The purity myth and queer women’s experiences of sexuality and sexual agency

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By Zoë Crabtree

Introduction

As a queer-identified woman, I was somewhat disappointed by Jessica Valenti’s (2010) book The purity myth: How America’s obsession with virginity is hurting young women. I appreciated her sharp critique and deep analysis of the abstinence movement in the United States, particularly because of my upbringing in a conservative rural town in central California where such discourse was prevalent. However, Valenti did not address how people other than straight women were affected by the purity myth. In this paper I fill this blank by interrogating discourses of virginity and sex from a queer perspective, and by examining how young, queer women themselves understand and experience their sexuality and sexual agency.

In The Purity Myth, Valenti argues that the high value placed on women’s virginity in the US has numerous harmful effects for girls and women. Primarily, the harmful effects of the purity myth are the loss of self-worth, over-sexualization, infantilization, feelings of powerlessness, and unintentional (and often teen) pregnancy that women experience. These are not the results of a benign morality of virginity or of an oppressive patriarchal past, Valenti argues, but rather the direct results of the abstinence movement that has swelled in the religious political right in recent years. Valenti terms this movement the “virginity movement,” describing it as having “conservatives and evangelical Christians at the helm, and our government, school systems, and social institutions taking orders” (2010:23). She continues arguing that behind the virginity movement’s ostensible message in favor of women’s purity and innocence is an agenda intent on keeping women passive and controllable. She posits that this is a backlash against feminist rhetoric that has increasingly encouraged women to go to college and have careers instead of staying at home with their children. The virginity movement ironically does not mind overtly sexualizing women and virginity to sell itself to the masses. It also, Valenti points out, often employs feminist rhetoric to deliver its sexist message: women are empowered by practicing abstinence –which, while true for some women, is a statement that has profoundly negative implications for how society treats women who choose to engage in sexual activity outside of the marital and reproductive sex that the virginity movement deems acceptable. Alternately, it can have negative implications on how these women view themselves.

Valenti fails to adequately address, however, the positionality of queer women within, adjacent to, or outside of the purity myth. She mentions homosexuality on a handful of pages, but never interrogates how the harmful discourses she illuminates affect queer women. Just as the virginity movement does, Valenti fails to imagine queer women in her study. This is problematic because it furthers the erasure of queer women within a discourse that already fails to consider them as subjects at all.

I have had a somewhat nebulous relationship with my virginity and, to use the colloquial phrasing, how I “lost” it. I feel that I have been able to overcome some of the harmful effects of the purity myth by claiming a queer identity, defining sex on my own terms, and having positive sexual experiences. The most harmful of these effects was feeling that being sexual or discussing sexuality made me a bad person, not worthy of love or respect. I am still working through feelings of shame around being a sexually active person, and one reason I was interested in conducting research into how the purity myth affected queer women at MH College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, was the opportunity it would give me to talk with other queer women about their experiences.

Existing studies of (queer) virginity

Before embarking on my own ethnographic research, I wanted to gain an understanding of the pre-existing scholarship on virginity. I had already read The Purity Myth, but was there anything written about how queer women negotiate their virginity for themselves? I found that, while there has been a lot written about virginity in a heteronormative matrix, relatively little has been written about queerness and virginity – especially queer women and virginity –and a surprisingly large percentage of this body of scholarship consists of magazine articles.

One of the main themes in the articles is the difficulty of defining virginity for heterosexual as well as homosexual people. The 2006 CosmoGirl article “The virginity code: What does it mean to be a virgin?” focuses primarily on trying to figure out what being a virgin actually means. The article’s author, Sondra Forsyth, addresses how ambiguous the line between virginity and sex is for heterosexual teenage girls in the United States. She outlines very generally the historical context for virginity (women needing to be “pure” for their husbands, virginity commoditized as women’s worth both morally and economically), and then continues to argue that this has changed. The later average marriage age for women in the US, she contends, allows girls and women to more acceptably engage in pre-marital sex. However, according to a survey CosmoGirl sent out to their readers, girls are more likely to engage in “everything but” sex (which often includes oral sex) because of the continued value placed on virginity. Forsyth claims that oral sex is the most contentious practice when trying to define sex because, despite the extreme intimacy of engaging in oral sex, the predominant cultural definition of sex is that it consists of penile penetration of a vagina (a conception of sex that ties it inextricably to reproduction rather than pleasure). At the end of the article, Forsyth addresses lesbians in a section titled “Are gay girls virgins?” She concludes, after interviewing a few self-identified lesbians, that defining lesbian sex is even more difficult than defining heterosexual sex (it can, she says, consist of anything from making out to engaging in oral sex to rubbing bodies against each other), and that it is up to each person to decide for themselves what sex is.

In the last paragraph, she valiantly refutes the common idea that virginity is something lost or broken when one engages in sex. Instead, she contends that virginity is a very valuable gift to be given to someone else only with extreme care and forethought – in my eyes an equally damaging metaphor because it continues to conceptualize virginity as an object that is traded, opening up the possibility for the “owner” of virginity to experience loss and theft. In so doing, Forsyth reifies the connection between sexual behavior and self-worth that she to some (small) extent teases apart in the first part of the article.

The magazine article “Like a virgin: Sex with straights. Oral pleasure. What are the rules of virginity for gay people?” (The Advocate, 2007:24) is also concerned with the definition of virginity – in this case specifically gay virginity. The article reports on how “a dozen queer Chicago youths” in 2007 understood sex and virginity. Both gay men and lesbians had complicated stories in response to the question “when did you lose your virginity,” many asserting that the early heterosexual experiences they had had “didn’t count.” The two camps differed when discussing whether oral sex (with other gay and lesbian people) counted as sex. The lesbians in the group considered oral sex to be sex because of the intimacy and loss of “innocence” involved in that practice. The gay men, however, counted only anal penetration as sex (a belief in line with the majority of straight youths). Virginity was not seen as an attractive attribute, especially, some of the respondents said, because there is no incentive for queer people to keep the ‘purity’ of virginity. Because they are already considered ‘impure,’ queer people “have been taught not to think marriage… so sex is all we get” (The Advocate, 2007:24).

Though most of the writing on queer virginity has been in the form of magazine articles, there have been a few scholarly articles as well. In their article “Virginity definitions and meaning among the LGBT community,” Paige Averett, Amy Moore, and Lindsay Price (2014) also recognized the inadequacy of existing scholarly work on virginity and the lack of scholarship around queer people and virginity. They build off of Laura Carpenter’s (2001) exploratory research entitled, “The ambiguity of “having sex”: The subjective experience of virginity loss in the United States,” in which Carpenter offers a comprehensive explanation of virginity for men and women of various sexualities. She finds that there are three primary metaphors for virginity: virginity as a gift (the metaphor Forsyth uses in her CosmoGirl article), virginity as a stigma, and virginity as a process. Ultimately, she decided that virginity is an indefinable concept. Because she didn’t want to reify virginity, she only reluctantly uses the word in her title and article for intelligibility.

Unlike Carpenter’s study, Averett, Moore, and Price use an entirely LGBT sample of participants, focusing on LGBT understandings and experiences of virginity. They conducted two focus groups and a number of individual interviews with LGBT college students who participated in the focus group sessions. Their findings suggest that these individuals consider virginity to be a primarily heterosexual concept, instead referring to their “first time” (Averett, Moore & Price, 2014: 271). They all agreed that defining sex was a difficult task, and that it was a definition that would change based on who one asked. At the same time, many of the women considered virginity through a heterosexual matrix, identifying themselves as losing their virginity twice: the first time with a man and then their “homosexual virginity” with a woman (2014:269). The gay men also conceptualized multiple virginities, but ascribed them to multiple sexual acts rather than multiple sexual partners (2014:269). The authors found that virginity is not valued in LGBT communities; many participants expressed disinterest in both being and having sex with virgins. Having sex with virgins was considered undesirable because they were understood to have less experience and so would not be very skilled at performing sexual activities. Instead, coming out was much more central and important to the participants of the study. The authors conclude that, within LGBT communities, people understand themselves both within (because of the belief for all participants that penile penetration constituted virginity loss) and outside of (“many of the participants believed that virginity was not a concept ‘for them’”[2014:273]) the virginity discourse. The authors conclude that more research on virginity and queer identity is needed because “virginity timing is tied to risky sexual behaviors and has emotional and social impact on individual development” (2014:276).

Virginity is clearly difficult to define. Not all of the scholarship on queer virginity I encountered focused on defining it, however. Elizabeth Payne (2010) and Michael Amico (2005) looked at how lesbians and gay men have been using the virginity discourse to construct themselves as moral subjects. By claiming virginity, these lesbians and gay men could consider themselves as better than the heterosexual youth who were engaging in sexual activity. This coping strategy, though useful for those who employ it, nevertheless operates within a sex-negative discourse. It would be better for this discourse to be dismantled and for people to be able to find self-worth regardless of their sexual orientation and virginity status.

In her article “Sluts: Heteronormative policing in the stories of lesbian youth,” Payne uses a subset of data from a larger study on critical life stories of adolescent lesbians in Texas aged 18-21 (2010:321). With it, she argues that young lesbian women in the south are embracing virginity for themselves as a moral state to distance themselves from the stereotypes of the “bad girl” and the “slut,” instead constructing a good lesbian subject. By condemning their ex-girlfriends as “sluts” for wanting or engaging in what they consider to be too much sexual activity (both with them during their relationship and with men during and afterwards), these women can relationally claim morality and be “good girls.” While this conceptualization is useful in that it attempts to disentangle lesbians’ identities from their sexual practice (and resists defining lesbian identities solely through desire), Payne argues, it also reifies the patriarchal notion that women’s sexuality is dangerous and deviant, and that moral women should suppress their desires or simply not have any desire at all. This conceptualization places sexuality solely in the realm of the masculine and demonizes any women who attempt to claim it. Payne understands that the lesbians in her study are trying to render themselves in a way that improves their self worth, but she hopes that they will come to understand that sexually active women aren’t consequently immoral women.

Michael Amico argues, in his article “Gay youths as ‘whorified virgins’,” that gay men have also been co-opting the language of virginity from heterosexual discourse in order to distance themselves from over-sexualization, which often manifests through the label “man-whore.” Identifying themselves as virgins, he says, only strengthens the virgin/whore dichotomy with which they (and women) must contend. Amico asserts that they should understand that “virginity has no meaning in a same-sex context” (2005:36) and that the term “whore” is one that gay culture has campily claimed before (and can again). Instead of trying to re-align themselves with virginity, he contends, gay men should “put aside these confining definitions when exploring their sexuality and forming intimate relationships” (2005:36).

I gathered from this initial research that most existing scholarship on queer virginity focuses either on defining virginity or on how queer people deploy the discourse of virginity to understand themselves as moral subjects. The literature rarely discusses whether the discourse of virginity is useful, or, if it is not, how it can be dismantled. Instead, queer virginity is approached in a comparative matrix. Virginity is generally considered to be more ambiguous for queer people since queer sex is less clearly culturally defined and recognized than heterosexual sex – though sex is not very defined for heterosexual pairings either. Since queerness itself is already stigmatized and queer people are assumed to be already sexually active, queer women’s virginity is therefore less valued by society.

I wondered whether queer women at MH College also discounted the importance of their virginities, and instead focused on their coming out stories as Averett et al. suggests. I was to find out that, while many of them disregarded virginity as something that should reflect positively or negatively on them or other people, many of them had also undergone processes of unlearning the purity myth discourse to reach their current self-conceptualization.

Methodology

For my research, I conducted seven interviews with self-identified queer and lesbian MH College students between the ages 19 and 21. All the students interviewed were woman- or feminine-identified. At least four grew up in Catholic households or attended Catholic schools. The interviews lasted between twenty and fifty minutes and were conducted one-on-one in private spaces. I had varying degrees of personal relationship with each student who participated in my research, ranging from close friendship to casual class acquaintanceship. This tended to create a friendly, relaxed atmosphere for each interview. Each interview was electronically recorded for later transcription. Everyone’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I was primarily interested in how these students understood their queer identities in light of the purity myth that Valenti posits in her book. Were these students able to understand themselves outside of this virginity discourse? Did they have more freedom to enact their sexuality without personal shame or external slut shaming than the straight women Valenti describes as harmed by “America’s obsession with virginity” (2010)? Or, alternately, were they just as negatively affected? How did they navigate their own identities in the discourse?

First, it was important for me to understand how these students defined virginity and sex, respectively. Then, I asked about their understandings of the metaphor of “losing” one’s virginity. Finally, I directed the conversation towards my central question about queer identities in relation to the purity myth. The following are my interview questions:

  1. How do you identify your sexuality?
  2. Are you a virgin? If not, what was the experience that changed your “virginity status”? Why that experience in particular? Did you feel different afterwards? If you are, what activities would you need to participate in for you to no longer consider yourself a virgin?
  3. What does virginity mean to you? Do you consider it to be a meaningful concept? What about the metaphor of “losing” your virginity? Do you conceptualize sex as loss?
  4. How do you define sex? Is it always an activity participated in by 2+ people? Does masturbation count? Do both/all people involved have to consider it sex for it to be sex? Do one or both parties have to experience orgasm for it to be sex? Does there have to be some sort of penetration for it to be sex?
  5. How do you conceptualize your queer identity in relation to the purity myth we’ve discussed?
  6. Do you feel like claiming a queer identity allows you some freedom from the virginity discourse?

What is virginity?

First, it is important to explore the meaning of the concept of virginity. Commonly understood to be a vague something that disappears once one has had sex, virginity is a concept that is difficult to pin down. Many of my respondents even had trouble using it in a sentence:

Jordyn: Virginity these days actually means…my concrete definition would be any time you and a partner are together and experiencing intimate pleasure.

Zoë: Wait. Are you defining sex or are you defining virginity?

Jordyn: Oh. You’re right… so virginity is anything but that!

Discussions of virginity seem to always evoke sex, because the two concepts are so closely intertwined. Valenti would argue that that is in part because the purity movement has made pains to sexualize virginity (2010:65), a strategy that conforms to the marketing adage “sex sells.” By sexualizing virginity, the purity movement benefits from both the allure of sexuality and the elite-ness that virginity grants women.

In common discourse, virginity and sex enjoy an inverse relationship. One is defined by the lack of the other. Virgins have not had sex; once people have sex, they are no longer virgins. Some of my respondents also gave definitions of virginity that included an inverse relationship with sex. Harper said being a virgin “means you think you haven’t had sex with someone in a meaningful way.” Jordyn described the inverse nature of virginity and sex as: “whenever you’re intimate with a partner, you’re no longer a virgin, and I think that varies on a person’s self definition. So like for me lesbian stuff counts.”

My respondents did not always conceptualize the two as behaving in this manner, however. Instead, at times, they expressed an understanding of sex and virginity as separate concepts that did not necessarily react with each other. Jordyn, for instance, despite her quote above saying “lesbian stuff counts” also said at one point in her interview that lesbian sex “didn’t count.” She explained this as how she reconciled her Catholicism with her sexual activity. She said:

I got away with it [having lesbian sex] in my mind, because I grew up Catholic … and there were times I felt guilty while having even just lesbian sex so the way I justified it to myself was I’d be in church and to myself be like ‘well that hymen’s still intact. You’re still a virgin. Let’s go to heaven’.

It might be useful here to consider Gyatri Reddy’s discussion of orienting intersectionality around the respondents’ most salient identity positions in her book With respect to sex (2005). In this case, Jordyn’s religion seems to be one of the salient identities that affects how she understands and negotiates her sexuality. Because of the unique way that her Catholicism and sexuality intersect, Jordyn can simultaneously have “lesbian sex” and retain her virginity and her moral subject-hood (“Let’s go to heaven”).

Cathy also separated her sexual activity from her virginity. The sex she engaged in in high school, which she says was not strictly consensual, did not count. It was sex, but she still considered herself a virgin. She ascribes this in part to her queer identity and in part to her lack of self-worth at the time:

Anything sexual that I was doing in high school didn’t really matter because it’s not what I wanted to be doing…so it was like I knew that I wasn’t going to be into it, but…it was all about him anyway, so it didn’t matter if I was into it, which like definitely has to do with my own queerness now.

Very few of the respondents could point to a specific experience that changed how they considered themselves vis-à-vis virginity. Instead, the change seemed to be not physical, but rather a shift of conceptualization –a decision that one was already not a virgin because of various past experiences. May captured the confusion around defining sex and virginity for herself when she recounted conversations among her friends upon arriving at college:

They [straight friends] were all like “has anything been put in anything? Have you gotten down there?” and I was like “I mean, yes, I have, but do I count that? What does virginity count as these days? Does it have to be copulation because then I’ve never had sex before in my entire life.” It was confusing. And they didn’t have any answers for me and I didn’t have any answers for them. And then I was just like “Yeah. I’m just gonna say it. It’s easier. It’s easier to say I’m not a virgin. Makes me sound cooler.’ So I mean, after dating people in college I’ve had enough sexual experiences where I do not count myself as a virgin anymore, but the first time I ever discounted my virginity was I guess my first year of college, ironically like three years after I’d started being intimate with people.

Alice, the only virgin I interviewed, discussed her opinions on the social impact and origins of virginity. She said virginity “is always ascribed to women, women as pure and untouched for commodity’s sake.” She continued:

If you have [virginity] then you are more valuable in terms of being property…the structures [that originated the importance of virginity: aka bride price] don’t exist anymore, but the ideas do, where a woman is inherently more valued if she is seen as pure and chaste.

She placed her definition in a semi-historical framework, looking back at the structures she perceived negative ideas about virginity arose. These are not her personally held beliefs, but rather her understanding of how American society conceptualized and perhaps continues to conceptualize virginity. The general consensus was that virginity was not a useful concept. Harper said: “I think it [the concept of virginity] does more harm than good honestly.” May put it more bluntly:

Virginity is stupid. It’s stupid if you think it’s stupid. I think there’s value in you believing whatever you want to believe about your status. I don’t think that virginity holds any real impact on someone’s self worth… or it shouldn’t. I mean it does obviously for some people, but I wish people would stop placing that much worth of themselves on their status as virgin or not a virgin.

Cathy also acknowledged that, as a culturally created concept, virginity does have a lot of meaning for many people and affects their lived experiences, but, ultimately, she asserted:

Do I think in a vacuum virginity would be in any way useful? No. [But] we don’t live in that society.

However, Cathy was adamant that one could claim not having sex in a positive way, saying:

I definitely think there can be agency in claiming not having sex and that’s super real and I wish I could have done that in high school.

Cathy’s wish to have had more sexual agency in high school is a reference to the semi-consensual sexual activity in which she engaged in high school because she felt as if she and her body were not worth enough to say no.

Nora was the most unconcerned with virginity as a concept, declaring that:

If you think about [virginity] as purity or you’re like ‘giving’ someone your virginity the first time you have sex with them, that means that your virginity means something to you. Virginity as a whole means something to you, but if it’s something that you don’t think about or cherish too much, then it’s not going to be a big deal.

What does it mean to ‘lose’ your virginity?

I was also interested in the metaphor of loss implied in the common phrasing of ‘losing’ one’s virginity. Cathy captures the ridiculousness of the phrase, quipping:

Oh, I lost it. Just casually walking around Blanchard, lost my keys, my OneCard, and my virginity.

Alice ties the metaphor of loss back to the idea that women and their sexualities were considered commodities:

If you consider virginity a prized possession that you need to hold on to, and then you’re not a virgin anymore, you’ve lost something… but I do think that comes from the idea of women as bartering chips, but I think the language has stuck around… it doesn’t bother me, saying you ‘lost your virginity’ …but I don’t think it would be a loss unless… it wasn’t consensual.

May also connects the idea of loss to this historical background, though asserts that it is not applicable in modern society. She says:

I could understand the use of ‘losing your virginity’ back when it was a marriage bed thing and your parents come and stare at your sheets and hang them out for the courtyard to see or whatever, but I think there’s no point these days. I don’t think ‘losing’ is the word you want to use. I don’t think ‘virginity’ is the word you want to use.

The phrase has stuck around, though, and some of my respondents have found more agentive ways to deploy it. More than one of my respondents had experiences like I did, where they reclaimed their virginity status for themselves after having various sexual experiences. Cathy explains that the metaphor of loss can make this possible because, “losing implies it’s something you can get back, which worked pretty well for me.” This is different from the multiple virginities idea that Averett et al. found in their research. My respondents, instead of reporting one time they lost their straight virginity and a separate time that they lost their homosexual virginity, discounted sexual experiences that did not fit with their understandings of what losing their virginity was supposed to be like. The conceptualization of what losing one’s virginity was supposed to be like usually involved a certain magical quality, mainly intimacy or feelings of love in addition to the sexual acts.

Others chose to frame the discussion of “virginity loss” around gain instead, however. Among Jordyn’s friends, she says:

It’s not put in those terms [of loss]. It’s like ‘I just had sex!’ like ‘I got something’ as opposed to ‘I lost something’ which is –I think is a nice shift. Because it shows a gain rather than a loss.

Harper also preferred to think of the loss of her virginity in terms of gain because thinking of it as loss,

…made me feel like I was being unclean or unhealthy or unsafe. I know it led to a lot of guilt for me so I don’t agree with it. And if anything you’re like gaining experiences. You’re losing nothing, … except maybe the respect of your parents, your peers sometimes.

Much like in the article in The Advocate, “Like a Virgin,” and Averett, Moore, and Price’s article “Virginity definitions and meanings in the LGBT community,” my respondents associated having had sex as a positive attribute in the queer community at MH College. This aligns with these articles’ conclusions that virginity is not a highly valued state of being in queer communities.

What is sex?

Because virginity and sex are such closely entangled concepts, and since queer sex is even less easily defined than heterosexual sex, I wanted to know how my respondents defined sex. Definitions ranged from descriptions of various sexual acts to more conceptual understandings of a situation. Harper found describing sex to be a strangely “unsexy” endeavor:

I think sex is any form of stimulation, I guess, given from one individual to another, but like physical stimulation that often involves touching each other’s genitals. It sounds like very unsexy when I say it like that.

Perhaps she found sex difficult to describe because sex is usually something that people perform, rather than talk about, due to societal taboos.

May found the task of defining sex difficult because of the multiplicity of possible meanings outside of the hegemonic heteronormative definition. She began: “I don’t know if that’s physically possible,” before launching into another diatribe contrasting her “dictionary definition” with what she could glean from conversations with her friends:

…ummm sex. In the dictionary is the insertion of something into something else for the purpose of making a baby. Sex for me like –If I’m seeing someone and I want to know if I’ve had sex with them or not…. It’s really hard. I had this dialogue a lot with friends my sophomore year… ‘cause I was dating this girl and we were like seeing each other and were like ‘hooking up’ whatever you call that in today’s culture. I don’t know what the fuck ‘hooking up’ means. They were like ‘have you guys had sex yet’ and I was like thinking back on everything we’d done. And I’m like were there enough things here? Did someone do this while someone did that? Yes…Hmm.. No. No. Maybe… These days if I get naked with someone else and we’re touching each other intimately, I count it as sex. Sometimes even if you’re not naked. If there’s the intent to cause pleasure to another human and they’re doing the same for you, I just count it as sex, these days. So the intent to have sex on both parties and then that’s sex. Yes.

May focuses on defining sex for herself rather than trying to define it generally for everyone. My other respondents also sought to define sex personally so as to avoid invalidating other experiences. When I asked Alice (who described herself as “full-stop” a virgin – having never even kissed anyone) about what kinds of acts she would need to engage in to no longer identify as a virgin, she identified oral sex as a defining line. She said:

I feel like oral would be a line for me, where I’d be like ‘I’m probably not a virgin anymore. I probably shouldn’t claim to be a virgin anymore’.

By saying she “shouldn’t” claim virginity any more if she engaged in oral sex, Alice implies that there is some kind of elite-ness tangled up in being a virgin. That elite-ness is then revoked if the virgin engages in sexual activity (Ortner, 1978). Whereas oral sex occupies a strange middle ground in heterosexual relations (CosmoGirl, 2006), it seems to stand firmly on the sex side of things for the queer women I interviewed, given that the oral sex in question occurred between them and their partners or other queer women. Whether my participants would agree that oral sex in a heterosexual context is sex did not come up in my interviews.

Participants generally agreed that penetration and orgasm were unnecessary for something to be considered sex. Penetration was written off as a heteronormative expectation for sex, regardless of whether it was penetration by a finger or sex toy or penis. Orgasm was seen as superfluous because of my respondents’ focus on the process of having sex rather than the product of an orgasm. Emotional intimacy during sex was also not required, since sometimes you just have to “blow off some steam,” but was understood to be a desired component. Margery articulated the best definition of sex I heard during these interviews. She apologized for how vague her definition was before stating,

If it feels like sex, it’s probably sex.

Negotiating a queer identity in the purity myth

One of the common reasons I hear straight people say they would not want their children to be gay is that being gay comes with a lot of discrimination and they just would not want their children to have harder lives than they would otherwise. While the amount of discrimination homosexual and queer people face will hopefully decline as more anti-discrimination laws pass and the wider public comes to understand sexuality and gender with more compassion, people still consider “being gay” to be a set-back in life. I wondered, though, if queer women perhaps benefit in relation to the purity myth that Valenti identifies as being so harmful to straight women in America. Could they, as non-imagined subjects of the discourse, avoid the loss of self-worth in relation to sexual behavior, the over-sexualization and infantilization in popular media and common discourse, the feelings of powerlessness, and the high rates of teen pregnancy? In essence, does being queer and being invisible to the virginity movement and its discourse allow women some freedom from those negative effects?

From my interviews, I conclude that this is at least in part true. Many of my respondents reported that claiming a queer identity gave them more freedom to choose when they lost their virginity and how they define sex for themselves. This counteracts the purity myth’s attack on women’s self worth and agency. However, my respondents asserted that they were nonetheless affected by the purity myth both in wider society and within the queer community at MH College.

Jordyn claimed to really benefit from the mentality of “opting out” of the purity myth. That mindset was useful, she says, to avoid feeling guilty about being queer, having sex, and being Catholic. She describes this negotiation, saying,

Originally, I was thankful…that I could have sex, but not feel as much guilt. I still felt guilty because on some level I did consider it part of [the purity discourse], but I could have sex but not feel as guilty as I would have if it was heterosexual sex. And I definitely think I benefited from that.

Jordyn later claimed that she thinks that Catholicism and homosexuality cannot coexist for one person for very long; they either have to suppress their homosexuality or discard their religion, a dynamic that seems in conflict with Reddy’s (2005) understanding of seemingly contradictory identities and beliefs coexisting.

Harper also negotiated her definitions of sexual experiences to make herself more comfortable:

I feel like I have a lot more freedom to redefine it to suit me. And I felt really glad that I could kind of reclaim my own experiences so that it’s not shaped around like penetration. So that was good.

Again, widening the definition of sex allows for more agency in claiming sexual experiences as one’s own. May goes so far as to attribute a privileged status to claiming queerness, at least when discussing sex. She says,

I don’t think losing your virginity is something you can really do, but I feel like queer people understand that better.

She attributes this to the ambiguity of sex in queer contexts and the subsequent conversations on what constitutes sex. Cathy agrees that her queerness allowed her to decide for herself what counted as losing her virginity, saying:

I very actively consciously chose when I lost my virginity and I think that some people get to do that, but a lot of people have these cultural scripts that say that you lost your virginity when you first had sex with a man with a penis. And I had those too and I got to disregard them and pick when I lost my virginity, which is super chill.

She acknowledges that she is still affected by virginity discourse, though she feels she has more agency within it. She says:

[It] obviously still affects how I and women I love live their lives, and also I think there’s a lot more agency in defining [sex] for yourself because I have sex that most people don’t consider sex.

May attributes the additional agency queer women have in defining sex for themselves to the “lack of expectation about what is even going to happen” in sexual activity between queer people. This is because, she says, “there are so many permutations of how queer relationships can be arranged that defy the straight, cis, hetero paradigm that the entire virginity myth and sexuality is based off of.” This leads her to believe that,

There’s a lot of room for discussion and negotiation and just openness when you’re talking about this kind of thing in queer relationships and queer cultures that you don’t really get otherwise.

She tells a compelling story about her own acceptance of her queer sexuality and how that alleviated a lot of her personal expectations that she had to remain “pure”:

Coming out and realizing my queer identity….I didn’t have to ascribe to the perfect –I didn’t have to find a boyfriend and date him until marriage and be deflowered on my wedding night…That wasn’t as important to me now that I was coming out as queer and I had already kind of fucked over my normalness. So it was a really weird sort of reconciliation where I still felt bad about it, but I knew that I shouldn’t, so the thinking that was prompting me into it is that I was not respecting myself, respecting my father, respecting my family…And then I was fighting that with ‘That’s dumb. That’s so dumb. You’re being dumb.’ So it was an interesting fight. I’ve gotten over it now. I’m very blasé about the fact that… Just talking about sex in general was terrifying back when I was first starting to have sex and now it’s just like… going to get groceries or mowing the lawn. ‘Honey would you like to mow the lawn with me later?’

Margery talked about how having sex that most people do not consider to be sex allows her freedom from the virgin/whore dichotomy. She says,

I think there’s more wiggle room for people who identify as queer to not ascribe to that notion of virgin or whore because society as a whole –I mean maybe not on this campus –but society as a whole will not necessarily point at you and say ‘you’re having a lot of sex, you’re a whore. Or you’re not having a lot of sex, you’re a prude’ because the kind of sex that you’re having isn’t as socially recognized.

In other words, she claims, operating “under the radar” allows queer people to engage in sexual activities with less social policing. I am unsure whether queer people actually experience going unrecognized in a liberating way. Instead I have noticed that in media and at MH College queer people are written off as either non-sexual (and therefore unthreatening to the heteropatriarchy) or as over-sexual beings – exactly the virgin/whore dichotomy that Margaery discounts in a queer context.

Alice felt as if she enjoyed freedom from the purity myth, but she attributed it to having grown up without being “subjugated” under it. Despite going to a Catholic high school, she says,

There was never this idea that you have to stay pure until marriage, or purity rings, or anything like that. Because that idea of virginity as purity as important up to marriage or whatever –it was never shoved down my throat by anybody, I never imagined myself as obligated to uphold it. So when the queer identity comes into play its like ‘it’s all good. I’m free’.

She attributes this in part to her family being generally sex-positive. She also links her disregard of the purity myth to her queerness, though. She says,

Because I’ve abandoned the idea that virginity has to be a penis in a vagina it hasn’t really been hard to reconcile that identity [queer and virgin] anymore.

This suggests that Valenti’s claim that the purity myth affects all women is untrue. Perhaps growing up in supportive, open, and sex-positive environments can mitigate the negative effects of the purity myth. However, because people live in a society that extends beyond their immediate families, they are undoubtedly affected by the purity myth from other sources.

The over-sexualization of queer women & other problems in MHC’s queer community

The purity myth, I have learned, does not imagine queer women as pure virgins that must be protected at all costs. Instead, they are already marked as impure, whether they have had sex or not, and regardless of whether they identify as virgins. Several of my respondents pointed to the over-sexualization of queer women by the porn industry and popular culture at large as more pressing an issue than virginity. May articulates this when she says,

Queer people are sexy anyway so they don’t think about being pure because you’re already going to hell forever…And virginity doesn’t matter for queer people because they are already weird enough.

Alice actually reported feeling shamed for being a virgin at MH College. Rather than offering queer women the same elite status it does heterosexual women (Ortner, 1978), Alice claims, virginity is instead considered “inherently shameful” in the MH College queer community. Because queerness is already considered to be a sexual identity, it was more of an aberration for her to be a virgin and be queer than it would have been for her to be straight and have had sex. She says of her own virginity:

I don’t talk about it. I don’t usually tell people anything about it. People are like “Oh, I thought you had a boyfriend or whatever” and I’m like “Nope,” but the idea of virginity as inherently shameful has filtered in a bit, which is interesting because it’s the opposite of the idea of the purity myth of virginity as the highest commodity. In fact what I’ve experienced has been the idea of virginity as like “Oh. That’s really weird. You should fix that. I’m sure you could find somebody to fix that.”

Being queer and being a virgin seem to be considered mutually exclusive identities. If someone is both, there’s something “wrong” with them that needs to be “fixed.”

Cathy points to femmephobia and internalized misogyny in MH College’s queer community to explain the virgin- and slut-shaming that occurs on campus. Femmephobia is “a type of prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism that is directed at someone who is perceived to identify, embody, or express femininely, and towards people and objects gendered femininely” (Blair & Hoskin, 2014:4). Femmephobia is like misogyny, but focuses more on presentation than gender. Feminine men are also affected by femmephobia. Cathy does not get shamed for her sexuality despite her femme presentation, she says, because:

I have sex in long-term, committed, relatively monogamous relationships, so the word slut isn’t a word that would be applied to me ever, and even within the queer community I still fit pretty comfortably under the title of someone who has sex a ‘good’ way. I have sex with one partner who I’m in love with and who I’ve been dating for a long time and who I’m invested in. And even in most mainstream spaces –queer spaces –that’s the way you’re supposed to have sex.

Having sex in a monogamous, loving relationship that mimics heterosexual marriage is coded as “good,” even in queer spaces. There are people, though, in the queer community at MH College that have sex in ways that are not considered “good” and those people get shamed. Those people are usually femme people who have sex outside of committed relationships and with multiple partners –essentially the same people who would be labeled “sluts” in heteronormative spaces. So, clearly, claiming queerness doesn’t protect people as much as I had hoped from the negative effects of the purity myth –at least from the social policing side. Cathy details the sex shaming that occurs on campus:

Even in MH spaces, I still don’t think you’re supposed to sleep with a ton of people because queer women I know who sleep with a ton of people still get labeled and shit. And if you come with hickies to Sunday brunch and you don’t have a partner, everyone wants to know who gave them to you, and so there’s still sex shaming in that way, even when queer women have lots of sex with lots of women. But again it has to do with femme stuff, because I think that masculine queer people including queer women and masculine queer people of other genders have more freedom to have sex with a lot of people than femmes. And I’ve seen that happen in who gets called out for having sex with a lot of people: Like are you a ‘player’ or are you a ‘slut’? That still happens at MH. It’s such bullshit.

Masculine-presenting and -identifying people, Cathy reports, are less often socially punished when they engage in sexual activity, especially outside of established relationships, than feminine-presenting and -identifying people are. It seems that the double standards for sexual behavior that exist in larger American society for men and women are re-inscribed here at MH College onto feminine- and masculine-presenting bodies.

Each of my respondents stressed the importance of self-identification and self-definition (whether in terms of virginity, sex, gender, or sexuality), even going so far as to overly generalize and qualify their own definitions so as to avoid devaluing the identities and definitions of others. However, such respect for people’s identities seems to be more of a personal goal for some than a social reality for all. Perhaps Valenti was not as remiss as I originally believed when she focused on women in general as opposed to focusing specifically on queer women in her book.

My research suggests that the purity myth is a discourse that affects all women regardless of sexual orientation, though queer women can experience some small degree of relief by reclaiming their sexualities and redefining sex for themselves. Therefore Valenti’s discussions of women in general should apply to queer women in general. However, I still believe it was irresponsible of Valenti to disregard queer women in her analysis. Even if queer women must endure the same virginity discourse as heterosexual women, their particular experiences and understandings of it are different and therefore require additional analysis, especially given that queer women are regularly targeted by “corrective” rape, forcible sex that is intended to re-inscribe compulsory heterosexuality. Although it’s difficult to find exact statistics on how many queer women experience corrective rape in the United States because of under-reporting and the emphasis in rape statistic gathering on other questions, it can’t be denied that corrective rape happens. The purity myth is toxic and more research is needed on the effects that race, class, and ability have on how women are affected by it. Perhaps when its negative effects are better understood, the myth can be dispersed.

Zoë Crabtree is a student at Mount Holyoke College, interested in gender studies, queer theory, performance studies, and questioning traditional sources of knowledge production. Connect with Zoë on LinkedIn.

References

Amico, Michael (2005). Gay youths as “whorified virgins.” The Gay and Lesbian Review, 12, 34-36.

Averett, Paige, Amy Moore, and Lindsay Price (2014). Virginity definition and meaning among the LGBT community. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 26(3),259-278.

Blair, Karen L., and Rhea Ashley Hoskin (2014). Experiences of femme identity: Coming out, invisibility, and femmephobia. Electronic document, https://www.academia.edu/6998081/Experiences_of_Femme_Identity_Coming_Out_Invisibility_and_Femmephobia.

Carpenter, Laura M. (2001). The ambiguity of ‘having sex’: The subjective experience of virginity loss in the United States. The Journal of Sex Research, 38, 127-139.

Forsyth, Sondra (2006). The virginity code: What does it mean to be a virgin? Cosmogirl (September), 228-231.

Payne, Elizabeth (2010). Sluts: Heteronormative policing in the stories of lesbian youth. Educational Studies, 46, 317-336.

Ortner, Sherry (1978). The virgin and the state. Feminist Studies 4(3), 19-35.

The Advocate (2007). Like a virgin: Sex with straights. Oral pleasure. What are the rules of virginity for gay people? The Advocate, No. 990, 24.

Reddy, Gyatri (2005). With respect to sex: Negotiating the Hijra identity in South Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Valenti, Jessica (2010). The purity myth: How America’s obsession with virginity is hurting young women. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

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