Some Have Sex. Others Don’t.
She left his room, feeling disappointed in herself and unsure whether or not this meant she was no longer a virgin. The night had not been the fairy tale that others had described. The environment lacked support, and afterward she regretted feeling like she had submitted to Dartmouth’s hookup culture. Though she felt like she had lost her virginity that night, she didn’t understand what that really meant. The uncertainty made her think critically about the idea of virginity and what “losing” it really meant.
After more consideration, she realized that this was not the night when she had truly lost her virginity. Rather, she lost it with her ex-girlfriend over a year before. She believes that, by having sex with a man, she may just have been trying to invalidate her sexuality.
“What is it about men and their equipment that has this power that no one else has over women?” she said. “Virginity is just a total social construct. It wasn’t my first time having sex. It was just my first time having sex with that guy.”
This woman, who identifies as queer, asked to remain anonymous because she is not out to her family about her sexual orientation.
Sociology department chair Kathryn Lively said that the definition of virginity is meaningless. In her class “Love, Romance, Intimacy and Dating,” virginity is covered over the course of a week, and Lively said “that students have a wildly varying definition of what it means to be a virgin.”
Before having sex for the first time with her then-girlfriend, the anonymous woman was given room to question her sexuality. On the night they had sex, the two women sat down to have an “uncomfortable” conversation about what it meant for them to have sex, which was “one of the most incredible things anyone has ever done for me,” the woman said.
Even with this meaningful and supportive experience, she said she never felt having sex changed her as a person, and she compared it to a first kiss or driving a car for the first time.
Lively said that the broader, more conservative cultural discourse of virginity holds white women’s virginity on a pedestal and ignores the virginity of everyone else.
“It’s not just a gender dynamic. It’s also racially loaded,” Lively said. “We’ve never, as a society, been concerned with women of color’s virginity. There’s different power dynamics that get wrapped up into this concept.”
Nkenna Ibeakanma ’16, who is black-British, said she sees the traditional view of virginity as “harmful,” noting that humans are also animals with sexual desires. She stressed that she speaks for herself and not for all women with her identity.
“It can be turned against you,” she said. “If you don’t prize your virginity, then you’re a whore.”
For Ibeakanma, constructions of virginity and sexuality are shaped by race.
“There’s not the same kind of sense of innocence or fragility [with black women] as there is with women of other races,” she said.
A woman, who chose to remain anonymous due to the intimate nature of the topic, said that her lack of sexual experience and virginity does not stem from moral or religious reasons. She said she was not opposed to having sex in high school, but she also never felt pressure to hook up. Now, in college, she feels inexperienced compared to everyone else because of her lack of high school experience.
According to this woman, virginity does not carry a stigma on Dartmouth’s campus, but people generally assume that their peers have had sex.
“Virgins are like unicorns,” she said. “Most people don’t really talk about being virgins.”
When it comes to hooking up, she said that she does not mind her virginity as she does not participate in the drinking culture much. She said that sometimes it feels like it is harder to begin a relationship, as many relationships start with hookups, which often occur when students are drinking.
At Dartmouth, many students expect to engage in some sort of sexual activity, a notion that Lively said she has observed through an anonymous survey activity, which she facilitates during the first class of the term.
The 2014 Dartmouth Health Survey, however, suggests that not every student on campus is having sexual intercourse. According to the survey, 28 percent of Dartmouth students have not had intercourse in the last year, and 36 percent have never had vaginal sex.
Jessica King Fredel ’17, the co-director of the “Voices” performance, a series of performances created and performed by self-identified women, said that she does not believe in the concept of virginity. Rather, she sees it as heteronormative and sexist, she said. She specifically does not like the language used when discussing virginity, as it can refer to women’s virginity being lost and taken by a man.
King Fredel said that losing female virginity has historically been linked with a loss of value, and she added that virginity often ascribes a label to a person and attaches importance to a part of his or her identity that might not matter to that person.
“I think that sex is another way for people to connect with each other and to be intimate,” King Fredel said. “It’s interesting to me that it is an identity that becomes so labeled.”
Gustavo Mercado Muñiz ’16, who identifies as gay, believes that having oral sex or any intercourse beyond that marks a loss of virginity, but he said that the definition changes for different people. Mercado Muñiz said that in his experience most gay men define sex as anal penetration, unless they prefer not to have anal sex at all.
“For me, it’s about the intimacy. It’s not about the specific act of it,” Mercado Muñiz said. “Once you get to the point of having that contact with another person, there should be a level of trust, a level of respect and a level of safety and comfort. That’s what makes me define it as anything sexual — period.”
Mercado Muñiz said that he is a virgin in part because he believes hookup culture does not always lend itself to safety, comfort and sobriety when hooking up. He added that he thinks it causes impersonality and distance between the two parties.
As a Sexual Health Peer Advisor, or Sexpert, Mercado Muñiz is comfortable talking to others and being open about his virginity, but like others, the social constructions surrounding virginity bother him.
“I find it a really strange cultural phenomenon to measure anything by,” he said. “There’s way too much judgment but also importance placed on this experience that is just a regular part of life.”
Jonah Sternthal ’18 said that he is a virgin because he does not want sex to be frivolous. He said that he does not really participate in what he considers to be the hookup culture on campus because he is not interested in it.
Sternthal does not feel that virginity is stigmatized, and he is open with his own experience.
“I want to have sex with someone who is special to me and who I actually like,” he said. “For me, I don’t want it to be a frivolous act.”
Annie Gardner ’15, who was a virgin until last summer, said that sex and desirability are correlated to social capital here at the College.
When she arrived on campus her freshman fall, she had never kissed anyone, which she said resulted in an enormous level of insecurity. She saw her lack of experience as a stigma, but various upperclasswomen told her not to worry about it, which is how she would advise others now.
Gardner said that she grew up with the more traditional notion of what virginity entailed — “the stereotypical, heteronormative penis and vagina that was explained in the sex talk” — but that she now defines it more vaguely.
“The closest I could get to a definition is that it’s a first intimate experience of some sort,” she said. “I don’t see how you can narrow it much more than that without cutting out a branch of people.”
As a virgin at Dartmouth, Gardner felt uncomfortable going home with anyone because she felt like sex was expected, so she avoided it altogether.
Still, she said her place in the hookup culture has not changed since she had sex, though she said she is more comfortable in herself and is no longer insecure about her experience.
Lively said that sociology professor at Vanderbilt University Laura Carpenter has researched the different ways in which people approach virginity. Some see virginity as a gift, where someone values it and is careful about their first time having sex. It can also be seen as a process, where it serves as a developmental milestone. Lastly, some see it as a stigma, in which case the person may want to get rid of virginity.
Hookup culture is good for people who view their virginity as a process and convenient for people who see it as a stigma, but it can be heartbreaking for people who believe that their virginity is a gift, Lively said.
She added that she believes that hookup culture is easier for women who are virgins to navigate, as male virgins might be ashamed of their lack of experience.
Lively said the College’s sexual culture is similar to that of many campuses, though most students see it as being unique. She said that it is not a product of Dartmouth but rather of broader societal norms and expectations at this age.
“One of the things that I try to do in my class is to illustrate that hookup cultures exist on all campuses,” Lively said.