Young people may hear the words “virgin” or “virginity” and be very confused about what these words mean. It is no surprise that young people might be confused, as there is no consensus about what virginity means.
Virginity is not a medical term, and there is no medical definition of virginity. It is important that adults and young people understand that a person cannot look at another person and know if that person is a virgin. A medical exam cannot determine if someone is a virgin. At one time, it was believed that an intact hymen (the thin tissue that can cover part of the vaginal opening, located about a half-inch inside the vagina) meant a person was a virgin. But some people are born without a hymen, and it’s not unusual for the hymen to be broken during ordinary activities, like gymnastics or horseback riding. This definition also only applies to girls and does not recognize the fact that people, regardless of gender, have to decide when is the right time to have sex.
While there are many different ways of understanding what virginity means, parents and caregivers can explain to young people that when people use the word “virgin” they are often referring to a person who has not had sex. But people don’t always agree about which behaviors constitute “having sex.” Parents can explain the different ways that people might think about virginity. For example, for some people, being a virgin means never having had vaginal sex. Other people believe being a virgin means never having been involved in any type of sexual behavior, including oral or anal sex, with another person.
While definitions of virginity can vary, talking about these variations provide an opportunity for parents and caregivers to talk with their children about how someone might decide if they are ready for sex and any values your family has related to when it is appropriate for people to have sex. During these conversations, it is important that young people know that whether a person has or has not had sex does not make them a good or bad person. This is an especially important message given that a young person who has survived sexual assault may feel shame about not being a virgin. This shame can prevent young people from seeking the help and care they desperately need. Parents can also stress that bullying a person based on his or her perceived sexual behavior is never okay. What is most important is not whether someone is or is not a virgin, but that they get to choose what is healthy and best for them. Since people have different ideas about what it means to be a virgin, it is very important that young people know that they should talk with a partner about what sexual behaviors they have engaged in during past relationships. Just because someone considers themselves a virgin, it does not mean that they have not engaged in behaviors that could put them at risk for STDs.
When parents and caregivers talk with young people about what they know or understand about virginity, it opens the door to important conversations about how people decide if and when they are ready for sex. When parents initiate conversations about these topics and show that they are open and supportive, this sets the stage for children to come to their parents and caregivers with questions or if they need advice.
Below are some ways to start these conversations:
Bring up the topic while watching a TV show
If you’re watching TV and a character is concerned about either “losing or keeping their virginity,” you could ask the following: “Should wanting to not be seen as a virgin be a reason why someone decides to have sex?” “What do you think people should consider when they are trying to decide if they are ready for sex?”
Bring up the topic if you hear about a young person being slut-shamed
If you hear about a young person being bullied for having sex or being perceived to have had sex or someone is bullied for being perceived to be a virgin, you can ask the following questions: “Have you heard about kids being bullied because people think they have or have not had sex?” “What would you do if a friend were being bullied because people thought your friend was or wasn’t a virgin?”