Miley Cyrus has come a long way from the sanitised Disney Channel persona of her early years. We’re accustomed to a new Miley now – an artist who challenges conventions, who isn’t afraid to be obscene or political.
Her latest video for the song “Mother’s Daughter” is exactly what I’d expect from her. It’s racy and empowering, featuring Cyrus and a diverse cast of activists, creators, and celebrities. Each one has a marginalised identity not typically seen within pop culture. The video is also littered with feminist slogans, including one that has sparked controversy online: virginity is a social construct.
Cyrus posted a few screen grabs of the quote on her Instagram, which many translated as shaming people for abstaining from sex or encouraging young girls to be sexually active. One far right publication is accusing her of “mocking sexual purity”, while a piece for the Washington Examiner reads, “society is fallen, and Miley Cyrus' “Mother's Daughter” video is proof.” The writer later refers to the “absurdity” of virginity being socially constructed.
But these critiques are missing Cyrus’ point. Virginity isn’t some innate, observable mode of being. Society created it, gendered it, and assigned it moral value, but outside of a patriarchal belief system, it’s meaningless.
One problem with virginity is that it defines sex as sexual intercourse, not pleasure. This narrative excludes anyone who isn’t heterosexual and minimizes the importance of other sexual behaviours. Most people with vulvas orgasm from clitoral stimulation and yet, the construct of virginity ignores the very thing that makes intercourse pleasurable to begin with, and mainly centres sex that is procreative.
There is also no biological reason for virginity, although we’ve made up a few – like the belief that a hymen must be broken the first time you have sex, that the absence of a hymen means you’ve already had sex, and that vaginas become loose over time. These myths mean that “losing” your virginity is often perceived as painful and bloody. In reality, it doesn’t have to be either.
Most importantly, virginity allows society to reward women who remain “pure” with greater social capital while punishing women who don’t. Because if purity is value, then the absence of purity is the absence of value. Women create our entire sense of self-worth from this premise. And when someone isn’t seen as valuable, when they’re told not to see themselves as valuable, it becomes easy to justify harm against them. Virginity rationalises the wider agenda to control female sexuality. Sexual violence, an expression of patriarchal power, is how that control is enforced. And that’s exactly what Cyrus is trying to reject in “Mother’s Daughter”, and by extension, in her assertion that virginity is more or less a myth.
It’s important to note that virginity and abstinence are two different things here. In shaming the way that virginity has been constructed, Cyrus isn’t shaming people for simply abstaining from sex. She isn’t saying that young girls should rush into sex either. Instead, she’s attacking the system that places value on the concept of virginity.
At most, she is perhaps mocking the higher status associated with virginal women, which in turn suggests that non-virgins are worth less. But is she mocking sexual purity? No. Although, in calling attention to the fact that it’s made up, it’s hard to understand why we wouldn’t mock it.
We should reject any system that nullifies someone’s right to body autonomy the way virginity does. All women deserve to be respected and protected, not just the ones having sex the way everyone has decided they should.
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