What is virginity?
It is a physical state, right? A clear line as yet uncrossed. A "before" condition that can be "lost" accidentally, "given" intentionally, or "taken" from an unwilling victim. A status applicable equally to deserving men or women, boys or girls.
Glad you asked! Science can give us no true medical definition of virginity. It's actually quite an imprecise concept, carrying many different meanings in different times and different places. (One medieval philosopher distinguished between four different kinds of virgins.) Virginity is difficult to specify and impossible to prove, not that that keeps people from attempting it! And it is revealing that no one ever suggests that males be tested for, or offer proofs of, their virgin status. Because virginity has historically been almost exclusively a female characteristic.
Over the centuries, there was a lot of talk about hymens, (especially after they were identified by anatomist Hilkiah Crooke in the 17th century) but this tissue at the base of the vagina is not consistent enough to use as proof of anything. The tissue currently known as the hymen imperceptibly changes shape on its own as a girl develops, it doesn't always bleed when stretched, it often expands the vaginal opening on its own before a girl's first penetrative intercourse, and contrary to popular belief it neither "pops" nor "breaks". Hymens vary in shape (physicians identify five primary shapes), thickness, durability, flexibility, and resilience. To promote a more accurate view of the function of the hymen, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education has renamed this body part the "vaginal corona".
Men evidently liked connecting the hymen to lack of sexual experience because it played into the women-as-chattel concept, and it excused rough first-time sex. According to Deuteronomy, blood-stained wedding night linens could save a woman's life in ancient Israel. If her parents could not produce these tokens of her sexual "purity" (essential for the pedigree of her offspring), she could legally be stoned to death by the men of her city. Dr. Iman Bibars, working from Cairo, Egypt to empower all voiceless women, knows how deeply these cultural patterns affect today's values, "The honor of the family and of the men are in between the legs of the woman."
Women have suffered so much physical and psychological pain on account of this part of their bodies invisible to themselves that some resort to expensive and invasive hymenorrhaphy surgeries to rebuild "breakable" hymens that will ensure "virginal" blood on the sheets. They use birth control pills to coordinate menstruation with honeymoon sexual activity, or invest in discreet fake virginity kits. Others declare themselves "born-again virgins", as good as new.
Jessica Valenti writes in her excellent book, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women:
"I've become convinced that virginity is a sham being perpetrated against women…"
"[W]hen I argue for an end to the idea of virginity, it's because I believe sexual intimacy should be honored and respected, but that it shouldn't be revered at the expense of women’s well-being, or seen as such an integral part of female identity that we end up defining ourselves by our sexuality."
As a young woman, much of my value was framed by my sexual in-experience. Sheltering—often to the point of isolation—was needed to maintain my "purity" (hymen? vaginal corona?) intact. This high value on sexual naivete motivated the bans on kissing, on dating, on wearing swimsuits or slacks, on walking unaccompanied down our straight two-lane country road to the stop sign visible from our mailbox.
When I was a young woman of twenty, my dad bought a round-trip ticket to unexpectedly accompany me on my connecting flight from O'Hare Airport so that I would not go rebelliously astray on a trip home from Oklahoma City. At the time I was more than mystified. I was being stalked by my own father to prevent me from going where, with whom? I had the uneasy feeling that the whole situation was somehow related to my sexuality, which I already sought to repress as much as possible.
The perceived state of my vagina supposedly increased my value to God, to my family, and to potential mates. I have been to weddings where the bride's father bragged publicly that (as far as he knew) she was a virgin while the guests sat uncomfortably, trying to focus their thoughts on the floral arrangements, the church pews, or anything but the girl's genitalia. The groom's parents never commented on the experience of their son's penis.
Again, Jessica Valenti:
"Present-day American society—whether through pop culture, religion, or institutions—conflates sexuality and morality constantly. Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters—not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for. Just if/how/whom we have sex with. That’s all."
It is time to abolish the virginity concept. As Emily Maynard put it in her article "The Day I Turned in my V-Card", I'm done enforcing oppression in the name of purity.
Characterizing a woman (making a judgment of her moral character) as a virgin or an ex-virgin tells us nothing and too much at the same time. This sexual "status" doesn't tell us if a girl feels safe and respected or is being coerced and abused. It doesn't tell us if she understands how her body works or what makes her feel good. It doesn't tell us if she can identify healthy relationships, if she knows how to say no. It does not tell us if she is strong or weak. It tells only that someone is concerned with what has been in her vagina and when.
Once upon a time, not many decades ago, a pregnant woman could not teach school once she began to "show". Here in America's Heartland, even as a married woman there was shame in being exposed as a sexual being. Let's walk away from shaming women for their sexuality.
Let's discuss responsibility. Let's shine a light on abuse.
Let's teach young men about respect and consent. Let's teach young women about their right to choose boundaries that are healthy for them.
And let's stop determining the quality of a woman's heart and mind by the experience of her vagina.
For more reading:
- Virgin: The Untouched History—non-fiction by Hanne Blank
- The Abstinence Teacher—a novel about Christianity and American sexuality, by Tom Perrotta
- Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex—a feminist history of the sexual revolution by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs
- Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls—a therapist describes the pressure girls are under to be sexy but not sexual, by Mary Pipher