By OBOS Sexuality & Relationships Contributors |

The term “virginity” doesn’t mean anything, really, but people still use the word like we all know what it means.

Cultural notions of virginity have long shaped sexual attitudes and practices for young women on the verge of exploring sex. A virgin is most commonly considered someone who hasn’t had sex—heterosexual intercourse, specifically.

Young women in particular are burdened with conflicting pressures about virginity. On the one hand, popular culture promotes an everyone’s-doing-it attitude that can make young women feel something’s wrong with them if they’re not ready to have sex. On the other, morality messages shame young women into “saving themselves” for marriage.

Jessica Valenti, author of “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women,” writes about the troubling dynamics of federally funded purity balls (father/daughter dances where girls pledge their virginity to their dads, who promise to protect it until a suitable husband comes along) and abstinence-only programs that compare girls’ bodies to wrapped lollipops that become unwanted when used. “While young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day,” notes Valenti, “they’re simultaneously being taught—by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less—that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain ‘pure.’ ”

Also troubling is the messaging about who can attain such purity. The girls most often presented by the abstinence-only movement as examples to idolize are white, are straight, and fit a narrow beauty ideal. “Women of color, low-income women, immigrant women—these are the women who are not seen as worthy of being placed on a pedestal,” adds Valenti.

Complicating attitudes further is the pressure to make “the first time” meaningful in every way. A young college student says:

Particularly for girls, there is pressure coming from two opposite ends: the pressure to “lose it” and the pressure to lose it “in the right way.” I don’t think guys feel that “right way” bit as much.

You may choose to abstain from intercourse and/or other sexual activities for any number of reasons, including just not being ready. You have the right to say no to someone who is pushing you to have sex, and the right to say yes to sex that is pleasurable and responsible:

It’s not that I am waiting for marriage, or even for the “right” guy to come along. It isn’t that I don’t like to look sexy and that I don’t enjoy flirting or being sexual. It’s just that I haven’t had sex. I haven’t been in the position with a person where I am comfortable and feel safe. For some reason being a virgin in high school is relatively normal, but being a virgin in college seems to have as much of a stigma as being a “slut” does.

If sex were not such a taboo subject, comprehensive sexuality education would not only cover birth control and sexually transmitted infections, but also make room for discussions about pleasure and enthusiastic consent. When women are shamed into always saying no, and men are pressured to always say yes, we all miss out on experiencing our full sexual selves.

Can Anyone Tell?

There is no reliable way for anyone to tell by looking at a woman’s genitals whether she has been sexually active. The hymen, more recently referred to as the vaginal corona, a tiny bit of mucous membrane at the opening of the vagina left over from the vagina’s development, is often considered an indicator of virginity, but its presence doesn’t have any real significance. And not everyone has one.

“Some girls are born without a hymen,” says Carol Roye, a nursing professor at Hunter College and a nurse-practitioner, while “others have only a scanty fringe of tissue. Moreover, for all its fabled mystery, the hymen is just a body part.”

While the hymen can be torn during sex or other physical activity, it doesn’t “break.” Torn areas can bleed, but it doesn’t always happen.

It is also impossible to tell if someone has had sex by how her body looks, how she walks or sits, or by any other means.

For more information, see What Exactly is a Hymen? and Renaming the Hymen: Vaginal Corona.