Virginity at Harvard

“I think it’d be easy. I don’t think it’d be hard at all to lose my virginity to someone.”
By Ginny C. Fahs and Noah B. Pisner

Q: Do you ever feel it's limiting to feel sexy because you're not sexual?

A: "At the beginning of the night, you look like everyone else. As the night progresses and people start hooking up I feel like my attractiveness starts going down, because it's not going to happen. So it's like, 'Oh she's so hot, but she won't sleep with me. She's not so hot anymore.' People aren't going to want to be with you because they know they're not going to get everything that they want from you. I guess so—I guess I feel less sexy."

“I think it’d be easy. I don’t think it’d be hard at all to lose my virginity to someone.”

Ann R. Winston* buries her chin in her scarf, hiding her grin. “I don’t know if that sounds conceited,” she says. “It probably sounds conceited but that’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” She readjusts herself on the wooden bench next to the Weld Boathouse, crossing her knees and pulling her back upright. She refuses to break eye contact with the river.

It would be easy to write off Winston’s abstinence as a consequence of her upbringing—raised in the South, she grew up in what she aptly calls a “Christian household.” Winston came to the Northeast for college while many of her high school friends stayed local. Though she still teaches Sunday school each week, Winston believes that being at Harvard has changed her views—now her faith actually has little to do with her decision to abstain. “It’s not necessarily abstinence until marriage,” she explains. “It’s about waiting for a stable relationship with someone I trust.”

“People don’t expect it at all because I’ve ‘hooked up’—‘hooked up’ being a relative term—with different people and they see me making out on the dance floor,” she laughs. Winston joined Kappa Alpha Theta sorority in the spring of her freshman year, where, she admits, she is one of few members who do not drink and choose to remain a virgin. In conjunction, she says, these decisions come as less of a shock. “It makes me innocent already, so then the innocence all kind of goes together,” Winston explains.

Winston’s virginity is not something that she shares with many people. She has told some of her friends and sorority sisters, but for the most part the subject doesn’t come up unless prompted, which, Winston believes, is common. While Harvard students tend not to showcase their sex lives, Harvard has a sexually active undergraduate body. In The Crimson’s 2012 senior survey, 68.3 percent of graduating senior women reported that they had had sex while 75.3 percent of graduating senior men reported the same, which is comparable to the national average.

Virginity, with all of its outdated tropes of purity and innocence, seems almost antithetical to the liberal culture of Harvard—a culture where actively partaking in premarital sexcapades is the statistical standard. That said, be it for reasons of God, love, choice, or bad luck, there are still those, like Winston, who remain chaste. At Harvard, virginity exists.

Going to New Mexico

“I have a friend who describes it as going to New Mexico,” says Eleanor A. Hunt*, squinting as sunbeams from the Science Center courtyard slide in through the window. “Some people are like, ‘I go to New Mexico all the time. It’s not a big deal.’ Other people want to save up their entire lives, and want their trip to New Mexico to be the best trip they’ve ever been on. And then some people are like, ‘Whatever, I’ll get there when the flights are right.’”

Before coming to Harvard, Hunt learned most of what she now knows about sex from watching television shows targeted at an older audience; her small private school in Missouri neither taught sexual education nor provided sexual counseling to students. “It wasn’t a condoms-in-the-bathroom, go-ask-the-nurse situation,” she says. Like Winston, Hunt’s conservative Christian upbringing informed her initial decision to remain abstinent, but coming to college has made her reason more personal. “It’s not because it’s important to God, it’s important to me,” she says. “Someday I’ll want to go to New Mexico, and I’ll trust it’s going to happen."

For Winston and Hunt, New Mexico is an auspicious state that they’ll reach eventually—no need to rush. “People get way too focused on the sexual part of the relationship and the rest gets neglected,” says Winston. “Virginity’s not something I’m willing to just hand over to anyone.”

Beth A. Owen*, on the other hand, has regularly made the trip to New Mexico in her time at Harvard. “Why not test drive the car before you buy it?” she chuckles, her shoulders rolling back. For Owen, virginity has always been unnecessarily over-romanticized. “I’m not one to make sex seem like a big momentous thing like, ‘Oh, my flower,’” she snickers.

Before she arrived at Harvard, Owen perceived virginity as shrouded by mystique. The daughter of Baptist parents, Owen grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended Catholic schools where sex education consisted of watching birthing videos every year and never mentioning the existence of contraception. Since leaving for college, Owen has embraced Harvard’s more liberal and liberating environment. “I’m more chill and relaxed now that I live in a hook-up culture. Now I’m down to try everything once.”

Marcus T. Quinn* has been just as involved in the hook-up culture as Owen, but he frames his sexual encounters less cynically. “If it’s meaningful—even if it’s not meaningful, at the first level it feels good—but I think it makes you closer to people,” he says. “You have to let your guard down a lot to have sex with somebody. And letting your guard down is how you get close to someone, and I think sex is the most extreme version of that. I think that in trying to craft a meaningful connection with someone it’s good to have sex.” Despite these sentiments, Quinn also reveals that in some social scenes at Harvard sex manifests itself in a less ginger and gentle context.

Virgins at the Party

Quinn lost his virginity as a freshman and joined a final club as a sophomore. He wears a half-zip pullover that is half-zipped down, leaning far over the table as he talks. “Again, I speak for my club, and I speak for my impression of other clubs,” he says. “They all have different personalities.” As a senior member, Quinn has been part of one of Harvard’s most sexualized social scenes for a while now. He laughs at the hypothetical flirting situations presented to him—the same ones presented to Winston—noting that some are, perhaps, too realistic.

Hypothetical #1: A guy is flirting with a girl and he finds out she’s a virgin.

Quinn: “If this was someone I was interested in, that wouldn’t be a turnoff. It would probably make them more appealing. It’s kind of like—you want to, I guess ‘conquer’ is the right word, but it’s probably a bad word. And I’m being very honest with myself and with you about that. I’m not proud about that. But that’s how I feel.”

Winston: “Usually when I’m hooking up with a guy, first they’ll find out that I’m sober so then his expectations for the night already change.... I think they catch on and they’re not very surprised at that point to find out that I’m a virgin. They’re probably not usually very pleased, though that usually depends on the guy. If someone just found out point-blank they would be shocked, but as someone gets to know me they see the progression and it’s not as shocking.”

Hypothetical #2: A guy finds out that the girl he’s flirting with won’t have sex with him because she’s abstinent.

Quinn: “If I’m hitting on a girl at a party, and I find out she’s a hard-line virgin, I don’t think I’d stop talking to her, but I think I would stop hitting on her. I think it’d transition to a more friendly-type conversation, you know?”

Winston: “If it’s a good guy and he’s expecting more than a one-night kind of thing then usually he’s like, ‘Okay, I can work with that. It’s cool, maybe I’ll change it’. If it’s not a good guy—I feel like I’ve been put in a few awkward situations, but then again because I’m sober I’ve been able to take control of the situation and make it be what I want it to be rather than what they would want it to be. I’m sure there’s been quite a few disappointed guys that I’ve hooked up with, but that’s their problem, not mine. Maybe that’s insensitive."

Hypothetical #3: A guy takes a girl’s virginity.

Quinn: “I think I’d feel relieved, because it’s like, ‘Man, I can’t screw this up.’ They don’t know what it’s supposed to be like. My impression is for most girls it’s not great the first time anyway. Except for when I lost my virginity, I’ve never slept with another virgin. I don’t know. I always thought that would be a less intimidating experience, because she’s putting all this confidence into me and she’s got nothing to compare me against. I’m the new standard.”Winston: “I feel like that’s a lot of pressure on a guy: taking someone’s virginity. Like, you are the standard they are going to measure sex with. And if they’ve been building it up in their heads for 20 years, that better be fucking good sex because they waited this long. You better do a good job [laughs]. If you’re both virgins, I bet it’s just awkward.”

These hypotheticals are certainly limiting, maybe even unfairly skewed in reinforcing certain stereotypes: girls are more likely to abstain yet more often victimized in doing so. Nevertheless, these situations do highlight a telling side of the issue. Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker argues, “With women, more often sex is tied to knowing the guy and having some longer term emotional connection—not all the time. Nor is it true that men seek anonymous, no-strings sex all the time, but there’s a big statistical difference between the sexes. With men it often just has to be bodies and there’s no particular curiosity about that person behind the body when it comes to sheer sexual gratification.”

Miranda J. Shugars ’14, who has identified as a lesbian since high school, has been frustrated by Harvard parties where many of the guys she meets seem too eager for sex. “People at parties don’t believe me when I say I don’t want to go home with you because I’m gay,” she says. ‘They’re like ‘No! My penis will convince you otherwise!’ I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten that. I’m not joking. I’ve gotten that several times, which is why I stopped going to parties.”

But not all male students seek sex at parties. Aaron C. Gyde ’14 openly expresses his desire to abstain. For him, it’s a matter of religion. “I think abstinence is an opportunity for me to demonstrate my faith in the fact that ultimately, in the same way I’m waiting for my wife or my spouse, I’m waiting here on this earth for the marriage of Christ and the Church as well,” he says with conviction.

Unlike most students interviewed for this article, Gyde said he did not want to be anonymous. “This is what I believe. Why would I want to hide it? I’d be hiding who I am.”

Gyde believes that his viewpoint is respected among his friends. “I feel like the people who would have a stigma I’m not incredibly good friends with,” he says. “The community I’m in is actually very supportive of this lifestyle. I think they all share the same view that this is important.” Like most people interviewed for this article, Gyde is comfortable with the choices he’s made regarding sex. That said, a significant stigma surrounds the concept of virginity, a stigma that affects females and males alike.

“Prudish, Uptight, Inhibited, and Puritanical”

Saturday at midnight: A group of pony-tailed club athletes gathered in an Eliot dorm room, kneeling on the floor with fingers primed and ready to play “Never Have I Ever.” It was the first team party of the year; with four months of summer to atone for and a crop of new freshman teammates to interrogate, the game got heated.

Within minutes “Never Have I Ever” divulged into gasps and secrets—summer hookups, onenight stands. “We were drinking and then stuff surfaced; I was just appalled,” Jane Xu* remembers. “I was so stunned that people started talking about it casually."

Xu is a new freshman on the squad, an international student from a large public school that started offering sex education in the fourth grade. She reclines on her bedspread in her Yard dorm room, babbling stream-of-consciousness about her expectations for the Harvard social scene. Xu had watched movies that showcase the sex culture of American colleges, but she never expected to find that sort of environment at Harvard. “I think I may have even been a little bit naïve because,  coming into Harvard, I was like, ‘Everything will be different. They’re not really like that stuff we see in movies. They’re not going party hard every night—not, like, hook up intensely.’ But yeah. I was wrong.”

A few weeks earlier, Xu was speaking with another friend in the freshman class about some of his previous relationships, relationships he claimed “never got that far.” When Xu asked if he ever had sex with his high school girlfriend, her friend responded,  “No, she was a bit of a prude. We were together for five months and we didn’t have sex.” Xu was shocked at his language and judgment. “So that’s definitely not my viewpoint,” she declares. Five months still seems like a very short period of time.“

Whether you are a virgin or not, for women especially, it’s a double-edged sword,” says Lena Chen ’09-’10, who authored the blog “Sex and the Ivy” and whose senior thesis in Sociology focused on virginity in post-industrial America. “If you are having sex, you’re a slut, and if you’re not having sex and your friends are, then they may think you’re a total prude,” she says.

Quinn confirms that these classifications are still very much alive in some Harvard social scenes: “These terms do get thrown around all the time in final clubs, like prude and sometimes slut. I’ve heard women described that way before,” he explains. “It becomes deterministic to label someone as a prude or a slut. I think you do get treated differently.”

Quinn remembers being at a party freshman year with a girl who was speculating about the virginity of all the other people in the room, “as if there are two types of people in your life at that point: virgins and non-virgins,” he recalls. “It occupies so much of our psyche. I remember it being a thing freshman year, like going to a party and there being a sign at the door with ‘name, dorm, and virginity.’ Just like a joke, but it was something that was on people’s minds. I mean everyone was laughing about it, but it was one of those jokes that was real.”

Hunt concurs, “There is so much judgment. I have friends who are virgins who dress up and go out and they’re not like virgins, they’re not doing sewing and shit in their rooms, but they’re not like ‘Hey! I’m a virgin!’ It’s just that they haven’t had sex yet.”  Hunt feels that these terms are problematic: “There are all sorts of things where as much as we’re like ‘Women, claim your bodies,’ I don’t feel like really we’re allowed to do that in any way that we want.”

Not Getting Any

Early in his sophomore year, Quinn wandered into the Delphic courtyard for one of his first punch events. After an hour of shmoozing and drinking, the punch masters and president of the Delphic delivered welcome speeches to their neophyte guests.  As per custom, the most inebriated member of the club was charged with giving the concluding speech as he teetered to balance atop a table and raised his drink. “To paraphrase,” says Quinn, “the speech was something like ‘We’re happy you’re all here, we just wanted to let you know that at the Delphic we only look for two kinds of members: legends and savages.’” Quinn doesn’t recall which was which. “It was something like a legend is someone who pounds beer all day long, and a savage is a guy who gets pussy.”

Winston acknowledges a double standard, saying, “Sex is a way to prove your manliness. I would say if a guy were a virgin it would be much, much more shocking than a girl being a virgin. Especially if a guy in a final club or something were a virgin, I’d feel like that’d be impossible.”

But male virgins in final clubs do exist and the stigma surrounding their sexual status is intense, since these men are often expected to be able to “flex their sort of Harvard machismo,” according to Quinn. As Quinn explains, “Being a Harvard male is an appealing position in society. I mean Harvard is supposed to be like the symbol of American power. I think that guys—especially guys in final clubs who place an emphasis on being social—feel empowered in a way. For some people who are final club virgins, they almost feel embarrassed that despite having a real tangible symbol of masculinity, they’re still unable to exercise it—and get laid.”

Thus, for many males at Harvard, virginity is something to be dispatched and done away with as quickly as possible. Quinn offers one specific example of a friend—“a virgin member of a final club”—who was “doing the normal guy thing, which was scheming and trying to figure out how to lose his virginity, and saying, ‘I just need to get really drunk, hook up with some girl, and just get it over with.’” The pressure for males to have sex in college is immeasurable, Quinn says, “And especially in a group of what is ostensibly supposed to be more socially-skilled guys, you can feel self-conscious about your virginity and want desperately to get rid of it. They feel like the only way to do that is in some sort of drunken whirlwind. And I always think that’s kind of funny, and possibly misguided, but I also don’t think that’s specific to final clubs—that’s just a party phenomenon.”

Beyond the Physical

According to ‘De Secretis Mulierum’, a medieval textbook on women’s health and reproduction, “The signs of chastity are as follows: shame, modesty, fear, a faultless gait and speech, casting eyes down before men.” The textbook even references some biological evidence of virginity, explaining that “the urine of virgins is clear and lucid, sometimes white, sometimes sparkling. Corrupted women have a muddy urine because of the rupture of the aforementioned skin, and male sperm appear on the bottom.”  Her walk is uptight: thighs rubbing against each other with each stride, too much tiptoe in her step—there’s no way she’s a virgin.

We still cling to virginity, as a construct and a concept, but today’s understanding of virginity is less apparent than its technicalities. “For me virginity is this kind of abstract concept,” says Chandler C. Riggs* as he leans back in his chair in the midst of a busy Greenhouse Café lunch hour. He then rocks forward and leans in, lowering his voice to a whisper lest anyone else is trying to overhear, “I’m technically not a virgin, but I still consider myself a virgin. I’m on the cusp.” The night of his first BGLTQ hotspot dance last year, Chandler met up with an older guy, walked him to his room, and closed the door. “I’d still consider myself a virgin for many reasons, though,” he says. “Like for instance, I haven’t orgasmed from that kind of sex, and also I haven’t been comfortable with it. I wouldn’t be comfortable saying, like, you know, I’ve had sex.”

Shugars, the lesbian student, also believes that the concept of virginity should transcend strictly physical terms—the technical definitions that some students interviewed for this article described as “when something enters a vagina,” “penetration,” or “a motion of your body into someone else’s body.” Shugars argues that many women who identify as virgins don’t have their hymens intact, and some women who identify as non-virgins have never been penetrated. “If you say a dick is necessary to no longer be a virgin then that’s really unfortunate for most guys because then they would also be virgins, having never been penetrated by a dick, right?” she says. Shugars gets frustrated when people consider her to be a virgin “just because I’ve never fucked a guy.”

Even though both Riggs and Shugars reject what they see as somewhat arbitrary heteronormative standards of virginity, they don’t repudiate its existence. Be it a physical phenomenon or an emotional one, virginity means something for most Harvard students.

So When’s The Right Time?

As Winston treks back down the Charles toward John Weeks Bridge, she keeps herself close to the thistles and tall grasses along the edge of the bank. The wind presses her untied brown hair across her eyes, making it difficult for her to see where she’s going. She steps to the side.“

It wouldn’t be hard to lose my virginity at all,” she says again. “But I know that the consequences of it at this point in my life would be emotionally difficult for me, and I have enough shit going on—I don’t need to be dealing with that.” She worries about the emotional attachment, the added intimacy involved in physical connection.

Winston says she’s unsure of whether or not she’ll remain a virgin in her time at Harvard. It really comes down to the guy and the length of the relationship, she says. “It won’t be casual, though. I put too much meaning and emphasis on it for it to be, you know, with someone who isn’t especially significant to me.”

The pedestrian light flashes orange, and the wind picks up again, pressing a crease into Winston’s sweater. The color of the sweater is striking: not white, but a more lovely pale blue.

*A number of individuals interviewd for this Scrutiny—marked by an asterisk—have been granted anonymity by The Crimson in order to maintain the privacy of their sexual choices.