As recently as about ten years ago, girls would be ‘slut-shamed’ for sleeping around. Today, the reality is the polar opposite; if you haven’t had sex, you are the anomaly. I remember that Freshers’ Week was tough for me; I hadn’t yet done it, but everyone else seemed to have.
We were playing Never Have I Ever and I was ready to be honest- who cares how far I’d gone? Yet I watched as everyone across the room recounted their crazy hedonistic nights or embarrassing sex stories and laughed in unison, whilst the girl who stated she had never had a relationship was looked at with concern and definite judgement. I didn’t want to be like her, so I lied.
I thought coming to university would be liberating; whilst at school, your sexual experience can define you, it didn’t have to be this way in a world of adults. However, Durham can sometimes feel like school on a macro-level, with its collegiate system and three square meals in the dining hall each day in the first year. This is perhaps why, when I technically ‘lost it’, it was to someone who maintained that ethos; he visibly judged me for being a virgin. He belittled me, making comments that I didn’t deserve. I wanted to lose it, not because the moment felt right or any of that usual rhetoric, but because I felt the societal pressures of losing it so I wouldn’t be judged by those around me. Pathetic, I know.
Of course, my experience doesn’t necessarily represent the norm, but I have spoken to enough girls and guys who have felt the same way about this climate and the genuine fear of judgement about their sexual experiences. Many have felt the constant pressure to lose their virginity. In hindsight, our lack of experience was so normal and we had no reason to be ashamed. Yet, many do feel ashamed because society expects you to be sexually active. Why does it matter what someone has done with their body, when, why or with whom?
An article published by The Tab in 2015 ranked ‘how many virgins are there at your uni’, claiming: ‘age you lose your virginity obviously has an enormous impact on your social standing and how you should be perceived by your peers.’ Obviously, this is meant as a joke. Yet, considering The Tab’s role as one medium for the voices of thousands of students, such a joke is worrying and a precise example of one of the many ways the societal pressure of virgin-shaming can manifest itself in the media. (Apparently, 7% of Durham’s students are virgins according to this Tab article. You needn’t worry: it is clearly an accurate representation of all 17,000 Durham students and their varied, diverse and differing sex lives). Phrases like ‘pop their cherry’ and ‘never been laid’ lace this article and only serve to propagate these pressurising terms.
The word ‘virgin’ is problematic in itself. Virginity can mean different things to different people. Distinctions can be juvenile, just like any attempts to codify and categorise virgin statistics for warped national surveys.
Popular culture also doesn’t aid matters. Sex is everywhere: on television, in pornography, in advertisements- pervading modern day society. Take films like American Pie, which literally tracks four boys’ attempts to lose their virginity before college. All four characters miraculously ‘lost it’ by the end of the film. Though admittedly a satisfactory ending, and in spite of its legendary status as a teen movie, how many teenagers did that film worry as much as it did entertain? Famous movie quotes like ‘Dawn Schweitzer is a fat virgin’ (Mean Girls) and ‘youre a virgin who can’t drive’ (Clueless) are famous for being funny. Though the latter was admittedly a factor in my actually learning how to drive, they do not propagate healthy messages for teenagers. Television in general just doesn’t. People aren’t having sex as regularly as these outlets might suggest. And even if they are ,who cares? I wish I could go back in time and tell my 18-year-old self that sex just isn’t a big deal.
If you’re reading this and think I’m being melodramatic, you are simply part of the problem. Virgin-shaming is real and it puts pressure on an individual in as potent a way as exam stress, relationship stress and other various forms of strain. Talking about last night’s ‘sexual exploits’ are par for the course and completely normal. All I’m saying is that we need to be mindful of people’s decisions to keep quiet about their own experiences, and not judge them when they do choose to share. This goes both ways, whether someone is a sexual connoisseur or a first timer. Sex can be a deeply personal and physical act. We shouldn’t be blasé about it; we just need mutual respect for one another.
Photograph by Miriam via Flickr and Creative Commons.