‘First Time’ and Virginity as a Social Construct

The prospect of losing my virginity made me feel physically sick with nerves. What if I did something wrong? What if I wasn’t ‘satisfactory?’ What if my boyfriend actually wasn’t sexually attracted to me at all? This nervousness was rooted in the fact that I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was nineteen. All of my friends were in on and off relationships from around the age of fourteen/fifteen, some of which were sexual, and I constantly felt uncomfortable and even embarrassed about the fact I’d not had a boyfriend. I produced a simple sculpture piece, titled ‘First Time’ (below), almost as a form of self analysis about my thoughts and feelings about losing my virginity.

Sculpture has never really been something that I have been interested in. I desperately resisted producing it on my Foundation Diploma and I swore that I’d never intentionally set out to make a piece of sculpture after I left Leeds College of Art. Ironically enough, the vast majority of work that I’ve produced since leaving has been centred around sculpture and it has become the media that I gain the most enjoyment out of producing.

I bought the nightie in Oxfam with the intention that I’d actually wear it, it ended up not suiting me when I got it home but I thought it would be perfect to use in my artwork. As I said in my last post, one of my favourite processes to use is hand embellishment, particularly sewing with glitter thread. I felt that using glitter thread, rather than cotton thread, would be more effective as the thin strips of glitter that are woven in tend to snap and create a really nice surface texture. I didn’t put much thought into what I wanted to sew into the nightie, I just wrote down exactly how I felt at the prospect of losing my virginity: “I am terrified.” I had a feeling that ‘First Time’ would potentially be criticised for being too simple, but the response has actually been fantastic, people have contacted me to say that they understand the work and can really relate to it. I don’t produce my work to get recognition and positive feedback from viewers, but it’s really great when people completely understand the message that you are trying to convey, particularly when it’s such a personal piece of work.

First-Time-1First-Time-2

I tried to research contemporary artists that have used the concept of virginity in their work and I couldn’t actually find that much online and in journals.  I did however come across the artist Clayton Pettet, who came up with the concept of the work  ‘Art School Stole my Virginity’ where  the artist planned to lose his virginity on stage in January 2014 in front of an audience and then answer questions afterwards. I can imagine that lots of people would be grossed out by this, particularly those who aren’t involved in the contemporary art scene. For some people, it probably raises the age old question: is this really art? I would  say it is.  Bias aside,  I think as a piece of performance art the idea is really clever. Displaying such an intimate and usually nerve-racking event to an audience of unknown people may completely destroy the intimacy of the act. Although the actual process of the artist having sex may be uncomfortable for certain members of the audience to watch, the question and answer session afterwards most likely helped to break the tension for both the audience and the artist.

Tracey Emin 1

Tracey Emin 2Although this piece by Tracey Emin titled ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’ 1963-1995, isn’t focussing so much on virginity, it still explores sexuality and exposes information that most people might be uncomfortable or embarrassed to share. While the piece references individuals that Emin has had sexual relationships with, it centres more on the names of those who she has slept with, in the sense of sharing a bed or sleeping next to someone, such as her grandma for example. This gives the work a sense of innocence, which counteracts with the bold depiction of the artist’s sex life.

I’ve definitely been influenced by the work of Tracey Emin, particularly the handmade/homemade feel to some of her work, although I only really discovered her work last year. My favourite pieces of hers tend to be those that use a range of fabric and contain a lot of words, phrases and colours, a favourite being ‘I do not expect to be a Mother;. Both fabric and colour have been used extensively in ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’, the floral, girly fabrics playing on what it is to be feminine. The artist has used a non-traditional object – a tent, most commonly identified as being uncomfortable and awkward in relation to sex. Although the piece references a number of individuals, the focus is drawn back to the artist with the sentence appliquéd on the floor of the tent, ‘with myself, always myself, never forgetting’.

As the title of this post states, virginity is just a social construct. It means nothing. It does not define whether you are a good or bad person. I genuinely couldn’t care less whether someone is a virgin or has had multiple sexual partners, it doesn’t change my opinion of them whatsoever. There was so much emphasis placed on young females at my secondary school about the fact that they had to be sexually active. If you weren’t sexually active at the age of fourteen/fifteen and you didn’t actively try to get a boyfriend (obviously the fact that some individuals might be gay or bisexual wasn’t taken into account at all), you were labelled as “frigid”. I was never particularly interested in having a boyfriend at secondary school, yes the idea of having one made me feel a bit nervous (which is totally normal) but I didn’t have any real interest in relationships, I tended to focus more on myself, my friends and my school work. While I had the confidence to do this at the time, a lot of young teenage girls feel incredibly pressured into relationships and becoming sexually active in order to be accepted. Girls that I was close friends with who were sexually active used to share some really awful details with me about their sex lives and what they did to look “fit” for their boyfriends, e.g. shaving off all their pubic hair and constantly trying to make their school outfits more sexy.

A lot of supposed horror stories that were thought to be outrageous went around my school about certain girls, “They had sex and she had skid marks in her knickers” or “She’s really bad at sex, I just say that she’s good at it to her face because she’s fit” to name a couple. One of my close friends was in a sexual relationship when she was fifteen and her boyfriend told people at school that she didn’t shave her pubic hair. Everybody was talking about her behind her back and people shouted truly horrible things at her on the corridor about her “hairy fanny”. I’ve got no idea whether this was true or not, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. There’s far too much focus centred on pubic hair apparently being disgusting and repulsive amongst young teenagers, this opinion is largely derived from porn. If your partner refuses to be sexually active with you because they can’t stand the sight of pubic hair because it’s apparently ‘unnatural’ then they’re really not worth a minute of your time.

I can’t even count the number of times that I was labelled as “frigid” in secondary school just because I didn’t have any interest in relationships with sexually frustrated, immature boys. I’d just like to say to all you young people out there who are in a similar position to that which I was in, it’s totally ok for you to forget about sex and relationships until you feel comfortable enough to explore them. Your self worth isn’t defined by how many relationships you’ve had or at what age you lost your virginity, it’s defined by your self awareness and ability to put yourself first.

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