Body Narrative: Virginity

NONFICTION | Body Narrative: Virginity

VirginityA library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.

—Germaine Greer


The word “virgin” generally indicates naivety, innocence, or inexperience in a particular context. Virginity can also represent sharing a previously un-shared part of yourself with a partner, and, for this reason, is often associated with intimacy. Writing, too, involves sharing part of you with other people and, like losing one’s virginity, can be frightening, enthralling, or unremarkable. In writing, the loss of virginity can be related to moving from innocence to awareness of the craft of writing. Regret for stories written or published too soon can be equated with unwise choices in sexual partners. Social stigmas can influence your willingness to explore new forms or subjects in writing as well.

In American culture, we have myriad views of virginity. Annelise Pennington notes, “Today, our society has made virgins feel bad for being virgins.” A stigma—a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person—exists on each sides of the issue. According to Voltaire: “It is an infantile superstition of the human spirit that virginity would be thought a virtue and not the barrier that separates ignorance from knowledge.”

Misconceptions and prejudices about virginity can arise from religion, pop culture, love, choice, or bad luck—even myth. In ancient Greece, it was thought that the deepening of a girl’s voice determined loss of virginity. Some medical writers of the time argued that virginity meant no desire. Soranos and Galen suggested that virgin women suffered from less disease than other women. In early Christian writings, the paleness of a woman’s face was an outer sign of virginity. Christianity argued for the value of preserving one’s virginity in terms of the life to come. True virginity resided in the body and the soul. [i] Today, countries including India, Turkey, and Africa place a high value on virginity. A woman’s eligibility for marriage can hinge on virginity testing, a practice that continues despite scientific evidence that the presence of an intact hymen is not a reliable indicator of whether a female has been vaginally penetrated. Women who fail virginity testing are often divorced by their husbands instantly, disowned, beaten by family members, or in some cases, even killed.[ii]

Myths about the loss of virginity are still pervasive in America, too. These myths can lead to rampant misinformation, including that losing your virginity will cause irreversible damage to the body, that it’s going to be pleasurable, magical, painful, bloody, or life-changing. According to an article in The Atlantic, “These myths persist in part because of a lack of information about what happens to the human body, specifically the hymen, during sex—information that’s often not taught in schools, that’s not always found online, and that’s not always available from medical providers.”[iii]

Though virginity can be an embarrassing, confusing issue to explore for anyone, regardless of gender, historically and culturally, women have faced more stringent restraints to their sexuality and intimacy. For this reason, many women don’t feel comfortable writing about sex and desire. Helene Cixous, author of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says,

[W]omen must write her self: must write about women and bring women into writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement. […] I wished that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs (p. 875, 876).

Refusing to acknowledge or avoiding the topic of sex in writing only compounds the problem of misinformation. Young people often cast virginity in a shadow of negativity and have trouble taking ownership of their sexuality due to myth and misinformation. A potentially pleasurable experience can be viewed as stressful and unnecessarily traumatic. As writers, it’s our job to help dispel or clarify myths that can be harmful to our health and well-being.


Prompts for More Promiscuous Writing

  • Do you remember when you moved from innocence to awareness of the craft of writing? How would you describe any feelings of confusion, fear, or worry? How did you make your voice public?
  • Have you been told that you have to write a certain way or write about certain topics? Is this what you, too, tell yourself? How have you allowed yourself to venture out into new types of writing that might change how you look at the world?
  • What must break in order to welcome a new writing style or to take a writing risk? Write about a transformative writing experience. What is it like to share your body of writing?
  • What genres do you write in? What genres are you most comfortable reading/writing? Write about the first time you crossed genres in your writing. What did you notice as you wrote? What most surprised you? What have you yet to explore/share?
  • What parts of you are pushing your writing in new directions? Do you ever feel pressured in your writing? The loss of virginity for some of us is painful, humiliating, even shameful. We may feel empty during it or afterwards. Make a list of all of the shameful or painful experiences you would never write. Now write them. Go after your desires; make yourself vulnerable to your loved one, which is to say writing.
  • How do you feel when put out your most vulnerable writing? In what ways do you write to please others and conform to their expectations rather than writing for self-expression or experimentation? How are you self-conscious in your writing? How do you think people will think of you if they were to read your words?
  • What stretches and leaps do you allow yourself to take in your writing? Is it possible to come back to our innocence once it is gone?

Virginity, by being once lost, may be ten times found: by being ever kept, it is ever lost. ’Tis too cold a companion: away with ’t!

―William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well


[i]   King, H. (2003). Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty. Routledge, pp. 47-48.

[ii] Francis, S. (2010). A Thin Membrane Called Honor Hymenoplasty in Muslim Cultures. Retrieved September 28, 2014 from

[iii] Feeney, N. (February 7, 2014). Living myths about virginity. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from



Debbie McCulliss spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.

Body Narrative: Needs, Wants, Desires

heart want need

They wouldn’t need much, would they? A few small fish, an arrangement of figs. A little paper. A handful of words. —Carole Maso [i]

In her poem “The Invitation,” Oriah Mountain Dreamer reminds us:

It doesn’t interest me

what you do for a living.

I want to know

what you ache for

and if you dare to dream

of meeting your heart’s longing [ii]

Longing can be defined as “yearning desire.” Desire is a strong feeling of wanting or wishing to possess something. Needs are essentials or very important for survival. You need food, water, and sleep, but your desires can be much broader. In many cases, our wildest desires are extinguished when we become adults—as we’re taught the value of practicality. But as writers, allowing ourselves to acknowledge unrealistic desires can be fruitful for our work. Maybe you want to write the next Pulitzer-prize winner, Surrealist manifesto, or bestselling young adult novel. What’s holding you back from allowing yourself to acknowledge your desires? Writers have to want and desire to write, just as doctors have a want and desire to help people and patients desire to retain their freedom and well being. Dutch philosopher, Erasmus says, “The desire to write grows with writing.”

Ask yourself:

What is it that you want to write?

What is it that you need to write?

Do you know the difference? [iii]

How does this drive you?


You may have difficulty sensing the nuanced differences between what you want, need, and desire to write, but recognizing those subtleties can lead to more precise writing. If you have no desire to write fiction, but rather a hybrid memoir or essay, go for it. In an interview with Carole Maso, Brian Evenson (Rain Taxi, December 3, 1997) discusses the connection Maso has in her work between language and desire, the two intermingling in often-unpredictable ways. She reflects on an essay she wrote called, “Except Joy” (in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1998) “on the notions of language as heat and light, motion and stillness, a vibrant living thing capable of containing great emotion. Also, fluid, shifting, elusive, fugitive, and ultimately outside one’s grasp. Shapes the silence and darkness keep taking back. Bodies that make fragile, amorphous, beautiful shapes for a moment and then are gone.”

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? It’s a simple tool used to illustrate the progression from basic to complex needs:

1) Physiologic needs such as air, food, water, shelter, sanitation, touch.

2) Safety needs such as security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health, and property.

3) Love and belonging needs such as sexual intimacy and relatedness with family and friends.

4) Esteem needs such as confidence and respect of others.

Once basic needs are met, people seek emotional evolution. At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization, which, according to Maslow, is “the process of growing and developing as a person to achieve individual potential.” Self-actualization includes creativity, spontaneity, and lack of prejudice.

Make a list of your writing needs and desires. Let yourself go—don’t be afraid of seeming unrealistic. Let yourself think about publishing in Best American Essays or writing a feature article for a national or international publication. Categorize your list into your creative life’s emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental needs. Think about why each listed item is important to you. What basic needs and wants are most vital to your writing? How have your needs and desires been fulfilled by writing? What do you notice happens in your creative life when you get what you want?

By recognizing our own desires, and how they are constantly changing and evolving, we become more aware of what motivates our decisions. Laura King, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia, notes, “Writing about topics that allow us to learn about our own needs and desires may be a way to harness the positive effects of writing.” [iv]

Every character in a story wants, needs, or desires something. Unconscious and conscious desires drive the creation of intriguing characters. Novelist Ryan Harty suggests that beginning writers use the following recipe to create more complex characters: two desires, two fears, one secret, eight very important things. [v] What does your writing or a character in your writing most want, need, or desire? How can you write those wants and desires?

How we need another soul to cling to, another body to keep us warm. To rest and trust; to give your soul in confidence: I need this, I need someone to pour myself into. —Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Consider you and your characters in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy. How do we write hunger/thirst? How do we write greed? How do we tell the difference? How do we make that difference known when we’re writing characters?

Too often we recognize desire in others—fictional characters included—and fail to turn the microscope on ourselves. Understanding your needs and desires, and the difference between them, will allow you to progress through Maslow’s hierarchy and to create more meaningful conflicts for your characters. You’ll benefit personally from becoming more aware of your longings and desires in your writing life—and your readers will sense the difference as well.

That is the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings… —F. Scott Fitzgerald

[i] Maso, C. (1994). The American woman in the Chinese hat.

[ii] Dreamer, O. M. (1999). The Invitation. Verse 1.

[iii] Elizabeth Hunter. Retrieved May 28, 2014 from

[iv] King, L. (2002). Gain without pain, expressive writing and self-regulation. In Lepore, Stephen J. (Ed). Smyth, Joshua, M. (Ed). The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (pp. 119-134). Washington, D.C.; American Psychological Association, xii, 313 pp.

[v] Harty, R. (2011). Meet your protagonist! In Eggers, D. (Ed.). Don’t forget to write, for the secondary grades: 50 enthralling and effective writing lessons (pp. 101-102). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.

Body Narrative: Disability

disability284The only disability in life is a bad attitude.

—Scott Hamilton

We are constantly adding to the narrative of our bodies. Every bump, scrape, bruise and cut alters our physical shape—and, as our bodies transform, so too do the ways we see ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Nowhere is the profound relationship between the body and one’s perception more evident than in the writing of disabled authors, who have used their works to convey the physical and emotional struggles people with disabilities face each day. Because disabled people often lack access to public forums that able-bodied citizens take for granted, writers occupy an especially crucial voice in the disabled community. Beyond exposing the real-life struggles people with disabilities face, these authors lay bare the stereotypes and tired clichés that have long accompanied disability—with the ultimate goal of reinterpreting how disabilities impact one’s identity and creative spirit.


What is Disability?

Disability is defined by the World Health Organization’s website as “impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions….” Additionally, “[D]isability… reflects an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”

In less strict terms, disability has been defined many different ways, and countless authors have taken to page with the goal of complicating and clarifying the term for readers.

For example, Cheryl Marie Wade—the director of Wry Crips Disabled Women’s Theater Group and solo pieces such as “A Woman with Juice”—stated in an interview that disability was a kind of “ugly beauty” that allowed her to discover the unique power of her body, which had been severely disfigured by rheumatoid arthritis. “By writing about my body and about what I call the ‘ugly beauty’ of disability, I began to like my body,” she explained. “I do mind the pain and the limitations, but I don’t hate the actual physical differences anymore.”

Likewise, in American poet Neil Marcus’ poem, “Disabled Country,” he claims that disability is far more than a physical limitation; rather, it is a fluid sense of identity, a compass by which to finds one’s place within the outside world. The poem opens with these lines:

If there was a country called disabled,
I would be from there.
I live disabled culture, eat disabled food,
Make disabled love, cry disabled tears,
Climb disabled mountains and tell disabled stories.

As the poem goes on, Marcus expands on his analogy of disabled persons living in another land and speaking another language, showing the reader precisely how difficult it is to live in a world full of and designed for able-bodied people. However, Marcus ends his poem on a hopeful note, moving away from a feeling of alienation and towards one of acceptance:

In my life’s journey
I am making myself
At home in my country

Disability and Creativity

In a testament to the body’s power to shape perception, Marcus’ poem reveals precisely how symbiotic the relationship between one’s body and one’s art truly is.

This issue is one that the author Nancy Mairs, who often writes about how multiple sclerosis (MS) has affected her body and her writing, describes perfectly in her essay, “Carnal Acts.”

Discussing a time when she was asked to speak at a small liberal-arts college regarding how she copes with MS and how this disability has helped her discover her voice as a writer, Mairs writes:

How can I yoke two such disparate subjects into a coherent presentation, without doing violence to one or the other, or both, or myself? […] To ask how I cope with multiple sclerosis suggests that I do cope. Now, ‘To cope,’ Webster’s Third tells me, is ‘to face or encounter and to find necessary expedients to overcome problems and difficulties.’

Mairs’ difficulty with this word, which assumes that disabilities are a problem that can be easily and expediently overcome, is a prime example of Marcus’ argument that disabled people live in an entirely different world than the able-bodied. Yet, rather than seeing her disability as an obstacle she must conquer to succeed, Mairs asserts that her disability and creativity are inexplicably tied together.

As for ‘finding’ my voice, the implication is that it was at one time lost or missing. But I don’t think it ever was,” she writes. “Forced by the exigencies of physical disease to embrace myself in the flesh, I couldn’t write bodiless prose. The voice is the creature of the body that produces it. I speak as a crippled woman. No body, no voice: no voice, no body.

With a life so deeply influenced by disability, the visceral power of Mairs’ prose can only come from the voice she describes here. She finishes this section with a clever nod to the connection between her MS and her writing, explaining that this voice is something she knows all the way down to her “bones.”


Disability and the Able-Bodied Gaze

Disabled people see their disabilities reflected in the eyes and body language of able-bodied people every day. In Dr. Temple Grandin’s book, Different Not Less, she explains this feeling in the following way:

In coping with illness, my struggles with disability ran the gamut of things I was born exposed to along with things I came into contact with later in life. I experienced feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, worthlessness, and inferiority, anger, and sadness in the process of overcoming and working towards living a life beyond illness disability.

The desire to escape the stigma of disability is a common theme among disabled authors, as seen in the works of poets Stuart Sanderson and Linda Cronin. In Sanderson’s poem, “Maddening,” for example, he addresses an able-bodied female character on the beach:

Why can’t you see me?

I see you, in your bikini,

My eyes touching your sexy body.

Look at me! Look at me!

To you, my wheelchair is my body.

And your bodyfriend is made of muscles and oil.

I don’t mind, I understand.

But once, I would like your eyes to touch my body.
The dual desire for and avoidance of the able-bodied gaze also appears in Cronin’s “Flash Essay On: Beauty and the Beholder,” in which the poet muses about a “Spanish Romeo” who tells her name means “pretty” but refuses to look directly at her:

I want to reassure him, to say it’s all right. I have learned to accept this body that betrayed me, that continues to betray me each time another part fails. I want to tell him not to worry there is more to life than being pretty, being desired. I know the thoughts of touching my deformed joints repels him, but that’s alright because I have come to love who I am, with my curves and bends in unexpected places.

I want him to know my body is not my prison, my soul soars through life free as an águila finding more love and beauty in the faces of strangers and the eyes of loved ones than he’ll every know. (iii)

Here Cronin, like Sanderson, shows the barriers that disabled people face while, at the same time, revealing the qualities—like love, desire, sexuality—that connect human beings in a more profound and deeply spiritual way. For both authors, the true disability is this lack of connection between the authors and their abled-bodied counterparts.
Fred Rogers discusses this idea in his book, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. He says:

What of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.


Writing the Disabled Narrative

James Baldwin famously wrote,Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” As these writers and authors all across the world tangle with what disability means, and as more readers face the true reality of disability, the perception of these topics will continue to change.

Anais Nin once wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” The most important thing authors can do now is to share their own stories of how disability, whether temporary or permanent, has made a significant impact on their lives or the lives of others. For further inspiration, consider the writing prompts below.

Writing Prompts

  • Everyone has felt on the short end of the beauty/sexual attractiveness spectrum at one time or another. Write about one of your experiences. How fair is it that one’s physical appearance is the gatekeeper to deeper relationships? Has there been a time you felt this was true?
  • Regardless of whether or not you identify yourself as disabled, what do you call ugly beauty? Write about liking your body and minding the pain and limitations.
  • Write about your realities, resilience, confidence, vulnerabilities, and limitless possibilities. How do you embrace a strengths perspective, focusing on what is right, rather than on what is wrong?
  • Write about something you can’t feel or talk about—invisible disabilities like depression or anxiety.
  • What effect does disability have on your body?
  • Do you identify with having a disability or being differently abled? Write about how a congenital, developmental, physical, emotional, learning, injury, accidental, or illness-related disability has challenged you. In what ways did you reach beyond your limitations?
  • How has disability impacted your aging? Write about exploring bodily experiences or the will to survive and transcend the physical. Write a poem that expresses your life experience from the inside out, giving the reader a little window into what it is like to be you and differently able.
  • Write about the experience of starting to think or see disability in a new way.

Mairs, N. (1990). Carnal Acts: Essays. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 81-96.

Northern, M. ( n.d.) Ten Poems to Kickstart Your Disability Lit Class. Retrieved March 13, 2014 from

Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry TherapyStudies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental HealthWomen on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful WomenStatement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.