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New Worlds: Like a Virgin

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As anyone who’s ever taken an online “purity test” knows, virginity can be a multi-layered concept.

Most classically, it tends to refer to whether someone, particularly a female someone, has experienced penis-in-vagina sex. This is important to people because, of course, it’s how babies are made: while sperm can sometimes get to an egg by other means, the overwhelming majority of pregnancies, especially before the advent of in vitro fertilization, result from PIV intercourse. In a society that cares a lot about the paternity of a child, knowing that no one else has gotten there before you is of significant benefit.

How you “know” — and we’ll talk in a moment about those scare quotes — is also pertinent to the focus on vaginal penetration. Other than testimony or constant surveillance, you can’t tell whether someone has engaged in other kinds of sexual activity (oral, anal, manual, non-penetrative), which may or may not be considered a loss of virginity. The vagina is the only part of the body that comes with an anatomical feature that lets you know what’s been going on there.

. . . maybe. I put quotes around “know” because, however widespread it may be, the notion of examining the hymen to prove virginity or loss thereof is profoundly flawed. Some people have very small or flexible hymens that aren’t necessarily ruptured by intercourse; some rupture their hymens through non-sexual physical activities. Some need them cut by a surgeon because they’re thick and extensive enough to make intercourse impossible, or even cover the vaginal opening completely and block menstruation. (And by the way, contrary to what many writers of sex scenes seem to think, the hymen is not located halfway up the vagina.) So taken all together, the assumption that first intercourse must be painful and produce blood or else she isn’t a virgin, or the examination someone’s genitals for a visible and intact hymen as proof of virginity, is traumatizing, invasive humiliating . . . and on top of all that, unreliable.

I’ve been talking about this as primarily a female concern because historically, it has primarily been a female concern. Although it’s rarer in modern English, “virgin” has a long history of use as a synonym for a young, unmarried woman, a la its Germanic synonym “maiden.” It sometimes gets extended to older spinsters, too (often with a derogatory overtone, unless their continued virginity is part of a sacred oath — and sometimes even then). I’ve seen it claimed that the concept used to mean “has never given birth” rather than “has never had sex” — usually in the context of virgin goddesses — and while I haven’t found any solid evidence backing that up in the real world, an author might still choose to deploy it that way in their fiction. As for men, it’s rarer to apply the same concept to them, but not unheard of; some languages even have a masculine form of the relevant word, which English lacks. Finally, of course, we use this term metaphorically, to talk about “virgin forest” or “virgin soil” or other such things, a way of saying they haven’t been touched or despoiled by human activity.

Unsurprisingly, virginity is sometimes given a magical connotation. Famously, there’s the idea that only a virgin can touch a unicorn; sometimes that becomes a deeply odd arrangement where her purity and innocence are used to lure the target into captivity. (Given the phallic implications of a unicorn’s horn, maybe it’s meant to be an unpleasant metaphor for marriage?) There have also been religious groups, like the Roman Vestal Virgins, whose maiden state is linked with their metaphysical duties; that’s especially common where the deity being served is likewise virginal. In a fantasy novel, one’s magical power could genuinely be founded on a lack of sexual activity, whether lifelong (virginity) or from a certain point onward (celibacy).

But that equation of virginity with purity rapidly becomes a serious problem when applied to people in ordinary life. Modern purity culture, like some paradigms of the past, incessantly beats the drum that a girl’s entire worth is tied up in her lack of sexual experience; once she loses it, she becomes like a chewed piece of gum, something nobody else is going to want. It’s especially bad when rape enters the picture: even if she didn’t choose to be penetrated, even if what penetrated her was an inanimate object, she’s no longer untouched. It’s not enough for a husband to be sure that any child she bears is his; for people inclined to this way of thinking, the fact that she’s had sexual experience prior to him means her fidelity and chastity going forward will always be in question.

Though you might assume this is a universal way of thinking, it actually isn’t. Even where patriarchy is in force and the paternity of a child matters, not every culture has believed it’s important for a woman to be a virgin at the time of her first marriage. Both Heian Japan and the pre-colonial Incan Empire didn’t necessarily object to premarital sex. (At least among the Heian elites; I’m not sure how far it stretched among the Inca, nor what the common Japanese folk thought. As is so often the case with history, their opinions don’t appear in our records.) An Incan bride received a sandal of grass instead of wool from her husband if she wasn’t a virgin, so there may have been greater value attached to a maiden, but it didn’t hamper her ability to marry, and trial marriages did occur. Heian elites had an entire three-night courtship ritual where the man “sneaked in” (everybody knew he was there) to sleep with his prospective bride. Since the courtship did not automatically succeed, she presumably might go on multiple sexual test drives before getting married. In fact, Japanese belief at the time held that any girl who remained a virgin too long had been possessed by an evil spirit!

So we end where we started: with the idea that virginity, seemingly a simple yes/no concept, is actually complicated. You might have the multiple virginities of an online purity test, one for every type of sexual activity. You might be thought a virgin when you’re not, or you might be condemned as a promiscuous whore when you’ve done nothing wrong. Your virginity (or lack thereof) might have metaphysical implications. Or it might not be important at all: sex might be one life experience among many others, no more significant than whether you’ve ever been drunk. It’s entirely up to the author and what makes sense for their world.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds: Like a Virgin”

  1. Hanne Blank has written a book about virginity, Virgin. Thoroughly researched and authoritative. Highly recommend.

  2. I think at least some of the issue with respect to what “virgin” means comes from Greek myth (and especially classical Athens, which it’s easy to forget was an outlier from the rest of Greece in many ways, especially given how much it dominates the surviving written sources), where “parthenos” doesn’t really *have* a good single English translation, and it’s used to talk about goddesses, but also girls who aren’t married, but also sometimes girls/women who are married but don’t have children, and of course the word persists over several hundred years of history, so even if it only ever meant one thing at one time it might not translate as the same thing each time. Insert additional grumbles about “and people loved to file written work under the name of a completely different well-known person” and “when you have fragments of student papyri and monastic copies of arabic transcriptions of documents from Istanbul/Constantinople, figuring out which one had an original from when is really hard, and words are never used in value-neutral ways, and the Greeks *loved* their folk etymologies about how words came about, and those often include contemporary assumptions about what their ancestors meant when they used a word, and it’s amazing that we can definitively know more about Ancient Greece than “people lived there, and some of them used ink to make words on papyrus, and some of them used chisels to make words on rock” in the first place.

    But yes, I’ve also run into the complications of this specific meaning of what might or might not be talking about virginity, and I *know* I’ve read JSTOR articles about it, but I’ll be darned if I can remember what search terms to enter to find the things. I know at least some of the debate comes from lawyer-equivalents who “published” volumes of their arguments in cases, and you can at least argue in front of a jury that no one can prove whether or not a woman has had intercourse involving a penis, but you can prove whether or not that woman is married, or has given birth to a child.

    On the plus side, if you’re writing historical fiction, or fiction inspired by specific history, you have a lot of room to decide, for yourself, what any of this meant anyway.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Thanks for the added detail! It makes more sense to me that “parthenos” might have that multiplicity of meaning when it’s being used for actual people (especially with law cases tossed in). The book version of this essay will be updated to reflect that!

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