Despite the negative connotations, Hugo Schwyzer writes, using the term “losing your virginity” actually makes a lot of sense.
In 2008, Jessica Zaylia wrote what became a very popular article about The Hymenization of Virginity. Treading on somewhat familiar ground, Zaylia offered all the right critiques of the language we use to describe the first experience of intercourse, especially the language of “losing it.” As she asked, what is being lost, anyway?
Zaylia’s meditation on “loss” is promising but incomplete. She writes:
Pairing the two word “losing” with “virginity” accomplishes two goals. First, we only lose what we consider valuable (e.g. “I lost the race,” “I lost my notebook,” or “I am lost.”). We also lose things we presume we ought to have kept (e.g. “I lost my temper,” or “I lost your phone number.”) Coupling “losing” with “virginity” implies that virginity is something of value that we ought to have kept.
True enough. But there’s a third sense of “losing” Zaylia misses. People on diets speak of “losing weight”, after all — and they almost never express regret about the “pounds they gave up.” When we talk of “losing fat” or “losing inches”, we talk about it with hope and optimism beforehand and pride afterward. And of course, for many of us, “losing virignity” was a loss eagerly anticipated! Our stereotype is that only young men are eager to “lose” their virginity. We imagine, wrongly, that young women see their virginity as a prize to be guarded and, in the end, surrendered to someone particularly deserving; young men, our cultural assumes, long to “lose” the burden of still being a virgin to the first available and willing candidate. Though there are some grains of truth in that stereotype — a stereotype that does at least reveal two wildly varying attitudes towards “loss” — it misses the diverse reality of human sexual experience.
After 25 years working as a peer educator, a high school teacher, a college professor, and youth leader, I’ve talked to thousands of teens about their attitudes towards sex. I’ve mentored young people before and after they became sexually active, and been privileged to be the one adult that many boys and girls felt that they could talk to at various stages. And I’ve known girls who were eager to lose what they thought of as a heavy weight, and I’ve known boys who were terrified of “ruining themselves.” One of the most common reasons the kids I’ve worked with have offered for having sex: “I just wanted to get it over with.” They aren’t saying it’s necessarily painful (though sometimes it is); what they want to “get over” is a threshold into adulthood. For many, what they wanted to “lose” was a sense of themselves as childlike. Youth leaders can caution, until the proverbial cows come home, that sexual experience has nothing to do with emotional maturity, that the loss of virginity isn’t a rocket booster into adulthood, but it’s hard to counter such a pervasive cultural myth.
In the end, I’m not troubled by the language of losing, as long as we understand that some losses are to be welcomed as well as grieved. When we lose a fear of heights by learning to skydive, we overcome an obstacle. That’s a positive loss. When we lose our fear of speaking up, and become assertive in social situations, we have lost something we needed to lose. Loss can be redemptive and a marker of spiritual, physical, and psychological growth. Rather than trying to avoid using the language of loss to describe first sexual experiences, we can broaden our understanding of what it means to lose.
If the word “lose” is related to the Latin luere, as most etymologists suspect it is, then we have a powerful reminder of the full dimensions of “losing”. Luere can mean “to atone for,” to “lose,” but also to “loosen” and to “let flow.” If to lose is to loosen, then it’s a short jump to realizing that another way to think about losing is to connect it to newfound freedom. Think of Marx’s famous line about the workers of the world having nothing to lose but their chains.
Sometimes, it’s “hurrah” for loss. Sometimes, for the best of reasons, it’s the right word for first sex.
—Photo Ashley R. Good/Flickr