How do you define losing your virginity? Do we even “lose” such a thing? Have you ever had conversations around sex with your family?
Starting from a young age, the toxic notions of purity and virginity are shoved down the throats of women, especially South Asian women. From being taught to dress conservatively, to not pursue romance until marriage, values of sexual purity and virginity are deeply integrated in our culture. Oftentimes, South Asian families are predisposed to sexual conservatism. Their unspoken rule about sex is that you are not expected to have it, at least not until you are married. Even when women do engage in pre-marital sex, they are forced to keep it a secret, often believing they did something wrong.
Women are also indirectly instructed to protect their virginity before marriage in order to bring honor to their families, so that their family’s reputation is not tarnished. South Asian domestic violence scholar and activist Shamitha Das Dasgupta states that “the only legitimate space for women’s sexuality is marriage and the creation of a family” (59). When these notions are ingrained in our minds from childhood, it becomes more difficult for us to navigate our true sexual desires and denounce the status quo. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing when and how often you want to have sex.
The concept of virginity is a social construct made to commodify women, as historically they have been treated as “property,” only deemed fit for marriage and child-bearing. Since the beginning of time, gender roles have been defined by biological differences as men were physically larger than women and women procreated children. During the hunter-gatherer days, women were expected to be subservient to their husbands. While these ideas may sound ancient, they have evolved into different forms of gender-based double standards. The most common double standard today being the following: women are shamed for having sex while men are rewarded for it.
How do values of virginity play out into attitudes of sexual harassment and abuse? Many South Asian survivors only express their stories online in fear of their families and friends finding out and compromising their jobs and studies as it continues to be rare for women to speak publicly about sexual harassment and abuse. In fact, the social stigma against any kind of premarital sexuality is so strong that women are held responsible for any assumed promiscuity, including rape (Dasgupta & Prasad, 54). This leads to an enormous emotional and mental toll on women as they not only have to grapple with their abusers, but do so in private without the support of family and friends. Many women are afraid to speak up about their sexual abuse in fear of being accused of lying or being blamed for their female promiscuity, both of which further normalize sexual abuse in South Asian cultures.
Just last year, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, a 19-year old girl from a small town south of Dhaka, was burned to death after filing a sexual harassment complaint against her principal. Nusrat not only spoke out against her abuser, but went to the police station to report the case. After her abuser was arrested, people protested against Nusrat and she was doused with kerosene at her school. Her death illustrates the vulnerability of sexual abuse victims in South Asian countries. When women try to get justice, they are forced to overcome obstacles from the community.
The first steps of seeing change in our communities is to shift the narrative by having candid conversations with family and friends around sexuality, sexual health, and sexual abuse. Discussions around sex can be uncomfortable and seem like “taboo” topics but normalizing them is important for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Honest conversations around these topics will not only help to hold abusers accountable for their actions, but also allow women to engage in their sexual desires, in a safe, consensual and mutually respectful manner.
Stay tuned for our multi-part series about purity.
- Beaumont, Peter. “Nusrat Jahan Rafi: 16 Sentenced to Death over Bangladesh Murder.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Oct. 2019.
- Dasgupta, Shamita Das. Body Evidence: Intimate Violence against South Asian Women in America. Rutgers University Press, 2007.