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What is ‘virginity’?

The word ‘virginity’ has been used for thousands of years to describe the state of not having had sex. Find out about why the concept of virginity is problematic, and different ways of thinking about having sex for the first time.

What does the word ‘virginity’ mean? 

The word ‘virginity’ has been used for thousands of years to describe the state of not having had sex. It is generally used more in relation to women and people with vaginas than men and people with penises. 

What does ‘having sex’ mean?

Often when people talk about ‘having sex’, they really mean two people having penis-in-vagina sex, also known as vaginal sex. So, having sex for the first time or ‘losing your virginity’ is often code for having vaginal sex for the first time.

At Brook, we use the word ‘sex’ to include all sexual activity, not just relating to penetration. There are loads of different ways to be sexually intimate with another person, to feel sensual, or to orgasm so ‘sex’ and having sex ‘for the first time’ can mean different things for different people. 

Some people like to use the phrase ‘sexual debut’ instead of ‘losing your virginity’, because it doesn’t treat having sex for the first time as a loss of anything, or a change in your status as a person (i.e. from ‘virgin’ to ‘non-virgin’ or ‘experienced’). Other people prefer not to think of having sex for the first time as a moment that is any more significant than any other time you have sex in your life. However you choose to think about it, the most important thing is that any sexual activity you take part in, both the first time and every time after that, is consensual and that you feel happy and comfortable.

More about having sex for the first time

More about deciding to have sex

‘Virginity’ in history and culture 

Historically, in lots of cultures, someone who has not had sex (a ‘virgin’) has been considered pure or innocent. The flip side of this is that someone who has had sex, especially before marriage, may be considered impure or not respectable. 

In some cultures, a high value is placed on women’s purity or ‘virginity’ and not having sex until she is married to a man. This may be for cultural, economic or religious reasons and can mean that a woman may be expected to prove that she is a virgin before a marriage is agreed through invasive and potentially harmful ‘virginity testing

While lots of people don’t agree with these ideas about virginity anymore, these ideas can still affect people’s ideas about sex and relationships. 

Why is the concept of virginity problematic?  

The concept of virginity is problematic for a variety of reasons. 

Gender stereotypes and double standards

The idea of virginity perpetuates gender stereotypes about how men and women should behave.  

Young people, particularly men and boys, may feel under pressure to have sex before they are ready or with someone they don’t want to, especially if they think their friends are all having sex before they are.  

Some people, particularly women and girls, may also feel pressure to ‘preserve their virginity’ and to not have sex because of negative perceptions of girls or women who have sex too young or outside of marriage or a long term relationship. 

These pressures can prevent people from making an informed decision about if and when they would like to have sex.  

Restrictive ideas about what counts as sex

Some young people experience pressure to have kinds of sex they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with because those kinds of sex aren’t counted as ‘losing your virginity’. For instance, oral sex and anal sex and hand-to-genital sexual contact may not be considered ‘sex’ when, in fact, they are all types of sex.  

The limited idea of sex meaning having penis in vagina sex excludes people who identify as LGBT+, who may not have penis in vagina sex at all. It is also restrictive to everyone, regardless of sexuality; anything from kissing to sexual touching to penetration, exists on a spectrum of sexual activity and needs consent every time. 

More about gender

More about sexuality

Pressure to have sex before you are ready

Ideas of virginity can leave very little space for people to decide if, when, and how they would like to have sex. When the focus is entirely on ‘losing your virginity’ as a one-off event that only involves a very particular type of sex, people may be less likely to think carefully about how they feel about sex, whether they are ready for sex, what kind of sex or intimate relationship they would like and who they would like to have sex with. These choices are really important throughout your life, and every time you engage in sexual activity, not just ‘the first time’. 

The reality is, people have all kinds of sex with all kinds of people at all kinds of times in their lives. Lots of people choose to delay having sex for the first time until they are married, or until they are older, while others begin being sexually active with other people when they are teenagers, and some people never have sex with anyone. There is no right or wrong time or way to have sex for the first time, including not having it at all, as long as you are comfortable, and are making the choice freely and consensually.  

Whether or not you have had sex, regardless of your gender, has no impact on your worth as a person. You should always feel empowered to make choices about your body and what you want to do with it; it is your right to decide if you are going to participate in consensual sexual activity, for the first time and every single time.  

Find out more about consent.

Virginity, the hymen and the vagina 

‘Virginity’ is not a medical or scientific concept; there is no way to tell from someone’s body if they have or haven’t had sex before. Often, the absence of a hymen is taken as evidence that someone with a vagina has had sex, however there are a variety of reasons why this isn’t true. 

What is a hymen?

The hymen is a ring of thin skin which covers part of the opening of the vagina. It does not cover the vaginal opening completely so that it can allow menstrual blood out. When the hymen stretches it can feel uncomfortable or be a bit painful. The purpose of the hymen is not known and everyone’s hymen is different. In fact, some people with a vagina are born without a hymen entirely. 

When you have vaginal sex for the first time there may be some bleeding afterwards if the hymen tears quickly, but this doesn’t happen to everyone. You can have vaginal sex with no changes to the hymen. The hymen can also stretch from using tampons and activities such as playing sport. 

When ideas about virginity cause harm

Virginity testing

Virginity testing is an invasive procedure in which someone’s vulva and vagina are inspected in order to determine if they have had sex. It may involve inserting fingers or objects into the vagina.  

Often virginity testing is non-consensual and can be experienced as a form of unwanted touching or sexual assault that can cause physical and/or psychological harm.

Virginity testing also perpetuates unscientific information and harmful ideas about virginity. As of March 2022, virginity testing is now illegal.

There is no scientific way to test if someone has or hasn’t had sex through inspecting their genitals. The idea that you can verify virginity by examining the vulva and vagina for the presence of an intact hymen, or that you can tell whether someone is a virgin by the tightness of their vagina, is completely false.  

Every vulva, vagina and hymen is different and doctors cannot accurately assess whether or not someone has had sex. Anything from getting older, to some forms of sport, to using tampons could all affect whether the hymen appears to be intact. Some people can still have an intact hymen after having penetrative vaginal sex, while others are born without a hymen entirely.  

The ‘tightness’ of someone’s vagina also does not provide any information about whether or not they have had sex. This is because the vagina is elastic and will stretch and constrict depending on various factors such as mood, arousal and whether there has been penetration of the vagina recently. 

Some people may use chemicals or creams for ‘tightening’ their vaginas either to pass ‘virginity tests’ or because they believe that men prefer this. Like many so-called feminine hygiene products, these can dry out the lining of the vagina, upset the delicate chemical balance and can lead to discomfort and infection.   

Hymen ‘repair’ surgery, or ‘hymenoplasty’

Some women or people with a vagina who have had sex or are worried that their hymens are not intact may seek surgery (or be made to have surgery by their families) to give the physical appearance of ‘virginity’. 

Brook believes that doctors have a responsibility to tackle the dangerous myths and misinformation about virginity, providing accurate medical information about the diversity of vulvas and the natural changes in the hymen, and challenging the cultural ideas about virginity that continue to put women at serious risk in some communities.

Providing hymenoplasty perpetuates unscientific ideas about the hymen and reinforces harmful ideas about virginity. It is now a criminal offence to provide hymenoplasty.

Surgery to reshape a person’s vulva, such as labioplasty, vaginaplasty, or hymen repair surgery (hymenoplasty), is potentially risky surgery that changes a healthy body often in order to comply with other people’s ideas of how a woman’s body should look. Vulval and vaginal surgery can lead to pain, infection and even loss of sensation. 

More about the natural diversity of vulvas and vaginas.

Read this helpful leaflet, ‘So what is a vulva anyway?’

FGM and honour violence

Preservation of virginity is also one of the reasons given for subjecting girls and people with vaginas to female genital mutilation (FGM), which is harmful and illegal.

In some cultures, it is considered shameful for women to have sex before marriage, which may prevent them from getting married, lead to exclusion from family or may even put them at risk of violent crime from members of their family or community (sometimes called ‘honour crimes’ or ‘honour violence’).

Helping someone who is at risk of honour violence, virginity testing or hymenoplasty

There are several organisations which support women in communities where they may be at risk of honour violence:  

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