The 2000-Year-Old Virgin: Purity, Chastity, Mystery

In Virgin, Hanne Blank reminds us that the idea of virginity exists for no other animal species. And what would

In Virgin, Hanne Blank reminds us that the idea of virginity exists for no other animal species. And what would our world be like if for us, too, the idea simply did not exist? No Donna Martin, struggling to keep her legs firmly shut through seven seasons of 90210. Steve Carell might still be on The Daily Show. Cherries would probably have no more sexual significance than, say, oranges. Olive oil would never be the same.

According to Ms. Blank’s exhaustive compilation of lore and history on the subject, virginity is closer to not existing than most people realize. “It can’t be weighed on a scale, sniffed out like a truffle … or photographed for posterity,” she writes—and then proceeds to explore the topic from every angle, from religious doctrine to government policy.

Does it sound like a Mount Holyoke “Psychology of Gender” survey course? Gratuitous definitions of words like “dowry” and needless repetition of identical sentences in different sections make this tome feel at times like it was written to be split apart and photocopied for course packets. There’s no novelistic storytelling and little sense of the author’s personal journey in writing the book. But her survey is engrossing and informative, in part because she’s willing to do research both in the stacks of law libraries and in the back shelves of video stores.

“Virginity is for most people a transitional state that bridges the end of childhood and the assumption of full social adulthood,” she writes, although this definition, she acknowledges, too neatly ties sexual initiation with marriage. In the United States today, first sexual experiences (and procreation) frequently precede marriage; a woman can have legal sex long before she can legally buy a post-coital cigarette; and the idea that you’ll lose your virginity to the person you’ll love forever is the stuff of cheesy oldies. (Thanks, Meatloaf!)

Some ancient definitions of virginity actually seem more relevant to contemporary experience. In the 13th century, philosopher Albertus Magnus defined four kinds of virginity, including virgins who’ve taken vows of chastity and virgins who behave in a promiscuous manner though they haven’t technically been deflowered. In between are the many gray areas that make “virginology” an inexact science.

Any survey of virginity is also a survey of female oppression—from the vestal virgins ripped from their families as children by clergymen to the practice, both ancient and modern, of raping virgins in order to cure sexually transmitted diseases (n.b.: It doesn’t work). Controlling a woman’s sexual activities was long the surest way for a man to guarantee the lineage of his children, and, as marriage was often the best option for a woman to guarantee herself food and shelter, keeping her virginity for her husband—or making believe that she’d done so in any variety of ways, from faking blood to suggesting that a baby had been sired by a god—was frequently in her best interest. Though it can be instructive to see the Renaissance or the Victorian era or the Jazz Age through the lens of the hymen, there is no shortage of gyno-histories already in print (and Ms. Blank shows little interest in non-Western cultures—this book doesn’t really look east or south of Greece).

More interestingly, a history of virginity is also a history of lie-detecting. Short of catching her in the act or discovering that she’s pregnant, the best way to learn if someone is no longer a virgin is to ask her—but that’s never been the preferred method. Instead, efforts to decode the virginity cipher have ranged from measuring the woman’s head to timing the duration of her urination to testing the effect of male earwax on her vulva. The most bizarre virgin test is a tradition among the Spanish Roma women, who get a female village elder to use her finger to burst what they believe is a juicy grape that grows deep inside the vagina.

The broken hymen has, of course, been the standard marker for a lack of virginity in the Western world. Ms. Blank is at her best when discussing the details of this minute bit of misunderstood membrane. Found in a variety of animals from elephants to moles, the hymen is a leftover scrim in the spot where the separately forming external and internal vaginal organs join during gestation. In humans, it’s rarely the tightly pulled, drum-like sheath that most people imagine (and when it is, it’s considered a birth defect). In fact, the hymen is more often like a sieve or a flap. Some have blood vessels and bleed when torn; others don’t. Some even disintegrate in childhood.

Photos would have been a useful addition to this book, and they wouldn’t have hurt sales, as more than a few men would like to say they’ve seen a hymen. Ms. Blank calls lusting after virgins parthenophilia. “We have for so long lacked a term for this particular erotic attraction [because it’s] something our culture considers entirely normal, acceptable, and ideologically correct,” she writes.

It might be ideologically “correct” to want to make a virgin unvirginal, but this book raises the point that our government hasn’t spared virginity in its continuing effort to take control of what goes on between a woman’s legs. Taxpayers now pay over $300 million a year on programs that promote pre-marriage abstinence, reinforcing the idea that sexuality outside of marriage—especially for women—is bad, no matter how safe or consensual it might be. Ms. Blank makes a good case for the ridiculousness of this effort. She notes that in 2002, soon after the Centers for Disease Control started to report its findings that no pro-chastity initiative ranked among the top five sex-education programs when it came to reducing risky sexual behavior, the study was cancelled and the results mysteriously pulled from the C.D.C. Web site.

All in all, though, it’s not a bad moment to be a virgin. A friend of mine recently confided to me that she is a virgin at 24; she’s happy to have lived her life as she has, but she’s also eager to try out sex. “I feel like the rest of the world is in a club that I’m not a part of yet,” she said. However, unlike the virgins of some other eras, she knows roughly what to expect once she gets into the club. Few adult or teen virgins today in the West can avoid exposure to sex. What’s more, thanks to everything from women’s suffrage to modern birth control to tampons (which, Ms. Blank points out, have made vaginal entry “utilitarian”), her “first time” will likely come where, when and how she pleases, and it won’t be a public demarcation—positive or negative—of her value. Whether she chooses to post a story about losing her virginity on her MySpace page, or decides never to do the nasty at all, she’s lucky to live at a time when the choice won’t inevitably determine the shape of her life.

Anna Jane Grossman is the author, with Flint Wainess, of It’s Not Me, It’s You: The Ultimate Breakup Book (Perseus).

The 2000-Year-Old Virgin:  Purity, Chastity, Mystery