Virginity revisited ? a matter of trust

Date: January 1, 1970
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A recent article I wrote that argued for a woman?s right to choose when to lose her virginity, without any social stigma attached, has resulted in a flurry of responses. One reader wrote me asking if bathing in hot water, or riding a bicycle might be justification for his girlfriend claiming she was still a virgin. I think what the reader was trying to ask, was whether these activities were authentic justifications for a woman claiming loss of her hymen.

I thought long about what to say in response, and even considered referring him to some medical literature on the subject. However, I realised that what this query signified was more of a trust issue, than a need to understand the science of the female anatomy. Still, it led me to ask the question, “What measures or standards do we use to define virginity?”
Many non-sexual activities, such as tampon use and some vigorous sporting activities can result in the loss of the hymen. And biologically, it is believed that a small fraction of women are born without this thin protective sheath that covers the vaginal opening, while unfortunately, some girls are raped or abused in their youth. 
True, a dishonest woman might hide behind these factors to explain the lack of physical evidence of her virgin status at alleged first sexual intercourse (that is, bloodshed resulting from penetration of the hymen). True again, many men prefer this physical reassurance that they are indeed the first lover a woman has had.
Some women will go to drastic measures to provide this evidence for their mates – herbs that can supposedly restore a hymen, or surgical procedures, hymenoplasties, to reconfigure a hymen. Such desperate measures are surely committed out of fear of rejection, but still they illustrate the levels of deception that some are willing to go to. At the same time, a man will sometimes disown a woman who genuinely has no explanation for not having a hymen.
I have listened to conversations, among men, who say that since their girlfriends are refusing to sleep with them prior to marriage, they are relieving their sexual urges elsewhere for the time being. They claim they do this out of respect for their girlfriend’s decision, while giving the rather clichéd but convenient excuse, “A man has needs!”
As a woman, I obviously find that highly offensive because it re-emphasises the contradiction that has always confounded me. Far too many men want to marry virgins without returning the same sexual sacrifice.
Moreover, imagine too the implications such attitudes can have on the spread of HIV. Perhaps a couple in a committed relationship agrees to abstain from sex until marriage. When they become certain that they want to be together for life, they go for counseling and testing, and find they are both HIV negative, and start making serious plans for their married life together.
However, being perhaps young or financially impeded, they find it difficult to get all the logistics in order – and what should have been just a few months of preparation and planning becomes half a year, or longer. In that period, perhaps one partner breaks their promise feeling unable to contain their sexual desires, and engages in unprotected sex with someone who inadvertently infects them with HIV. With it being so far into the relationship, with so much built trust, the two marry without so much as thinking of going for another test – doing so would imply lack of faithfulness.
This scenario reminds me of the building evidence that marriages and committed unions are more and more becoming the nesting ground for HIV transmission – because condoms are rarely used in such relationships, and because some partners are engaging in risky multiple sexual relations within these unions.
HIV is not only spreading through the known methods we all can name and describe. The breaking of trust is worryingly fueling its spread – by those who will not reveal their positive status to their partner, and between those who do not appreciate the sexually exclusive nature of relationships.
Returning to the present debate, define a virgin and most will say, “a person who has not had sex.” That sounds complete enough, but people often neglect to clarify on what constitutes sex within that definition. Is sex only vaginal penetration by the penis?
What about oral and anal sex, both cultural taboos, but activities many young people engage in, especially girls, to avoid penetrative sex and therefore keep their virginity, or should I say their hymens, intact?
Young people often experience the tension of curiosity versus fear. As they grow, they go through many biological, psychological, physical and emotional changes that they might find awkward and they may want to investigate these changes among themselves.
To satisfy their curiosity, they find many ways around certain rules and regulations, sometimes to their own detriment. The youth must be educated fully on the potential risks involved in the activities they engage in, believing them to be safer alternatives to penetrative sex.
I asked the question before. What measures do we use to define a virgin? Paradoxically, the much sought after physical evidence can be misleading.
We are living in a world where accountability, trustworthiness, respect and honesty in relationships have become even more necessary due to the reality of HIV in our homes and communities. These are fundamental and universal values on which we build societies, and whether addressing virginity or faithfulness, we surely doom ourselves if we do not practise them.
Fungai Machirori is a trainee media professional with the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS). This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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