Why do girls lose their virginity? What, exactly, is lost?

In her recent radio talk on the age of consent, Mary Beard mentioned what she called “quaint talk” about girls “losing their virginity”, as though the phrase really belongs to another age. And so it does, in a sense. These days, in many societies of the economically developed world, there is no strong expectation or requirement that a female must be a virgin when she marries, if she does. An attractive and personable young woman – and a good many without such attributes – will not fail to land “a good catch” on account of prior sexual experience.

So why does the expression linger on in common parlance? Religious taboos against pre-marital sex no longer have the hold they once did, so that cannot explain it. Nor can the patriarchal requirement that a man must have a sure guarantee, which only marrying a virgin bride can provide, that his children will be his own: women have become such a force in modern life that men can no longer enforce such standards.

Does it, then, have something to do with girl power?  Is there a continuing sense among young women that only by severely restricting their favours can they maintain their allure and force men into bidding highly for them? I do not mean literally a virginity auction, although these are not unknown: one was memorably depicted in the film Pretty Baby, which saw the sale of a 12-year-old’s maidenhead to the highest bidder. Rather than that scenario of a powerless child callously commodified by uncaring men, I am thinking more of heartless women cruelly leading guys on, mercilessly “prick teasing” them in endless competition against each other!

Is this inevitable, this feminine cruelty? Does it start with the winsomeness of the cute little girl, instinctively able to wrap her dad around her little finger, as the saying goes, or indeed any other adoring adult? Is it ordained inescapably in the depths of our evolved psychology that girls will bewitch and tease, but often not deliver?

Or are there cultures in which the girls do not tease, and prioritize gaining sexual pleasure and experience over losing their virginity? Even in our own culture little girls may well be sexually enthusiastic and liberal with their favours until they catch up with how they are supposed to behave.

But what about elsewhere? In traditional Tonga the king used to have the duty – poor man! – of personally “deflowering” every virgin on the island. A possibly dodgy online source tells me King Fatafehi Paulah slept with seven virgins a day and in his reign as many as 37, 800 in all. So presumably the girls there in his day had no expression for “losing” their virginity, or if they did they could not have been referring to loss in the sense of any particular personal shame, as the outcome would have been the same for all.

And there have been a great many other wonderfully exotic cultures in which the girls have been most enthusiastic from an early age, if sailors’ yarns and ethnographers’ notes give a true picture: check out the Lepcha people of Sikkim, for instance, or the experiences of Captain Cook and his crews in the South Seas.

It’s different for boys, of course. Arguably they cannot lose their virginity at all, or at least not at the front, where getting one’s end away is usually thought entirely a matter of gain. One’s rear virginity, by contrast, might be a true loss in a culture where male submission is considered shameful. But men these days do talk about losing their virginity, even when they mean the front, and quite irrespective of whether their partner is a woman or a man. Why? Is it because we are now in a sort of unisex culture? Is the social distinction between male and female gradually being eroded away to nothing? If so, is it a good thing? In the words of the song, there are more questions than answers!