a bird and a bottle

Virginity: We’ve Come A Long Way, but Yet… (Bean’s Bookshelf)

Alex Kuczynski, she of the Styles section and the book “Beauty Junkies” reviews “Virgin: the Untouched History” (pun intended, I assume) by Hanne Blank in today’s NY Times Book Review (full disclosure: as a small girl I dreamed of being a book reviewer and have a special place in my heart for book reviews. No, I was not very popular in middle school). For Ms. Blank, the author, who has in the past written extensively about erotica, a book about virginity seems a little tame.

But then, she gets to include juicy stories of how women have been abused throughout time for losing their virginity. Plums like these:

In ancient Greece, one Athenian father, upon discovering that his unmarried daughter had given it up, fed her to a starving horse. In ancient Rome, the vestal virgin priestesses were required to keep their hymens — whether annular or crescentic — intact during their 30 years of service. If they did not, they were buried alive in custom-built oubliettes.

Pretty gruesome. Blank also details the way in which virginity has been fetishized, which the reviewer, Kuczynski, rightfully ties to rituals that continue in some parts of the world today.

Virginity has also been considered a life-saving antidote. Blank gives the history of the so-called “virgin cure,” the belief that men could be cured of sexually transmitted diseases by having sex with a virgin. She links this idea to Christian legends of virgin martyrs who battle demons while protected by their own purity. In 18th-century London, one in every five capital rape cases involved children under the age of 10, and the rapists commonly cited the virgin-cure myth in their defense. It would be nice to think this notion has long since been abandoned to the gruesome past, but that is cruelly not so: it persists in southern Africa and is a major contributor to the escalating AIDS crisis.

But Blank’s approach is not one sided — she’s not pushing girls’ legs open across the USA; she also shares tales of the horror inflicted when women refused to give up their virginity.

From the review, it sounds as if the book gets to the heart of why virginity has been so central to patriarchy. Problem is, to Kuczynski, that seems like the book’s downfall:

The thrust of Blank’s book seems to be that for many eons, in patriarchal societies, women needed to prove they were virgins so that their deflowerers could be assured of paternity and thus take care of the offspring — and that, gee, that was kind of miserable and sexist. Under the Roman Empire, fathers had the right to kill their daughters if they had sex before marriage (or outside of it later), and the right to kill the offending male as well. Imagine if this were the case in America today: half of Manhattan would be dead.

Well I guess virginity, then, is a non-issue today. Oh, wait…maybe not.

3 Comments so far
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an old sri lankan wedding custom is during the ceremony to have a white cloth draped around the bride (over her gold and her wedding sari!!) which symbolizes her purity, and then that sheet would be placed on the wedding bed and then the next day the village cleaning woman (literal translation from sinhalese is cloth woman) takes that sheet and displays it to the groom’s family. I don’t know what happens if there ain’t that bit of blood. I assume the bride gets returned to her family amidst shame and the usual crap. this is old time stuff,but many still drape the cloth around them during the ceremony, although nobody places it on the bed anymore …although,who knows whether in the remote rural villages they’re still doing the entire custom?

Needless to say, at my wedding, I am omitting that white sheet. heh heh.

Comment by tiloma


Thanks for that. It’s really interesting (and I bet there are a lot of parallel customs in other religions/cultures).

Also glad to hear you’ll be skipping the cloth — besides the patriarchal implications of it, we can’t hide your beautiful wedding sari!

Comment by bean

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