The Virginity Myth : Performance and Social Pressure

Our team took the time to reflect on this interesting confession and offer some food for thought.

What defines “having sex”?

Sex is generally defined by having consensual sexual contact with another person (or several!). However, the emphasis is often placed on genitals and penetration, especially in heterosexual contexts, and gives the impression that a “complete” sexual encounter necessarily involves vaginal penetration (Bédard, 2008).

This perception of sexuality stems from the everpresent association between sex and procreation, and also leads to the belief that other types of sexual activity – oral sex, masturbation, anal sex, kissing, etc. – are “foreplay”, and therefore don’t count as “real sex” and only serve to “prepare” partners for penetration or to “compensate” for a lack of penetration (Andro & Bajos, 2008).

It’s as though sex is a buffet…but with only three items available:

  • Foreplay
  • Penile-vaginal penetration
  • Orgasm

Yet, most people have sex for pleasure – not to reproduce (Andro & Bajos, 2008). And the body has many other equally pleasurable erogenous zones: the mouth, the breasts, the clitoris, the anus, the ears, the thighs, etc. In addition, engaging in a greater variety of sexual practices is associated with greater sexual satisfaction (Andro & Bajos, 2008; Higgins et al., 2011)! We therefore strongly recommend that you incorporate play and exploration with your partners during sex.

Because not all roads lead to… coitus. 😉

What does “being a virgin” really mean?

In Canada and elsewhere in the world, being a “virgin” and being “sexually active” are usually defined by one specific criteria: vaginal penetration with a penis.

But it’s important to remember that sex can involve any type of partnered sexual activity (oral sex, anal sex, caressing, kissing, etc.) – not just penile-vaginal penetration!

Among young adults (17 to 29 years old) in Quebec, 77% have had vaginal intercourse at least once in their life and, for 47% of them, their “first time” occurred before the age of 17 (Lambert et al., 2017). This means that more than 20% of youths haven’t had vaginal intercourse yet (or never will).

Even though “virginity” is common and we are all “virgins” at some point in our lives, people who have never had vaginal intercourse are unfortunately stigmatized (Fleming & Davis, 2018) and sometimes not considered as partner material (Gesselman et al., 2017).

However, not having had vaginal sex before a certain age, whether by choice or by circumstance, doesn’t make you undesirable!

Besides, it’s important to think about what “losing your virginity” means. Indeed, defining “being sexually active” solely on the basis of having had vaginal penetration is problematic and unapplicable to a lot of people who do not engage in or have not yet experienced this practice.

As the CEO of sex toy shop Spectrum Boutique, Zoë Ligon says, this definition should solely belong to the person concerned, as everyone should be able to decide for themselves what marks this stage of their lives. As for her, Zoë Ligon defines the moment she lost her virginity as the first time she masturbated.

So there you have it. You don’t need to be having vaginal sex for it to count as “real sex”. If you consider whatever you’re doing as “having sex”, then you’re sexually active. It’s up to you to decide. 🙂

Let’s talk performance.

The belief that “sex = penile-vaginal intercourse” puts enormous pressure on people to have vaginal sex. The feeling of being abnormal and of not fitting this sexual standard sometimes leads people to rethink their sexual satisfaction (Traaen & Shaller, 2010) and to see themselves as “bad” in bed. However, doubting one’s normalcy and sexual skills can actually harm one’s experience of pleasure!

As young adults, the pressure to be sexually active and to “perform” in the sack leads us to view our sexuality in normative terms, that is, to believe that there is a normal (and therefore an abnormal) way of having sex (Maas & Lefkowitzt, 2015). This can lead many of us to feel defective, abnormal, or even undesirable when we compare ourselves to this ideal version of sexuality that we believe everyone else is living up to.

But sex should be about pleasure! There’s a reason we talk about “sexual relations”: sex is an exchange, an interaction, a moment of connection during which pleasurable sexual sensations are shared and everyone feels good. Sex isn’t a race or a sport, but rather a playground.

What if we allowed ourselves to play, explore, and make mistakes rather than simply “score”? Let’s have fun just for the sake of having fun! 😉

Is it normal to feel pain during sex?

Up to three-fourths of vagina-owners have experienced pain during sex (ACOG, 2011), a condition called dyspareunia. In most cases, it’s a one-time thing or something that occurs once in a blue moon. However, for about 15% of these people, genital pain can occur very often or at every vaginal penetration (APA, 2013).

Many people believe that painful penetration is normal for people with vaginas, though let’s get our facts straight: sex should never be painful!

In many cases, the cause of the pain is physical and is often due to the muscles at the entrance to the vagina being too tense. When these muscles are contracted so tightly that penetration becomes difficult or impossible, even when the sex is wanted, it’s a condition called vaginismus, which affects about 6% of people with vaginas (Lewis et al., 2004).

Even though medical training increasingly includes material on these conditions, several patients have had bad experiences with uninformed doctors who, when unable to identify a physical cause for the pain, wrongfully attributed it to a psychological one. Unfortunately, this means that many people have had to wait for a long time before receiving a proper diagnosis or a referral to a specialist. It is therefore best to see a gynecologist, a sexologist, or another sexual health specialist to obtain adequate treatment. There are even physiotherapists who specialize in pelvic and genital pain who can help!

If you personally relate to this confession, know that:

  • your pain is real
  • you have a right to adequate treatment, and
  • you have a right to sexual pleasure

Don’t forget that sex is for everyone’s pleasure! That means it is for YOUR pleasure too, not just your partner’s!