Jun 2, 2009

Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank

Virgin: The Untouched History

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.
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.
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”.

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.

Notable passages:
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.

…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
Other Opinions:
Jenny’s Books

Hanne Blank’s Book Notes at Largehearted Boy

(Did I miss yours?)

25 comments:

Amanda said...

Wow. The obsession with virginity is one thing I never understood. I mean, with the physical "virginity" itself. I can understand abstaining for personal or religious reasons. I just mean, virginity gives a woman - and only a woman - godlike attributes for some reason, and beyond that, it seems everyone is so keen to take it away from her. It's a ridiculous concept. I think I'd really like this book.

Debi said...

This truly does sound fascinating! I'm sorry to hear it doesn't talk more about how virginity is viewed in the present, but like you said there are other books. This definitely sounds like a worthwhile read! How on earth am I supposed to thank you for introducing me to all these incredible books I likely would never hear of otherwise?!!

Nicole said...

I like reading books like this, even though they usually manage to leave out some really interesting aspects that you want to explore further on your own. The History of Marriage was really good as well.

I read Breathe, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat and there is a pretty brutal scene where he mother, not taking the word of her daughter, forces her hands between her the legs of of her daughter to make sure that she is still intact. The daughter then goes on to find some way to rebel against her mother, and of course uses her virginity as the weapon. Yikes.

Seems like poor Freud didn't have that many clues about too much. If I had forever imprinted on the first person I was with that would be pretty tragic.

Meghan said...

Virginity is such a crazy concept. We discussed the "discovery" of the hymen in class once because as you say, it was beyond the Middle Ages, and no one knew that.

It would be so sad for so many women if they were permanently attached to the first person they had sex with. What a ridiculous idea. I may have to investigate this book, it sounds interesting.

Scrap girl said...

What an unusual book. I found the information you provided fascinating. Especially where the girl sold her virginity on Ebay, even though she had been sleeping with a woman for years, yet still considered a virgin. All because of a small piece of skin.

Daphne said...

I often find myself wondering if women in their 50s or 60s, who have been life-long lesbians, are still considering technically "virgins" if they've never had heterosexual sex. Seems crazy, but I guess the answer would be "yes"! Totally crazy.

Kailana said...

I have this on my TBR list. It looks really interesting! Nice to see a review of it, though.

Chris said...

This sounds fascinating! Definitely going onto my list. This was a great review, by the way :)

Darla D said...

That does sound like a fascinating book. I enjoyed the quotations - thanks!

Melody said...

Interesting... and fascinating too! I hope I'm able to find this at BookMooch. ;)

marineko said...

Another one for the wishlist. This sounds absolutely fascinating! And, you know, the fear of tampons is still pretty widespread here... ( -_-). And in local tv dramas, the women who are not virgins are always the "bad women" or villains... the "good women" are not virgins are either married, widowed, or victims of rape. This is why I hate local tv.

Nymeth said...

Amanda: She writes quite a bit about the belief in the "magical" properties of virgins - from medieval legends about virgins and unicorns to the contemporary idea that sex with a virgin cures AIDS :/ I think you'd like the book too!

Debi: It does have one whole chapter about our days, but I could have read a whole book. Heather at Book Addiction recently review The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti, which sounds right up my alley. And you more than thank me by being your awesome self :D

Nicole: The History of Marriage does sound really good! And wow, that does sound brutal :/ It's not even like she'd be able to find out anything by poking around anyway. I hope nobody throws rocks at me for saying this, but Freud did like making stuff up :P

Meghan: It is completely ridiculous. And the worrisome thing is that there are still people who act like that's the case. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book if you pick it up!

Scrap Girl: It's so silly, isn't it? And such a cold concept too.

Daphne: I wonder too... it really is completely crazy!

Kailana: I think you'll definitely enjoy it!

Chris: Thank you!

Darla, you're most welcome :)

Melody: I hope so too!

Marineko: Unfortunately those stereotypes are still around. I think that annoys me the most is the underlying assumption that what a women does or doesn't do is everybody's business.

Alice Teh said...

I like the sound of this one, Ana! OK, I'll add it into my WL. Thank you very much. LOL

Trixie said...

Hanne's book is really fantastic. She's the advisor to a documentary I'm doing about virginity called "How to Lose Your Virginity."

For anyone who's interested, I also write a regular blog on the subject at
theamericanvirgin.blogspot.com.

Both the film and blog are more about contemporary attitudes to the subject, but I also am intersted in the historical aspects.

I'd love your feedback on it since we obviously share a fascination with the topic.

Thanks!!

Vanessa said...

Just got here from Kelly's (aka Kailana) blog. This book sounds really interesting and I enjoyed your review.

I'm thinking I will be adding it to my TBR pile for sure!

Amanda said...

Sex with a virgin cures AIDS? I hadn't heard that one. How...awful. I had to struggle for a bit to figure out exactly which adjective I wanted there...

Nymeth said...

Alice: You're welcome! It's what I'm here for :P

Trixie: I'll definitely watch the documentary when it's out, and I'm visiting the blog in a minute - thank you!

Vanessa, thank you! And thanks for visiting too :)

Amanda: It is awful :/ I've read new stories about how in South Africa, where unfortunately AIDS is so common, that belief often motivates rape :( What I didn't know and learned in the book is that in the nineteenth century, when syphilis was so common in Europe, many people believed the same.

zibilee said...

I am fascinated by this topic and think that this would really make an excellent read for me. It seems like every time I visit here I walk away with more books for my wish list then I can handle. Thanks for the great review!

naida said...

another unique book! this sounds interesting.
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Michelle said...

I think that I would really like this book. Sounds so fascinating. Hope your wrist feels better soon!

Jenny said...

I'm glad you liked it. It sounds like you felt a lot like I did when you finished it - wanting to know more about so many things! I am fascinated by modern sexual ethics, but my library hardly has any of the books I want. There was an interesting article in the New Yorker a while back about the differences in sexual mores between red states and blue states - well worth a read!

http://www.newamerica.net/publications/articles/2008/red_sex_blue_sex_8275

Joanne said...

I don't read nearly enough non-fiction but this looks perfect to add to my list. I've watched a documentary on virginity/sexual rites in different cultures - fascinating stuff - but it hadn't occurred to me to look for a book on the subject. Thanks so much for the review Nymeth :)

Iliana said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating. I think it's interesting that here we are, year 2009 and virginity is still such a "prize" in so many countries and communities. By the way, have you ever read Virgin Territory? Not necessarily about virginity but all the "firsts" that mark a woman's life. Fun reading so I recommend it.

Trish said...

Ok, I've GOT to know--what prompted you to pick up this book. And this made me laugh out loud: "Oh Sigmund. I can always count on you for a laugh."

In seriousness, the topic of virginity is fascinating to me. I grew up in a religious culture where sex is almost treated as a taboo--and in many ways sex is associated with shame. It took a long time for me to be confortable with sexuality, including my own, but virginity is one of those topics that makes my ears perk up. I know don't know soon I would actually get to this one, but I'll be on the look out for it.

Nymeth said...

wow, look at all these comments I didn't answer! I guess I was having a busy week?

Zibilee, sorry about that :P But if you like the topic then you'd enjoy this for sure.

Michelle, I hope you do! And it's all healed now, thank you :)

Jenny: I don't know why I never said so, but I did read and enjoyed the article. Thank you!

Joanne: You are most welcome! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Iliana: I haven't, but I looked it up and it sounds like something I'd love. Thanks!

Trish: I can't remember why I first added it to my wishlist, but I wanted to treat myself to a book for the non-fiction five challenge and there this was. I grew up in a relatively relaxed family but in a very strict Catholic town, so though I was aware of all those taboos, I don't think I ever really internalized them. Anyway, I really think you'd find the book interesting!

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