Virginity is often presented in simple, black and white terms: have you had sex, or have you not?
But virginity is actually a complicated concept that has far from one definition. That’s because virginity isn’t a medical concept. What you consider virginity usually depends on your cultural background and religious upbringing. All these ideas about virginity (combined with a lack of sex education in general) means that there is a whole lot of misinformation out there about what virginity is, and who is or is not a virgin. Here are 7 common myths about virginity, and what you need to know instead.
1. Virginity is either/or.
People often talk about virginity like it has a hard and fast definition: You’re either a virgin or you’re not. But virginity is an idea, and it means different things to different people. For example, some think that people are virgins until they’ve had penis in vagina (PIV) sex, while others argue that oral sex (going down on, eating out, blow job), manual sex (fingering, hand job), or anal sex “count.” Others think that you’re no longer a virgin after you’ve had your first orgasm. Different people think of virginity differently. Its definition is not set in stone. That means that you can think of virginity how you want to think of it (if you want to think of it at all)!
But, for the record, medical providers consider all of these sex acts to be the real deal. Just because you don’t consider an act to be “real” sex, doesn’t mean you can’t get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from it. So when your doctor asks you if you’re sexually active, make sure you say “yes” if you’re having any kind of sex. Your provider doesn’t care about the vague idea of virginity—they care about your health and empowering you to take care of yourself.
2. Any kind of penetration (including a tampon) counts.
Do you think that inserting a tampon counts as having sex? No? Then you cannot lose your virginity by using a tampon.
3. Doctors can tell if you’re a virgin.
There is no way for medical providers to tell whether or not you’ve had sex, whether you have a penis or a vagina. Many people think that doctors can tell whether someone with a vagina has had sex by looking at their hymen, and seeing if it’s been torn. But this is completely false. The hymen is a thin bit of skin tissue that partially covers the vaginal opening, often (but not always) in a half-moon shape. During puberty, hymens become more elastic. Hymens can tear for all sorts of reasons, including doing the splits, inserting a tampon or, yes, having PIV sex. It is very difficult, and often impossible, to figure out if a hymen has been torn in the past. And often, they never tear! Instead, the hymen stretches—kind of like an elastic hair band.
It is true that hymens occasionally (but rarely) cover the whole vaginal opening. This is called an imperforate hymen, and it can be fixed with a minor surgery. It is also rare. Think about it: if hymens covered the whole vaginal opening, how would period blood escape?
4. Partners can tell.
Sexual partners cannot tell whether you’ve had sex before. Many people with a vagina do not bleed the first time they have PIV sex (see below), and vaginas do not “get loose” from sex. Again, the only way your partner will know if you’re a virgin is if you tell them. If you’re worried about your partner knowing you’re a virgin (or knowing you’re not a virgin), ask yourself why. Are you nervous about their reaction? Are they accepting and understanding? Have you talked about sex before? We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: communication is an absolutely necessary part of sex. While your sexual history is your business and your business alone, feeling nervous about your partner’s reaction to it may be a sign that sex with this person (or at this time in your life) isn’t the best option.
5. Strangers can tell.
Are you sensing a pattern here? Other people cannot tell if you are a virgin. Having sex does not change the way you walk. Unless you specifically tell them, they can. not. know.
6. Virgins (who have a vagina) will bleed their first time.
While it is true that some people with vaginas bleed during PIV sex, it is definitely not a given. As we mentioned before, most people’s hymens don’t actually tear during sex, they stretch. But a lot of girls have been taught that their “first time” will be painful and involve blood. This understandably makes a lot of people nervous, which leads to tenser muscles during sex and a lack of lubrication. This can cause some vaginal bleeding and pain. But, there are plenty of ways to avoid this: go slow, involve lots of foreplay, grab some lube, and communicate.
7. After you’ve “lost” your virginity, sex is no big deal.
American culture’s obsession with virginity implies that after that first time, sex is no big deal. But that’s just not true. We’ve talked before about how sex is powerful, and that holds true everytime you have sex. Just because someone has given consent once doesn’t mean that they’re ok having sex again. Having sex with one person doesn’t mean that they’re ok having sex with anyone else.
People choose to have sex for all sorts of reasons, and they choose to stop having sex for all sorts of reasons too. Sex is not a train that you get on and can’t get off. YOU get to determine if you have a sex life and what it’s like—whether or not you’ve had sex before.
A version of this post was originally published in November, 2016.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 11,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.