This study grew out of the authors’ experience as science education teachers. Between us, we have taught sexuality education in its broadest sense to primary and secondary school students. Our collective experience and previous research stress the need for the dominating anatomical and reproductive health approach to allow discussion from a broader range of teaching perspectives (Fields Citation2008; Svendsen Citation2017). This view is also supported by the conversations about vaginas that took place in two upper secondary school classes participating in our study. Consequently, virginity – linked to anatomy – was chosen as the topic for investigation. The Baradian framework of agential realism was used in the analysis of student conversations. This theoretical perspective turned out to be particularly useful in showing how space, time and matter intra-actively enact phenomena such as, virginity, sexuality and sexuality education (cf. Allen Citation2018). Hence, in this study oskuld, which in Swedish also means being without guilt, is intrinsically linked to material, spatial and temporal notions of the virginal vagina, a finding which carries implications for how natural science sexuality education comes into being.
Swedish sexuality education
Swedish sexuality education, mandatory since 1955, has never been a subject with its own syllabus, and has mostly been taught by biology teachers. The knowledge area is, therefore, often secular and grounded in natural science (Bredström, Bolander, and Bengtsson Citation2018). However, nowadays it adopts a broader perspective and is engaged within subjects such as Civics, Religion, History, Physical Education and Art (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2013b, Citation2013c, Citation2014). Benchmarks for sexuality education can also be found in Swedish schools’ core values of human rights and gender equality (Swedish Schools Inspectorate Citation2018). International research has repeatedly stressed the need for education to address gender inequities, but has at the same time demonstrated that doing so often reinforces difference (Albert Citation2019; Fields Citation2008; Fine Citation1988). To exemplify how gender differences are often actively constructed it may be helpful to refer to a study of Swedish biology education (Orlander Arvola, Todd, and Wickman Citation2015). In this study, notions of femininity and masculinity were explored through student role plays. The staging mostly promoted stereotypical gender images, but also showed how school can be an important settings for creating opportunities for reimaging and reconstructing gender.
In recent times, a norm-critical pedagogy has been included in regulatory guidelines for sexuality education1 (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2013b, Citation2013c, Citation2014). Norm-critical pedagogy adopts an intersectional approach and aims to challenge exclusions and inequality by identifying and questioning power structures and norms (Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Bredström, Bolander, and Bengtsson Citation2018; Bromseth and Sörensdotter Citation2014). Education which aims to critique gender stereotypes and norms and include LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) perspectives, has also been promoted internationally (Fields Citation2008; Jones Citation2019; UNESCO Citation2016). Nevertheless, putting such pedagogy into practice is not an easy task (Fridolfsson et al. Citation2019; Lenz Taguchi Citation2011) and Swedish norm-critical sexuality education has been criticised for emphasising certain sexual values as more desirable than others, for example, sex-positive and pleasure-oriented values (Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Bredström, Bolander, and Bengtsson Citation2018). An in-depth focus on norm-critical sexuality education is beyond the scope of this paper. Our focus rather is on new becomings in natural science sexuality education and in particular the way in which virginity is treated within the norm-critical agenda.
The current situation for sexuality education in Sweden is one in which many teachers consider themselves out of touch with recent social trends and feel uncomfortable teaching this field of knowledge (Swedish Schools Inspectorate Citation2018). Nevertheless, in a 2017 national survey on sexuality and health, fully half of Swedish 16–29 year-olds rated their sexuality education as sufficient, although they expressed the desire for more education about gender identities and norms, relationships and LGBT perspectives (Public Health Agency of Sweden Citation2017). The national review and survey indicate that research on how best to engage with recent social trends, gender equality and social norms should be a priority. Consequently, classroom studies of new becomings in sexuality education are needed (Fields Citation2008; Ketting and Ivanova Citation2018). This study thereby contributes to the existing body of sexuality education research via an in situ exploration of oskuld, a opic closely tied to traditional educational ideas about anatomy but also the policy focus on norms and gender.
Sexuality education in plural societies
Engaging students in discussion about sex and relationships is demanding (Senior and Chenhall Citation2017), with the task further complicated by the intersection between sexuality education with religiosity and secularism (Albert Citation2019; Rasmussen Citation2017; Rasmussen, Burke, and Greteman Citation2022). All the major religions of the world have engaged with the topic of sexuality, thereby influencing contemporary norms of sexuality through expectations of abstinence and male and female sexuality. Discussion of human sexuality has, in many contexts, also served as a tool to aggravate relations beyond the in-group, by picturing ‘the other’ as sexually deviant (Geels and Roos Citation2010). The same views can be found in sexuality education where particular beliefs and positions are overgeneralised as constituting ‘the religious’ view (Shipley Citation2017), when in reality religious views differ. These views are also reflected in history where notions of a superior European sexual culture, despite major social change, have been sustained (Svendsen Citation2017). Returning to the topic of our study, oskuld, Sweden has, since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, adopted a relatively open approach to young people’s sexuality. Abstinence-only-until-marriage is mostly characteristic of Swedish adolescents with an immigrant background and young persons belonging to Free Church communities (Ghadimi Citation2007). In a US context, however, virginity is instead a white middle-class phenomena reinforced, for example, by so-called chastity pledges (Fields Citation2008). This study, however, aims to complicate these views by showing how the becomings of oskuld – as linked to purity and the virginal vagina – are deeply rooted in Swedish society and thereby necessitate a focus on how sexuality education is enacted.
Nordic sexuality education often reinforces a distinction between disciplinary knowledges. Biology education is often seen as scientific and dealing with objective ‘facts’, while social sciences and ethics education tend to be viewed as more subjective and open-ended (Svendsen Citation2017). This study raises questions about this distinction by enacting their mutual entanglement in the becomings of oskuld. Hence, it is important for students to have the opportunity to reflect on social norms, cultural values and traditional beliefs within science education, because both secular and religious perspectives figure centrally in the production of sexuality education (Rasmussen Citation2017; Rasmussen, Burke, and Greteman Citation2022; Shipley Citation2017; Svendsen Citation2017; UNESCO Citation2018).
Virginity – a cultural and historical product
Virginity is a cultural product personified by Indo-European goddesses and heroines throughout history (Irwin Citation2007; MacLachlan Citation2007). Virgins are often considered magical beings, capable of battling demons and curing sexually transmitted infections (Blank Citation2007). For example, Mary the mother of Christ was assigned the power of virginity and the female leaders Elizabeth I of England and Joan of Arc in France both retained their ‘virginity’ in order to gain personal independence. Accordingly, across varying cultural contexts, virginity is closely tied to power (MacLachlan Citation2007). The Swedish concept oskuld, in this paper translated as ‘virginity’, offers further an example of power in action. The word carries a double connotation and means sexual innocence, but also to be without guilt. The concept originated towards the end of the 18th century, as the linkage between innocence and being bodily untouched was not axiomatic in earlier Swedish history. One could have had sexual intercourse but still be considered ‘innocent’ in relation to the sexual act, by for example, expecting marriage (Lennartsson Citation2009). Such distinctions between physical and spiritual virginity have also been made elsewhere in history (Blank Citation2007).
Nevertheless, across history and cultures, the loss of virginity is most often linked to a penis-in-vagina sexual act, and the notion of a bleeding virginal vagina (Blank Citation2007). Young people often consider their first penetrative sexual encounter a critical moment (Holland et al. Citation2010), and in almost every society it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood (Carpenter Citation2002; MacLachlan Citation2007). The loss of virginity also signals the transformation from sexual innocent to experienced. Experience and reputation, such as being considered promiscuous, are also closely related to gender (Blank Citation2007; Carpenter Citation2001, Citation2002, Citation2011).
Different views on virginity can be illustrated by contrasting the tradition of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) education in the USA (Lashof-Sullivan Citation2015) with Swedish sex-positive and norm-critical ideals (Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Bredström, Bolander, and Bengtsson Citation2018). Although there is considerable support for a progressive and comprehensive approach to sexuality education in the USA, the federal government has, since the early 1980s, disbursed funding for AOUM programmes in schools (Fields Citation2008; Lashof-Sullivan Citation2015). The former Obama administration and the US Congress replaced many of these programmes with funding for evidence-based sex education (Lashof-Sullivan Citation2015). However, the reality may not be as dichotomous as the policies suggest. US based teachers, administrators and students have always have the possibility to read policies according to their own interests (Fields Citation2008; Fine Citation1988). Importantly, the AOUM ideal was abandoned from Swedish educational policy in the 1970s and replaced by a focus on sexual responsibility (Bolander Citation2015; Sandström Citation2001). Sexual responsibility, acquired mainly through education about contraceptive methods, was later supplemented with more pleasure-oriented perspectives (Bäckman Citation2003), which have also been debated in the USA.
Given this brief background on Swedish and US sexuality education, we turn now to the sexual habits and practices of Swedish teenagers. According to a survey conducted by the Public Health Agency of Sweden (Citation2017) the mean age for sexual debut is 16 years. This figure has remained stable around 16–17 for the last 50 years. Since the national survey also include information on sexual debut for non-binary gender persons, we assume that the sexual experiences of respondents include a variety of activities. In this study, however, the upper secondary students link virginity loss to heterosexual and vaginal intercourse. The becomings of the phenomenon of virginity are further explored with the theoretical tools provided by Barad (Citation2007).
Theoretical Framework: sexuality education as a material-discursive practice
Our analysis draws on agential realism, an ethico-onto-epistem-ology developed by the philosopher Karen Barad. Barad’s writing draws on the work of Michel Foucault and Niels Bohr to build a relationship ‘between discursive practices and the material world’ (Barad Citation2007, 24). This theoretical stance challenges the idea of representationalism, a world of independent objects with determinate boundaries and properties, making a shift from the metaphysics of things to the production of phenomena. Phenomena, enacted through material-discursive practices, can further be described as units of reality coming to matter through specific intra-actions (Barad Citation2007).
Intra-action, a neologism used in contrast to interaction, emphasises the relational constitution of agencies. Accordingly, social-scientific, human-nonhuman (matter) and natural-cultural factors are considered equally as they jointly and in intra-action produce the phenomenon of virginity. They thereby become agentic in their relations. Swedish natural science sexuality education may therefore be seen as a material-discursive practice producing the phenomenon of virginity through agentic intra-actions. Baradian (Citation2007) theory also proposes that phenomena come into being through material-discursive intra-actions extending across time and space – a notion we elaborate on in the next section.
Barad’s (Citation2007, 316) work seeks to question metaphysical and Western ideas of space, time and matter as pre-existing entities, and instead sees them as ‘an integral aspect of phenomena’. Accordingly, ‘phenomena are entanglements of spacetimematter’ (Barad Citation2011, 125).
Space is not considered here in terms of fixed geometry as on, for example, a map. Instead, intra-actions enact specific boundaries of space, marking what is included or excluded from mattering. The notion of time as linear is further called into question. Consequently, time and space do not exist outside phenomena (Barad Citation2007). Matter and bodies of humans and nonhumans are also seen as intra-actively produced. They are entanglements and products of the phenomena of which they are part. Bodily boundaries further come into being through ‘specific bodily performance’ repeated over time and in specific places (Barad Citation2007, 155) – as becomes evident in this study.
For further clarification of the concept of spacetimematter we have turned to the work of other feminist scholars. According to Dinshaw (Citation2012) different timeframes have the potential to co-exist. Contemporary notions of virginity can therefore be seen as ‘common meanings’ or norms held for many hundreds of years (MacLachlan Citation2007; Walkerdine Citation2016). As norms also often work as symbols to bind people together (Walkerdine Citation2016), the construction of a bodily virginity can be linked to views on sexuality and sexuality education that differ according to geographical space (Bredström, Bolander, and Bengtsson Citation2018; Fields Citation2008; Geels and Roos Citation2010; Lashof-Sullivan Citation2015). Cathrine Hasse (Citation2020) has, through the use of Barad’s theorising, further stressed the materiality of words. Accordingly, words and concepts, such as virginity, ‘are the time-binding glue’ that enable discourses and materiality to develop together (Hasse Citation2020, 136). This material-conceptual elaboration of Barad’s theoretical framework proved to be important for our study as we investigated student conversations concerning the abstract yet material concept of virginity.
The purpose of this study therefore was to explore Swedish natural science sexuality education as a material-discursive practice with a focus on the various notions of oskuld as spacetimematter relations in two upper secondary classrooms. Accordingly, the key question guiding the exploration was: ‘how is the phenomenon of virginity enacted in student conversations and how might this affect the teaching of sexuality education?’
Field study and data construction
The field study comprised two Science Studies classrooms. Science Studies is a general science subject delivered to Swedish upper secondary students not specialising in science. This interdisciplinary subject, taught by natural science teachers, has the following core content with regard to sexuality education: ‘scientific aspects, reflection on and discussion of norms concerning human sexuality, sexual desire, relationships and sexual health’ (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2012, 9). However, teachers may interpret the syllabus according to the needs and interests of students – which both of the participating teachers in our study did. The two teachers concerned were experienced in teaching and used the aforementioned norm-critical approach. The research project we describe here began as a broader examination of sexuality education in two public upper secondary school classrooms, and only after completion of the study did oskuld became the topic of investigation.
The first context was a class of 30 participating students and covered 18 lessons of sexuality education (approximately 20 hours) over an eight week period. The sexuality education unit was jointly planned and evaluated weekly by the first author and the science teacher. The idea of collaborating in the construction of sexuality education was initiated by the teacher as the first author is also a practitioner. The teacher was responsible for the teaching whereas the first author participated in class by taking field notes. In this first classroom, student conversations about virginity occurred either as a planned activity on the topic ‘the myth of the hymen’, as requested by the students, or spontaneously as students explored the use of sanitary towels, condoms and tampons.
The second context was a teaching unit of 12 lessons distributed over six weeks involving 23 participating students. In contrast to the first classroom, the first author was invited to take part in an already decided upon plan for sexuality education. The unit of sexuality education was thereby designed, implemented and evaluated by the teacher. The first author participated by taking field notes and audio-recording approximately 13 hours of lectures and student work. Throughout the teaching unit, the teacher systematically used gender neutral words and pronouns, such as, prostatabärare (prostate-bearer), livmoderbärare (uterus-bearer), partner and sexuella praktiker (sexual practices). The teaching also included lectures on the hormonal regulation of sperm and ovarian follicle production, the history of sexuality education in Sweden, gender equality, a simulation of the potential spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and an assignment on norms. Students were asked to explore both the natural science and social science aspects of a sexuality norm of their own choice. The assignment required the students to read and write individually, but they often sat in groups discussing their own or other’s work. Students’ choices of norms were formulated as claims like: ‘Women are responsible for protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancies’, ‘Men are supposed to watch porn’ or ‘Women are expected to wear a bra’. Hence, most of the students’ chosen norms related to masculinity, femininity or heteronormativity.
The choice to include two schools in the study was to show that the topic of oskuld was of interest for upper secondary students. However, the two classrooms also provided different methodological and ethical contexts for research participation. Due to ethical constraints, data collection in Classroom 1 was not as comprehensive as in Classroom 2. Activities in the first classroom were documented using fieldnotes (see the following section) whereas several group discussions were audio-recorded simultaneously in the second class. Therefore, four out of five analysed student conversations come from the second classroom.
To intra-act responsibly in sexuality education research
Agential realism is an ethico-onto-epistem-ology that emphasises accountability and responsibility for enacted entanglements (Barad Citation2007). Hence, accountability is taken as ‘what matter and what is excluded from mattering’ (Barad Citation2007, 184). Put differently, we as reserachers, cannot be considered to be outside observers of the world – we are part of it. Through the sorting of enactments of oskuld, the researchers were intra-actively engaged in the production of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, by paying attention to non-living actants within the data humans are, at least slightly, decentred (Allen Citation2018). In this particular study, films, a book, tampons and blood are in focus. The enacted human-nonhuman entanglements, and the use of the concept spacetimemattering, also emphasised the relational variation within the phenomenon.
‘Doing responsible science entails thinking about the connection of scientific practices to other social practices’ (Barad Citation2000, 223). This involves viewing science and society as intra-actively co-constituted and grasping the complex relation between science and culture – of which oskuld is one of many examples.
To further take responsibility for our role in the world’s becomings, students were informed both verbally and in writing about the research project. Swedish ethical regulations allow students older than fifteen years to give consent without the involvement of their legal guardians. Consequently, written consent was provided by all but two students in each class. The students who declined to participate were not audio-recorded nor documented by field notes. Students taking part in the conversations are further neutrally named ‘S’. The neutral naming met the teachers’ request not to collect information in relation to, for example, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity or class. Participating teachers, reflecting their adherence to a norm-critical pedagogy, requested the omission of student identities and made participation conditional upon the researcher’s agreement with this. Although this blinding of student identities can be viewed as problematic and a limitation of the study, our intention was to focus on the becomings of sexuality education within a norm-critical frame (cf. Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Årman Citation2020).
Ethical considerations also align with external expectations. According to European General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), certain data such as racial or ethnic origin, religious or philosophical beliefs, health, and a person’s sex life or sexual orientation are considered sensitive (EU Citation2016/679 2016). Since sexuality education likely touches upon topics related to one’s sex life or sexual orientation, the study protocol was sent to a regional Ethical Review Board for consideration. Permission to audio-record in an upper secondary educational setting was granted after the first data generation was conducted, therefore the first classroom was documented only with field notes.
The production of the phenomenon of virginity
In this study, oskuld comes into being through entangled human and non-human intra-actions. Accordingly, all the classroom practices related to virginity were included in the data. The analysis of transcribed audio-recordings and field notes was further based on the content of the conversations and how students acted in relation to the phenomenon. Since practices/doings/actions (Barad Citation2014) are central to the theory, the sorting was framed as a set of questions which students, through conversations and actions, sought to answer. They included: can virginity be experienced bodily; when, where and why does virginity become important; and whose virginity becomes important? The becomings of the phenomenon were later exemplified by five specific enactments and an in-depth exploration of each of these. The close use of spacetimematter helped visualise how different material and discursive elements – such as anatomy of the vagina, Swedish educational policy and media representations – in intra-activity with time and space produced the phenomenon of virginity.
Can virginity be experienced bodily?
This first enactment of oskuld was exemplified by student conversations in both classes participating in the study. In the first classroom, students had requested an exploration of the myth of the hymen. The teacher therefore created several educational possibilities for conversations about virginity in relation to culture, religion and secularism. The topic was introduced by the film, ‘The myth of the hymen’ (Ekelund Citation2011), followed by student discussion in smaller groups and an inquiry into the use of tampons, sanitary towels and condoms. In the first student conversation, documented by field notes, a student was standing in front of the materials available in the laboratory. The student, struggling to open the plastic wrapping of a tampon, called out, ‘I have never used a tampon [laughs a little]!’ and another student came across to help.
In another corner of the classroom, a group of students were lowering different sized tampons into beakers of water. The excited students were all talking at once:
Oh my God! Is this what happens inside? It basically … [gesturing ‘expansion’]. There’s no way I’m going to use this! Really, why does it have to get that thick? I don’t get it. It weighs, like, three tons. You can’t just walk around carrying that thing, it’s bound to slide down. What if the string breaks? What if it breaks when you pull it? This is fun actually! I like it!
After the inquiries, a lesson followed which involved writing individual laboratory reports. The teacher, circulating among the working students, was soon called for by a student reflecting on religious and cultural opinions about tampon use. The students mother thought that the virginal vagina consist ‘not of a membrane but a crack’ and thereby considered tampon use inappropriate. The teacher encouraged the student to write down their thoughts and experiences in the laboratory report.
The inquiries make it clear that not all of the students were closely acquainted with the use of tampons, which is presupposed and advocated by Swedish sexuality education. On the contrary, the conversations reveal historical-religious-cultural beliefs about tampon use as demonstrated, for example, by the student who called out, ‘I have never used a tampon!’ and laughed. Several other intra-actions were also made visible, for example, by the student referring to the parental notion of the hymen being ‘not a membrane but a crack’ in the virginal vagina. This statement may be viewed as a cultural-secular-religious entanglement in which the existence of a hymen is simultaneously acknowledged and questioned. Even though the non-existence of a membrane was acknowledged by the parent, the notion of a ‘crack’ still made tampon use inappropriate. The tampon-water-beaker relationality further explicated false biases about tampons, such as that ‘the string breaks’ or the tampon ‘slides down’. False biases such as these are likely to have been produced in a time and space where one is not encouraged or supposed to use tampons. Interestingly, all the conversations lacked natural scientific reasoning despite the teacher’s previous lecture on the anatomy of sex organs. Each thereby illustrates the co-existence of, and clashes between, a contemporary, secular and rather liberal Swedish sexuality education and timeframes and spaces advocating other notions of sexuality. However, inquiries offered the students opportunities to encounter their own ideas about tampon use, and may therefore hold implications for future learning about the anatomy of the vagina.
Yet another student conversation came from the second classroom. The conversation occurred spontaneously as one of the students was exploring norms about virginity. In it, vaginal virginity was of particular interest:
S1: It’s kind of the norm that the guys think it feels better, or it’s their …
S2: It’s supposed to feel better anyway!
S1: … what do you call it?
S1: … yeah, it’s kind of their reason for why they’d rather have sex with a virgin, that it’s better.
S2: It might feel better if they have this idea that it’s a cool thing also.
S3: There might be something in it, that because it’s tighter, or whatever you say, so there’s more …
S3: … friction, more movement and as a result more stimulation. It’s possible that there’s some truth in that but …
S1: Still, it’s an open question if it’s really like that.
S3: … I don’t believe there’s such a big …
S1: After the first time, or after giving birth, it’s not like you get this [laughter] big.
S3: … no, how big is the difference really?
In this conversation, virginity comes into being as a physiological and gendered entity in which the virginal vagina is considered to be ‘tight’. The virginal vagina is further explored in entanglement with a penetration norm illustrated through the words ‘friction’ and ‘stimulation’. Although the students try to formulate natural science explanations about the topic, it is apparent that students have a limited understanding of physiological explanations concerning the vagina. The concepts ‘friction’ and ‘stimulation’ do for example overshadow discussion concerning the functioning of the vagina. However, as the conversation continues the students’ previous notions are challenged. The virginal vagina is, for example, depicted via the image of the ‘tight’ virginal vagina feeling ‘better’ for the penetrating partner, who would experience the sensation as ‘cool’. The preconception of a vagina being ‘big’ after the first penetrative sexual encounter or after giving birth to a child is also questioned. Although the conversation neither touches upon the flexibility of the muscles and mucous membrane enfolding the vagina nor the concept of the vaginal corona, physiological explanations provide an opportunity to challenge notions of virginity.
From our analysis, students’ conversations and actions clearly connected oskuld to the materiality of the vagina and produced questions as to whether virginity can be experienced bodily?
When and where does virginity become important?
The next conversation derives from the second classroom and the students’ work on individual assignments. The conversation engages with notions of virginity as enacted in films and books:
S3: But I think you see this a lot in movies, that virginity is a big deal …
S3: … like, you need a virgin for this chant or that potion.
S1: There are rituals, like, sacrificing thirty virgins! [laughter]
S2: Yes, exactly.
S3: There’s this book actually. There’s a book called ‘The Virgin Suicides’. It’s really good! There’s this guy who likes a girl, but when he has had sex with her, he thinks she’s kind of disgusting. So he’s done with her, he’s just leaving her …
S1: Yes, because he’s done his part?
S3: Exactly! However, she was not a virgin, but I don’t know if he knew.
In the first part of the student conversation, virginity is enacted as a cinematic phenomenon, for example, as part of an incantation or magic potion in which female virgins are sacrificed for a greater purpose. Mystique and special powers have long surrounded female virginity, a matter which according to the conversation, still exists, at least in films.
In the second part of the conversation, virginity is not only enacted as a temporal but also a spatial phenomena. The book referred to, The Virgin Suicides (Eugenides Citation1993), illustrates a divergence between US abstinence-only-until-marriage ideal portrayals in the book and students’ own sex-positive and norm-critical Swedish approach. In the USA, sexuality education based on AOUM programmes is still practised within a largely decentralised school system, even though many local programmes has received funding for comprehensive and evidence-based sex education. However, although the AOUM ideal and sex-positive sexuality education differ they are still entangled – and the book’s and films’ stories are present in the Swedish classroom.
According to our analysis on the student conversation on the book and films, time and space intra-activly produced the phenomenon of virginity and enacted questions concerning when and where does virginity become important?
Whose virginity becomes important?
In this student conversation, which also came from the second classroom, the value of female virginity is discussed. Compared to the earlier enactments of oskuld, the students are not referring to any specific materials but are talking in general terms:
S4: Why is a woman’s virginity seen as something so precious but a man’s isn’t important to preserve in the same way?
S5: Yeah, like, why is there such great value in a woman’s …
S6: Yes, that’s good! [referring to the question] I’m taking notes!
S5: … virginity? Yes.
S4: Or, like, it should be this way or that …
S7: Yes, why it’s valued?
S4: … while a man’s isn’t something anyone cares about.
S6: How would you write it? Why … ?
S7: Why is a woman’s virginity considered precious? Or why is it valued differently, more … than a man’s?
S4: Yes, differently than a man’s. That’s one way to put it.
S6: It’s actually really…
S5: It’s bloody interesting!
In this conversation, female and male virginity are compared, for example, via the phrase ‘why is a woman’s virginity seen as something so precious but a man’s isn’t important to preserve in the same way?’. Here, the students question the historical, contemporary and worldwide privileging of female virginity. Since the students found the comparison ‘bloody interesting’, they also showed an interest in teaching to challenge stereotypical notions of gender. The comparison was probably made possible by Swedish schools’ commitment to gender equality, as stated in the core values of education. A norm-critical stance further gave both teacher and students permission to address and problematise the construction of gender norms in a more systematic way.
From our analysis, the value of female virginity was enacted in the student conversation. Even though stereotypical notions of male and female virginity came into being, they were also disrupted by the question whose virginity becomes important?
Why and when does virginity become important and can virginity be experienced bodily?
The final student conversation we look at also came from the second classroom. This time the students were discussing the myth of the hymen:
S1: This thing about the hymen and that you should bleed the first time. It’s a myth really. But it’s like this, for example, that you as a female may be doubted by your husband. No, but hold on a second! Yes, she might be doubted by her husband, her family, or society in general if she doesn’t bleed on her wedding night. Because people believe it’s the way things are and all.
S3: Have you had sex already? [laughter]
S2: No, but she was turned on enough though!
S2: That’s what it … like, this is the way it’s supposed to be.
S1: That’s what it says here, like, this is the way it is. […] Yes, but the reason for bleeding, it’s because you aren’t…
S2: Sufficiently … Yes, precisely … You are not excited enough! [the last sentence is said in English]
In this conversation, the students enact virginity with reference to the bleeding virginal vagina – an image which is the very materialisation of the kind of norm that restricts female sexuality. The conversation further links first sexual intercourse to the wedding night although bleeding is supposed to occur at any first penetrative sexual intercourse. However, the phrase ‘No, but she was turned on enough though!’ implies a resistance to the notion of a bleeding virginal vagina. Here, to be ‘excited enough’ is understood as sexual arousal that causes vaginal lubrication, scientific explanations challenging the assumption of bleeding as a symbol of the virginal vagina.
The second restriction – being ‘doubted by her husband, her family, or society in general’ – exemplifies power relations, norms and ‘common meanings’ which have been held, worldwide, for thousands of years. Since the notion of a virginal vagina derives from a rich variety of historical-cultural-religious sources, this conversation shows how the secular and natural science Swedish sexuality education is embedded in both a historically Christian but also a contemporary multicultural society. To move beyond restrictive notions of virginity, these contexts and perspectives need to be addressed.
According to our analysis, this student conversation enacts blood as the very restriction of female sexuality. Since the notion of a bleeding virginal vagina has persisted through time and space, it raises questions as to why and when does virginity become important, and can virginity be experienced bodily? All enactments and their possible consequences for sexuality education are discussed below.
Teachers’ ability to adjust their teaching to the interests of their students facilitated the rich discussions which provided the data for this study. Unfolding in several directions, the conversations at first seemed too expansive to draw conclusions from. Yet, five enactments of oskuld came into being, indicating the need to address this phenomenon from a broad range of teaching perspectives.
According to scholars, notions of masculinity and femininity are actively constructed in education (Fields Citation2008; Fine Citation1988; Orlander Arvola, Todd, and Wickman Citation2015). Our study is no exception in this respect. Even though gender equality, sexual responsibility, sex-positivism and pleasure have been present in Sweden’s educational policies for a long time (Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Bolander Citation2015; Bäckman Citation2003; Sandström Citation2001) gendered notions of virginity still seem deeply rooted in Swedish society and therefore need to be explicitly addressed as part of sexuality education. Gendered assumptions may, for example, be challenged by a comparison between male and female virginity, likely triggered in this study by the influence of the teachers’ norm-critical approach to teaching and/or Swedish schools’ long-standing work on gender equality (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2013a).
This study further showed that space, time and matter together intra-actively produce the phenomenon of oskuld. Accordingly, cultural notions of the virginal vagina can be challenged by anatomical explanations, and vice versa. In this study, anatomical explanations offered students’ the opportunity to push back against cultural-religious-historical notions of virginity that restrict female sexuality. Cultural-religious-historical notions, in turn, made students to reflect on their anatomical knowledge of the vagina. While natural science sexuality education ought quite rightly to cover the physiological and physical aspects of sexuality, there is a need to include far more than purely biological perspectives (Rasmussen Citation2017; Svendsen Citation2017; UNESCO Citation2018). Findings from this study show how secular-cultural-historical-religious explanations intra-act in the production of phenomena, such as oskuld. Accordingly, this matter needs to be considered in the becomings of (natural science) sexuality education. Participating teachers’ commitment to blurring the boundaries of social-scientific and natural-cultural factors can further be an inspiration for how natural science sexuality education can facilitate conversations and knowledge production on norms, values and traditions. A consideration of how virginity came into being in this study – when, where and why does virginity become important, whose virginity becomes important, and can virginity be experienced bodily? – can further serve as a help in the construction of education on the topic.
In conclusion, the teaching activities described provided students with the opportunity to encounter, and sometimes overcome, pre-conceived notions about virginity. The activities undertaken were result of teachers’ ability to adapt their teaching to the students’ own questions and requests. Our analysis demonstrates the need for natural science education to be taught in relation to society (Barad Citation2000) as students experience it. Moreover, the theoretical framework provided by agential realism turned out to be particularly useful in showing sexuality education to be a material-discursive practice, a finding which can be more widely used by other scholars within the field (Allen Citation2018). This study also meets the need for more empirically based classroom studies (Ketting and Ivanova Citation2018) of the educational possibilities for facilitating and challenging re-productions of a broad range of sexuality norms, not only those related to virginity (Orlander Arvola, Todd, and Wickman Citation2015).