A second-year art student’s work doesn’t usually grab headlines like this. However, in October of 2013, the press learned about a Central Saint Martins student’s upcoming performance piece titled Art School Stole My Virginity. According to Clayton Pettet, the project would conclude with him having his first sex experience with a male partner at a live event. Not everyone was satisfied with the show, however, when April of the following year finally came around. There wasn’t a live “deflowering” for the 120 or so individuals who paid for tickets to the London event; instead, Pettet scrubbed things like “NSFW” and “Youngster W****” off his body while a shirtless teen shaved off sections of his hair. All the guests were then instructed to follow Pettet into a private booth downstairs, where they would take turns sliding a banana into his mouth.
Many others were quick to label the whole event as a gimmick, nothing more than an elaborate art ploy, with some claiming that Pettet manipulated the media circus for 15 minutes of ravenous tabloid fame. And yet, there were many who saw deeper meaning in the show’s conclusion. If losing one’s virginity is at stake, then what could be better than a nonexistent event? Couldn’t the idea of virginity be “simply a hype” if Clayton Pettet’s initiative was?
“a cultural and social construct and often one that has been exploited to try and explain abstinence, breeding, or financial worth,” says Ness Cooper, a professional sexologist and therapist. Pettet’s definition of virginity as “a performance that has been used to evaluate women” provides a compelling explanation for the origins of his undertaking. For want of a better word, the questions raised in Art School Stole My Virginity still pierce. Is virginity a myth, as Pettet asked? Maybe it’s just a stupid word that’s been used to set a woman’s worth before marriage.
The meaning and significance of virginity are still up for debate. TikTok viewers have seen an increase in “virginity testing” videos over the past several weeks. More than 20 countries purportedly use virginity tests to determine whether or not a woman is suitable for marriage or employment. There has been a recent surge in the popularity of videos documenting ceremonies in which a young lady’s virginity is “confirmed” by an older, professional woman, or juntaora, in the Roma populations of western Europe.
This so-called “virginity test” is grounded in the belief that a virgin woman carries a uva (grape) inside her: a pale kernel containing her honra, a yellow fluid that is spilled and “lost” whenever a woman is penetrated by a man during sexual activity or when she is “deflowered” by a juntaora. Many of the TikToks depict the “deflowering” being performed, which entails inserting a fingertip wrapped in a handkerchief into the young bride’s genitalia to “bust” the “grape” or, in more common vernacular, “pop the cherry.” The “roses,” or stains, are then laid out for the onlookers to see. Before she gets married, her self-worth is judged on display, which is both embarrassing and demeaning.
It’s amusing that displays of virginity are, in many parts of the world, more socially acceptable than acts of its claimed “loss,” which brings to mind the book Art School Stole My Virginity. Although both displays involve voluntary interactions between consenting adults, one is interpreted as evidence of worth while the other is seen as a sign of debasement. And yet, “virginity tests,” whether they include a woman’s honra or, as in the case of “two-finger tests,” her hymen, can only be accurately described as gimmicks and complicated stunts, as they are founded on a complex web of fake science and anxieties of female sexuality.
The fundamental belief that virginity can be proven and the body will reveal its secrets through examination is based on lies and deception. Worldwide virginity tests were ruled “medically unnecessary” by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the United Nations Women in 2018. Instead, it is meant to enforce the rule that sex is a man’s privilege, glorify the value of female “purity,” and normalise the stigmatisation of female sexuality and embodiment.
Saarrah Ray is a doctoral candidate in law at Oxford. She is particularly interested in the intersections of body image, race, gender, and culture as they relate to the legal regulation of female genital practises and the issue of violence against women. In her own words, “virginity” is a fabrication. An empty, pliable, fleshy membrane that may or may not exist in the vaginal canal is all it is.
Ray, however, makes it very evident that debunking virginity as a myth does not dilute its impact on the world at large. Ray says, “the power of the belief in preserving this social construct has been partly accountable for causing major mental and bodily suffering to children and women all across the world,” thus the myth of virginity shouldn’t be discredited.
The news that a 24-year-old woman in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, had allegedly been forced to take a “virginity test” by her in-laws surfaced across a number of Indian media sources at the same time as “virginity testing” videos were trending on TikTok. After she “failed,” her husband and his relatives battered and thrashed her. The woman reportedly told her husband’s family that a neighbour had raped her before the wedding, according to a police report.
Some have speculated that making virginity tests and hymenoplasty illegal could be the first step toward having honest conversations about sexuality and putting an end to double standards.
Such violence is pervasive throughout the world. We now know that healthcare providers in Britain have harmed women and girls, Ray argues. Both virginity testing and hymenoplasty have been called “two distinct activities in which the virginity myth explicitly manifests” for these women. An undercover investigation conducted in the United Kingdom last year exposed the widespread practise of hymenoplasty, a surgical technique designed to induce bleeding during a woman’s next penetrating sex encounter in order to pass the virginity test. Advocates for women’s rights and those working in the medical field have both denounced both of these methods as harmful to women’s health.
The law, at least in the UK, appears to be catching up to the damage done by the virginity myth, though. This year, the government outlawed hymenoplasty and virginity testing by amending the Health and Care Bill. As Ray puts it, this is “monumental for the feminist movement” because it shows that the law in the United Kingdom “proscribes forced behaviours against girls and women that reduce their bodies to sexual vessels, and that diminishes and subordinates the value or worth of their lives.”
Of course, if the legislation is changing, then the question of culture becomes more pressing. Legislative reform alone might not be able to put an end to detrimental, pseudo-scientific views on virginity or to societal pressures aimed at promoting women’s sexual “purity.” The law, Ray concedes, “unlikely” stands as the single means by which people’s attitudes toward sexuality can be altered. However, she believes that the UK’s decision to criminalise virginity tests and hymenoplasty “may be the beginning [of] having real debates about sex, specifically sex positivity and demolishing double standards that effectively mask violence against women and girls.”
SheSpot, a “woman’s sexual wellness brand,” was founded by Kalila Bolton and Holly Jackson. Both agree that the Health and Care Bill change is significant, but note that more has to be done to “completely tear down outdated concepts of sex and virginity.” As the founder of SheSpot, Jackson has been “surprised by how deeply embedded sexual shame and stigma is among the women who we speak to,” and this is true across generations. Specifically, “there are still hard taboos around self pleasure,” Jackson argues. They found that “many male partners expressed concern with their wives/girlfriends masturbating outside of partnered intercourse,” which, according to Jackson, “feels like an extension of archaic attitudes regarding virginity and the idea of gifting sex to men.”
In the 1999 film American Pie, lead characters Jason Biggs, Thomas Ian Nicholas, and Eddie Kaye Thomas concoct a plan to get their virginity.
According to Elena Zaharova, CEO and co-founder of the Purpur sex and relationships app, the primary problem is a general disregard for, or disdain for, pleasure in sex education. It continues to perceive sex as “an act of intimate physical interaction between people, not an attempt at communication or pleasure,” in her opinion. In agreement, Jackson and Bolton warn that “a perfect storm” is brewing for today’s youth due to “a lack of information about healthy sex and pleasure, coupled with rising consumption of uncontrolled online content.” They think this poisonous mix is what’s behind “the viral nature of the TikTok videos showcasing virginity testing” and “perpetuating detrimental attitudes linked to sex and virginity.” According to Ness Cooper, creator of The Sex Consultant, fighting against conservative-minded algorithms is a significant obstacle to shifting long-standing societal assumptions about purity and pleasure. She says, “TikTok algorithms stigmatise and are more likely to eliminate sex-positive content, and maintain posts that focus on sex negative and stigmatising outlooks, such virginity testing.”
There are, however, positive signs to look forward to. Cooper adds that “movement away from abstinence-based teaching” may be seen in the UK’s sexual education. At present, “less emphasis is placed on shame and more on teaching about consenting sex and normalising healthy sexual behaviour.” Cooper thinks that a more inclusive, sex-positive curriculum, with an emphasis on queer sex and relationships, self-pleasure, and consent, along with a change in the law, will do a lot to combat the “perfect storm” of myth and unregulated online content. It is my opinion that “virginity testing” will gradually lose its popularity over time.
Perhaps what is needed, then, is for art school students to engage in even more frenetic debate, public performance, and dramatic antics. Except that we’ll be going backwards from acceptance, comfort, and pleasure instead of shock, shame, and myth.