This episode was originally published on July 5, 2018.
On her Netflix one-woman show, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby opines, “There’s only ever been two options for a little girl to grow up into: virgin or whore…. And I don’t fit neatly into either of those categories. Virgin or whore? I mean, on a technicality, I’d get virgin.” Virginity is a weird, nebulous idea that’s mostly measured in heterosexual terms. So what value does virginity hold for queer and trans people? Is it worth pulling it out of the patriarchal muck?
So on this episode, I’ll talk to Juno Roche, a trans writer and advocate who recently authored a book called Queer Sex. Then I discuss the theological aspect of virginity with Presbyterian minister Mihee Kim-Kort, author of Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith. I hope you enjoy the show!
- Read our interview with Juno Roche on their book, Queer Sex.
- Curious about what it’s like to have sex with a fake hymen? Check out this funny review from The Cut!
- Here’s the trailer for Daddy I Do, a documentary on purity balls.
- You can watch Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix.
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SOLEIL: Support for Backtalk comes from Sasquatch Books, announcing the release of TOUGH GIRL. In this Battle of the Sexes meets Wild memoir , a lesbian and former Olympic swimmer takes on a 500-mile solo hike to come to terms with the end of her marriage and reclaim the resilient spirit that defined her childhood. More information at Sasquatch Books dot com or find Tough Girl at a bookstore near you.
Hey there! You’re listening to Popaganda, a podcast by Bitch Media. This is Soleil Ho. Thanks for tuning in! Today’s episode topic is actually one that was submitted by a listener named Mariah Byrne. Here’s what they wrote: “I would love an episode about the biological versus cultural construction of virginity and what that means for LGBTQ+ folk and, in turn, for heterosexual sexual experiences.” So in essence, what value does virginity hold for queer and trans bodies? Is it worth pulling it out of the patriarchal muck?
So that’s what we’ll be talking about this week. Our two guests will share some amazing takes on the diversity of queer sexualities. We’ll also discuss some ways in which LGBTQ+ experiences can disrupt heterocentric narratives around the body and its purity.
We’re also soliciting reader ideas for topics we could cover on future shows. So please email your ideas for topics or even people you’d like to hear on the show if you’ve got ‘em!
Oh, one more thing: We definitely have to abolish ICE! [laughs]
Virginity holds so much meaning, and holds a lot of weight, especially for young cis women. It can be something to stress over—both having and not having it—with social consequences either way. There’s this line that I enjoy quoting a lot about it, actually.
[recorded clip from YouTube]
You don’t think that we mesh well? [laughs] It’s like, why am I even listening to you to begin with? You’re a virgin who can’t drive.
In Clueless, the main character, Cher, has a chip on her shoulder about being a virgin, and it’s the ultimate insult to have that status thrown at her by her friend, Tai. Her insult implies that Cher’s still a child, that she has no right to say anything about Tai’s relationships because she’s never had sexual intercourse. In other words, as her friend Dionne says, she’s “hymenally challenged.”
That speaks to the basic, mainstream definition of virginity, one defined by heterosexual sex. A virgin, a girl, has a hymen, and when she has sex with a boy, the hymen breaks, she bleeds, and she‘s a virgin no more! The hymen, that little vaginal membrane that biologists have no idea what to make of, carries so much weight in some cultures that some people who’ve torn or stretched out their hymens opt for reconstructive surgery to conform their bodies to cultural norms. There’s even a small industry of fake hymen blood manufacturers, who sell gel packs of synthetic blood for those who want their bedsheets to look like Kool-Aid after sex. I’m being glib, of course, since losing one’s virginity prematurely (if you’re a girl) can bring on really fucked up and violent consequences in some contexts.
With all of this in mind, what does a feminist and queer idea of virginity look like? What does virginity mean for someone with a trans body?
On this episode, I’ll talk to Juno Roche, a trans writer and advocate, who recently authored a book called Queer Sex. Then I discuss the theological aspect of virginity with Presbyterian minister Mihee Kim-Kort. I hope you enjoy the show!
[Sin Triangle by Sidney Gish]
♪ Peacing out at eleven, the
Friendly girls are trying to comfort me as if
I’m a depressed chick at a frat party
Two faced bitches never lie
And therefore I never lie
Diagram this sin triangle for me tonight
Because I don’t know what to say
A sickness by another name
Wouldn’t be sweet either but
With luck…. ♪
JUNO: You know, when I first of all transition, being trans meant one very particular thing: it meant that you were going, it meant that you told people you’d been born in the wrong body. It meant that you would move from that body that you were rejecting into another body that you saw as being more suitable and more able. So in that sense, it felt you know, very much like a very kind of done deal. Now, it feels like we don’t have to have that, but we can have something that’s a lot more exciting and a lot more kinda visceral. And also, it’s something that is more fluid, and that feels much more realistic to me. It feels like a very unrealistic kind of journey. And it felt very misogynistic as well. I mean, in fact, it is.
The kind of old methodology of transitioning was this kind of quite misogynistic journey that would be very vagina-focused. You would end up with a vagina, and that vagina would be the kind of source of all your, would kind of repair all the damage. So for me, it just, that felt very unexciting. I mean, oddly, my vagina feels like the queerest part of me, and that I love. So in that sense, I feel like it’s, I don’t want to necessarily set out to be a disruptor, ‘cause I think that would be an odd, and quite an ego state, really. But I do feel like we’re at the time where we can start to push what it means to be trans. And we can push it around a bit to try and work out what it means so that we have autonomy, and we have a set of declarations about what it means to have a trans body, for example.
Because all of that has been, you know, people spend so much time kind of trying to erase the trans body in the sense that I have a body that, for 30 years, was completely built by testosterone, and I’m not sure that I wanna spend the next 30 years trying to hide that. I want to try and work with that and see well, what does it mean to have a body that’s had this kind of disruption halfway through or a third of the way through or you know. So for me, if I feel like I’m disrupting, it’s not to, it’s just to try and create a bit more space, you know, that we can breathe easily in.
SOLEIL: Juno’s book’s full title is Queer Sex: A Trans and Non-Binary Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure and Relationships. It’s filled with firsthand accounts of sexuality and desire from both non-binary and trans people. If anything, the interviews that they include show how there are so many ways to experience intimacy and so many ways to be trans. The old-fashioned way of looking at it in the West, with the rhetoric of “being in the wrong body” and the required surgeries, doesn’t have such a hold over people anymore.
JUNO: You know, that felt liberating. It felt liberating as well to hear people talking about their bodies pre-surgery and not demonizing their bodies. ‘Cause that’s terribly harmful, you know, to walk around saying to people, “I was born in the wrong body.” And we used to be told that we had to say that. Oh, no one said you’ve got to say that, but we almost had to disown the body before. Because if we didn’t disown the body before, then we weren’t really trans. So I think there was something quite liberating, again, about hearing that, about people saying you know, “My body’s good. I’ve got a good body. It’s fine. It’s a body that works. It’s a body that breathes and moves. And it’s quite tall, or it’s relatively slim. Or I feel like I’ve got really good curves,” whatever it is. So all of those things felt like we were beginning to occupy our own space and define our own space.
S: Yeah, that sounds so exicting because below the surface, it sounded like, from what I’ve read, there’s a lot of redefinition going on that isn’t, you know, it’s a higher level. You’re not stuck in that basic level, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” etc., but more just what is a woman?
J: Yeah, absolutely. And also, kind of honoring the notion of womanhood, honoring the notion of femininity and masculinity. But also not honoring, not paying with giving them such kind of deference in a way. Not creating these fixed points of gender and expectation and what it would mean to be a woman. Because you know, so many people, I don’t know what the figure is, but in countries where there’s not— So in the UK, there’s a very long waiting list, but you can join a waiting list, and essentially, on the NHS, you can have gender realignment surgery. But for many countries in the world, that’s not the case. So there will be people that will always have their birth bodies and their birth genitals. So you know, I kind of felt like we couldn’t go on anymore demonizing so many people, inadvertently demonizing people who would never have the surgery by having a hierarchy. And at the top of the hierarchy was a trans woman, for example, who you just wouldn’t know was trans. She passed. She’s beautiful. She has a vagina. She’s had her tits done. She’s had her face done. And that’s fine. That’s brilliant. I’m not doing reverse demonizing.
What I wanted to do was try and create a bit more space so that the people that didn’t want to engage with that journey or maybe wanted to redefine what does it mean to be trans? We’ve only had those conversations. What does it mean for trans to be the destination? And that was kinda one of the biggest things that I took away from writing the book was that actually, no, this is, they/them is my destination. It’s been a journey to they/them and being transgender. So if people say to me now, “Are you a trans woman,” I say, “No. I’m trans.” And you know, you don’t need to tag “woman” on to make me fit into some notion that you have of a kind of binary-ed world. ‘Cause I think that’s bullshit anyway. I’m not sure that that works for anyone.
J: ‘Cause binary expectations and stereotypes: years ago, I was a teacher, a primary school teacher, many years ago. And you’d see the harm that binary gender expectations would do even to young kids. This notion of being a certain way. And so, the space that is, the potential space to be opened up via conversations about trans identities is enormous, not just for the trans community, by the way, but for everybody. I think that the more we begin to really push and pull at the shackles of expectation of what we should be and shouldn’t be, I think the better it will be for all of us.
S: So speaking of binaries, I wanted to talk about specifically virginity and the concept of it for queer people, for trans people. Because it’s such a thing, a concept mired in Judeo-Christian cis-heteronormativity. Does it have any resonance for any of the people you talked to for ht book?
J: No, I don’t think it does apart from the expectation that somehow a new body would be the right body. And therefore, that should be the body that’s kind of broken in, in a kind of strange way, this notion that that’s the body that should go through the process of becoming sexual. The complete concept of virginity didn’t come up, but what did come up was this notion of the projection of having a perfect body. And then that body would be the body that would contain all of the, even a kind of sense of romance. That body would be the body that would be capable of having romantic interaction and would be completely sexual.
The thing was, was that when we all talked through the book, especially there was a group of women that I talked to—just trans women—who had, some had had surgery, some hadn’t had surgery, some didn’t want to, etc., but we talked quite a lot about wanking pre-surgery and how it was really nice to be able to talk about that and it not be shameful. Because what we were doing, because what we’d been taught to do is that we should disown our bodies. Therefore, if we had had sex before, we would disown any notion of virginity and losing our virginity and our first times, and we would posit that in the future, a point when we would have like a perfect pussy, and that we would have the perfect sexual experience. And that would be our time, our moment. And again, I think that we, in being able to kind of cast off binaries, you can then cast off a whole bunch of kind of bullshity stuff that goes around binaries like losing your virginity.
S: There’s a greater question here, within a queer and trans imagining of desire, of what constitutes sex. Of what counts as sex. Patriarchy and the gender binary provide a roadmap for sex, where virginity is the first gate to adulthood. When you turn away from it, it’s like turning off your GPS in a new city.
J: I think it’s like this real, this kind of notion that, in a way, you can move away from that stuff; you can define your body. You can define your sexuality. You can define how you change your body. I mean, in one of the interviews, I interviewed a woman who had never been a top, had never fucked anyone at all pre-surgery. But now is a top and realizes that actually, they love to fuck, but just not with their own dick. And I think that having all of that— So, in a way I suppose, you could say that she had her kind of virgin moment, really, of discovering that. But I would rather see what we do in terms of having a fluidity and a fluidity that has different discoveries. And those discoveries should and could enrich our sense of selves. So rather than having this very binary notion that somehow a vagina is the center of all pleasure if you’re trans woman or you’re a cis woman, and that somehow, that somebody at one point is going to make that whole, and there’s gonna be this coupling, it felt like we could move away from that. And that if we were gonna try and create a queer space, what would a queer space be like? It should have disruptions, small disruptions. And those disruptions should affect us; they shouldn’t affect, we shouldn’t be seeking to impact on the rest of society. We should be building our community because when you build communities because you disrupt, and you then build up again. So in that sense, I think that a kind of virginity moment or a virgin moment almost becomes moot, really.
S: So, what you’re positing is that it might be more queer, more productive to think of it as, rather than a switch that flips on and off, right—you’re a virgin, then non-virgin—it’s sort of like that negation, it would be more constructive to think of your own body as something that goes through stages of learning and stages of just knowing itself as a sexual—
J: Absolutely. Yeah. And also feeling comfortable with itself. I mean, I think the kinds of things that we don’t allow ourselves to do is to—especially if you’re trans—you’re almost told that you can’t encounter your own body and its journey. Somebody else will define that for you. You will have surgery, and then somebody will come along and say, “Yes, you really look like a woman. Now I’m gonna fuck you, or now I’m gonna do this.” And in somehow them encountering your body will somehow make you whole. And I think for me, and certainly for a lot of the people that I kind of talk to now and discuss this kind of stuff with, it’s about a much more, something that’s much more fluid than that.
Potentially, that’s the kind of, I think that people see—you know, we use the word “trans” and “transgender,” and in a way because it’s this moving from one place to another—but I think actually, we do a disservice. ‘Cause actually, I think it could be something that’s always moving and fluctuating. And that doesn’t mean that you have regrets, and you go backwards. I mean, some people might do that. I don’t think that’s the case. I think most people very much know that they’re moving in one direction. But it might mean that that’s not a kind of, you know, it’s not linear; it’s not a simple, linear journey that is connected to binaries. It’s about something else. Because binaries are a construct, and therefore, one of the things that was delightful for me about my process was that I realized that binary was just a concept and construct, and that if I wanted to occupy another binary, I’d have to learn it. Because being a woman or being a man or being masculine or feminine, these are all things that we kind of, we learn and we pick up and we see and we adopt and we buy and we hoard.
And so, in a sense, letting go of all of that and just saying, “OK, I have this body, which is a body that has”— So I say to people that my body has a capacity to change. So I don’t have a vagina. What they’ve done is taken my old cock and balls, and they’ve upcycled that into a different-shaped space that has a different potential. And I’m not saying that to be kind of deep and meaningful. That’s the truth of it.
J: It’s an entirely different thing. Part of the reason why transwomen have an awful lot of problems in relation to health care and stuff is because GPs have got no concept. They ask you to come along for cervical smears, and you say, “Why? I don’t need to do that.”
J: So in a sense, there’s a kind of, I want us to encounter our bodies and our journeys for their own, by their own definitions. And to do that, we need to understand them fully. We need to understand, what does it mean to be a virgin full stop? And does it have any resonance at all in terms of our journey? Well, not much. Only if you’re wanting to go from A to B, and B is where you wanna stay. In that sense, there might be some kind of romantic subscription that you can tie into it. But for me, certainly there’s not. It’s a kind of set of learnings that happen along the way.
S: That was Juno Roche. Their book, Queer Sex: A Trans and Non-Binary Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure and Relationships, is now available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
My next guest, Mihee Kim-Kort, is a Presbyterian minister and author. As a complete and utter heathen, I really wanted to ask someone with a close relationship to religion what they thought about the question of virginity and its relevance to queer people. Her recently released book, Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith, seemed like a good starting point for the discussion.
M: Yeah. It’s really, it really has been sort of a number of different, a kind of combination of a number of different elements, part memoir. I mean, it really kinda started out as a desire to engage this in an academic kinda way in terms of theologically think about how queer theory and queer of color theorists, how what they’re doing and how they’re making meaning in the world is super relevant to what is happening with theology and with faith and spiritual communities. And so, it really was a way for me to try to bring these two pieces together and make some sort of conversation happen. And then it became very personal, and in a lot of ways, sort of a coming out kind of process and story for myself, and to work out what queerness means for me personally. And what it means for my spiritually in terms of my own relationships and with my faith community, my family, my parents, my husband, my kids. And so I’m trying to just work through how is it useful for faith, how does it change faith, and what does it have to say to the world?
S: For Mihee, the act of applying queer theory to Christian theology is an act of deconstruction, of seeing the grey areas in between the binaries that have informed religious thought for centuries. Between god and the devil, sin and grace, man and woman. More often than not, that kind of thinking has alienated people who fall on the wrong side of the tracks.
M: I think that especially for maybe like the younger Gen X and then definitely for Millenials, that that is totally changing. It’s like 180 degrees. And so there’s sort of this sense of people really mobilizing around these issues because of their faith, like inspired by a faith that is more progressive, that sees Jesus as a First Century brown man, Palestinian. Those sort of identity markers are totally different than from sort of the pictures of Jesus we all grew up seeing, which is he’s like doey-eyed, blue-eyed [laughs]—
S: He has a six pack.
M: Yes, exactly.
S: I remember that.
M: [laughs] He was just kinda the California hot surfer guy. I don’t know.
M: I don’t know. There was someone who maybe did have a crush on him. But yeah, it’s not, all of that is shifting and changing. So it’s kind of an interesting time to be a Christian right now, to be, whether it’s a conservative Christian or a sort of more progressive or Leftist kind of Christian.
S: Yeah. So I specifically wanted to talk about something that I’ve been so curious about, and I think you’re the person to articulate this. So virginity is so interesting as a theological concept, and of course, as a way in which religion can uphold patriarchy. And it’s been a weapon used to that end against young women all around the world. And so I find your idea of applying queer theory to religion so potent and interesting. So I guess I would love to hear your take on virginity too. Is that something that can be rehabilitated, or would you prefer to just sort of throw it away?
M: So even to think about virginity in terms of a particular kind of morality around sex and that sort of intimacy, I definitely am still working that out. I mean I wrote a chapter about that in my book, and a lot of it was critiquing how we’ve conflated purity and virginity. So virginity, it’s not really talked as much in explicit terms within the older New Testament scriptures. But a lot of dialogue and conversation and presentation in the Bible is around purity and around holiness. But somehow, sexual intimacy and virginity, all of that was conflated and just sort of subsumed by some notion of purity. And definitely, I would say Catholicism probably has a really big hand in that. I mean, you’ve got this sort of monolithic religious institution, and then the sort of main representative of the Catholic church besides the Pope is the Virgin Mary, right?
S: Right, yeah. So in the book itself, those aren’t inherently linked as concepts?
M: No. Are you talking about my book or the Bible?
S: Oh no. I’m sorry. In the Bible.
S: The book.
M: Someday my book will maybe be “the book,” but maybe no, probably not.
M: No, I mean, there are a lot of New Testament scholars and commentaries that put forward the suggestion that even the word “virgin” associated with Mary is not a correct translation or a right interpretation, that she really was likely a young woman. But for some reason, that’s translated as virgin from whatever context and biblical Greek. So I’m not a New Testament scholar, so those are the things that I’ve just read in the past. So yeah. I think that there’s something about evangelical Christianity and virginity and purity that all get sort of wrapped up in each other. And that’s a hard thing to sort of combat or to, for lack of a better term, to struggle against and to dismantle or whatever. I don’t know if there’s a way to rehabilitate or redeem this notion of virginity. I guess the thing that I’m thinking about the most is just, within queer communities, just those folks who do identify as asexual—and I know that that tends to be less of an expression of choice and more something that is innate or inherent in a person that few people would say that that was something that they choose—but I even wanna trouble some of those notions of if you choose something, that that somehow makes it a less legitimate expression or experience.
M: And so I think that queerness might give us some way to deal with purity and the religious notions and concepts around purity. I just don’t know what that would look like in relationship to just the way virginity has, like you said, become weaponized and deployed against certain bodies, and specifically against women’s bodies and really just infused with notions of worth and value and agency and autonomy and freedom. And so I think it’s something I would like to continue to work out.
S: Right! ‘Cause I’m curious, then, if queer theory in religious thought is supposed to—or at least not supposed to, but like—if one of its functions is to dismantle binaries, it seems like virginity and not being a virgin, that is one of the ultimate binaries in religion.
M: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that’s probably the binary.
S: I guess the thing that I’m curious about is would a successful application of queer theory in Judeo-Christianity, would that just completely do away with the concept? And I wonder because it is so inherently like a binary that is so heteronormative and also patriarchal.
S: But at the same time, so much of our modern conception of virginity vis a vis religion is something that grants the person, the individual, power also and authority.
S: So it’s such an integral part of the story too.
M: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that just instinctively, I want to definitely do away with that binary. And so then, in some ways then, it means just as soon as you do away with that binary, then you do away with that concept of virginity in the first place. And I’d be OK with that because I don’t feel like there’s anything really inherent to Christianity that needs virginity. I mean, like the Christianity that is not the Christianity in terms of the evangelicalism that I grew up with, with purity pledges and purity balls. I mean I didn’t grow up with purity balls.
S: Ooh, boy!
M: I did do some research around purity balls, and there’s some super wonderful, slightly disturbing documentaries about purity balls. And you have this sort of, the role of the father as a patriarch and the relationship between the daughters and the fathers, just there’s a lot of blurred, strange boundaries in this sort of ritualistic idolizing almost of purity and of virginity.
S: A quick note: for those of you who don’t know what a purity ball is, I highly recommend watching the documentary, Daddy I Do. Or you can probably just extrapolate the gist from the name of the film itself.
M: And so yeah, I think I, right now, would feel really positive about following that line around and through queerness that would totally dismantle and get rid of any notion of virginity. Because there is something also about virginity that it dehumanizes and disconnects people from their bodies. And I think that for me personally, what has been so important and lifegiving and lifechanging about queerness is the realization that our bodies matter. And that how we understand our humanity, how we understand each other’s humanity, is grounded in having bodies, being fully connected to our bodies, having agency and power and a say in what our bodies are and what they do and who they’re with. And all of that I really believe is grounded in who God is and how God is actually presented in the Bible.
S: Thanks to Mihee Kim-Kort and Juno Roche for talking with me.
And thanks to you for listening.
This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Sidney Gish for her song, Sin Triangle. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just plain review us on iTunes. We love that!
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