The other day, Rosa,* 16, confessed to us that she had been raped when she was 9 by a family friend. “I’m fine now,” she told us. Her voice wavered but her strength and poise was obvious. She seemed to have accepted what had happened and moved on. But our hearts broke when when she shared how it’s affected the way she looks at love and sex:
“[My boyfriend now] knows what I’ve been through, and he don’t even kiss me. We’ll hold hands and he’ll ask me if it’s okay. I met him at church. There was a time where I came out to the church, because they were like, “Come up to the altar if you need healing because you’ve been raped or molested.” So I went up there and he started praying for me…and I finally was able to give my problem to God. I really struggled with forgiveness, but now that I’ve started to go to church, I’ve forgiven the man who raped me. It was wrong, it was a mistake he did, but in God’s eyes, I’m still a virgin, I’m still pure.”
Our stomachs sank, not only because Rosa had been hurt, or because she was only a child when it happened, but because she fundamentally felt stained by the rape. No matter how she had let her life blossom, the most important thing to restore after she was raped was her “purity”–her virginity. Now that Rosa had gotten a second chance at guarding her sexuality, she barely lets her boyfriend touch her. On some level, she was admitting that she will forever think of sex as something to defend herself against, not to enjoy.
The reason for this dread is partly psychological–no 9-year-old is ready for sex, much less outright violation. But the social construct of virginity and purity is also so ingrained in our culture that who can blame Rosa for feeling impure and dirty? Why are we so fascinated by this tiny little piece of skin that, up until a few decades ago, was usually not even up to a woman to “give up”? Virginity is still a huge deal. Virginal pop stars are alternately idolized and scorned. “Virginity pledges” in the shadow of abstinence-only education are on the rise. Teenage girls constantly fret about what makes you “technically a virgin” (see Shechter’s movie trailers, below). Not to mention that the whole idea of virginity is based on heterosexual relationships, leaving an entire population of homosexual women and men out of the equation.
Most unfairly, people couldn’t care less about teenage boys losing their virginities. Guarding sexuality is almost purely, so to speak, on the shoulders of a woman, implying that the only one who would even want to have sex is unquestionably the man. Rape will always be unthinkably painful, but it could be a lot easier to heal from it as a young girl without the added job of “gatekeeper.”
Emma and I have been obsessed with the topic of virginity ever since this road trip began. Emma is sinking her teeth into Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History, and I’ve been patiently waiting for Therese Shechter’s documentary The American Virgin (her website is where I stole that cherry photo). Shechter calls virginity “the cornerstone of Western civilization.” It’s a term that’s only started to be questioned and broken down, and pop culture has a long way to go before they quit dichotomizing Madonna and whore.
*name has been changed