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This week Catholics all over the world are celebrating the sacrifice of possibly the only man who ever lived to have been born to a Virgin – Jesus. Though how any woman can still be considered a virgin after pushing a child out of her vagina, notwithstanding divine intervention, is a mystery to me.
Many people, religious and otherwise, have come to the understanding that, even if Jesus lived and was the son of God, Mary’s virginal status is pure myth. Nevertheless, the Virgin Mary remains the archetype of female virtue in countries with a Judeo-Christian heritage across the world. Even in 2017 women are caught between the virgin/whore dichotomy; if you don’t believe me just Google ‘slut shaming’. Whether Mary was a virgin or not is largely irrelevant. It is her virginal legacy which does the damage, so perhaps it is finally time we all realised that virginity itself is nothing more than a myth?
I was 23 when I finally ‘lost’ my virginity – in the conventional understanding of sex as equivalent to vaginal penetration by a penis. At the time it felt terribly old, like I was way behind my peers. I was beginning to feel like a bit of a freak, not 40 Year Old Virgin freakiness but I had started to wonder if there was something wrong with me.
I would like to have told my 23 year old self, you know what, chill out! There is no right timing for this kind of thing, everyone lives their sexuality in different ways, and anyway, virginity is merely a social construct of the hetero-normative patriarchy. To which I would have responded, “a social construct of the hetero-what-what-what?”
The concept of virginity was originally conceived of about 6,000 years ago when patriarchy first reared its ugly head and societies began transitioning from matrilineal (genealogy traced through the mother’s line) to patrilineal (the father’s line). Virginity and monogamy, for women, became a means for guaranteeing the legitimacy of a man’s offspring. A woman’s virginity eventually became a tradable commodity and a basic requirement in marriage transactions.
Touched for the very first time
Recent Hollywood offerings give some insight into Western culture’s continued obsession with ‘losing’, ‘taking’ or ‘giving away’ our virginity. The 40 Year Old Virgin is a movie about man whose virginity and inability to relate to women are his defining features. He is portrayed as a social outcast and a freak. The question of whether this man might in fact be asexual is never even considered. The 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight franchises (the two being intimately related) fixate on the virginal mystique of the female protagonists. Anastasia is the sweet, innocent, virgin who comes under the thrall of the irresistible Christian Grey. During one of their first encounters decides he is going to ‘resolve’ the greatest obstacle to fulfillment in her adult life by ‘taking’ her virginity. Bella Swan is also a virgin, desperate to consulate her obsessive love for Edward. The difference being that Edward is the one who shows ‘restraint’ by insisting they wait until they are married.
This takes me to purity pledges. In case you haven’t heard, these are ceremonies that have sprung up over the last two decades in US Christian fundamentalist circles, whereby teenage girls take a pledge to ‘protect their purity’ by remaining virgins until their wedding day, when they will bestow the gift of their virginity to their husbands. Their fathers accompany them throughout this process until, presumably, their wedding day when the woman in question will be duly handed over from one man to another, the one who will ultimately ‘claim’ her virginity.
Once upon a time a father’s ‘concern’ for his daughter’s virginity would have been motivated by the need to ensure the quality of a father’s tradable ‘asset’: his daughter’s marriageability. While this is still a reality for many women around the world, in the US or Ireland this is no longer a common practice. So it would seem that the purity pledge serves no other purpose than to nurture men’s unhealthy obsessions with their daughters’ sexuality and a further mechanism of control over women’s bodies. The uptake among young Christian men has been relatively low by comparison because obviously virginity in men is not something that needs preserving nor protecting.
Apart from the clear sexist origins of these pledges, evidence shows that they simply do not work. While teens who undertake pledges are more likely to delay their sexual activity compared to teens who do not take the purity pledge, when they do initiate sexual activity they tend to engage in riskier behaviour by not using contraceptives or protecting themselves from STIs. What’s more is that manual, oral or anal sex are not considered compromising activities, as long as vaginal penetration does not occur. They come under ‘God’s loophole‘. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against enjoying any of these often very pleasurable activities, but to say that after engaging in them you can still be considered virgin? Pull the other one.
Passing the test
The virginity myth has in turn created a fixation with the hymen. According to Our Bodies Ourselves it is the single most searched for term in their database. The presence or not of the hymen is erroneously considered the ultimate ‘test’ for virginity.
The hymen is a thin elastic membrane at the opening of the vagina, that many people believe must be ‘popped’ for penetration to occur – the virginity benchmark as it were. It does not seal the vagina shut, but it generally must be stretched a minimum amount to allow for penetration to occur the first time. This does not lead to tears or bleeding if care is taken. Every hymen is different and there is no foolproof way of telling that someone has engaged in penetrative sex based on its condition. In fact the hymen can ‘break’ at any stage of a girl’s life, from the simple act of riding a bicycle, for example.
Thus, proposals in some countries to test school girls for their virginity based on the condition of their hymen is not based on medical evidence, it is inherently discriminatory and could be considered state sanctioned sexual assault. No equivalent test exists for male virginity, there is no foreskin revision required nor proposals to ban boys from education if found not to be virgins.
In recent years there has been a surge in demand in Europe among women of predominantly, but not exclusively, Muslim background, for hymen reconstruction, known as Hymenoplasty. This basically means that women who have engaged in vaginal penetration before marriage will undergo cosmetic surgery before their marriage to sew back their hymen so that they will bleed on their wedding night, thus satisfying the oldest and most ‘accepted’ virginity test. This practice is described in the wonderful graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, Embroideries.
If the only way that virginity can be lost is through vaginal penetration by a penis, then non-heterosexual sex does not count, right? If this was the case than a cis woman who has only ever had sex with other cis women could still call herself a virgin because she has never experience penetration by a living penis. All the other expressions of sexual pleasure such as oral, manual or anal sex would not be considered real sex.
Women of African descent argue that they have never in fact been considered part of the virginity myth. The virginal archetype is that of the fragile and innocent white woman, a social imaginary from which women of African descent are completely excluded. Since the time of the African slave trade black women have been hypersexualised, considered, ‘loose’, ‘permissive’ and always available for sex. Even the symbolism of virginity equates white with purity and black with corruption. Why else would a bride dress in white?
bell hooks, in her seminal feminist text Ain’t i a woman, writes that
“… black women have always been seen by the white public as sexually permissive, as available and eager for the sexual assaults of any man, black or white. The designation of all black women as sexually depraved, immoral and loose has its roots in the slave system. (…) The systematic devaluation of black womanhood was not simply a direct consequence of race hatred, it was a calculated method of social control.”
Though written in 1981, we only have to look at media coverage of Beyoncé or Rihanna to see that her words are still relevant today.
Just as women around the world are harmed by the expectation of conformity to the virginity myth, women of African descent are harmed by their exclusion from it. According to Gerder Lerner in Black Women in White America, “to assault or exploit her [black women] sexually was not reprehensible and carried with it none of the normal communal sanctions against such behaviour.” There is much evidence to suggest that this is still the case.
Society’s fixation with women’s virginity, gives rise to a host of injustices, from purity pledges, to virginity testing, to discrimination and exclusion of women in education, to unnecessary and painful surgeries, to women auctioning their virginity on eBay. Virgins have been raped as a ‘cure’ for sexually transmitted infections from Syphilis to HIV. Women have been and still are murdered by their fathers, uncles, or brothers, for having engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage because they were considered to have dishonored their families. Sometimes even in cases of sexual assault. They have been excluded from marriage and shunned by their families. They have been forced into prostitution, as the only alternative for ‘fallen women’. Or they have simply been imprisoned and their children taken from them, as we know all too well in Ireland.
Forging a new language
Laci Green argues that we should scrap the concept of virginity altogether. She refers to people’s first sexual experience as their ‘Sexual Debut’ which can include a whole range of activities where pleasure is given and received through the genitals and not limited to penetrative, heterosexual sex. You don’t loses anything nor give anything away, nor is anyone, taking anything from you. Nothing gets popped, or broken. There doesn’t need to be pain or blood. You don’t have to be attached to the person with whom you shared your sexual debut for the rest of your life, unless you want to.
Your sexual activity is in no way attached to your virtue and thus does not need to be protected, least of all by your father. You will not be of any lesser value to yourself or the world. Also if you decide never to have sex, or that sex doesn’t interest you, it does not make you a freak, possibly just asexual. You can decide when and with whom you want to share your sexual debut. Your life may not be radically altered – personally I think I was more impacted by the first time I discovered the wonder of masturbation – but hopefully you will have fun and it won’t be something you will later regret.