Why has an indefinable state of being commanded the attention and fascination of the human race since the dawn of time? In Virgin, Hanne Blank brings us a revolutionary, rich and entertaining survey of an astonishing untouched history.
From the simple task of determining what constitutes its loss to why it matters to us in the first place, Blank gets to the heart of why we even care about it in the first place. She tackles the reality of what we do and don't know about virginity and provides a sweeping tour of virgins in history—from virgin martyrs to Queen Elizabeth to billboards in downtown Baltimore telling young women it's not a "dirty word." Virgin proves, as well, how utterly contemporary the topic is—the butt of innumerable jokes, center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography, and nucleus around which the world's most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy. In this fascinating work, Hanne Blank shows for the first time why this is, and why everything we think we know about virginity is wrong.
About the Author
Hanne Blank is a writer, historian, and public speaker whose work has been featured everywhere from OUT to Penthouse. An independent scholar, she has served in faculty positions at several colleges and universities, most recently as the 2004–2005 scholar of the Institute for Teaching and Research on Women at Towson University, Maryland.
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VirginThe Untouched History
By Hanne Blank
BloomsburyCopyright © 2007 Hanne Blank
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLike a Virgin?
It is easy enough to be certain. One has only to be sufficiently vague. -Charles Sanders Peirce
By any material reckoning, virginity does not exist. It can't be weighed on a scale, sniffed out like a truffle or a smuggled bundle of cocaine, retrieved from the lost-and-found, or photographed for posterity. Like justice or mercy, we can only determine that it exists at all because of the presence of its effects-or its side effects. Unlike many of our habits and practices, virginity reflects no known biological imperative and grants no demonstrable evolutionary advantage, nor has being able to recognize it in others been shown to increase anyone's chances of reproduction or survival. Perhaps this is why even our nearest animal relatives, whose sexual behavior and social structures are often startlingly similar to our own in other respects, show no signs at all of knowing what virginity is.
Virginity is as distinctively human a notion as philanthropy. We invented it. We developed it. We disseminated the idea throughout our cultures, religions, legal systems, bodies of art, and works of scientific knowledge. We have fixed it as an integral part of how we experience our own bodies and selves. And we have done all this without actually being able to define it consistently, identify it accurately, or explain how or why it works.
How do we define virginity? How have we defined it in the past? How do we tell who is and isn't a virgin? How do we know what virginity is and does and means? These questions, so basic to a book like this one, tempt even the most thoughtful of us in the direction of snap judgments and pat answers. We live in a culture that does not appreciate ambiguity when it comes to either sexuality or morality, after all, and virginity is inextricably twined with both.
As adolescents, we learn that there is a right answer and a wrong answer to the question, "are you a virgin?" What the right answer is might well depend on who asks us and under what circumstances. The reputations we want to achieve for ourselves often trump literal truth when we talk about sex, and the realm of virginity is no exception. No matter the circumstances, though, we never really conceive of there being more than two possible answers to the virginity question. It is, we are taught, a solid-state thing, on or off, yes or no. We operate under the assumption that those two options are not only adequate to the task of identifying this particular status, but that everyone who uses them means the same thing. But as many of us have discovered, this is far from the case. Real life is too full of messy and confusing variables. Exceptions are inevitable: What if he only put it in a little bit? What if she didn't bleed? The gray area is vast, yet when the question is are you a virgin? "maybe" isn't usually an option. Any uncertainty is your own private problem and frequently your own private hell. After all, as virtually all of us learn growing up, "everyone knows" what virginity is.
In truth, however, everyone most assuredly does not know what makes one person a virgin and another person not one. Virtually no one does, as a matter of fact. And this state of affairs is nothing new.
For as long as we have had a notion of virginity at all, its parameters have been controversial and, as often as not, vague. Even in pre-Christian Greek writings, there is already a tendency to talk about virginity metaphorically and in imprecise, gestural terms. Depending on the context and the writer, Greek virginity might have been described as an object that is subject to seizure (lambanein), a value that must be respected (terein), or a covered or wrapped thing that must be unwrapped or unbound (lyein). Depending on circumstances and on what an author had to say about it, virginity could be metaphorical, abstract, or physical, imposed from without or inspired from within, guarded or stolen, covered or unbound.
Christianity, despite what people often assume, failed to provide much in the way of clarification. Even the most august of the Doctors of the Church have not quite agreed on just how virginity should be defined or how virgins should be treated, and their virginity debates have smoldered for millennia. For thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, virginity was a particular quality of the virtue of temperance and a subset of the class of behaviors that bore the label of "chastity." But Aquinas also said that chastity had both a specific and a metaphorical meaning, one relating specifically to the pleasures of sex and the other much broader, a spiritualis castitas, or spiritual chastity, that dealt with the refusal to enjoy things that were judged to be against God's design. It hardly seems a realm in which yes-or-no answers would suffice.
Neither have literature or medicine simplified things. Three hundred years after Aquinas, sixteenth-century writer Thomas Bentley's The Monument of Matrones, conteining seven severall Laumps of Virginitie defined virginity with a laundry list of behaviors, including "sobernes, silence, shamefastnes, and chastitie, both of bodie & mind." And although physician Helkiah Crooke, writing less than fifty years after Bentley, argued vehemently that "the only sure note of unsteyned virginity" was the newly discovered vaginal hymen, even he was unsure. In almost the same breath as he lauds the diagnostic value of the hymen, he offers an alternate test for virginity that involves measuring the head with a piece of string.
Things haven't gotten any simpler since then. In 1992 legendary syndicated advice column "Dear Abby" was asked to pass judgment on the virginity of a young woman who gave birth, as a host mother, to a baby conceived through in vitro fertilization. (Abby's verdict: since the host mother had never experienced intercourse, she was entitled to call herself a virgin.) Recently, several studies completed in the 1990s and early 2000s indicated that young people are deeply divided over whether oral sex or anal intercourse constitute "having sex," calling into question just who might be qualified to call himself or herself a virgin.
Virginity has a long and distinguished heritage in Western culture, but it has no single hallowed and unassailable standard. "Everybody" most certainly does not know what it is and how it works. No one ever truly has. Anyone who claims otherwise simply hasn't done enough reading.
What we mean when we say "virginity" is as ephemeral, as relative, and as socially determined as what we mean when we say "freedom." Like love or misery, virginity has its trappings. We associate particular physical phenomena with it, we have a set of conditions and sensations that we expect from it, both in others and in ourselves. We tend to feel gratified when these things happen and confused, even betrayed, when they don't. As with piety and sensuality, we often believe that virginity tells us something about a person's morality, character, and spirituality. We claim that virginity is tangible, part of the physical body, just like a beautiful face or a powerful muscle, but just as we acknowledge inner strength and beauty that cannot be seen with the eye, we also accept that virginity transcends mere flesh.
The broadest and most general way to define virginity-since a book on the topic does raise the question-would be to say that virginity is a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others. But this raises its own questions in turn. What counts as "sexual interaction"? Whose standards do we apply, and do we apply them identically to every person and in every circumstance? Do we judge women's virginity by the same standards as men's, children's by the same standards as adults', a Christian's by the same standards as an atheist's, a Jew's, a modern-day Pagan's, a Muslim's, a Buddhist's?
Those of us who consider ourselves to be nonvirgins can usually explain why. Those of us who consider ourselves still-virgin can typically articulate what would have to happen to change that status. We usually know what criteria we would employ if asked to determine whether someone else's virginal status had changed. But the criteria we might apply to someone else are not necessarily identical to the ones we apply to ourselves. Moreover, we do not necessarily know that our next-door neighbors' criteria, or even those of our partners or parents, would be identical to our own.
This isn't to say that virginity is relative and therefore irrelevant. To the contrary, we have more than two and a half millennia of written history that make it abundantly clear that virginity is relative and therefore immensely relevant. It is precisely its relativity that makes virginity so troublesome and so fascinating.
Virginity has not always served the same purposes in society, been experienced in the same ways, or been predicated on the same understandings of sexuality, sexual activity, or sexual identity. It hasn't even always had to do with the same body parts: the hymen, which we often think of as synonymous with virginity today and assume must have been so for our ancestors, too, wasn't even confirmed to exist until the sixteenth century. From law to religion to medicine to art and beyond, the variety of ways we have understood, defined, and used virginity over the course of Western history reflects the shapes and motions of the giant, constantly changing entity that is our common culture.
This helps explain why we're so bad at defining it. As one of the large-scale background conditions of human life and human sexuality, our ideals in regard to virginity, like those in regard to gender and class and race, have always depended on historical circumstance. As cultural circumstances have shifted, our thinking about virginity has shifted, too, changing slowly and often subtly over time to reflect changes in demographics, economics, technologies, religious dogmas, political philosophies, scientific discoveries, and attitudes about the roles of women, children, and the family. Because these things tend to change so slowly, it is common for people to see them as unchanging, monolithic givens, things that existed before they were born and which will continue to exist, substantially unchanged, long after their deaths. Frequently this is even true, since large-scale cultural change tends to happen at a pace that, by comparison to human life spans, seems downright glacial. But even the largest and slowest-moving glacier cuts grooves into the earth as it goes, leaving a trail behind it.
To trace the changing ideologies and operations of virginity, then, we follow the tracks of cultural glaciers. The secrets of virginity are not coded into our DNA or even etched in stone. Insofar as they exist at all, they exist in novels and plays, religious writings and works of art, medical texts and philosophical tomes, courtship patterns, wedding traditions, the oral literature of old wives' tales and barroom ballads, and even the syndicated columns of daily newspapers. It is an enormous, dazzling, confusing array.
Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this is to take a historical overview of a few of virginity's many varieties. In everyday early-twenty-first-century conversation we tend to think of virginity in one way only: a matter of sexual activity. Either one has "done it" or not. While the nature of that critical "it" may come under considerable debate, it is not controversial to view virginity and its loss as being a matter of having done "it" or not, whatever "it" is construed to be. But this is only one way to think about virginity.
In his fourth-century De civitate Dei (The City of God), Saint Augustine argued that being raped did not constitute a loss of virginity, providing one had resisted with all one's heart and soul. Augustine's reasoning? If virginity could be said to be irrevocably lost by forcible physical action, then it could hardly be claimed to be an attribute of the soul. Augustine's solution was to de- fine virginity as existing in two valid forms, a physical virginity based in the body and a spiritual one based in the soul. Depending on circumstances, these two forms might coexist or not. As for Thomas Aquinas later on, there was not a single virginity for Augustine, but more than one.
The idea of multiple virginities has been quite popular. Thirteenth-century philosopher and scientist Albertus Magnus, who wrote a treatise on chastity around 1240, discussed four distinct types of virginity. Infants who had not yet reached the age of reason possessed innate virginity. Once a person was old enough to know what they were doing, however, a virgin had to choose virginity. One could choose virginity as part of a religious vow, or a less formal virginity that was not vowed. Finally, Albertus noted with disapproval, there were virgins who didn't look or act like virgins. Virgins might, he wrote, even act like prostitutes. For Albertus, then, virginity might be an inborn quality, or it could be a rather wide range of other things. It certainly wasn't something one could tell at a glance.
Far from being a monolithic, universal, ahistorical given of the human condition, virginity is a profoundly changeable and malleable cultural idea with an enormous, vital, and mostly hidden history. If we are to attempt to understand virginity, we have to understand not only what it seems to be to us today, but what it has been to our ancestors. We have to understand not just the meanings we might want it to have for our children but the meanings it has had for us, for our grandparents, and for their great-great-great-grandparents. Most of all, we have to understand that these meanings have not always been the same. With virginity as with so much else that pertains to the human condition, the only real constant is change.
Lines in the Sand
We have long recognized that virginities and virgins come in a range of modes and types. We distinguish between them not only by what they've done or haven't in sexual terms, but also on the basis of age, developmental stage, sex, motivations, prior behavior, religious affiliation, and even physical appearance. But not all of these aspects matter equally, and not all of them matter in the same way or to the same degree at any given time in history, place in the world, or subculture within the vast and complicated framework of what we loosely call the West.
Because of this, the question of who gets to define what virgins are and what virginity is matters enormously. Defining virginity means directly affecting the lives of nearly all women, and many men as well. Despite what some people appear to think, defining virginity is not merely a philosophical exercise. It is an exercise in controlling how people behave, feel, and think, and in some cases, whether they live or die.
Virginity has been used as an organizing principle of human cultures for millennia. In the present as well as the past, any woman who trespasses against what her era, religion, community, or family holds as constituting virginity might be teased, harassed, shamed, ostracized, prohibited from marrying, or disowned. In some places and at some times her family might have been fined or punished because of it, or the woman herself might have been sold into slavery. She could be imprisoned, maimed, mutilated, flogged, raped, or even killed as punishment for losing her virginity ... or even if it was merely believed that she had done so. And lest such humiliations and so-called honor crimes seem the province only of faraway countries with oppressive or backward religious views about women, or insular immigrant communities that adhere to outdated traditions, it bears remembering that twelve-year-old Birmingham, Alabama, schoolgirl Jasmine Archie was murdered by her mother in November 2004-forced to drink bleach, then asphyxiated-because Jasmine's mother believed that the girl had lost her virginity.
Because the stakes can be so high, it is doubly important to recognize that virginity does not truly have any single ironclad definition and never has. In practical terms, virginity is usually defined through a complicated kaleidoscope of partial definitions, and almost always backward and by exclusion: we define virginity by deciding what terminates it, what virginity is not. No matter how we try, though, it seems that there is always some lingering question, exception, or circumstance that renders even the best definition less than water-tight.
Straight White Female
One of the things we learn from looking at history's multiple virginities is that virginity is not necessarily about not having sex. At the same time, across history and cultures, the lowest common denominator of virginity-or rather loss of virginity-has, for countless centuries, been the insertion of a penis into a vagina.
Excerpted from Virgin by Hanne Blank Copyright © 2007 by Hanne Blank. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsExtra Virgin: A Note to Readers ix
Like a Virgin? 3
The Importance of Being Virgin 21
A Desperate and Conflicted Search 42
The Virgin and the Doctor 58
The Blank Page 74
Opening Night 96
Virgin Culture 117
In a Certain Way Unbodily 119
Heaven and Earth 146
To Go Where No Man Has Gone Before 177
The Erotic Virgin 192
The Day Virginity Died? 217
Epilogue: The Once and Future Virgin 250
Selected Bibliography 259