Am I a virgin?
This is one of the most common questions I’m asked. Mostly just like this.
Sometimes there's additional information, from men and women, such as:
“I broke my hymen accidentally. Is that why I didn’t feel anything and I didn’t bleed which is a well known side-effect of virginity?”
“It didn’t hurt, am I a virgin?”
“My girlfriend feels smooth inside. I don’t believe her when she says no other man’s been there before me”
“Please can you tell me how to check my future wife is pure?”
“I was told after my first time I’d feel completely different and experience a life-changing moment. But I didn’t feel anything”.
Alternatively people worry about whether to let another person ‘take’, ‘break’, ‘have’ or ‘get’ their virginity. Whether to ‘save their virginity’ for someone special and/or marriage. Or fret they ‘gave their virginity’ to someone underserving.
What is virginity?
My advice to everyone is read these wise words from Scarleteen:
“The way to check if you're still a virgin is to ask yourself how you define virginity, and see if or how your definition matches up with your experiences. In other words, there is NO … physical way to determine if someone is a virgin, because virginity is an idea, not a medical or physical condition” .
What is your personal definition of virginity? Most of us might guess it means the first time someone has penis in vagina (penetrative) sex.
I hear from people saying things like “I’m a virgin, but I’ve had oral sex” or “I do anal so I’m still unbroken for marriage”. Or being confused about whether being sexual is compatible with being virginal.
Those people consider themselves virgins because they’ve not had penetrative sex. But there are others who also haven’t had penis in vagina sex but have had oral sex, anal sex, or masturbated. And they don’t think they are virgins as a result.
Because we all differ in what we consider 'sex' to be, penetration isn’t that good a measurement of virginity.
Instead, we might use it to mean ‘first time’ - which may be preferred if you want to explore lots of meaningful firsts trying different things, perhaps with different partners.
Or maybe virginity is best explained as someone who has had no sexual experiences of any kind.
“How can you tell if someone is a virgin?”
You can’t. It’s that simple.
You cannot tell if someone has had sex or not based on any physical examination, or how they look, or act.
Why do you want to know?
Maybe you wish to appear sexually confident and experienced but are afraid your partner will guess this is all new to you.
Or perhaps you have problems with jealousy or control and are wanting to know if someone’s a virgin because you do not trust your partner, or are upset if they’ve had any kind of sexual experience before you.
Maybe due to these issues or a lack of sex education you wrongly believe if a partner gets wet, seems to be enjoying sex or has an orgasm they can’t be a virgin - because virgins are not supposed to like sex very much.
Some people contact me because they are considering getting a virginity test done on their bride-to-be, or their child. Or have been told this is going to happen to them.
Virginity tests are done to check if someone’s had sex. And sometimes to draw the conclusio that if you’ve not had sex, you won’t have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
These tests are meaningless because you can’t tell if someone is a virgin by physical test or medical exam. And ‘being a virgin’ does not protect against STIs.
Aside from them being clinically irrelevant, let’s consider the ethics of subjecting children or women to intrusive exams. Where they may never have had their genitals touched before.
Or how threatening such tests may be for those who are trans or intersex, where this discovery could place them at risk of shaming, punishment or abuse.
Or how traumatic it is to have your virginity 'proven' following rape or sexual assault (as opposed to legitimate forms of forensic testing and aftercare for rape survivors).
Or where the person being tested knows full well the consequences of being diagnosed, as not being a virgin will have catastrophic or even fatal results for them.
If this is something you are facing, noting these tests are a nonsense may give you more confidence to talk to others about why they are not needed, or to cope if you still have to be tested.
A number of charities are listed below that you might turn to if you are in this situation.
Virginity checks are usually focused on hymen testing, although some practitioners also wrongly believe if they feel around in a vagina they can tell by touch if someone’s had sex before.
Remember: they can’t.
Linked to hymen checking, is hymen repair that some women are encouraged to have so they seem more like a virgin (regardless of whether they’ve had any kind of sex before).
Reparative genital surgery following injury, disease, birth trauma, sexual assault or as part of gender reassignment are all valid forms of care.
Hymen repair to make women seem more like virgins is not an ethical or effective ‘treatment’. Explained most eloquently by this woman who wrote to me:
“I did hymen surgery to regain virginity. I did it because according to my husband a virgin has to bleed. I had never had sex but I had the surgery because I didn’t want to be guilty. But then unfortunately even after doing surgery I didn’t bleed and I was considered as non-virgin, which is really upsetting me”
Hymens are massively misunderstood. You might have been taught in sex education or through peers it's a membrane that covers the vagina, ‘broken’ by sport, horse riding, using a tampon or through fingers or a penis pushing through to gain access.
You might be a medic or a sex educator who tells people this.
It’s wrong. And I could waste words telling you why, or you could watch this much better and far funnier film
The hymen isn’t a barrier or vaginal covering that needs breaking (especially if you’ve been told the best way to do this is through rough fingering or aggressive thrusting with a penis).
Instead, think about it as a pliable opening. Or as Sweden’s Association for Sexuality Education recently described it - the ‘Vaginal Corona’.
The consequences of being obsessed with virginity
If you’ve been told that vaginas are sealed tight until intercourse, you may also buy into the idea that sex should always hurt the first time.
It also sets up unhelpful gender divisions. ‘Sex always hurts the first time’ or ‘virginity is proven by bleeding after sex’ are never applied to young men, who are expected to look forward to having sex as a pleasurable and problem- free encounter.
This ignores how many young men do experience first time sex as weird, stressful and sometimes uncomfortable.
And it normalises having sex as something unpleasant for women: they will either have to learn to like it (assuming that’s tolerated by her culture/community/partner), or otherwise just endure it.
If you are residing in a culture or community where being checked to see if you are a virgin is considered okay, then telling you that, yes, you can enjoy yourself may be unhelpful or dangerous.
The result for many women and their partners where virginity is seen as ‘not having penis in vagina sex’ is they do lots of things that are categorized as ‘not real sex’.
If that applies to you, you might well enjoy giving/getting oral sex or exploring anal sex as an alternative. Or you might feel pressured to provide oral or anal sex that you don’t like but keeps a partner happy, while maintaining your ‘fresh’ vagina for some future purpose.
This can be a problem as it still exposes you to STIs that don’t discriminate between bums, mouths and vaginas.
If you consider you ‘aren’t a virgin’ if a penis didn’t go ‘all the way in’ or he didn’t really 'come' (ejaculate) inside you, you could still get pregnant. Or you may become overly and unrealistically anxious that, while you haven’t had sex, you could still be pregnant.
If you’re in a situation where not being a virgin or having sex is a big deal, do you feel safe to get help if you think you have an STI or everyday problems like thrush or cystitis? Or if you’re unsure if you are a virgin but think you could be pregnant?
In the UK you can see a doctor, family planning or GU (genito urinary) clinic for free. They will not tell anyone you have asked for help and you can find your nearest service in the link above.
If you live where unmarried women are denied adequate and safe gynaecological care, or asking for help is dangerous, Tarshi and Love Matters have resources and Facebook groups, where you can find out more about confidential care. Hesperian are there if you have no doctor.
While I have been very critical about how we understand virginity, that does not mean it isn’t significant for many people.
You may now feel clearer about whether you are a virgin, or whether this is such a big issue for you.
You may still wish to save your ‘first time’ for marriage and/or a special person. If that is important to you, as it is to a lot of people, nothing in the above information detracts from this.
What does change is the knowledge you now have:
- Nobody can tell if you have had sex or not
- Virginity is an idea, not a physical condition
- Virginity checks and hymen repairs are dubious
- Sex should not hurt (unless you want it to).
Remember: if someone judges or shames you for being a virgin, or not being a virgin, they are wrong. Not you.
Email your sex and relationships queries in confidence to:[email protected]
Petra cannot print answers to every single question submitted, but she does read all your emails. Please note that by submitting your question to Petra, you are giving your permission for her to use your question as the basis of her column, published online at Wonder Women.
All questions will be kept anonymous and key details, facts and figures may change to protect your identity. Petra can only answer based on the information you give her and her advice is not a substitute for medical, therapeutic or legal advice.