I wanted, desperately, to know if the sex I was having “counted.”
[A]fter I hooked up with someone, I snuck out of bed and into the darkness of my balcony, alone. A nervous wreck, I texted my friend, practically hyperventilating because of something I’d never expected to worry about at all.
Hoping for an answer, I texted: Am I still a virgin if I had sex with a girl?
My friend asked what I thought, but I really didn’t know. The woman I’d slept with defined sex as penetration, so by her definition, we hadn’t had sex. She, as the older, long-time queer in the hookup, had the upper hand. I didn’t think it was up to me. After all, what did I know about the rules of girl-on-girl sex, let alone what counts as losing your virginity? Could it be sex if only half of the people involved thought it was?
To me, it felt like it had to be sex, because if not sex, what was it?
It was a panic I never expected to feel. I was super open-minded. I was super feminist. I should have been beyond thrilled and empowered by the fact that I’d had a positive sexual encounter. But instead of cuddling the girl I was sleeping with and basking in our post-sex glow, or even vocalizing my worry over whether or not we’d just had sex, I was panicking in solitude.
My identity has always been a blur—I’m biracial, bisexual, and queer—and it’s something that makes me feel murky, unsure of who I am. Virginity was just the newest thing to freak out about. I stood in the dark alone and tried to figure out, once again, how to define myself.
I wanted, desperately, to know if the sex I was having “counted.” And I’m not the only one.
While many people have a strained relationship with the concept of virginity (and whether or not it exists to begin with), for queer women, the role of virginity is especially complicated.
“Virginity is a socially constructed idea that is fairly exclusive to the heterosexual population,” Kristen Mark, Ph.D. an associate professor of health promotion at University of Kentucky and director of the sexual health promotion lab, told SELF. “There is very little language in determining how virginity is ‘lost’ in non-heterosexual populations. Given the relatively large population of non-heterosexual populations, the validity of virginity is poor.”
As a result, many of us are stressed out by the concept, and left wondering if there’s just something other queer women know that we aren’t quite in on.
For Sam Roberts*, the lack of clarity surrounding expectations of queer women made them hesitant to come out in the first place. “I didn’t come out as queer until I was 25,” they tell SELF. “I felt vulnerable because of the lack of understanding around queer sexuality. Certainly it has gotten better, but not having a model for what queer sex ([specifically] for [cisgender]-women) looks like via health class, media, or pop culture can make it hard to know how to navigate that space.”
Alaina Leary, 24, expressed similar frustrations the first time they had sex. “My first sex partner and I had a lot of conversations around sex and sexuality,” Leary tells SELF. “We were essentially figuring it out on our own. Health class, for me, never taught me much about LGBTQ sex.”
When you’ve been socialized to view penetration as the hallmark of sexual intercourse, it’s hard to know what counts as losing your virginity—or having sex, for that matter.
“For many queer women, what they consider sex is not considered sex from a heteronormative perspective,” Karen Blair, Ph.D., professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University and director of the KLB Research Lab, tells SELF. “So this can complicate the question of when one lost their virginity, if ever.”
“Even if one expands the definition of having lost one’s virginity to some form of vaginal penetration, many queer women may never actually ‘lose’ their virginity—to the extent that it is something that can be considered ‘lost’ in the first place.”
To be clear, relying on penetration as a defining aspect of sex only serves to exclude all those who aren’t interested in or physically capable of engaging in penetrative sexual acts—regardless of their sexual orientation. Ultimately, requiring sex to be any one thing is inherently difficult because of the limitless differences among bodies and genitals, and the simple fact that what feels pleasurable to one body can be boring at best, and traumatizing at worst, to another.
The lack of a clear moment when one became sexually active can make us feel like the sex we have doesn’t count.
We live in a culture that overwhelmingly values virginity, with “losing your v-card” still seen as a step into adulthood. It’s something that, as a former straight girl, I’d never even thought about, but, as a queer girl, I became obsessive over: When was I really, truly, having sex?
It was especially frustrating considering that my straight friends seemed instantly thrust into this status of adults in real, legitimate sexual relationships, while my relationships were being thought of as “foreplay” by the mainstream, rather than valid sex acts.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. “We had straight friends who were having sex and doing sexual things in very defined ways,” Leary says. “One of my friends was obsessed with the ‘bases’ and insisted that her oral sex with her boyfriend didn’t count as sex because it was ‘only third base.’”
So what does that mean for those of us who will only ever engage in “foreplay?”
Considering the larger structures and cultural expectations that make queer women feel invalid, virginity is just another way that we’re left feeling somehow less than our straight and cisgender counterparts.
“The primary impact of the concept of virginity on queer women is an—even if unconscious—feeling of inferiority or oppression,” Dr. Mark explains. “We as a society place so much emphasis on virginity loss, yet it is a concept that is only relevant to a portion of the population. Women in general, regardless of sexual orientation, know they are sexual objects before they are sexually active due to the existence of the concept of virginity.”
Consider the fact that most young women first learn about sex in the context of virginity, which often exists under the scope of “purity.” This, Dr. Mark says, can make women feel “defined by virginity status.”
As a result, when queer women do have sex, and it doesn’t “count” as their virginity being “taken,” they can be left confused about the encounter and unsure of how valid their sexual relationships are to begin with.
At the end of the day, it’s up to queer women to define what virginity—and sex—mean for ourselves.
“I would encourage queer women to define their sexual lives in ways that make sense for them,” Dr. Mark explains. “If they have created an idea around virginity that makes it important to them, I encourage them to think about alternate ways to define it that fits with their experience. But I also encourage the rejection of virginity for women who feel like it doesn’t fit for them.”
This lack of an expectation (beyond consent, of course) when it comes to how you have sex can actually be freeing, in a way, Dr. Blair says.
“One of the best things that queer women have going for them in their relationships is the freedom to write their own sexual scripts in a way that suits them and their partners best.”
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