Gabrielle Keegan shares an intimate portrait of a very personal choice facing Australia's youth.
The store was at a level of near silence, broken only by dulled friendly chatter between a select few early morning shoppers and the humming of upbeat pop music playing distantly on the radio. It was a mild midweek morning and I anticipated that the speed of the day would not progress further than this gentle lull.
If I’d answered just one question differently, then this day would have passed by unnoticed; marked off my calendar and forgotten like so many others. As an idle conversation with my co-worker bounced from one topic to the next, she asked me if I’d ever had sex.
I was gently pressed for details. ‘Fine’ was my word of choice to illuminate the experience. ‘Yes,’ my response to the question of had it only happened once.
With each word she spoke I prayed that the interrogation would soon end and I wouldn’t be dealt a blow that would send my story tumbling to the ground. I was treading water and barely remaining afloat.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for my co-worker to gain wind of my frosty responses as she eased her way out of the conversation. I was unsure as to whether her retreat was due to gaining a sense of my lies or if she just thought the topic made me uncomfortable. My fingers were firmly crossed for the latter.
For the rest of the day my stomach churned. A sickening swirl of guilt and regret continued to rise until the emotions clustered in a lump in my throat. My eyes watered, recalling the way the words had leapt from my mouth and escaped from my lips, in a way that felt as though I had not given consent.
Origins of the concept of virginity are difficult to pinpoint, mainly attributed to the fact that there has never been a consistent interpretation of the word. However, virginity has long been seen as a measure of female worth, with women taught the importance of saving themselves and valuing their ‘purity.’
Tracing time back to the Middle Ages, virginity was used as a measure of paternity. As the head of a house- hold, a man needed to be sure that the women under his control were not having sex with anyone outside of his knowledge. us, virginity became a sought after commodity. For centuries, women were deemed worthy of marriage only if they were a product that matched this description.
At least I wasn’t being publicly sat over a steaming barrel, inspected for smoke on my breath to determine whether I was a virgin based on the premise that the smoke had a clear path through my body.
I could be, within a Tongan culture, required to abstain from sexual activity until marriage. After the consummation, I would be obligated to present the sheets from the experience to my mother. e blood on these sheets a physical manifestation of her honour and duty as a parent, an emblem of navigating through life in the correct way, led by her guidance.
I could be located in a South East Asian country, having my virginity viewed as a business asset used to bargain with other families. My family may seek favour with another and use a virgin bride as their tool of persuasion. My sexual status a feature of property about to be traded.
I was facing a different set of circumstances. Indeed, a set far less extreme. But a conundrum nonetheless.
The gender roles of days gone by loiter within the modern consciousness. Consistently and subtly reinforced through agents of socialisation such as education, family, peer groups and, perhaps most prevalently in modern day society, through the mass media. These constant customs and cues both create and maintain normative expectations.
These roles have long been ingrained within our society, and while stereotyping provides great assistance in allowing the human mind to process information, there comes a time for these archetypes to be questioned, criticised and rejected.
Later, I sat with a friend over coffee and with my mind still askew from my previous actions, I cautiously directed the conversation away from our usual material. We spoke of the pressure associated with losing your virginity, the emotional baggage of labels and the double standards that separate males and females in the domain of sexual activity.
He shifted slightly in his seat, explaining the expectations from male friends upon returning from a recent overseas trip. Questions of ‘converting’ and ‘sealing the deal’ reminiscent of the ‘boys club’ culture he experienced at an all male school with undertones of competitiveness detached from emotion.
A numbers game of a different kind.
What took me by surprise was that he too had lied about sexual experience. But perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a shock.
Recent studies of student populations demonstrated the majority of participants had lied about their sexual activities. Females who were not linked to a lie detector reported having fewer sexual partners, being older when they lost their virginity and engaging in fewer one-night stands, as compared to those who were having their responses monitored. On the other side of the coin, males who were not linked to the lie detector reported having more sexual partners, being younger when they lost their virginity and engaging in more one-night stands as compared to their lie detector counterparts.
With social movements such as the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism, perceptions of sexuality have shifted and continue to evolve. However, while our society remains a world away from smoking barrels, we still feel constrained by the stigma of sexual experience. A certain portion of our identity remains wrapped up in a number.
I’d never truly realised the significance I was placing on my experience, or lack thereof. I’d never realised I was allowing a construct to dictate the way I viewed myself.
With all the things my mind and body are capable of, why was I boiling my worth down to one singular act? It isn’t a game and the numbers don’t matter.
Words: Gabrielle Keegan
Artwork: Montana Kitching