#GirlTalk is SheThePeople’s advice column. Have a question? Send it to us girltalk@shethepeople.tv – It can be anonymous if you’d like it that way. Women from different walks of life share advice and their personal experience to help you overcome your own inhibitions.

Dear Girl Talk,

I grew up in a small town in Punjab. I was hardly encouraged to read, and I didn’t quite have a set of friends with who I could discuss my body. My mother never spoke to me about anything except my first period. And so when it came to puberty and later virginity I was sort of left by myself to figure it out. Now I am in college and dating a guy, and finding myself a bit lost. Pop culture and friends talk about sex as if it was like ordering a coffee. My conditioning is a bit different so I am coming to terms with how virginity doesn’t seem to be a big issue for so many girls. I am curious about my body, I want to have sex, but I am overcome with a strange guilt about losing my virginity? Is that normal?

-Miss Virginity

Dear Miss Virginity

In India, the ideal age to get married has long been a contentious issue. This debate often acts as the precursor to another issue, albeit a more scandalous one- that of the ideal age to lose virginity. For a woman, the best age is the night of her suhaag raat – with a bloody bed-sheet to boot.

Isn’t it high time that the Indian society’s obsession with women’s virginity came to an end? Isn’t it unnatural to expect women to put a lid on their desires and police their bodies? Besides, just because society frowns on it, doesn’t mean that women don’t have pre-marital sex, does it? So why not talk about it openly, so that girls have a better understanding of sex, rather than policing women so much, that they have to hide their sexual lives from everyone?

For a lot of women today, sex is as natural an occurrence as drinking on a Saturday night – not everyone does it, but those who do, are so used to it that they don’t make a scene out of it. And neither do women look at their first sexual encounter as a life-altering event anymore. They are seeing it for what it is – a simple rite of passage that almost everyone will undergo in their lifetimes. Virginity or sexual activity is a choice and neither is anything to be applauded.

Here’s an explainer:

In a survey I conducted, with a sample size of 75 women within the age group 17-28, 70 percent of women said they were not virgins. The age at which they had first had sex varied, with an average age of 19 years. When asked if they felt any shame about the said age, 89 percent of them replied with a confident “no.” And it seems like others in their social circles too follow the pattern. 80 percent of the participants said that their girlfriends were also sexually active and openly discussed it with each other – which indicates a significant cultural shift among young women.

A lot of them had interesting reactions when asked to describe their first time in one word – “discomforting pleasure,” “awkward,” “surreal,” and even “meh!” The women who said that they were still virgins revealed that they have some expectations about their first times. The answers ranged from “clean and romantic,” “short,” “tender,” and “painful.” But there’s no peer pressure or mental stress on them to lose their virginity to be part of the ‘in crowd.’ Girlfriends are supporting girlfriends today.

While it is clear that women are now liberated when it comes to becoming sexually active at a certain age, it does not warrant a license to others to impose themselves on them.

Situations like losing virginity on date rapes – something comedian Amy Schumer too experienced – pose a real threat to women. If a woman is forced into giving up her virginity, if the sex is not consensual, then it’s a violation of the woman, her body, and her agency.

Just because a woman is sexually active in her 20s – or, to quote other examples, has body piercings, wears short dresses, (you get the idea) – it does not mean she is a “loose” or an “easy” woman. These are all choices she is making. Her virginity is not a tag to be carried around proudly for other people to know how sanskaari she is. And that answers your question: no, having sex before marriage does not make you a bad woman.

Why does society look down upon an independent woman who is in control of her sexuality? Why is the subject of sex still treated as taboo, especially in relation to women? Everyone knows that sex is a basic human need for all genders. Then why do we avoid the subject as if it doesn’t exist?

54 out of 75 women said that their parents, all Indians, hadn’t had “the talk” with them, while only 2 said that a cool aunt/uncle had broached the subject with them instead. Sex education is the need of the hour to change the stigma around sexually active women. Until sex education becomes commonplace, how will the mirage of sex as an untouchable topic be dismissed? How will we be able to shatter notions and labels attached to sexually active women until we understand that sex is ordinary? We need sex education, and we need to normalise the conversation.

Lastly, though I’ve used it here liberally, I’ve always had trouble with the term “losing virginity”. Part of the reason why virginity and sexual liberation is made such a big deal is precisely because of this flawed term. Why is it deemed a loss? What’s being lost – innocence, youth, what? A more positive lens would suggest that it’s nothing lost, but a new experience gained.

So let’s educate those around us, who still judge a woman by her sexual activities at a certain age, that consensual sex is not a shameful act. Let’s also spread awareness about sexual abuse women face, especially underage girls. It’s time to shed our inhibitions and discuss the subject of sex with frankness, without shame.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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