Why ‘Losing It’ Is Sometimes the Best Term for First Sex

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

More on “Our Sexual Vocabulary”

The Unnamed Genitals Have a Name, Marcus Williams

Let’s Really (Really) Talk About Sex, Julie Gillis

Riding in PopPop’s Vulva, Joanna Schroeder

Why ‘Losing It’ Is Sometimes the Best Term for First Sex, Hugo Schwyzer

Low and Slow: My Sequel to Dad’s Sex Talk, Tomas Moniz

Potty Mouth Versus Poetry, Paul Leroux

Non-monogamy, Jeremy M.

Really (Really) Talking About Sex, Part 2: Starting The Conversation, Julie Gillis

Bro-ing Alone, Oliver Lee Bateman

What’s in a Name: Vaginas, Clitorises, and Bravery, Maria Pawlowska

The Ethics of Vocabulary (Sexual and Otherwise) Lisa Hickey

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Julie Gillis says:

    Hm. I’ve always felt the phrase indicated something people (virgins to penetrative intercourse) were interested in getting rid of. LIke being a virgin was a bit of a stigma. Thus movies like “Losin’ It”
    Ironic considering now keeping it (one’s purity) is the big thing in conservative states, so much that there are church programs like True Love Waits.
    I wonder, is there new language for those wedded virgins? Sharing it? Gifting it?
    I always appreciated the visual imagery of “deflowering” but disliked the idea of sexuality as a flower.
    Words are strange things.

  2. Peter Houlihan says:

    “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.””

    Maybe, but noone actually uses it that way. I think educating kids not to have such expectations of the effect of sex is probably better.

    • I think educating kids not to have such expectations of the effect of sex is probably better.
      Agreed. For guys virginity (PIV with a woman of course) is regarded as a curse that prevents a boy from becoming a man and in order to become a man that curse must be disspelled. Which is why, “Our stereotype is that only young men are eager to “lose” their virginity.” They are eager to lose it because according to the script of being a man we have to or else we are not “real men”.

      I’ve never taught or taken any sex ed classes but I hope that something is being done to address this (and other) myths that surround sexuality.

  3. Thank you for this perspective, I’d never thought of it that way (great metaphors too). When I lost my PIV virginity in the backseat of my boyfriend’s mom’s 12-year old Volvo, I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything (except some blood). I was still the same person, just having experienced something extremely new, fascinating, pleasurable, and painful. That’s why the ‘let’s not make such a big deal about virginity’ movement spoke to me. I never felt like it was something precious that I needed to save or keep, or that I was any less “pure” after I had enjoyed sex.

    The language that makes me a lot more uncomfortable is the way we talk about men and women having sex differently. A man “GOT laid” or “GOT some ass,” while a woman “GAVE it up” or “spread her legs FOR him.” In a consensual sex situation, you should both be giving and both be getting. I actually like the way Snooki says it–“I’m getting it in,” or neutral phrases like “had sex,” “engaged in coitus,” or “bumped uglies.”

    I don’t like “slept with” because it tries to sugarcoat something that shouldn’t be shameful anyways. “Hooked up” is interesting because it’s mostly used to be vague about what you did (whether you’re trying to downplay or up-play). It includes kissing, sex and everything in between, so you don’t have to be specific.

  4. Angiportus says:

    One can talk of “losing” a pursuer…but i myself still don’t tend to use the loss metaphor/image for anything I don’t want to get rid of.
    The idea of anyone being injured to the point of losing any blood as a result of some sexual action is extremely creepy, and I think that making sure all know how to forestall such injuries is more urgent than hashing out the terminology…not that the latter isn’t important, but words don’t bleed, people do.

    • Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. There was no injury or anything, I was just referring to the hymen breaking. In lieu of this week’s sex ed theme, I’m glad it got brought up. I learned about it ‘on the street’ rather than in sex ed or from parents. I bled the first 10 times I had sex, but I know girls who never did, and the general idea that you just bleed your first time. I think it would be good to educate both boys and girls about that particular thing and that it’s normal, whether you bleed once, multiple times, or never do.

  5. Angiportus says:

    Seems to me that any sort of wound could be a strikepoint for an infection, even if it doesn’t hurt at the time, and so should be avoided whenever possible. First aid in that area sounds like it would be difficult too, and so any sort of bleeding due to sexual contact should be prevented–by a prior examination and fixing of whatever is vulnerable until the planned activity is thought unnlikely to damage any part. Nowadays teachers, like Hugo, are apparently starting to address this, fortunately.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    I understand the point that ‘losing’ something can be a good thing, like losing weight, losing one’s fear of something, etc.

    I would like to see more people refer to their first sexual experiences as launching something, like “making their sexual debut.” It’s something that starts a much longer process of exploration, enjoyment, communion, all that good stuff, mixed with all the (hopefully minimized) risks along the way. I still wouldn’t want teenagers to overestimate how totally wonderful the first time will be. Maybe it’s more like getting your feet wet instead of throwing a debutante ball. It doesn’t make you an adult, but it starts you on one of the roads that goes through adulthood.

    Why not focus on the future instead of just losing part of the past?

  7. CasualTaoist says:

    I think the problem with “losing” is that it sounds passive, almost accidental. I didn’t lose my virginity (“Oh my God, where did it go? I should have paid closer attention!). Nor did I lose weight nor my fear of heights. I was active in those activities.

    I overcame my fear of heights. I worked off my weight and I had sex for the first time (not all in that order). I took part in all these things. They weren’t accidental occurrences.

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