Miley Cyrus is no stranger to controversy, which must make for tremendous practice, since her Instagram page right now is flooded with thousands of commenters debating a recent post she made that reads, in all caps, “Virginity is a social construct.”
The images — there are two — are screenshots from Cyrus’s latest music video, for the song “Mother’s Daughter.” The video was released on July 2 and features Cyrus in a red latex suit that clings so close to her body it looks like paint, or even better, Britney Spears in her iconic 2000 video for “Oops! ... I Did It Again.”
One of the screenshots — which some people have interpreted as a stitched up heart, but is actually a cropped shot of Miley’s latex crotch protected by spikes (teeth?), evoking that 2007 film about a vagina that bites back — has racked up almost a million “likes,” and inevitably, piles of commenters are airing out their passionate agreement and/or passionate disagreement.
“Cyrus, you are too smart [to] put out something [this] dumb. You have a responsibility towards the youth of today, for God’s sake,” one comment reads.
“Virginity is important and precious, [don’t just] throw it away at the first chance you get,” reads another. And another: “Just an excuse to be promiscuous,” sits just underneath an accusation that virginity is biologically constructed.
Conversely, many of her fans are agreeing: “The fact that the term is immediately applied to women and no one’s talking about male virginity proves this point,” says one commenter.
“Yes, and … virginity is a social construct designed by women to belittle and enslave women,” says another.
The debate around virginity often plays out in real-life conversations similarly to how it’s playing out in Cyrus’s Instagram comments.
Some people vehemently argue that virginity is biological, conferred to women naturally by an unbroken hymen. Hence the pop/cherry phrase. (This is a myth, since the hymen can be broken in any number of nonsexual circumstances). Almost all major religions have some moral codification about sex, most of which associate virginity with purity and non-virginity with impurity.
Another perspective, not necessarily religious, holds that virginity is a thing for everyone, that it’s something you lose after the first time that you have sex, but that you should maybe try to hold onto so you can give it to someone you truly care about. (This, again, tends to have some relationship with morality.)
The other side of the debate argues the entire concept of virginity is a sham — that people don’t “lose” anything when they have sex, but rather that virginity is an idea invented to control women’s bodies and prevent them from having sex.
This perspective, commonly rooted in feminist ideology, typically aims to make room for sex positivity — if we stop linking virginity with moral value, then women are freer to have sex and be open about it. The idea is that the pressure of virginity stifles the freedom to express sexual desire, which is a completely normal thing to have, and that while men are often rewarded for having sex, women are, contrarily, shamed. Sex positivity would regard sexuality not as connoting worth, but as a fundamentally healthy and pleasurable thing.
“Sex” and “virginity,” of course, are defined differently depending on who you ask, and the ongoing conversation about how virginity figures in our culture hasn’t gone unstudied in scholarship, literature or film.
Similarly discussed as virginity are the myriad ways governments have exposed their interests in controlling women’s bodies at the state level. It’s difficult to read the news without coming across headlines about U.S. states passing abortion bans or Planned Parenthood clinics being attacked (violently, in real-life, or in upcoming movies like “Unplanned”).
For whatever reason — the reason is patriarchy — women’s bodies have historically been a popular site for raging political discussion (hence the whole “political battleground” thing), most often in rooms where, obviously, women are not allowed to access.
Enter Miley on Instagram.
In more recent years, Miley has been much more open about her opinions and her personal life.
In an interview with ELLE Magazine, released Thursday, she discussed the role her queerness plays in her marriage to Liam Hemsworth.
She’s openly talked about how she feels about Donald Trump, and she raked in criticism from anti-choice advocates last month when she posted a photo in support of abortion (The image was Cyrus licking a cake that spelled out, in its frosting, “Abortion is healthcare.”).
Cyrus is using her platform to speak out about the issues that matter to her, and that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.