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Virgin: The Untouched History
by Hanne Blank


Book Review by Rob Hardy




VirginA billboard in Baltimore used to read, "Virgin: teach your kids itís not a dirty word." That it could be thought of as a dirty word, and that social forces might pay good money to change this concept, illustrate part of the ambivalent feelings our society has toward virgins and virginity. The ambivalence, at many levels, is exhaustively examined in Virgin: The Untouched History (Bloomsbury) by Hanne Blank. An independent historian (with some books of erotica to her credit), Blank says that she was working as a sex educator and wanted to find authoritative sources on virginity. Despite the medical, historic, religious, and social implications of the subject, she found few. "Even though my interests were limited to virginity and virgins in the Western world, it was rapidly becoming obvious to me that if I wanted to read a comprehensive survey of virginity, I was going to have to write it." Her book is indeed comprehensive, and it is scholarly but far from dry, as she examines the surprisingly complicated topic of what a virgin is, and tries to make sense of why the subject has been on our collective minds for so many centuries.

Just defining what a virgin is is a tough exercise. And it isnít just a philosophical or verbal one: "It is an exercise in controlling how people behave, feel, and think, and in some cases, whether they live or die." The lowest common denominator, she finds, is that a virgin is someone who has never had a penis in her vagina. There are plenty of other insertables, but the penis-in-vagina act is the one that counts (and, significantly, men, while they might be "continent" or "celibate" are seldom labeled as being virginal). The Greeks talked about the subject metaphorically and with imprecise terms. When the Christian Doctors of the Church weighed in, they did not exactly make all things clear, with Aquinas stating that virginity was part of the behavior of "chastity" and a particular quality of the virtue of temperance. Augustine said that if a virgin resisted rape, then she was still a virgin after rape. We are still confused on the issue, especially if we regard the always fascinating topic of how adolescents comport themselves sexually. A "technical virgin" may see some sort of virtue in keeping her vagina penis-free while allowing insertion elsewhere or enjoying other sexual athletics, but some would see this as against the spirit of the true definition (whatever that is). The emphasis on a potentially procreative act, rather than any other canoodling, isnít because of any inherent biological cause, but seems to be due to social factors, like a fatherís valuing his daughterís virginity as a bargaining chip in matrimonial negotiations. Virginity renders paternity knowable; there is no doubt about who the mother of a child is, so fussing about male virginity isnít part of our cultural history. And as fathers went, so went the society; Deuteronomy makes plain that a woman who canít show the tokens of virginity (whatever those might be) upon marriage should be stoned by the community, and a new husband who wrongly accuses a father of offering a daughter who is "damaged goods" is fit for a flogging.

Those tokens are folkloric and not scientific. No other animal besides ourselves seems to recognize or value a condition of virginity. Sometimes the explanation given is that humans are the only animals with hymens, but this is not true; lots of mammals have them, and they have hymens that are useful in, say, sealing out water, or only opening up when the female is in estrus. No animal besides ourselves pays the hymen any attention, and this is despite that the human hymen serves no function. Probably our excessive interest in this vestigial membrane comes from our intense interest in virginity and the possibility of being able to search a womanís body for physical proof of it. Hymens come in all sorts of shapes, and five of them even have names (annular, crescentic, redundant, fimbriated, and septate); one female may go through different shapes at different ages. Hymens can be fragile or resilient, and can be transected if penetrated, but there are no natural laws on the matter: "Not all hymens with complete transections have been penetrated, not all vaginal penetration is sexual, and not all sexual penetration causes a complete transection of the hymenóor indeed any at all." There is no accurate test for virginity, although many have been proposed, from the supposedly physiological to the downright superstitious. "The simple fact is that short of catching someone in the act of sex, virginity can be neither proven nor disproven. We cannot prove it today, nor have we ever been able to." Just to show how patriarchal is the interest in such tests, there is always one form of evidence that is universally considered inadmissible in the matter: the womanís own verbal testimony.

Blank learned early in her research that conversations on virginity were always yanked to the topic of "losing it" and all the jokes and folklore that are connected with (the title of her chapter on the subject) "Opening Night". The church was interested in promoting chastity, as were the nobles who wanted a smoothly operating society on their lands. But Blank has found nothing to verify the famous "right of the first night" or "right of the lord" that allowed a nobleman to deflower a bride before she went in to her husband. Of course there were sexual abuses of power, but no one anywhere recorded a practice of the lord of the manor taking every virgin on her wedding night. A virgin may bleed on her first night, or she may not, and no one really knows how frequently or why; this topic has been treated with such interest and has caused drollery as well as heartbreak, but we are shockingly ignorant about it. Similarly, no one really knows why sometimes first sex is painful and sometimes not, but pain isnít all physiological: "Itís not glamorous, itís not titillating, and in fact itís downright mundane: studies show that women who have a comprehensive, nonjudgmental sexual education and who develop affirming, self-empowered attitudes about their own sexuality are more likely to report positive experiences when they lose their virginity."

Comprehensive and nonjudgmental sexual education, however, eludes us in the US. "Of all the countries of the developed world, the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." Our federal government is attempting to establish virginity as the only proper sexual status for its never-married citizens. That young people should abstain from sex is the basis of millions of dollars of federal programs; that they do not abstain, and never have, is obvious but makes no difference to those with a pro-virginity agenda. Usually such agendas come from religious groups. Funding, for instance, goes to a program called Free Teens USA, which is run by people with strong ties to the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The church maintains that any sexual activity outside of marriage is an abomination, and Reverend Moon has advocated that a woman who is threatened with rape ought to kill herself rather than undergo extramarital coitus. Less extreme religious groups may advocate virginity, but the results are poor. Abstinence programs do not reliably lower risky sexual behavior. When the Centers for Disease Control did research into programs that were supposed to reduce such behavior, none of the programs that were successful were centered on abstinence. (Since then, the CDC has discontinued such research and removed the results from its website, and its recommendations for contraception have been replaced by statements of official support for abstinence and abstinence only.) Blankís book is not a polemic, but her enlightening historical review of western attitudes to virginity would be good reading for anyone making governmental policy about our virgins. It is also a call to remember the long confusion of historical definitions and attitudes, and that "losing oneís virginity" is probably not one physical, emotional, or psychological event, but a process of sexual development that is different for everyone and ought not be oversimplified as one coital act.

Rob Hardy
November 2007


Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank
(Bloomsbury USA; March 20, 2007; ISBN-10: 1596910100)
Available at: Amazon.com†/ Amazon UK


_______
© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.



About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio:  Rob Hardy



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