Last month an Arkansas high school student caused a stir when she was asked to change her t-shirt, which read “Virginity Rocks!”, because the message was potentially provocative to the other students. But what’s more interesting than the free speech brouhaha it raised is that the message represents one more sign that virginity is making a comeback among American teens.
Losing one’s virginity is a profound rite of passage not to be treated lightly. Since the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, though, it hasn’t been especially prized in American culture. It’s viewed as an embarrassing condition, like acne, to get rid of as soon as legally possible or be marked a loser. I suppose it has never really been valued highly for males – losing it is a badge of honor for them – but there used to be the shared cultural assumption that saving oneself for marriage, unrealistic though that may be, was an ideal for girls.
It doesn’t help that American pop culture is relentlessly sexualized. The media have elevated as our young daughters’ most influential role models – you know who they are – celebs who pose before giant neon signs proclaiming them “FEMINIST,” but are really poster models for rampant sluttiness.
Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the best efforts of the entertainment biz to put sex front and center in our children’s consciousness, evidence seems to point to a newfound appreciation for virginity. Teens seem to be waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past, for example. Thanks in part to a handful of non-conforming celebrities like Jessica Simpson, Adriana Lima, and the Jonas Brothers, taking pride in preserving oneself for marriage has gained acceptance, and public expressions like purity rings have boomed in popularity. This is contributing, thankfully, to sharply declining teen birth and teen pregnancy rates. All of which suggests that American girls are increasingly rejecting the sex-soaked Siren of popular culture and embracing the notion that virginity is to be guarded until the right moment and given for the right reasons.
In China recently, a court ruled that the “right to virginity” should be protected by law, as it is a moral right related to “sexual freedom, sexual safety and sexual purity.” A woman identified only as “Chen” (her age is unreported) had taken a man to court for violating her right to virginity. The two had been dating since 2013 after meeting online in 2009. He promised to marry her, but after a romantic trip to Singapore where they consummated their relationship, the man – identified only as “Li” – suddenly stopped calling. The woman broke into his home seeking an explanation and discovered, to the awkwardness of Mr. Li, no doubt, that there already was a Mrs. Li.
Chen sued Li for more than $81,000 in psychological damages, plus medical costs of $250, accusing him of violating her rights to virginity and health. The court felt the amount was excessive, awarding her less than $5,000, but sided with her and concluded that “violating the right to virginity might lead to harm to a person’s body, health, freedom and reputation. It ought to be compensated.”
The notion that a woman might take a man to court for defrauding her of her “sexual purity” sounds quaintly Victorian to us, but perhaps Chen and her judge are on to something – not with the lawsuit (because it shouldn’t be illegal to take a woman’s virginity in consensual sex, even if tricked into it like Chen), but with the public recognition that giving up one’s virginity is a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime act, and a young woman has the “moral right” to lose it at her discretion, when she has the maturity to know when she’s ready, and for her right to be held in serious regard by society. That seems more like true sexual freedom and feminist achievement than reveling onstage in your own sexual objectification.
Apparently, American girls are increasingly viewing their virginity as such a right, and they are resisting cultural pressure to give it up at the earliest opportunity and for the wrong reasons. In that respect, that Arkansas teen’s t-shirt bears a proud message that deserves to be seen and discussed openly with her classmates and teachers as well. Virginity rocks, indeed.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/17/14)