You Get to Choose How You Identify

The more I learn about queer and trans issues, the more I notice the prevalence of one particular truth in those spaces: you get to decide what labels you want to refer to yourself by.

This applies to many aspects of one’s identity. Sexual orientation is the obvious, glaring one. A woman might have sex with exclusively women, but if she identifies as primarily straight, you have to accept that. A young kid may tell you he’s gay, and you’re not allowed to say “But you don’t know yet!” because most people do know when they’re kids, even if they can’t articulate it or understand it. A person’s sexual identity may be the polar opposite of what you’d expect from them, but ultimately they are the ones who know best about who and what they are.

By that same token, I believe you get to choose whether or not you identify as a virgin.

Hear me out. Virginity is such a loaded topic. Some folks think it depends on the size and state of a membrane of skin embedded in your genitalia. Some think your virginity can be “taken” from you in nonconsensual situations, that people who are sexually assaulted, no matter their age, are no longer virginal. And still others think you can lose your virginity to a sex toy or your own fingers.

Here’s my own rough timeline of potentially lost virginities, according to various opinions that exist on the topic:
Age 6: Started touching my own genitals for pleasure.
Age 9: Reached my first orgasm, with the help of a bath faucet.
Age 12: Experimented with penetrating myself with my fingers.
Age 15: Used my first sex toys, both penetrative and not.
Age 16: Participated in oral sex with another girl.
Age 16: Was penetrated by another girl’s strapped-on silicone dildo.
Age 18: Participated in manual and oral sex with a guy.
Age 19: Was penetrated by a real, live, flesh-and-blood penis.

Here’s the thing, though… I didn’t feel that I really lost my virginity until I was 18. And that has nothing to do with the fact that it was with a dude, and everything to do with the fact that I was emotionally connected to him, unlike the girl I’d slept with who was my friend but not my passion. I still felt like a virgin when I was 17, but not when I was 19. My personal definition of my virginity is my choice to make, and I can do that by any criteria I choose.

I’ve never believed in virginity as a physical trait. Part of this came from growing up in communities and religions where there wasn’t much emphasis placed on the hymen: my parents, teachers, and doctors were more likely to lecture me about the emotional stresses of having sex than the physical changes that might occur. I was aware that I had a hymen, but I didn’t care about it. I even attempted to break it myself with hairbrush handles and shampoo bottles, because I wanted it gone. I didn’t want it to stop me from enjoying my first time having sex.

The first time I remember really pondering the concept of virginity was when I had my first kiss. I was twelve years old and we were playing Spin the Bottle in a deserted playground after our sixth-grade graduation. I was forced to kiss a boy for whom I had no romantic feelings whatsoever; we both closed our eyes and our friends shoved us toward each other, culminating in a “kiss” that lasted less than a second. I remember thinking, even then, that that was not a satisfactory event to be forever branded My First Kiss. I wanted a different one.

And so, when, four years later, I shared my next kiss with my first girlfriend, who filled me with teenage lust and wonder, that felt like my first kiss. And I decided to refer to it as such, from then on. When people ask me about my first kiss, I tell them, “My first real kiss was on my first girlfriend’s porch.” Very rarely does anyone ask for details about the kisses that came before that, the “not real” ones.

So what’s my point in all this? I believe in our freedom of choice when it comes to defining our own identities, and our own landmark moments. I believe that part of true independence is having the liberty and bravery to tell your own story from a perspective that makes sense to you. I believe in wearing rose-colored glasses if that’s a way you can fill your life with meaning and lift yourself up.

Readers: How do you choose to self-identify? Was your first kiss or first sexual experience different from the one you think of as your “real” first?