Saturday, May 28, 2022

Virginity as a social construct: a shame for men, a pride for women

An irreverent sexist boy joke likens virginity to a bubble, “one prick and it’s all gone.” While both men and women can be virgins, the joke assumes a sexist hue both for the “prick “ punchline, and the fact that it is a tool society uses to rate the chastity of girls and the experience of boys.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “Virginity is a concept that many cultures have prized for a long time. Though the term “virgin” is used to describe both men and women who have not had a physical sexual experience, women seem to be the only ones responsible for protecting it. The construct of sexual purity and virginity should be defined by the individual, because if it’s imposed by social or cultural standards, the outcomes can be harmful for both men and women. The social construct of virginity probably won’t disappear anytime soon, but it is important to understand that people have a right to define what virginity means to them. People have the right to protect or reject the ideas of virginity with what works for them in accordance to their morals and values. The global community still sees virginity as an asset or a prize — something that can be tangible. In many cultures the so-called gift of a virgin is highly regarded and respected.”

Virginity, however, is a social construct. A pre-intercourse boy is inexperienced. A post-intercourse girl is defiled, impure, loose, immoral. A post-intercourse boy is experienced.

Some cultures and communities place so much importance in the idea of virginity that they conduct “virginity testing.” This practice is condemned by the World Health Organization as a violation of a person’s human rights. It is also common to check for blood on the sheets after intercourse — blood means she was a virgin before intercourse. No blood means she was not a virgin. In some places, it may be seen as evidence she has defrauded her husband and may be subjected to punishment or even death.  It is used to assess a person’s value as a human being based on whether or not they have had previous sexual partners. There is no scientifically reliable way to test a person’s virginity. Despite the persistence of the myth of the hymen being a sexual snitch, it just isn’t. The myth about the hymen being an indicator of virginity is bad enough; the myth that it must be broken or “pricked” in order to “take” virginity only adds to the problem. It implies violence. The truth is, the hymen can lubricate and stretch. It does not have to tear the first time, or any time. Also true is that all sorts of non-sexual activities can contribute to the tearing of the hymen, from exercise etc. Misunderstanding about what the hymen actually is has prompted some people to adapt their language about it. Virginity is spoken of as if it is a tangible thing to be “given” or “taken” freely. In doing so, we commodify the sexual body and allow it to determine our worth – whether we have “lost” our sexual purity or “taken” someone else’s. Virginity isn’t something we can materialize – he “took” my virginity, I “gave” it to her, it is not a chocolate bar. This notion is dangerous as it essentializes a potentially meaningful, pleasurable experience into a status competition.

Clinical psychologist in Gaborone, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “Virginity frames a woman’s worth as inversely proportional to how much sex she has had. As stated, virginity is linked with purity. This means that the more sex that you’ve had, the less pure you are. What that translates to for women is that your value is inherently linked to how much sex you have had specifically how much sex you’ve had with men. There is an inverse relationship in how much sex you’ve had and how much society deems your worth to be. For men, however, there’s a positive correlation between how much sex they have and the worth that society deems them to have. Men are socially rewarded for having sex, and women are socially punished –he’s a stud, and she’s a slut. This is a sexual double standard.”

Virginity holds a considerably heavier weight for women than it does for men. Traditionally, women are taught that their virginity is a valuable commodity that reflects upon their moral character. If a woman loses it to someone who she wasn’t in a relationship with, or wasn’t married to, she is regarded as loose or impure. While women are shamed for having sex, men are empowered by society and encouraged to have sex as much as possible. Historically, men didn’t face cultural consequences if they weren’t virgins when they got married. On the other hand, women were often beaten or killed if they weren’t believed to be pure. Unfortunately, the invasion of women’s bodies is a very real practice even in the modern age. Historically, women have been defined by their sex and reproduction. If a woman bore many children, she was considered good. If a woman had many miscarriages, she was considered bad and the husband was advised to get another wife. A woman’s sexual purity became very important because of this. Her virginity was seen as one of the most important things about her.

Sexuality was also, of course, also regulated by religion, which made sex shameful and taboo outside of marriage. And for the most part, contraception was unattainable, so it was important for women to remain virgins for their husbands to ensure the purity of his bloodline.

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