Why the portrayal of virginity in the media is harmful


How purity culture impacts the film and television we interact with

Photo by Sie Douglas-Fish.
Photo by Sie Douglas-Fish.

This article contains discussion of sexual assault.

In the popular TV show Jane the Virgin, the opening scene involves the young protagonist Jane learning about female purity from her grandmother. Jane’s grandmother shows her a beautiful flower and then crumples it up, teaching Jane the consequences of giving away her “flower” before marriage. This example is widely used to teach youth about purity. I was given a similar talk with the example of a piece of tape: the dirtier the tape got, the less likely it was to stick to the piece of paper. Charming, right? 

These dehumanizing examples used in media and enacted in real life feed into a misogynistic narrative; that women are simply objects and their value decreases after becoming sexually active. 

In countless film and television series targeted towards young adults, the concept of female virginity is used as a plot device to signify their loss of innocence or morality. Many of the characters in these shows discuss the consequences of “losing their virginity;” they fear that once they “give away a part of themselves” to another person that they will never be the same. 

This mainstream notion of “giving away a piece of yourself” when you lose your heteronormative virginity is extremely damaging because the worth of women as human beings is equated to their virginity or lack thereof. The mainstream portrayal of virginity as a “gift” in film and television is harmful to both women and sexual assault survivors.

The idea that virginity is a gift has been around for a long time but a distinct purity movement grew in the 1990s that aimed to protect young women from the sexual immorality of the world. This movement is reflected in our media that depicts characters worrying about who they will become after they have sex for the first time.

In films and television shows like After and Riverdale, various female characters are depicted as innocent and wholesome before they have their first sexual encounter. After they “lose their virginity”, characters like Betty and Tessa are depicted as more promiscuous and mature as shown through changes in their physical appearance and in their behavior. 

Many of the films and TV shows that perpetuate this harmful narrative that you must protect that “innocent” part of yourself until you are married or in love are directed by men. Older shows like Degrassi feature plots about purity culture and slut-shaming with some of these episodes directed by men, who lack understanding around young women’s experiences with their sexuality and identity. 

Fortunately, the media industry is making better efforts to feature stories written by more diverse womxn voices. While there is still significant work to be done in dismantling harmful stereotypes surrounding female sexuality in media, films and TV shows like The Sex Lives of College Girls, Girls, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Always and Forever, and Never Have I Ever work to break tired stereotypes about female sexuality and virginity.

Teaching young people about sexual autonomy and ensuring they have proper education on their bodies is essential, no matter what they choose to do with that information or their bodies.  

Purity culture disproportionately impacts women. Having this idea that your sexuality is a special gift meant only for one person perpetuated and normalized in mainstream media can also harm sexual assault survivors. By furthering the belief that a woman’s worth can be defined by what is between her legs, we also allow her to believe that a sexualized attack has “ruined” her and that she can never go back to her once “pure” self.

The idea that virginity is a gift that needs to be guarded is damaging. No one’s worth should be determined by their sexuality. If we continue to normalize these harmful beliefs in film and television, then we normalize the idea that women’s bodies are not their own. Virginity is not a gift and we need to stop portraying it as so.