Educators Challenge Virginity Connotations

Activists critical of associating loss of virginity with shame

Health educators, feminist bloggers, and queer activists gathered at the Rethinking Virginity Conference on Monday to critique American society’s negative portrayal of losing one’s virginity.

“Why do we say ‘losing it’ anyway?” said Shelby Knox, a feminist activist and blogger. “Why don’t we say, ‘I am celebrating my first time!’?”

Many of the speakers at the panels, which were hosted by the Harvard Queer Students and Allies, agreed that sex and virginity are often associated with loss and even shame. They argued for a more positive approach to sexuality.

“Being sex-positive means being anti-fear and pro-information, and that can mitigate shame,” said Sarah Morton, president of the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund.

Morton also spoke at the Monday panel “Toward A Sex-Positive Vision of Abstinence,” which focused on the dissemination of information to young students.

“We want to explore a vision of sex education that can reach people just beginning to explore sexuality,” said Lena Chen ’09-’10, the panel moderator and QSA women’s events and outreach chair.

Chen, who created the blog Sex and the Ivy as a student at Harvard, said that middle school and high school sex education programs tend to preach abstinence by emphasizing the failure rates of most forms of birth control and the emotional and psychological harms accompanying premarital sex.

“Abstinence is like other methods of birth control—only effective when used consistently and correctly,” said Knox, the feminist blogger.

She added that the federal government funds sex education programs that advocate abstinence until marriage, painting a picture of sex as leading to physical and emotional problems.

“I don’t think the way we are teaching kids about sex is teaching them to be sexually healthy adults,” said panelist Megara Bell, founder of the Newton, Mass.-based organization Partners in Sex Education. “We don’t want to teach that sex is dirty and gross, but suddenly becomes okay in marriage.”

Panelists said that in addition to painting a negative picture of sex, institutionalized sex education tends to disregard alternate explorations of sexuality—particularly queer sexuality.

“When you have two men or two women who are doing something, it doesn’t fit into the heteronormative conception of virginity,” said QSA Co-chair Christian L. Garland ’10-’11, who spoke at the panel “Popping the Queer Cherry.”

“We have a cultural tendency to place influence on the first time someone has sex, but the first time isn’t necessarily the most meaningful,” he explained.

Panelists agreed that while society probably will continue to lay stress on the first time, losing one’s virginity is not like losing one’s keys. They expressed hope that social discourse about sex could become more positive in the future.

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at aeunderw@fas.harvard.

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