Self Slut-Shaming: College Women Talk About Virginity

Guest Contributor Kristen Pizzo is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the Writing and Rhetoric program at the University of Central Florida. She writes about relationships, food, wellness, careers and social change. Her work can be found at https://medium.com/@pizzokristen.

We all know the double-standard; men who sleep around are revered and women who do are whores. A sexually experienced man is a desirable partner, an experienced woman is “used up.” But feminists know that virginity is a social construct and that no woman is defined by her number of sexual partners. And yet, some of us internalize the shame surrounding female pleasure and fail to truly believe that our “numbers” do not matter. How we feel about ourselves is paramount. So why can’t we undo the shame we have learned?

I am personally a sex-positive person. But when I made it to twenty years-old with only two partners and none in the foreseeable future, I had a certain pride about it. I felt I had dodged a bullet, emerged into my twenties relatively unscathed, still “good.” Of course, as an agnostic, liberal feminist, the idea that my low “body count” was any indication about my morality was ridiculous. And yet- when my two-year relationship collapsed and I had to face the fact that my number would have to surpass two or else I would be restricted to a very sad existence, I began to get anxious. I can’t be one of those people, I thought. Who will I be when I have more than two? I mean two is enough as it is. Ideally, it would be one. Why didn’t I think this through? These thoughts constantly swirled in my brain in a tornado of shame.

As I fought to get a breath of fresh air after a relationship that had suffocated me, my number rose. As it did, I became increasingly anxious. Only one of them was a true regret... but still...what had gotten into me? I was letting myself go! Who was I?

Perhaps part of my problem is that my sense of self-worth has always been contingent upon other things; it has never felt intrinsic. I have always, unfortunately, measured myself with grades, talent, lovers, weight and my level of perceived “prettiness.”

Ashamed and conflicted because I truly wanted to be sex-positive, I started to wonder if any other college women were feeling this way. We know what the world says about our promiscuity, but how do we feel? How did we feel before someone told us how to? If we stripped away all the patriarchal and religious influences, what would we think of ourselves?

This curiosity led me to seek out stories from other women on my college campus. Over Facebook Messenger and through in-person interviews, I spoke to three women between the ages of 19 and 22.

I asked each of them the same guiding questions, but my goal was to simply hear their truths.

One twenty-two-year-old woman felt so ashamed after losing her virginity. She felt that everyone would know what she had done and would judge her for it. But she discovered the opposite; “I felt so uncomfortable about it until one day my boyfriend’s roommate (who recently started dating his girlfriend) came into the living room and said excitedly, ‘I lost my virginity yesterday!’ I told him I lost mine too. He was surprised and said that’s great and asked me how it was. It was a small gesture but it made me feel like he didn’t look at me differently or tell me I was disgusting like I feared he might. He was so excited for his own sexual journey and I realized then that I could be excited for mine too.”

A nineteen-year-old woman who grew up going to private Catholic schools did not even learn about condoms in her sex education programs, and her school experience shaped her early views on the importance of virginity; “All I knew was from movies making fun of sex-ed. I just knew my body was for my husband and I wasn't allowed to let anyone see or touch me.”

While she still finds a lot of meaning in sex, her stance on virginity has changed over the years; “I don't think the construct of virginity is necessarily bad, I think the connotation with the word is something that I disagree with. Whether someone is a virgin or not, they are just as valid in their choices. They're not a prude for being a virgin or a slut for having ‘lost it’...unfortunately in today's world it does have a say in who the person is but I don't think it's fair or that it should. I do sometimes catch myself making those judgments about other people. It's not fair and it shouldn't be our default.”

A twenty-one-year-old woman who was not raised religious but hung out in a religious friend group in high school where, “Modest is hottest” was the motto, said she has a lot of cognitive dissonance when it comes to virginity. She is very open about talking about sex and never judges those who have had several partners but would look down upon herself for doing the same.

She said the mindset among her peers was that virginity was “a huge deal until you lose it. And then it’s not.” However, she added that she always thought, “No, it is a big deal.”

She has only ever had one partner, her long-term boyfriend, who she said was more experienced. When she finds out about past partners he has had, she said the news is upsetting. I asked her if the fact that he has had many partners makes her feel like the sexual relationship he has with her is less valuable to him, and she said that was “exactly it.” She revealed that she seems to place a higher value on sex, and wants to know that any partner she has values it equally.

We talked about the strange feeling of pride in lower numbers that contradicts our sex-positive stances. I asked her how she would feel if she and her boyfriend split and she had other partners, and she replied that she would “definitely have to shift her perspective.”

So some of us are sex-positive and feminist in theory, but when it comes to ourselves, we tend to harbor internalized shame. Our own minds are stuck on patriarchal norms that sometimes can reflect the values asserted in the Bible and other outdated, sexist literature;

“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” -1 Corinthians 6:18- 20.

On the contrary, modern day feminism champions a sense of agency for women, and tells us “my body, my rules.”

A 1946 article that appeared in Pageant Magazine called, “How Chaste Are American Girls?” is another example of outdated views on virginity that still resonate today. The piece (written by a man) focused on college women. The author frequently brought up the concept of “good girls” and “nice girls,” as if sex has anything to do with how kind or morally sound a woman is: “‘How far can a good girl go?’ is [the] most typical [question] of all because our youths today are at a loss for standards.No one tells the typical girl the answer. She is puzzled to know how far she can go and still keep her respect, and how far she has to go to keep the interest of men...She is not loose, just lost.”

Who says anyone has to set rules or standards for our sexual conduct? Yet, we subconsciously seek to live by rules. Our sexuality is constrained and tied to our morality and worth as women, but no one would ask such a question about men.

The article also suggested that girls “give” men sex to get other things, to win them over; “Girls give kisses to boys as rewards for taking them out or saying nice things to them. And they value kisses from men primarily as evidence they are approved. I hold that at least one-half of our ‘wild’ sex delinquents get little or no pleasure from the sex activity. They indulge primarily to get something else they want; the prestige and pleasure of having dates.”

What about women who enjoy sex? I wonder if any of the women interviewed for that piece would have ever felt comfortable admitting that they did not have premarital sex with some ulterior motive in mind, that they had it simply because they wanted to.

The author, a director of a marriage counseling service, also insinuated that men won’t take women seriously for marriage if they have sex with him earlier; “promiscuity frequently alienates a serious-minded man from any thought of her [a woman he is seeing] in connection with marriage.”

This has been echoed to me personally in the form of the phrase, “I wouldn’t have slept with you that quickly if I really wanted to be with you.”

Despite so much progress, we are still pressured to set standards for ourselves that engender shame. We give others grace, we love to see them empowered, but hold ourselves to different standards. Can we unlearn this and disentangle our self-perceived worth from our “body count”? I don’t have an answer. I hope we can put societal expectations aside and reject pressure to feel ashamed. Because no amount of sexual activity can change who we are.