I entered high school thinking that the greatest stigma around sex would be getting shamed for having it, as was informed by my middle school media consumption. In the shows and movies I watched, sex was readily available in high school, but the girls that had it ended up with the word “slut” spray painted onto their lockers or on the receiving end of cruel whispers as they walked through the hallways.
By the time I graduated high school, however, I would find the exact opposite to be true. A combination of the media I consumed, conversations I took part in and the greater cultural context I was situated in made it so that by the time I left high school, with my virginity still intact, my lack of sexual experience was a source of embarrassment — a humiliating, heavy secret.
I’d say some of the feelings that came with that embarrassment are unavoidable. High school is a time of life rife with insecurity and comparison, and sexual experience is an easy benchmark with which to compare yourself. I didn’t know how to not apply my lack of experience to make larger judgments about myself, and particularly as virginity functioned for me as a straight, cisgender girl, sex felt inextricably linked to being chosen and wanted.
But whatever internal struggle my lack of experience left me with, the experience of having to divulge that information about myself to others was all the more mortifying. Both over my gap year and during my freshman year at the University of Michigan, inquiring about one another’s sexual experience felt integral to getting to know one another. Games such as “Never Have I Ever” and “Hotseat” along with comparisons of Rice Purity scores somehow always came up, and what you had to share wasn’t neutrally received. While my insecurity exacerbated my peers’ reactions in my head, sexual experience seemed to inform how we were making sense of one another: sexual experience being socially favorable and a lack of it being awkward and isolating.
The problem lies in these extrapolations of virginity. People constantly divulging their sexual history in social settings and subsequently using others’ histories to make judgments creates significant pressure to have sex. The pressure isn’t about sex; it is about fitting in.
There isn’t a right or wrong time to first have sex, but there are certainly right and wrong reasons. The choice to have sex should be motivated exclusively by personal desire and should only happen in safe and comfortable environments. Whether or not someone is a “virgin,” a term that unto itself is already outdated and problematic, should remain neutrally connotated. Otherwise, the social element of sex becomes more important than the personal, setting people up to opt into having sex before they’re ready or to do it in unsafe conditions.
We exist at a moment when casual sex is championed. The advent of dating apps made casual sex all the more immediate and accessible, not just because that’s what the apps can be used for, but also in the messages conveyed by accessing the app entirely. Almost all of my friends had made Tinder accounts by the time we graduated high school, despite us all having little to no sexual experience. Many of our first encounters with sexual language being thrown our way were from older strangers on various dating platforms.
An example of the sexual attitudes I was taking in during high school is Call Her Daddy, a viral sex podcast initially hosted by Alex Cooper and Sofia Franklyn (Cooper is now the podcast’s sole host). The podcast claimed to be feminist, but its ethos revolved entirely around the hosts championing women cultivating the same toxic and impersonal relationships with sex they saw men having. One of the podcast’s most famous moments is their coining of the “gluck gluck 9000,” their moniker for their particular technique on how to give the best and sloppiest blowjob.
This podcast is just one example of cultural phenomena that helped shape an understanding that casual sex was cool, fun and feminist. Understanding sex as something intimate and special was lame or prudish. If you genuinely enjoy casual sex, then that’s something you should be able to partake in freely and without fear of retribution or judgment. However, when casual sex becomes the norm or expectation, the same societal pressures I discussed in the context of “virginity” are replicated.
While open discourse around sex is vital, and talking about sex with peers in contexts where you feel safe and comfortable should be encouraged, talking about sex in unfamiliar and new groups shouldn’t function as a social lubricant. It inevitably leads to a comparison culture that fosters insecurity and socially incentivizes sexual participation. This is felt most acutely particularly as it relates to virginity, as the word itself creates a powerful binary, dividing the world into people who have had sex and those who haven’t.
When I eventually had sex for the first time over my gap year, I wrote in my journal, “Losing your virginity is just like having a birthday. You think you’ll feel different, but you don’t.” Before I’d had sex, the fact that I hadn’t was an omnipresent, looming rain cloud. On the other side of it, I was able to gain an immediate clarity about the insignificance of whether or not one has had sex that was inaccessible to me under the weight of societal pressure. Now, on the other side of the “virgin” binary, I feel no judgment when I encounter someone who’s yet to have sex, but the internalized judgment you feel when you haven’t is real and acute.
I frankly feel lucky that my experience having sex for the first time happened in a space where I felt comfortable, with someone I knew and trusted. I had been so desperate to rid myself of the label that had a more impersonal, or even unsafe, opportunity presented itself, I likely would have taken it.
The social conditions and norms we create around sex matter. The choice to have sex, particularly for the first time, is deeply personal, and we should respect that both as it applies to ourselves and to others. The casual discussions and games around sex that can feel light and impersonal are actually weighted and important. If not to you, then very likely to someone else. Don’t inadvertently contribute to the internal pressure someone feels in relation to their sex life. I promise, there are other things to talk about.
Lila Dominus is an Opinion Columnist hailing from New York City. She writes about digital culture and gender, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.