midwest, I wasn’t aware there was any alternative. So my friends and I debated: What if you were raped? Were you still a virgin? Because even though you’d had sex, you hadn’t wanted to… What if you did it but then regretted it? With enough penitential chastity, could you earn back some sort of honorary, second-class virgin status? And we argued—however hypothetically—down to the millimeter how much penetration by what body part actually “counted.”
Rubbish, all of it. Unless you are bionic or gold-plated, your hymen has no intrinsic value. It is just a body part, and a non-functional one at that. Like an appendix, or a skin tag. But less useful. The hymen was (is) currency in patriarchal cultures in which a woman is property, and a man could use the presence thereof to increase his confidence in his own paternity.
Also, I have had some of the basest, most dehumanizing sex imaginable within the confines of marriage. So have a lot of women (and men) that I know. I have also had sex so profound its impact completely transcended the orgasm, yet had nothing to do with marriage. When it comes to sex, I know whereof I speak. I have seen the best and the very worst.
And while these facts might not counter the religious arguments that sex should be reserved for marriage, they do debunk a myth all those virginity-pushing youth group leaders were only too happy to propagate: That marital sex is inherently sacrosanct. Elaborated, the myth goes like this: You will marry someone after an appropriate period of chaste courtship during which you can discern your partner’s character without being misled by the hallucinatory haze of oxytocin. Then, on your wedding night, you will have the most glorious sex of your life. The two shall become one, never to be put asunder, and you will climax while angels sing a hallelujah chorus. It’s all downhill from there.
It would’ve been so much more useful (and honest) if they had shared a little reality with us, instead. Something like this: Sexual relationships are probably going to be the single most complicated thing you ever try to sort out. You’ll meet people and date them and sometimes someone who seems almost Heaven-sent will reveal themselves to be a turd, and the dull kid three seats back in Algebra will (if you get to know him well enough) turn out to be an absolute gem, funny and sweet and profound. Either way, you will both change a lot (I cannot overstate that part: A LOT) over the next decade or so, so it’s really, really a good idea if you hold off on making major life commitments until you’re mature enough to, say, stick to a budget, or graduate.
Along the way, you don’t have to do everything right, but you do have to avoid doing certain things wrong. Because certain mistakes can be life-ending, or life-disabling. Opting out of sex is an excellent way to avoid a whole lot of them (opting out of drugs and alcohol is tied for first place, and I’d put credit card debt at a distant third) because sex is one of the most amazing, intimate things you can do with another human being, and it carries Consequences the likes of which you can’t even wrap your head around yet. Diseases that make malaria look like a fun summer pastime. Tsunamis of emotion that will bury your fragile little heart before it can even pupate. And parenthood, which it turns out is actually the most amazing, intimate thing you can do with another human being.
But for most of us, opting out of sex is really, really, really hard. So hard that I don’t even have a superlative to describe it. That makes sense, because for any species to succeed (and in evolutionary terms, humanity has been wildly, catastrophically successful) it needs to reproduce. So long before Victorian mothers could counsel their daughters to “lie back and think of England,” evolution made sex a primary drive, aided and abetted by a feedback cycle called arousal that makes crack look like a piker in the “addictive substances” department. When you put all this pressure on something as fragile as your hymen, it’s bound to break. Or at least stretch a little.
I can hardly think of a worse armor in this struggle to make good sexual decisions that the wet-toilet-paper mummy wrap of “virginity.” Because the great lie of virginity is this: Once mis-spent, your sexual worth is unrecoverable. Your first sexual experience—whether you made that decision or it was made for you—is irrevocable. Just look at the lovely, uplifting, affirming phrases used to describe the once-and-done event: You lost your virginity. Or broke your hymen. Or the ever-delightful popped your cherry. You can’t un-ring that bell! Now you’re a fallen woman. Or damaged goods. Or as Elizabeth Smart so poignantly testified, as valuable as chewed gum.
So fuck the Virginity Cult. Every time you have sex is meaningful. Choose well. Value yourself and remember that your Self does not reside in your vagina. When you make mistakes, be quick to forgive yourself. If you decide to wait until marriage, I applaud you. But know that sexual intimacy does not become less special, less valuable, or less potent with time. Neither do you. If anything, the opposite is true.