Writer’s Wednesday: Virgin by Hanne Blank
Humans are the only species that care about virginity – although we are not the only species with a hymen. Even then, virginity cannot be defined and there are no guaranteed way to see if someone is a virgin or not. The only thing that’s sure is that we are all different. The question of virginity has been one way to keep women under patriarchal control for centuries, but even then it is only in more recent times that it has become a fetish. In addition it shows how colonialism led to the sexualization of women of colour.
The elusiveness of virginity itself, and the many natural variations of the hymen have led to, and in some places of the world continue to lead to, suffering of young girls and women. Historically and culturally speaking there have been and are places where even the mere accusal of sexual misconduct can cost a woman her life or her future.
Virgin is well-researched, insightful and I greatly recommend it.
Why, then, we might wonder, is it the particular combination of a penis and a vagina that has for so long been considered the definitive sex act, the act that terminates virginity? There are several reasons. For one, the only form of sexual activity that renders women pregnant is that which involves inserting a penis into a vagina. Second, penis-in-vagina intercourse is the single uniquely heterosexual act of which human beings are capable. The other common sexual permutations of body parts of which humans are capable are essentially gender-neutral. Kisses and caresses know no gender, to say nothing of oral sex. For a penis to be inserted into a vagina, on the other hand, there can be only one man and one woman, and furthermore they must be performing the single specific action that cannot be performed by a man on another man or by a woman on another woman. What this means is that virginity, at least in the classical, canonical form, is exclusively heterosexual.
In the West, virginity no only has a sexual orientation and a gender, it has a color. Christian symbology traditionally uses light and lightness of color to indicate purity and holiness, while darkness and darker colors are associated with sin and corruption. When European white Christians began to colonize parts of the world where people had darker skin, they often took this light-equals-good / dark-equals-bad mentality with them. Because the sexual rules of these darker-skinned people’s supposedly “primitive” cultures failed to map neatly onto what European Christians had come to expect as normal, natural, and indeed God-given laws regarding gender, sex, and the organization of families, European whites often assumed that the indigenous people of Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere were simply wicked and lacking any sense of sexual morality. From such encounters, Europeans frequently derived the belief that virginity was an attribute of being civilized, which was to say Christian, European, and white.
Virginity was a commodity with a limited shelf life. Well into the 1830s, even writers like the relatively progressive British freethinker journalist Richard Carlile could say with a straight face that spinsters were “a sort of sub-animal class” and that “It is a fact that can hardly have escaped the notice of anyone that women who have never had sexual commerce begin to droop when about twenty-five years of age… their forms degenerate, their features sink, and the peculiar character of the old maid becomes apparent.”
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.