Warning: I’ll be talking about history today, so I use a few instances of gendered language. Skip to the end for regularly scheduled gender-inclusive programming.
Popping the cherry, losing the “V” card, going all the way, rounding home-plate. Endless terms for the same antiquated social construction: virginity and the loss thereof. The English “virgin” has its etymological root in the Latin “virgo” and Old French “virgine”, which referred to post-pubescent, childless women regardless of sexual experience or marital status.
Only after the rise of Mariology and its associated veneration of virginity did the word come to be a descriptor of sexual inexperience. Mariology, especially popular in Roman Catholicism, involves intense devotion to the Virgin Mary as the perfect sinless woman. This pseudo-divine status influenced the rise of chivalry in the Middle Ages, as femininity became an object of devotion rather than denigration. Mariology meant that sexual purity and virginity became part of the Catholic ideal, expected and revered in earthly and divine females alike. Codification of virginity in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament ensured religious justification for sexual purity for the duration of Judaism and Christianity.
Religion, as is often the case, was only a single piece of the sociopolitical puzzle that cemented virginity in our collective consciousness. Virginity made sense in a world before DNA or paternity tests when, among the lower classes, a father could often barely afford to care for his biological offspring, let alone any illegitimate children his wife might bear. In the aristocracy too, inheritance laws passed wealth and titles from father to son, creating an obsession with true parentage. Virginity, vigilance and constant impregnation ensured that wives never had the opportunity to produce heirs to anyone but their husbands. This protected the economic and social interests of the patriarch, the only social body with any real value at this time in Western Europe. Predictably, science and medicine soon caught up with the religious and cultural norms of the time, developing “virginity tests” and pathologizing the stigma of sexual impurity.
The hymen, a thin membrane that covers some people’s vaginas, consumed the focus of most scientific methods of determining virginity. Midwives, and occasionally religious women or female relatives, inspected the genitals of a young bride to ascertain the presence or absence of the hymen. Far from being an accurate indicator of sexual experience, the thin membranes can be broken by strenuous activity, including, most relevant for the Middle Ages, horseback riding. Not to mention the fact that today at least four different types of membrane shapes have been identified and some people are simply born without hymens altogether. Apart from a physical examination, proof of the presence (and subsequent penetration) of the hymen would be evidenced in the bleeding of the bride after consummation of the marriage on her wedding night. Katherine of Aragon, the famed first bride of King Henry VIII, is said to have kept her bloody honeymoon sheets and produced them as proof of her virginity during the notorious annulment case. More fable-based tests for virginity included: directing the bride to drink large amounts of water and challenging her to hold her urine as proof of purity, pouring water into the cupped hands of the bride and proclaiming virginity if no leaks appeared and displaying the ability to tame animals, specifically bees.
How foolish, you might be thinking, we’ve come such a long way since then. Au contraire mon frère. You can walk down to your local cosmetic surgeon’s office and pay a mere few thousand dollars to undergo hymenoplasty, which will create or reconstruct a hymen over the opening of the vagina. Three procedural options include: resuturing of a previously torn hymen, the application of an artificial membrane that can be outfitted with a gel capsule of “blood” for greater dramatic effect and, finally, the creation of a “natural” hymen from skin taken from the internal vaginal walls. Ouch! I couldn’t find numbers for the popularity of this procedure, but it’s telling enough that most gynecological cosmetic surgeons perform this procedure if asked. Surely this is a fluke, cosmetic surgery is a bit of a niche interest anyway. Right?
Wrong. The United States funnelled over a billion dollars into abstinence-only sex education programs between 1996 and 2010. Many Macalester students, myself included, who attended US public schools for sex education grew up learning about the importance of maintaining virginity until marriage. A portion of these federal funds went to the uniquely horrifying Purity Balls, introduced in Colorado Springs in 1998. Purity Balls involve girls as young as four pledging their virginity to their fathers until marriage, in a ceremony that is exactly as incestuous as you would imagine. Fathers are encouraged to comment often and directly on the physical attractiveness of their daughters, believing that this constant confirmation of their beauty will prevent them from seeking male affirmation in the arms of a lover. If you have a spare moment, I highly recommend searching images from these Purity Balls, where fathers and daughters pose like intimate prom dates with matching rings and formal wear. Not exactly mainstream, but it’s evidence of the continuing obsession with virginity.
Need more proof? Think about the narrative of virginity loss in high school and even college. How do we view people who are abstaining from sex until marriage? How do we view people who began having consensual sex in middle school? At what point do people cross from prude to slut? Why do we continue to perpetuate the misogynistic narratives of virginity? The short answer, as you might expect: history.
Questions? Comments? Insults? Email me at [email protected], but remember that it won’t be anonymous.