H(b)y(e)men

Words by: Dina Ivkovich
Art by: Emma Lucas

An old proverb comes to mind: “No pain, no gain”, whereby in order to realise progress or success, one must suffer some deal. 

If there is one thing us humans share in common besides our initial state of sexual inexperience, it’s the name we ascribe to it: “virgin”, defined as a person who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. Yet by some twist of irony, there is more left to be desired in this cookie-cutter label by those who seemingly fall into it…

As we know it, sex is chiefly understood as a physical act, the constitution of which has been seized and seizured by heteronormativity. Sex, accordingly, defaults to two baking shapes: a penis and vagina, whereby a person who has been penetrated by a penis in their vagina (or vice-versa), is no longer a virgin. The result of this narrow interpretation is an erasure of intersectional understandings of sex as an emotional landscape, a mere bodily act alone. The role of one’s sexuality, state of pleasure, consent, and personal significations of what sex feels like beyond ‘looks’ is ultimately rendered second-rate in the crusade for a more complex, inclusive and (you guessed it!) intimate consensus on sex. 

It’s here, within an idea of virginity fostered by centuries of patriarchal regulation of female sexuality, that we locate its (mucoid) maker — the world’s thinnest gatekeeper, shielding one of its most coveted southbound wonders accessible to humans: the hymen. Myth has it that this historically prized, yet misunderstood membrane of tissue remains ‘intact’ until torn during the first vaginal penetration, thereby denoting physical proof of non-virginity. Like breaking the seal on a fresh can of tennis balls to savour its short-lived fragrance; that once lost, is lost forever. Lest we acknowledge that hymenal tearing often occurs undetected during sport, beating out the proverbial ‘cherry pop’ we’ve long learnt to revere and fear.

Born in the advent of Victorian-Era purity culture during a century fraught with paternity anxieties over having ‘illegitimate’ children and difficulties with identifying biological fathers, the hymen provided both the certainty of lineage and contraction of women to sex with one man who tore and ‘took’ their one-time virgin status. Sexual purity, by way of the hymen, became a commodified requisite for a woman’s value in the marketplace of courtship. We need only look to the Netflix bonkbuster series Bridgerton’s very own resident incel, Nigel Berbrooke, for proof of this myth’s power as a social currency, cock-block, and precursory acronym long forgotten: ‘Y.O.B.O.’ (You Only Break Once). 

Whether it’s the 19th century or as recently as 2019, fetishisation of virginity pervades the everyday vernacular we use, laden with negative terms of ‘purity’ and ‘loss’ that ultimately deny female sexual autonomy and demean efforts to transgress it’s binarised contract. It’s the paradoxical manner of its realisation as a commodified marker of female purity, ironically hypersexualised to the ends of its ‘lost and found taken’ status. Sex in terms of pain without the avail of gain. Penetration void of pleasure. 

So, what about redefining virginhood as an experience of gaining pleasure? One where ideas of ‘firsts’ are contingent on the varied identities that self-determine them. Where formative experience precedes any pluralised template that attempts to pigeonhole our sexual development in the conventions of ‘loss’ as opposed to ‘giving’ and, most of all, growth in return. To update the word ‘lost’ because our virginity is not something that should be taken in spite of our will and proceed to define us in mythical terms of this bodily void. To give virginity its virginity back, so that when we talk of ‘first blood’, we crown the bleeding body the victor. 

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