When author Anu Verma hears the phrase “losing your virginity,” she cringes. As a survivor of sexual violence, she associates the words with power, control, and the loss of innocence—much like she experienced at three years old.
“I really don’t like the term as a survivor because my innocence was taken away from me at a really young age, so my view of sex became distorted,” she said. “[I] felt that anybody could just take my virginity away unconsented until I turned old enough to actually consent.”
The concept is even more difficult for her because, as an Asian woman, she remembers times when women were devalued for not being “virgins” upon marriage. “Men would always want a potential partner who was a virgin as it was a prize for them to ‘pop their wife’s cherry,’” she explained. “Whereas on the other hand, a male being a virgin is deemed as being shameful, which leads to children [and] teenage boys [to become] eager to have sex to create a macho persona.”
Experts agree this phrase is problematic, and not only for survivors. “The phrase is harmful because it directly implies that by having sex, you have lost a part of yourself, and in doing so, diminished your worth,” said Jennifer Lincoln, a TikTok OB-GYN with 2.6M+ followers and the author of Let’s Talk About Down There: An OB-GYN Answers All Your Burning Questions…Without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking.
She added it can make people believe their worth is in their vagina. “It makes you seem used, dirty, less than—all very stigmatizing designations that are rooted solely in our society’s obsession with purity.”
Having sex is a shared experience between two (or more) partners. It's not something that can be lost. “One’s lack of sexual activity is not something that can be misplaced only to be found again, like keys or glasses,” said Jacqueline Shaulis, a survivor, speaker, author, and coach in New York. “It’s not a deciding factor of competition where the victor wins the spoils of another’s sexual activity and the initiate thereby is vanquished in the losing.”
The word “virginity” is also plain inaccurate and a myth. “Virginity is not a medical reality; it’s a concept that’s truly made up,” said Erica Smith, M.Ed., a sex educator on Instagram. “Hymens may tear for all kinds of non-sexual related reasons. They tend to wear down with age despite sexual activity, and some people are even born without them.”
Plus, “losing” your “virginity” usually refers to “p-in-v” sex. So does that mean queer people are all virgins? Uh, no. Virginity is a social construct.
Further, the experience isn’t a “loss.” Anita Bentata, a survivor and psychotherapist who specializes in sex, relationships, and trauma, had her first experience at a younger age and said it felt right for her. “It was a good experience,” she said. “I was young and owning my body—taking it back and choosing what I wanted and with who.”
Bentata recommends not labeling experiences and people, especially in a shaming way. “We live in a society of judgment and blame, which gives us a false sense of certainty and control…Our perceptions and labeling [are] so important on so many levels: personal sense of self, relationships, confidence, physical and mental health, and even our career,” she said. In other words, our self-image plays a role in our overall health.
So why is this phrase so popular, and how does it unfairly affect people of marginalized genders? “It places undue emphasis on a state of sexual purity for women,” Smith said. “This leads to seeing women and girls as ‘sexual gatekeepers’...[it] also leads to slut-shaming.”
Really, it’s a way of judging women for an act that men are praised for, a double standard that keeps men in power.
The message implied with “losing your virginity” leads to abstinence conversations that omit crucial sexual health information, too. “It means we tell young people to ‘save themselves' so they don’t end up ‘disgraced,’ rather than discussing how sex works, how to not get pregnant or get an infection, or how sex can actually be a powerful thing and feel good,” Lincoln said.
And you know what else is wild? The expectations around sex change when a woman gets married. “It’s interesting how society is obsessed with girls being virgins, and then once they're married, they should be as knowledgeable as porn stars to please their man,” Lincoln said. “If that isn’t an example of how patriarchal views in society hurt women and people with vaginas, I don’t know what does.”