There are only two things I remember clearly about losing my virginity: the text I sent to a friend minutes after it happened and the mauve walls that surrounded the smaller-than-average single bed we were on. The sex itself, however, isn’t something I can conjure up. That’s because for most people, having penetrative sex for the first time is up there with the most underwhelming come-of-age experiences – right between bleeding through your shorts the first time you get your period and being rejected by a crush. But for some, virginity holds an allure that persists well into adulthood.
Anna*, aged 22, worries that not being a virgin may impact how “tight” her vagina feels to male sexual partners. “Guys talk about stuff like body count and you hear them talking about how tight some girl they slept with is,” she says. “I have nothing to compare mine [my vagina] to though, and most people don’t, so you don’t know whether it's tight enough or not.”
Anna is far from alone in her worries. In a 2019 survey about attitudes to vaginas, Refinery29 found that 32 percent of women had been made to feel that their vagina wasn’t “normal” by someone else. These feelings appear to have led some to go to extreme lengths to achieve supposedly virginal vaginas. Earlier this month, the Sunday Times reported that hymen reconstruction surgery is being performed at more than 20 Harley Street clinics, who charge up to £3,000 for the procedure. Reconstruction surgery promises to recreate the hymen using tissue from the patient's body, returning it to a virginal state. Though the hymen – a thin piece of tissue that covers part of the opening of the vagina – can be broken during a range of non-sexual activities, it is seen by some as the marker of sexual purity.
While a recent Freedom of Information request to the NHS revealed that over 50 percent of women who had vaginal reconstruction procedures identified as religious (both Christianity and Islam teach against premarital sex), not all concerns with virginity are faith-based. Last November, rapper T.I. made headlines after saying that he accompanied his teenage daughter to the doctor to "check her hymen" is "still intact" – supposedly as a marker of good parenting.
Clearly, society has a fixation with virginal vaginas but where does it come from? London-based sex educators Florence Barkway and Reed Amber, also known as Come Curious, believe that it stems from porn. “The concept of having a really tight vagina and that virgin-esque ideal comes from what you see in porn. Everyone seems to want a tight pussy and a massive cock in porn,” Amber says. “It’s always considered a bit of a joke as well. They’ll say, ‘I couldn’t feel anything, it's like a hotdog down a corridor’ and these are the sorts of things we’ve grown up with.”
Barkway adds that lack of sex education in schools is another factor: “We were shown one diagram of a penis, one diagram of a vulva in sex education. No one ever said they come in different shapes, sizes and tightnesses and that that’s OK. Some women will have completely tighter vaginas than other women but then they need to find the type of penetration that feels nice for them.”
Google search “how to tighten your vagina” and an array of autofill suggestions appear for homemade douching mixtures made with everything from salt and baking soda to vinegar and lemon juice. All undoubtedly terrible ideas. Alongside the homemade remedies are pills, gels and creams that claim to tighten vaginas and shrink labias to their virginal state. Sold on specialist sex product sites such as Lovehoney, as well as Amazon, they are marketed as a non-surgical option for women stressed about vaginal laxity, and supposedly work by causing a swelling of the vaginal walls. One Lovehoney review for the “'Like a Virgin' Vaginal Rejuvenation Cream" reads: “The operations look painful, so when I saw this I thought I'd give it a go.”
Speaking to VICE in 2017 on the safety of vagina-tightening products, gynaecologist Michael Krychman said: “They're all dangerous bunk.”
Despite their dubious claims, Maria, aged 51, tells me that she was tempted to buy a vaginal tightening gel after reading an article about them in the Daily Mail. “I was surprised I hadn’t heard of them before, I think a lot of women get a bit nervous, especially after a divorce. You’ve been out of the dating game for a while,” she says. “My daughter told me about kegels instead. Really, you want a sexual experience to be the best it can be.”
Lovehoney sells vagina-tightening products on the “Better Sex For Her” section of its website, but many of the product reviews focus on male pleasure. One reviewer says that their husband was “amazed”, while another writes: “We have only used this twice as I don't want him getting used to it being that tight.” However Barkway points out that a tighter vagina doesn’t always make for a better sexual experience for women. “Having a tight vagina can be a bad thing when it comes to sex, especially if you’re having sex with a huge dick or if you suffer from vaginismus,” she says.
Amber believes that a fixation on tight vaginas can have a serious effect on the way women view their bodies. “This is ruining the way that we see ourselves and how confident we feel about our genitals,” she says. “Ultimately, women should not be using dangerous means to tighten their vaginas, because they don’t need tightening anyway.”
This may be true, but until we solve society's fixation with female virginity – and the lack of comprehensive sex education in schools – young women will continue to be bombarded with messaging that says there is something "wrong" with their vaginas: a part of the body that should be giving them pleasure.
*Name has been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.