At what moment are you no longer a virgin? When you get a blowjob? Give one? Give 30? When someone fingers you? Oral sex? Anal sex? Enjoyment? Orgasm? When do you cross the threshold from virgin to non? At what point is virginity, like your keys or your glasses, lost? And what does it mean right now to lose it? Or keep it?
Turns out the answers aren’t so wham-bam clear. The contentious concept of virginity was the topic of a day-long conference at Harvard this past Monday when the air was summer-thick and humid. “Rethinking Virginity,” presented by the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, explored the gray areas of virginity, the cultural constructs, pressures, and stigmas surrounding it, and its place in religion, politics, porn, and pop culture.
Harvard senior Lena Chen, the fiery blogger behind Sex and the Ivy (“the bleeding-heart nympho’s guide to Harvard life”), spearheaded the conference spinning off her thesis on the social construction of virginity. The discussion was also, though less explicitly so, a response to True Love Revolution, Harvard’s well-publicized abstinence club. The group of frank and passionate panelists included queer activists, feminist bloggers, a documentary filmmaker, and sexual-health educators.
The conversations ranged from the academic — there was a hand-out about “Hymenologies” and the phrase “continuing over time in the Derridian sense” was used in conversation (after all, it’s Harvard) — to the pop cultural. In a panel about slut-shaming and sexual scare tactics, references included, among others, Tiger Woods, The Gilmore Girls, Judy Blume, Taylor Swift vs. Miley Cyrus, The Wackness, and Judd Apatow.
In between quips about blowjob-conversion tables (again, how many blowjobs does it take before you can’t call yourself a virgin?) and the horror-movie if-you-have-sex-you-die trope was thoughtful discussion about why virginity is so fraught — and how we can make it less so. The focus was female-centric: all but one of the 15 panelists were women, and of the 60 or so attendees, only about 10 were men.
“A woman in control of her sexuality is profoundly dangerous to the dudely order,” said the sharp Sady Doyle, proprietor of the Tiger Beatdown blog. She urged toward “reconstructing ‘slut’ as someone who’s very comfortable with what she wants.”
The vocal Lux Alptraum, the editor of Fleshbot and founder of the alternative-porn site ThatStrangeGirl, offered up the idea of “multiple virginities,” which resonated in a take-home-message way, that it’s not a black-and-white moment but part of a sexual path. “I myself have had multiple losses of virginity,” Alptraum disclosed. “I can think of four separate instances.” And panelists listed vaginal, anal, group sex, and leather virginity losses as a few possible examples.
But it wasn’t all pro–having sex. Much of the conversation involved making a comfortable space for people to choose to abstain. “The word abstinence has gotten tarnished,” said Shelby Knox, subject of the documentary film The Education of Shelby Knox (which chronicles the transformation of a 15-year-old girl from abstinence-pledging Southern Baptist to sex-education activist). “It’s just one more method of pregnancy and STI prevention.”
Abstainers were represented at the conference, to be sure. “I’m 26 and I’m a virgin,” said Allison, who lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog about dumpster-diving and asked that her last name not be used, in response to why she came to the conference. She talked about waiting until she was in love, which may or may not involve marriage. “I view myself as a sexual person,” she said. “I don’t feel shame. I feel empowered. I’ll do it when I’m ready. And I feel great about it frankly.”