"The Process-Oriented Virgin" | A Response
This is a response to the article The Process-Oriented Virgin, by Hanne Blank, published in Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.
My favorite thing about this essay is that it introduces a concept to me that I've never considered, one of a revisionist and subjective construct of virginity. The author, Hanne Blank, has previously published a book (Virgin: The Untouched History) on virginity that explores the changing political definitions and cultural meanings of the word 'virgin.'
Hymns and Hymens
My understanding of virginity has been the event when the hymen is broken in penetrative sex. I haven't really given any thought to it in many years. Revisiting it now, this definition sparks a question in me about the hymen. I've recently witnessed a birth for the first time, and it was a birth clinic (as opposed to a hospital) with midwives. I was told that women who give birth with a midwife have much less risk of severe perineal tearing compared to hospital births, where staff routinely cut the perineum (episiotomy) as a precaution, and women often tear clear to the anus, requiring weeks of healing and suffering.
So this news makes me beg the question, would women having penetrative sex for the first time in a totally involved, willing and enthusiastic way, with a partner who was responsive to her - would such a woman be able to avoid tearing the hymen at all?
In fact, I'm wondering now, have men been encouraged to forcefully break the hymen? While living in Morocco some years ago, I was invited to watch several home made wedding videos. These last hours and culminate in the the husband bringing out the bloody sheet for the guests to view and celebrate. They are celebrating that the woman was a virgin, and that the marriage contract is sealed by her blood.
So not only are women expected to bleed (and there can be dire consequences for those who don't, regardless of their virginity or chastity), men are expected to make them bleed.
Growing up in the US though, I don't know anyone my age who actually saved their virginity for marriage (whether they thought they would or not), nor anyone who felt obligated to ever prove virginity by bleeding. More, a bloody hymen was just something that was assumed, and quiet whisperings were all that you had to prepare you for it.
It's a Process and It Takes Time
Like the women Blank describes in her essay as "process-oriented virgins", I for the most part look at the day my hymen bled as the day I lost my virginity, but if I were to think about virginity along the lines of 'When did I first fully engage in sex and feel like I had sex,' then it wouldn't be until about a year and several more 'penetrations' later. In fact, the hymen breaker didn't feel like sex at all, it felt like rape, as did the subsequent and reluctant penetration from that man.
It's taken me 13 years to be able to even say out loud that those first 'sex acts' felt like rape. A lot has changed in those years. When I was in college, we were rallying around 'No Means No.' When I recently learned that a younger generation boosted up the volume to 'Yes Means Yes,' it hit me with a blast. What a radical, brazen, wonderful declaration. I wholeheartedly support it.
What Blank has encountered in her work, is a group of women who deliberately and subjectively redefine their virginity status. And to further it, they may not see any singular event as the marker from virginal to non-virginal, but see the transformation as a process, taking days, months or years.
If you look at your virgin transformation as something of your own, you are in a place emotionally and mentally where your own experience is worth more and is more accurate than an observer's interpretation of physical events.
I imagine this would apply to men as much as to women, and I assume anyone who lives outside the hetero norm has already had to think about redefining virginity.
'Real sex' can be based on such outrageous qualifications such as "sexual pleasure, emotional and physical investment, self-awareness, and plain old know-how."
Better to Have Sexed and Lost?
What most of us lost in our first encounters with penetration, was our sense of self. We often lost our boundaries. Myself and the majority of my female friends, we look back on "losing virginity" when we're in therapy, when we're in close and trusted company, many, many years down the road, talking through the how and why.
I'm hoping that as more people speak up about their learning process, the more we have examples of what could be, the more likely it is that women who become sexually active will all be having 'real' sex from the get-go.
Virginity itself, as a part of our identity, as a way of organizing our experiences and communicating with our friends and lovers, seems valid and important to me. Especially if we're looking at it according to the qualities I quoted above. 'Losing' virginity though, seems archaic within the new framework and definition. You aren't losing anything by engaging in emotionally aware pleasurable sex. You have only to gain.
Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape edited by Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti, Foreword by Margaret Cho, Essay 24, "The Process-Oriented Virgin" by Hanne Blank, Pages 287-297