This book is about much more than cocktail party virginity trivia. It is about something that is ancient and abstract at the same time as it is absolutely contemporary and utterly immediate. Virginity has been, and continues to be, a matter of life and death around the world, very much including within the first world.As the title indicates, Virgin: The Untouched History is a cultural history of virginity. Hanne Blank decided to focus on how virginity has been constructed and perceived throughout time in Western culture, and also on female virginity. This because male virginity doesn’t have the cultural salience that female virginity does. Virginity, Hanne Blank explains, is predominantly defined as being female, heterosexual, and white.
I would have liked to see this last point be addressed in more detail – the book talks a bit about how the constant association between “purity” and whiteness affects how black women are perceived, and mentions a study according to which black teen girls are much more often assumed to be sexually active than their peers, but that’s it. I understand that not everything could be explored in detail, though, and I’m sure there are books about the intersection of racism and sexism that I could pick up.
Anyway, Virgin: The Untouched History traces the history of female virginity from pre-Christian societies like Ancient Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and through Victorian times to our day. Another thing I would have liked to read more about is the perception of virginity today, but again, I’m sure there are books on the topic I can look for. Enough about what this book doesn’t cover, and on to what it does cover, which is a lot.
Hanne Blank begins by introducing the physical side of virginity: the facts and the myths. I was surprised to learn that the hymen was only identified in 1544, but then again, it makes sense. What’s really at stake is not a piece of anatomy, but the cultural significance that has been attached to it. Blank suggests that the only reason why so much attention was paid to its discovery is because it was a physical embodiment of a concept that already existed, which I think makes perfect sense. And she mentions that even today, there are cultures that identify the physical embodiment of virginity differently, such as the Gitanos of Spain.
I found the section about the different virginity tests that were used throughout history just as fascinating as it was saddening. All had one thing in common: asking the woman in question was never considered a valid method of obtaining an answer about her sexual experience or lack thereof.
One of the main points of this book is that attaching so much cultural meaning to a single sexual experience and defining it as an abrupt transition can actually have the effect of stripping it of its emotional meaning. It becomes cold and mechanic, a public rite of passage rather than a personal experience of shared intimacy with another person. And along similar lines, there’s the idea that virginity loss will always be an emotionally overwhelming experience for women but will not mean much for men—which does a disservice to both sexes. There are even those who have claimed that a woman automatically becomes attached for life to the first men she has sex with, sort of like a baby duck breaking out of its egg:
…while admitting that our Western ideology of virginity is simultaneously deeply rooted and essentially inexplicable, Freud nonetheless did not hesitate to profess a number of wholly unsubstantiated “truths” about virginity and its loss.Oh Sigmund. I can always count on you for a laugh. Another important point is that the dominant definition of virginity is completely heternormative: it denies the validity of homosexual experiences. Hanne Blank mentions the case of a young woman who sold her virginity on e-bay to pay for her university tuition. The interesting thing is that she had been in a relationship with another woman for years. But the rationale behind the offer of thousands of pounds for a night with her was that she was, in fact, a virgin: the sexual intimacy she had experienced with her partner didn’t “count”.
Without so much as a footnote to back up this amazing assertion, Freud takes the notion of female emotional dependency on sexual partners (an idea he borrowed uncredited from the notebooks of his sexologist colleague Richard von Krafft-Ebing) and claims that it is the nearly inevitable result of women losing their virginity. The idea is completely in line with late-nineteenth-century middle-class notions of the proper relationship between the sexes, but the mechanics of this “thralldom” are a classic example of magical thinking. This is Sleeping Beauty’s story: the woman is “awakened” into instant and permanent pair-bonding by the first sexual touch of a man.
Virgin: The Untouched History covers several other topics: the way virgins have been eroticized throughout history, virginity in popular TV shows such as Gilmore Girls and Buffy, the fear of tampons (it’s amazing how widespread this still was some ten years ago, when I was growing up), etc. I could go on at length about all of these topics for hours. In case I haven’t made it clear by now, I found this book absolutely fascinating. But I’ll let you find out more for yourselves.
One last thing: you might be wondering how political this book is. I say this because I’d probably wonder myself, which goes to show just how public the whole matter of virginity really is. It’s nearly impossible to discuss without taking a political stance. Anyway, Hanne Blank never attacks the personal decision of abstaining from sex for whatever period of time and for whatever reason. But, like me, she is passionately against the notion that a woman's respectability, personal ethics, and value as a human being should be defined according to her sexual choices.
Virginity has been used as an organizing principle of human cultures for millennia. In the present as well as the past, any woman who trespasses against what her era, religion, community, or family holds as constituting virginity might be teased, harassed, shamed, ostracized, prohibited from marrying, or disowned. In some places and at some times her family might have been fined or punished because of it, or the woman herself might have been sold into slavery. She could be imprisoned, maimed, mutilated, flogged, raped, or even killed for losing her virginity…or even if it was merely believed that she had done so. And lest such humiliations and so-called honor crimes seem the province only of faraway countries with oppressive or backwards religious views about women, or insular immigrant communities that adhere to outdated traditions, it bears remembering that twelve-year-old Birmingham, Alabama schoolgirl Jasmine Archie was murdered by her mother in November 2004—forced to drink bleach, then asphyxiated—because Jasmine’s mother believed that the girl had lost her virginity.Other Opinions:
…Victorian patients and doctors alike lived in fear of even the most stringently medical contact with the vulva, let alone vaginal penetration. This permeated the nineteen century’s attitudes toward women and their genitals to the point that Victorian girls and women were ideally not to be permitted to straddle anything, ever. Little girls were kept from riding on seesaws or hobbyhorses, and they were discouraged from running, jumping, or gymnastics, for, as historian of childhood Karin Calvert notes, it was believed that “playing the wrong game or with the wrong toys could prematurely awaken sexual feelings in children and destroy their natural purity.”
A woman who does not like sex or who is a lesbian is often snidely said to have “never had the right man,” implying that if she had, she, too, would naturally have been converted—abracadabra!—by the magic of the “right” male wand. Men also are “made” by virginity, but in a very different way. A woman who loses her virginity loses her mastery over access to her own person: she had been had. A man who loses his virginity, on the other hand, gains mastery. Our slang reflects it: a man “pops her cherry”, but a woman “gives it up to him,” a man “breaks her in,” a woman “gets her hymen busted.” Sex makes both men and women “real,” but the subtext that the real male masters, while the real woman is mastered, remains
Hanne Blank’s Book Notes at Largehearted Boy
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