losing our virginity :: PART TWO

When I was 20 I had an Italian Catholic friend called Sabrina. Sabrina was a gorgeous, vivacious Brittany murphy lookalike who’d been with her lovely boyfriend, Phil, for 2 years. I’d see her most weekends because Phil lived with my boyfriend in an old turn of the century share house. On weekends all the friends would gather there. Saturday nights would come and we’d all likely be found sitting out the back in the glow of embers and moonlight drinking and talking and swearing. As the night wore on though, Sabrina would regularly glance at her watch and like clockwork when 9:30pm rolled around Sabrina would say her goodbyes and Phil would walk her to her car.

Sabrina’s parents would be waiting for her and under no circumstances was she to be home any later than 10pm. Sabrina’s staunch catholic parents forbade sleepovers but more importantly, sex, because Sabrina and Phil weren’t married and living together. Sabrina had tried to get around it, she’d even attempted holidays with “girlfriends” but the intricate web of lies she’d had to spin eventually became too tiresome.

Sabrina and I would talk about her frustration around this, a desperation of wanting to lift the cage but trying to explain to her parents how she felt and what she wanted would have fallen on deaf ears. She felt that challenging her parents would do her more damage than good.

At the same time as she moaned about a lack of freedom, she’d also laugh. “They think I’m a virgin but sex doesn’t just happen at sleepovers,” she’d say over a can of beer. “We just fuck during the day and every other time.” There was an unspoken rule in the house – if Phil’s door happened to be shut we never ever disturbed.

Sabrina and I grew apart but a few years later I’d heard she’d married Phil. I don’t know if her parents ever found out about her lack of virginity on her wedding night and if they did I’m not sure how would have reacted. They undoubtedly would have been incredibly upset and may have dealt her some punishment.

What I know for sure is that she would never have been disowned or killed for her actions but in some countries and cultures where virginity is still highly prized, women are sometimes stoned to death under the guise of shame. In some parts of Africa, the myth that sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS continues to prevail, leading to girls and women being raped.

In other countries where women have more control and freedom, having sex for the first time outside of marriage is accepted and for me personally, I’ve always felt that my first time was no one else’s business. But I, unlike so many others, came from a family and a culture where religious values and virtues were not a particularly important part of everyday life. This does not, however, mean that I and other nonreligious women are free of shame or isolation.

Virginity is a prickly and heavy loaded topic and its value is seen differently throughout the world depending on a country or cultural beliefs. Below is a snapshot of the world’s three predominant religions – Christianity, Islam & Secular – to show how women in these cultures are treated with respect to their virginity.

 

Christianity {2.1 billion followers}

Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body
— 1 Cor. 6:18

In the Christian faith a woman’s worth is determined by her purity and chastity. If a Christian woman isn't a virgin when she marries, she can be made to feel that she has shamed herself and is unworthy of God’s blessings.

A few years back an evangelical Christian girl Sarah Bessey wrote a blog post about how she’d been labelled by the pastor of her church as “damaged goods” for not being a virgin when she married.

She wrote in her piece:

Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.

He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”

And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!

“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”

The Christian Church preaches to young girls that they must wait, they must remain pure and they will be rewarded with a fulfilling marriage. If they don’t wait, like Sarah, they are made to feel a great deal of shame, of disappointment, not only for themselves but their family also.

My friend Sabrina was in so many ways, a wonderful girl. She was kind and caring, she never missed a family engagement, she was very loving to what many would consider overbearing parents and she regularly attended church. But she couldn’t help but feel that her parents would overlook all that in the news that she was no longer a virgin. Even though Sabrina wanted to convince herself that engaging in a loving sexual relationship was normal, it was clear to most that she also felt a sense of shame. Shame that she’d let her parents down and shame that she couldn’t uphold the values instilled in her since childhood.

Yet healthy relationships and good sexual relationships rarely rely on a promise and are instead a condition of hard work, compassion and love. This is something that many Christians believe is a problem with the Church’s message in the modern day.

As author Elizabeth Esther wrote in one of her articles on sex “many in the church today have mistaken virginity for the goal, forgetting that the goal really is becoming a mature healthy individual with mature healthy relationships.

“A person is more than their sexual experience or lack thereof. Christians find our identity as adopted children of God, not in our virginity. We believe that God works in and with us to make us mature and whole: to learn ourselves, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and develop the strength of character to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. Most important, Christians believe that God loves us and can even bring good out of our mistakes and pain.”

And what’s perhaps more interesting is that 80% of young Christians are having sex before wedlock. Maybe, like Sarah Bessey, they are choosing to focus on the gift of forgiveness and not shame.

Islam {1.3 billion followers}

Conservatives in Islam use sex, wrapped in religion, as a tool of social control, particularly of women
— Shereen El Feki, journalist and author

Probably the most controversial of all when it comes to the prize of virginity is Islam as this is the religion in which a woman can still lose her life for engaging in premarital sex. 

If you’re Islam, female and unmarried, sex is forbidden and sinful. Those that believe in the teachings of Sunnah the Prophet follow his command that women keep their virginity until their nikah (marriage) to their first husband. A woman who has saved her virginity is seen as highly desirable. She has the qualities of morality, fidelity, chastity, loyalty, good home training and upbringing.

If a man raises an unclean daughter, the entire family is disgraced and unfortunately in these honour-and-shame societies, it doesn’t matter if a woman was raped or abused, she is still considered marked. The Prophet believed that paradise is guaranteed for any Muslim man who succeeds in raising daughters with sound morals till he marries then out. It is his reward.

If you live in the Islamic states of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq and you’re found to have had sex out of wedlock (or more importantly, your future husband believes you’re no longer a virgin), you may lose your life. A study done by the PEW Institute Centre found that in these two countries majorities condone extra-judicial executions of women who allegedly have shamed their families by engaging in premarital sex or adultery. In Afghanistan and Iraq an unbelievable 60% believe honour killings of women are often or sometimes justified.

The concept of women as property and honour are often so deeply entrenchced in the fabric of these cultures that authorities largely ignore them. The perpetrator is often seen as upholding justice when the victim commits acts of shame and they are pardoned once they pay blood money and the victim’s family forgives them. Ironically, and in many cases it is the victim’s family committing the crime.

If a woman’s life is spared, she may suffer other lifelong punishments. According to the International women’s Initiative, if a bride is found to have already engaged in sex before marriage she can be tossed back to her family with her face painted in black, a mark of disgrace. The bride's parents must repay the dowry (an amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage) and wedding expenses and the groom might then marry the disgraced bride's sister.

Below is a diagram from the PEW Research Center showing the behaviours Muslims consider immoral.

muslim_immoral_behaviours.png
 

Nonreligious {1.1 billion followers}

While women who follow the religions of Islam and Christianity feel in many ways forced to hold on to their virginity until marriage, those women who don’t follow any particular religion are in most cases given more freedom to choose when they experience their first sexual experience.

Of course, this does not mean that these women are free of judgement, fear or shame. In fact, while evangelical Christians and Muslims are made to feel shame for not waiting, nonreligious women can also experience shame for either “giving away” their virginity too early or be labelled “abnormal” for waiting until marriage.

Some sex therapists believe virginity can be a problem, particularly when it’s viewed as shameful or isolating. Many young women feel a need or pressure to lose their virginity to appear more “normal.”

This was certainly the case for me. I had intercourse for the first time just shy of my 18th birthday and like many of my friends, there was an unspoken pressure to join the group of girls who’d had a penis thrust into them. There was a certain confidence that came with being able to say “I’m no longer a virgin”, even though the sex was crap. And I’m not alone, in the US, UK and Australia, the average age of first-timers stands at 17.

Even though virgins are a minority in nonreligious cultures, there are still plenty of women who decide to wait. In an article written by some guy called Lee, entitled “Seven reasons why atheists wait until marriage” sights the following reasons:

  • logic - apparently couples that wait have a fraction of the divorce rate;
  • setting an example - inspiring children and others to wait;
  • healthy sex image -  not using sex to boost your self esteem;
  • rebellion -  dare to be different and wait
  • respect -  for yourself and future fuck buddy
  • idealism -  reserving physical intimacy for “the one”
  • poetry -  some romantic notion about waiting

I have some big issues with the above and think that most of the reasons Leo has given are damaging and untrue. If you have sex before marriage you can still set an example, you can still have a healthy self image, you can still be rebellious, have respect for yourself and others and still have an idealistic view, if that’s your thing.

Virginity is so steeped in ideas of purity and innocence but what does that even mean? Why are we so “damaged” and “undesirable” for engaging in a completely normal, healthy act? Why are we still not given the freedom to do what we want with our own bodies? The most important thing will always be doing what’s right for you. I was so relieved after my first time because I realised that I had some very warped, unrealistic and untrue views about what “sex” was. Regardless of whether you’re muslim, catholic or an atheist, the most important step we can take is to open the discussion, to speak openly about virginity’s place in our modern day society. To make women realise it’s fine to have sex but it’s also fine to wait.

And this is exactly what we’re trying to encourage with our Virgin Files. These are true accounts of our first sexual encounters. We are getting quite the collection and we’d love more. Simply head here and share your story. They go live on November 16.

 

* image by Club Clitoris