Unsnarling the irrational, contradictory, still-thriving obsession with virginity
If the editors of Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen considered, even briefly, appropriating the title of Madonna’s iconic song for their book, they may have dismissed it as too corny. But, as usual when it comes to iconography, Madonna was on to something. The essays in Virgin Envy explore in depth what the pop singer was gesturing at: what virginity is like—what it stands in for, what it is groomed and manipulated and fetishized to represent—as much as what it is.
The essays in this voracious and wide-ranging collection are paired thematically in four sections: “Too Much Pain for Such Little Reward”; “Blood, Blood, Blood … and More Blood”; “Men Be Virgins Too: Queering Virginity,” and “F*ck: They Entrapped Us in Social Issues and Politics.” There is a lot of cross-fertilization here. As editors Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos and Adriana Spahr make clear in their introduction, although the authors take diverse approaches—looking at everything from vampire fantasy novels to filmmaker Derek Jarman’s depiction of Saint Sebastian, the early Christian martyr—they all acknowledge the enduring cultural and social significance of virginity. Beyond that, they play with the idea that much of what we define as virginity is more notional than actual, which raises some obvious questions: Performed, rescinded, even reinstated (think Purity Balls and reconstructed hymens), when does virginity actually exist? Why do we care about it and to what end? What do our attitudes on the subject say about us?
Most of us (I include myself here) have been conditioned to think of virginity primarily as the domain of heterosexual women and girls. As the editors note, “though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship.” Virgin Envy proposes to redress this assumption among many others, and to examine the social and political significance of virginity far beyond accepted conventions. What about men, they ask? Bisexuals? “How does a bisexual person lose virginity? Twice?”
The symbolism of the hymen is deeply embedded in most cultures, Jodi McAlister, an Australian feminist historian who has studied romance and virginity, tells us—although as Cristen Conger illustrated in a witty 2012 Huffington Post article, there are widespread misconceptions about its location, its permeability and how it is “broken.” As Conger pointed out, a hymen is not a vacuum seal, and is often gone—or eroded to the point of insignificance—by the time of first sexual penetration. Yet breaking the hymen, complete with pain and blood, persists as a central feature of how we discuss female virginity.
In spite of a title and introduction that playfully suggest envy as the central, mock-Freudian theme, it is not much in evidence in these essays. Obsession, yes. Fascination. Manipulation, above all; if virginity is a cultural chimera, a female virgin is a projection and avatar of all the fantasies, expectations and political expediencies of her time. In her essay “Bollywood Virgins,” Asma Sayed describes the ways in which Bollywood films uphold and reinforce prevailing social mores in contemporary Indian society, featuring virginal heroines who invariably marry their first sexual partner; she also shows us that some films have begun to test these boundaries in significant, if circumscribed ways. It is hardly surprising that Bollywood reflects the social conservatism that surrounds it, in Sayed’s opinion. She quotes Hanne Blank, who noted in her 2007 book Virgin: The Untouched History that virginity “has been used as an organizing principle of human cultures for millennia.”
And yet virginity itself, as Amy Burge notes in the first chapter, is full of contradictions. For one thing, any proof identified by penetration, Burge writes, must be “retrospective … since virginity is something that exists only as it is lost.” (This, the elusive and ephemeral nature of virginity, is a theme returned to often in the essays that follow.) For another, in order to be aware of one’s own virginity, one must be sexually aware and therefore, if we accept the common equation of virginity with innocence, already in some ways non-virginal. Before this awareness, it is assumed, one is a pre-sexual child.
This goes to the heart of Gibson Ncube’s essay “Troping Boyishness,” which while dense with theory is also extremely moving. Ncube aims to redress what he describes as “a cavernous gap in the research on male virginity, in particular masculine queer virginity in the Arab Muslim societies of North Africa, in literature or otherwise.” First he examines the theory that a gay male child, an identity often conflated with effeminacy, can only be perceived as gay retroactively once he has reached gay adulthood (before which he is an effeminate boy, and effeminate boys might grow up to be heterosexual men). Ncube inverts this equation slightly when speaking of two gay literary protagonists: “it is imperative to view effeminacy as an intrinsic part of their makeup and not only as a signifier of future homosexuality.”
The protagonists he describes are the creations of “two openly gay writers of Maghrebian origin: Abdella Taïa (Morocco) and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri (Franco-Tunisian),” and it is through their work that he homes in on his point. These authors describe the invisibility of homosexuality in their respective countries, where queer virginity gives a gay man a kind of power while, at the same time, as a “passive” sexual partner he is seen as weak, disgusting, feminized. The man who penetrates him is none of these, not even gay. Ncube tells us that for both Taïa and Djaziri “the loss of virginity is intrinsically linked to the development of a sexual identity considered deviant, ‘unspeakable,’ and undesirable in the Arab Muslim world of the protagonists.”
Individual readers will naturally be drawn to some of these essays over others, and some stamina is required for theory-heavy language, but each has something fresh to say. Two standouts, perhaps because the stakes they examine are so high, are Ncube’s essay and “The Policing of Viragos and Other ‘Fuckable’ Bodies,” by Tracy Crowe Morey and Adriana Spahr. Morey and Spahr examine virginity as an ideological and social tool in a number of Latin American military cultures; Chile under Augusto Pinochet, for one, where, we are told, conscripted female soldiers “had to abide by military regulations that kept them in a state of permanent girlhood.” By contrast, the authors tell us, “predominantly lower-class and Indigenous revolutionary women in the first part of twentieth-century Mexico” were frequently portrayed in both popular and official culture as “sexualized vixen[s].” The authors also detail the use of rape and genital torture (of both women and men) by armed forces in Argentina in the mid 1970s and early ’80s; the objective was to humiliate both sexes and to emasculate the men. While women were symbolically stripped of “virginity” over and over, men were made to feel they had been turned into women, and, as with Ncube’s “passive” partners, to be feminized was to be despised.
In my youth, heterosexual boys, if they referred to their own virginity at all, tended to do so with quick, joking references whose chief aim was to divert attention from it. When they “lost it,” they usually did so with more experienced girls or women and were considered lucky, while the girls might be labelled slutty (the corollary to this double standard was yet another double standard, in which boys were unlikely ever to admit to having been coerced).
My own unscientific sampling of recent popular culture reveals that our attitudes toward virginity can be exploited to considerable comic effect. In Yvette Edwards’s wonderful novel A Cupboard Full of Coats, a young British girl is informed by her best friend that once a woman has had sex she walks with her toes turned out. In Rick Famuyiwa’s 2015 movie, the race satire Dope, three teens at band camp are told by a new white friend that he is still “technically a virgin” because white girls will perform fellatio and allow anal but not vaginal sex in the interest of preserving their own “virginity.” “So the question is,” he announces with high seriousness to his rapt audience, “not, am I technically a virgin, but … am I technically … gay?” “Whoa, that’s deep” is the response. And in Karen Connelly’s soon-to-be-released novel, The Change Room, a mother who has just found out her teenage daughter is a lesbian and has been sleeping with her lover for months insists that the girl is still a virgin because she has not had sex with a boy. Each of these examples underscores, with tenderness and humour, the value of a book such as Virgin Envy, and the need for us to question the narrowness of received notions of virginity, sexuality and gender.
But shouldn’t virginity be passé in our sexually liberated western culture? Maybe, but society, like individuals, is not necessarily honest with itself about sex. In her essay, Burge draws a direct line from medieval orientalist romances to contemporary “sheikh” fantasies whose exoticized heroes expect western women to be experienced (i.e., not virgins) and are stunned and delighted to be proved wrong. By displacing the obsession with virginity onto an “other,” Burge says, western culture reveals its own fixations and prejudices.
As much as many Western readers, indicated through countless news and comment pieces, might condemn “foreign” cultures for continuing to conduct virginity tests, the gender hegemony that these tests uphold is clearly evident and even celebrated in our own romantic cultural imagination.
As the authors and editors of Virgin Envy argue, it is time for more honesty on the subject of virginity and all that surrounds it. Time to acknowledge that definitions of purity, like hymens, are far more elastic, far more various, than our limited imaginations may have allowed.