All the virgins in the house: Throw your hands up!

No one is throwing up their hands.

Sex Out Loud is hosting a program tomorrow night (at 7 in the Campus Women’s Center! Just saying…) called “The First Time: What to Expect When You Don’t Know What to Expect.” Upon inviting my friends through Facebook, I received seven angry messages in 24 hours along the lines of, “What the fuck?” and, “Do you really think I would need this?” and, “Umm…ouch.”

Well, what the fuck? First, as though it is my place to speculate about who might find the event interesting and why. But secondly, this is an insult? The implication that one might be a virgin is insulting? Oof.

Odds are very high that lots of virgins live on campus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of teenagers who report having sex (which presumably refers to vaginal intercourse) in high school has been steadily decreasing. In 2007, less than half of high school teenagers reported ever having had sex (47.8 percent), while slightly more than a third reported being currently sexually active (35 percent). Operating under the assumption that these are valid statistics — which is a fairly big assumption when we’re looking at self-reported sexual behaviors — a good chunk of UW students have not yet had “sex” (more on that later) when they arrive on campus.

But, to my knowledge, we do not have a UW Abstinence Association, or an intramural chastity team, or a Virgins’ Campus Center. Virginity is not usually an identity marker in which college students take pride, unlike, say, being a woman or being Jewish. And I want to know why.

Sexual activity should always — always — be a choice. And choosing not to engage in sexual activity — whether it’s on one occasion or indefinitely, with one individual or with all individuals — is as valid a choice as choosing to engage in sexual activity. The choice to be abstinent can be as empowering and sex-positive as the choice to be sexually active.

However, that is a neatly waxed image of virginity — real life is hairier. What makes it hairier is that some people believe one choice is better than the other: It’s better to be a virgin or it’s better not to be a virgin. Some people don’t make a conscious, willing choice to be abstinent and feel embarrassed about it. Furthermore, abstinence is featured prominently on the sex-negativity banner, front-and-center in big letters in the blood-stained color of mythical wedding night sheets (“Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge,” Hebrews 13:4).

Notice, however, that these issues only arise when we choose — choose — to believe one choice is less valid than the other. In other words, even if we are not super excited about our virginity status, we still make a choice to make it matter. Hanne Blank, the author of Virgin: The Untouched History, notes that virginity, fundamentally, is “a name for a sexual status characterized by not ever having engaged in sexual activity with another person. … [It] is just a useful way of describing someone’s sexual history.” So it doesn’t have to matter, positively or negatively. We decide to make it something we should hide or something we should flaunt.

It’s not my business to comment on the validity of the reasons people cite when deciding to engage in sexual activity, whether we’re looking at one particular event or one’s overall sexual philosophy. However, it’s not your business either, and it’s no one else’s business to comment on yours or mine. Not having sex — because we’re not ready, because we haven’t met somebody we want to have sex with who also wants to have sex with us, because we’re waiting, or because we just don’t want to — is legitimate and respectable. Having sex — because we’re curious, because it feels good, because we met someone, because we just want to — is legitimate and respectable. Neither decision is better. Neither is worse. And most importantly, neither is a measure of personal worth.

Finally, I’ve got to ask one more question: What is a “virgin?” Somebody who hasn’t had sex, right? Well, this might erase all of my credibility as a sex columnist, but: What is “sex?” Oral sex? Anal sex? Homosexual sex? What about individuals whose first sexual experiences aren’t by choice? Is virginity exclusively physical? Is it something that can be reclaimed or restored?

These questions don’t have right or wrong answers. I bring them up for the purpose of encouraging thinking — for ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, no one has the right to disparage anyone else’s sexual decisions or reasons for making those decisions. However, critical evaluation and definition of information always leads to better choices; whether we choose to accept or reject a piece of information, we are better for having critically analyzed it.

Bottom line: Whatever your status, you can be proud of it. Or you can not really care about it. But no matter how you feel, you do not have to be ashamed of it. All the virgins in the house can throw their hands up; all the non-virgins in the house can throw their hands up. I’ll throw mine up, too, just as soon as they’re out of my pants.

Erica Andrist is a senior and a facilitator with Sex Out Loud. If you can keep your hands out of your pants long enough to ask a question, e-mail her at [email protected]