Historically, sex has been defined in terms of penetration with a penis. Where does that leave lesbians?
Illustration by Shawna X
It should come as no surprise to Broadly readers that most of the world is organized around men. A man, Jacques Derrida, even created the word to express the idea: phallogocentrism.
In short, the phallus defines the world, and for millennia it has defined sex. The insertion of a penis into a woman has been the defining line between virginity and its absence. How then, could two women—neither of whom happen to posses a penis—lose their virginity? How do they cross the slippery rubicon from innocence to experience?
"There is an enduring idea that virginity is a bodily state," says Hanne Blank, historian and author of Virgin: The Untouched History. "That it's a physical thing, and that the body changes when virginity is lost."
For instance, Blank points out, the Greeks thought all the human plumbing was one tube—nose connected to throat connected to vagina connected to butt hole—and that a woman's whole physiology would thus change after being penetrated for the first time. "They believe a woman's throat would literally get bigger," Blank says. "There were virginity tests that would look for that."
Blank is loath to throw extra shade on the Greeks for their ideas about virginity "because I don't want people to think, 'Oh they're bullshit and I'm right,'" Blank says. "They're all bullshit."
I have no idea when a lesbian loses her virginity! And I feel so embarrassed because I have no idea whether I'm a virgin or not!
Still, it's a question that persists, especially among young lesbians who have few people in their lives they can turn to for answers. "I'd rather ask a bunch of strangers than someone I know," wrote a teenage lesbian on Yahoo! Answers. "I have no idea when a lesbian loses her virginity! And I feel so embarrassed because I have no idea whether I'm a virgin or not!"
"One nice thing about lesbian sex being so hard to define is that I could have lots and lots of juicy, scary, furtive, lesbian experiences and still pretend no hole had been punched in my v-card," says queer poet Jocelyn Macdonald. Macdonald grew up in a conservative, evangelical home and considered herself "saved for marriage" while also doing acts that she now considers sex with women.
Blank says many queer people conceive of having multiple virginities for the multiple genders they fuck. "When I lost my virginity to a guy, this happened, but when I lost it to a woman, this happened," she says. Gale shared such a narrative with me. "If virginity isn't penetration but does have to do with the first time getting some pleasure in the genital region by an active force, I'd have to say I lost my virginity to a pool jet," she says. "If it was a person, it was a d-bag. If we're talking ladies, it was a sloppy but nonetheless sexual drunken tumble at a party that involved some fingering, some oral, etc."
Sociologist Laura Carpenter interviewed 22 LGBT individuals for her book Virginity Lost. "Twenty-one of the 22 gay and bisexual men and women I interviewed claimed that a person could lose her or his virginity through oral and/or anal sex as well as through vaginal intercourse," she wrote. "However, manual genital stimulation alone was not sufficient to constitute virginity loss in the eyes of even my most inclusive informants." In other words, you got to put your money where your mouth is (and by money, we mean the exposed genitals of another human being, the greatest currency on earth).
Hair and makeup artist Polly Tyson considers the loss of her lesbian virginity to be the first time she went down on a girl. "I found myself at her cunt, which is exactly where I wanted to be, but I then realized with terror that I had not the faintest idea what to do next," she says. "I remember thinking to myself, Relax, stupid. She's going to know you're trying too hard. It won't work if you're trying too hard! Relax, goddammit!" Polly's partner eventually sensed her fear and they switched to using a vibrator together.
"Lesbians lose their virginity by having sex," says Blank, "just like everyone else." Which of course immediately leads to another question: What is sex?
Again, the act has until recently been defined by penetration. Studies by the Kinsey Institute, the Archives of Sexual Behavior, and the Canadian Journal of Sexuality have attempted to find a universal definition of sex, and all have failed. In a review of previous studies, the Canadian research team found that 97 percent of respondents viewed penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex as sex. However, a study done by the Kinsey Institute in 1999 found that only 82 percent of men over the age of 60 believed PIV sex with condoms was still sex. For them, sex needed to have a potentially procreative aspect or it didn't count.
The Canadian study, which only surveyed people who identified as heterosexual, found that only "less than 25 percent of participants considered oral genital behavior to be having sex, more than 60 percent thought that the giver or receiver of oral sex was a sexual partner, and more than 97 percent considered a partner who had oral sex with someone else to be have been unfaithful." In short: The definition of sex changes depending on who's having it with whom, and when, and how.
"A lot of queer folks feel they lost their virginity the first time they had an orgasm with a partner," says Blank. "It wasn't about what acts or even what genders were involved. It's as valid a definition as any other."
Ask-Hole is a regular column in which Broadly investigates questions you would only ask strangers on the internet about. Do you have a question about honestly anything at all? Ask us about it.