estimated reading time: 7 minutes
It’s the trope of countless bodice-ripper romances, movies, and TV shows: the young, naïve flower of womanhood going trembling to her marriage bed or the backseat of a car, bracing herself for the searing pain of her brooding lover/husband’s penis penetrating her for the first time. She weeps. Maybe he consoles her. There’s blood, proof of her “purity”.
If you’re rolling your eyes or getting ready to toss your lunch, we’re right there with you. This nauseating picture of what it means to have penetrative sex for the first time is not just outdated and horrifying, but just plain wrong. There’s a lot to unpack in that scenario, and we as adults need to understand what’s so terrible about it so that we can give young folks better information to help them navigate the early stages of their sex lives.
Sacrificing the “Virgin” Myth
Let’s start by throwing the idea of “virginity” where it belongs, straight into the trash bin of history. It’s misogynist, sex-negative, and honestly just creepy. The idea that a person with a vagina—and let’s be clear, “virginity” has always really been about controlling vaginas, even though penises are sometimes vaguely included—is “pure” or “intact” or somehow better or more virtuous for never having had penetrative sex is both bizarre and gross. It’s intrusive, similar to the way it’s intrusive to insist on gendering someone by knowing what’s in their pants.
The entire concept of virginity as a sign of value and morality comes from Christianity in the Middle Ages (with the worship of Jesus’ mother Mary and her supposed virginity) combined with patriarchal societies treating people with vaginas as commodities to be sold into marriage. Their “untouched” state was their husbands’ guarantee that their children were biologically theirs. Conversely, in ancient societies that used the word “virgin”, it usually referred just to an independent, unmarried woman.
But the idea is so deep-rooted that many people still equate virginity with morality, to the point of believing that a young person is fundamentally, psychologically changed when they have PIV (penis in vagina) sex for the first time. The obsession with virginity is responsible for cultural nightmares like “Purity Balls” where Christian fathers escort their virgin adolescent daughters to a dance (and sometimes give them rings to wear like engagement rings!) as well as folk or spiritual treatments to “restore” virginity and hymenoplasty surgeries to “reconstruct” the hymen and create “proof” of virginity when a hymen is damaged through an activity other than sex.
It’s Not Their First Time Having Sex
Here’s one of the biggest holes (so to speak) in what passes for “logic” about virginity: For the majority of people regardless of gender or genitals, PIV sex is very rarely their actual first time having sex.
The virginity myth perpetuates the idea that PIV is the only “real” sex out there, that it’s the gold standard or the main event for which everything else is just foreplay (or the sin of sodomy, doncha know). Centering PIV as “real” sex is homophobic, transphobic, and puts unfair pressure on people to “perform” with an act that, frankly, isn’t that satisfying for quite a lot of people. It also contributes to cismen’s sense of entitlement, of being owed a certain kind of sex by their partners with vaginas just because they’re in a relationship.
Sex is about the intimate, pleasure-focused connection between one or more people—and when we say “between one”, we mean between a person and their own body and self. Sex doesn’t require a specific act, position, or combination of people to be real or legitimate.
Masturbation is real sex.
Oral sex is real sex.
Texting or phone sex is real sex.
Hand jobs are real sex.
Using sex toys is real sex.
Anal sex is real sex.
…you get the idea.
By the time a young person engages in PIV sex (if they ever do), they may have been having sex for years. Hand-waving those experiences as something other than real sex usually means that teens and young adults aren’t learning enough about healthy intimacy, STI prevention, and managing the emotions that come with having sex. “Sex doesn’t have to hurt”, after all, includes emotional and psychological pain.
“…But It Hurt for Me!”
It’s unfortunately true that a lot of us DID have pain the first time we had penetrative sex, and it’s understandable that you’d assume it means the whole “pain of deflowering” myth is true and to want to help prepare the young people in your life for what to expect.
But the reality is that when penetrative sex for someone with a vagina hurts, it’s not because virginity. It’s because something that’s happening needs to be changed, slowed, or stopped—and when we teach our kids that sex shouldn’t hurt, we empower them to take the time to figure out what’s wrong if it does instead of just suffering through it and hoping it gets better.
Here are reasons why first-time penetration might be painful:
- Obviously, the person with the vagina may be scared or nervous, especially because they’ve probably been told to expect terrible pain. An anxious vagina is not an aroused vagina.
- The vaginal muscles might be tense due to fear, making penetration difficult.
- If there hasn’t been enough time or pleasurable play to get the person with the vagina truly aroused, the vagina hasn’t had a chance to lengthen or become lubricated—two things that can make penetration hurt.
- The person with the vagina may be experiencing vaginismus or another painful condition that needs to be addressed with a pelvic floor specialist or (if it’s trauma-related) in therapy.
- There may be some lubrication, but not enough. Not everyone naturally produces enough lubrication to make penetration comfortable, and teens are rarely taught about the value of having a bottle of lube on hand.
- While hymens do tear sometimes (more on hymens in a minute), they are really quite elastic and are likely to stretch during penetration—but like any kind of stretch, taking one’s time and going slowly is the difference between a warmed-up stretch and a painful injury.
When the person doing the penetrating has had quality sex education, they understand that they need to make their partner feel safe and comfortable, take their time, go slowly, check in regularly, focus on arousal and pleasure, and stop or slow down if their partner feels pain.
Pain is NOT the gatekeeper to adult sexuality for people with vaginas.
What Hymens Are, and Are Not
One of the ways that we fail our young people the worst when it comes to sex ed is not teaching them accurate information about hymens. They’re mythologized as this sort of magical hermetic seal guaranteeing freshness. Like the foil cap on a bottle of aspirin, but misogynist. Rarely if ever do any of us—of any age—see an image of a hymen or get a clear description of what it is.
It is, very simply, a thin membrane at the opening of the vagina that is fairly elastic. It usually has some kind of opening to allow menstrual blood to pass through it; hymens that completely cover the vaginal opening do exist, but they’re not that common and may require a doctor to make an incision for healthy menstruation. It can tear or rupture—damage that heals like any other part of your body—but it can also stretch. It may have been stretched or torn enough through ordinary physical activity or the use of tampons that it’s not affected by sexual penetration. It doesn’t cease to exist when a vagina is penetrated by a penis for the first time.
Fun fact: No one really knows for sure why the hymen exists. It seems to be vestigial, meaning it occurred at some point in our evolution and stuck around even though it doesn’t serve a clear purpose—like an appendix. Some experts have speculated that it might have developed to shield the vagina from dirt or germs, but there’s no proof of that. Vaginas are efficient at self-cleaning, and that theory doesn’t account for people whose hymens are stretched or torn by exercise, sex, childbirth, or any other normal activity.
Also, hymens come in many different forms. The graphic here shows a number of different common types—more than most people ever knew existed! As you can see, it includes hymens that are completely open in the center and don’t obstruct penetration at all. In some cases, people with vaginas can be born without hymens, though that’s less common just like imperforate (solid) ones.
What hymens are not is evidence of sexual activity (or lack thereof). They’re not a measure of moral purity, or of the value of a person with a vagina. They’re not a requirement for a painful sexual initiation rite or a punishment for having penetrative sex. They’re not a prize to be claimed by a person with a penis.
It’s well past time that we stopped teaching kids and teens and young adults that first-time vaginal penetration has to be painful, and started teaching them how to safely explore penetration without pain or injury—including how to handle it if something does start to hurt. If we truly love the young people in our lives, we owe it to them to give them the education they need to achieve sexual maturity without pain and fear.
Interested in more sex-positive education resources for teens or adults? Check out our Classes page for upcoming workshops and courses, and sign up for our mailing list to find out when we’re releasing new classes, groups, and resources.