Cataloguing one’s first sexual encounter is nothing new. As a teen who pored over magazines in airports, I traced the ongoing debate on what “virginity” means. At what point are we no longer virgins: oral sex, intercourse? Do the rules change depending on one’s gender or sexual orientation? I learned that it’s kind of one of those things an individual must define for her or hir or himself.
And we always want to record it in some way; we want to crystallize the memory of the exact moment we give away our virginity. Some people keep diaries, and they write down their experiences. Some cultures display the fluid-stained sheets on which a couple consummates a marriage. Others submit their stories to projects that, anonymously or publicly, publish tales of “the first time.” Often, we plan out where we will “lose our virginity;” we construct narratives for our hopes and expectations.
This desire to capture our first time could come in part from the idea that virginity is something that’s “lost.” According to most definitions, it’s something you never get back. So we ruminate on it before the fact, and we cling to it after. The focus on virginity is often more weighted when we discuss heterosexual females. In some cultures and eras, the hymen is of paramount importance. And in many ways, even in modern societies women are defined by their virginity or lack thereof. When I transferred to a new high school junior year, the girls’ dorm greeted me with, “You’re a virgin, aren’t you? We can tell by your demeanor.” Whether I liked it or not, that was my label; the girl down the hall from me had a different, possibly more offensive label, similarly tied to her sexual experience and equally as limiting to the understanding of her personhood. The fact that we are so defined by our sexuality and virginity is truly a shame.
The London art student Clayton Pettet, 19, recognizes that for men, especially gay men, the lines are less clearly defined. In an attempt to encourage conversation on gay male virginity, he plans to have sex with his partner for the first time on January 15, 2014, in front of a live audience. He notes that “Virginity has almost become heteronormative in its definition, given that in the most graphic of terms it is the moment when a penis first penetrates the vagina.“ If this is the case, “when is the moment of loss for a human male?” Is the first act of intercourse less important for a gay male than for a straight woman? Certainly not, but our culture arguably makes it seem that way. Pettet also hopes to “[encourage] those watching to question the importance of virginity and whether our traditional values hold true - is deflowering really a loss? Or is it an awakening, a beginning, a milestone that should be celebrated rather than feared?”
I personally am a big believer that virginity isn't something lost, but something shared, and a project addressing these cultural constructions, if handled appropriately, might have the power to challenge ideas on male and non-heterosexual virginity, and even on the virginity of heterosexual women. But it has drawn a great deal of criticism. The Reverend Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement says of the project, “My issue is around is this the right expression of someone’s bodily sexuality? As an art project in front of an audience, where is the love, respect and mutuality in that? Stunts like this cheapens our own sexual relationships.” Although Pettet, like everyone else, has the authority to make decisions over his own body and sexuality, I personally have to agree that his performance, as laid out, could be unproductive. In a post-modern world, we are able to explore sexuality and art in academic, artistic, and intellectual settings, and that’s amazing, but should sex and intimacy itself become an intellectual act? When literal sex is used for its shock value or its ability to spark debate, I worry.
Sex is beautiful, and this kind of work, depending how it’s executed and received, has the power to rob it of its layered meaning. Intimacy draws much of its meaning from the subjective experience, and when an audience of 100 strangers is introduced, its unique emotionality will inevitably be torn apart, critiqued, criticized. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. As framed, the performance could easily be construed simply as a shocking, voyeuristic experience, without much consideration for the themes and questions at hand. I yearn for the erotic art of Lady Chatterly’s Lover or Mrs. Dalloway or BUST’s One-Handed-Read, the subjective and visceral stream of consciousness wherein the narrative holds us captive to its experience without allowing us to dissect it or rob it of its authenticity, power and authority. What do you think? Is this project a step in the right direction towards addressing the stigma and gendered prejudices that surround virginity? Or does it “cheapen” sex?
Images via Mirror, The Blaze