Why Have We Always Been So Obsessed With Virginity?

Stained glass of the Virgin Mary at Saint Patrick Catholic Church (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The conditions that define purity have long been used to control and exploit women.

Upon hearing the word “virgin,” the first image that will likely spring to mind is that of a young woman. In the Bible, in film and literature, in current debates about reproductive rights, a woman’s body has been the vessel for original sin. The onus of purity falls squarely on the shoulders of women-identified bodies — and why is that?

Virginal obsession and the myth of purity are nothing new. Virginity is historically rooted in establishing paternity and entrenched in male ownership. The popularity of virginity is often attributed to Mariology, the Roman Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary, i.e., the mother of Jesus.

Mariology began flourishing in the 14th century when Byzantine theologians reportedly believed that Mary (along with baby Jesus) was at the center of the cosmos. This took full social force during the Middle Ages, when Mary was upheld as the “New Eve,” heavily bolstering the status of women. Or at least, the importance of her purity. The concept of chivalry, for example, was established in defense of the honor of a maiden (otherwise known as a virgin), and sought to train men that would protect these fair ladies. Since Mary was the mediator between the holy and the earthly, her popularity adjusted the socially held belief that women were the source of evil.

Virginal obsession and the myth of purity are nothing new.

A prime example? Queen Elizabeth I of England, the “Virgin Queen” who ruled England from 1588–1632. Before, during, and after her 44-year reign, countless books, plays, and films have been dedicated to rumors about her various relationships and whether or not she and her boy toys ever sealed the proverbial deal. Here, virginity was a technicality: the kingdom obsessed over Elizabeth’s love life not because of the company she kept (okay, maybe a little bit), but because she was childless at 34 and did not provide the aristocracy with a new prince like a good queen ought to, so she was assumed to be a slut. Sex without progeny was unacceptable, as it was a Queen’s role to maintain the patriarchy and anything outside that labor was considered frivolous wantonness.

This subsequently evolved into the worship of virginity itself, an obsession that still permeates our culture today. Throughout Christian doctrines, the virginity of men and women is paramount for religious observance. For some, maintaining one’s virginity is a way of honoring their relationship to God. One needn’t look much further than the prevalence of Purity Balls to see how highly we still value a women’s virginity.

For the unfamiliar, a Purity Ball is a seemingly antiquated father-daughter dance in which fathers vow to protect their daughter’s chastity until they’re married off to another man. The young women make public pledges of purity amid tiaras, glinting candlelight, and expensive chicken cutlets. These promises are often accompanied by, yes, a ring from their father; drawing a straight line from these fêtes to marriage and paternal ownership is all too easy.

American culture openly conflates sexuality with morality — as Jessica Valenti writes in her book, The Cult of Virginity, we are into “idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality.” Whether or not we have sex and who we have sex with are all that’s valued in regard to women and girls.

American culture openly conflates sexuality with morality.

The notion of purity — especially when it’s coerced or projected onto a young girl — relegates her worth to a reductive and dangerous dichotomy. She’s either pure or she’s not, and if she’s not? She’s a slut. Raising righteous daughters is no doubt generated as an act of care, but its trappings betray its origins — a narrative in which a woman or girl, however young (or old), is merely an extension of her father’s carriage.

While having sex for the first time is a universal experience, the conditions that define virginity are socially constructed and have been used to control and exploit women. Historically, virginity was linked to controlling women’s bodies — through monitoring fertility or paternal ownership — and within this system, women’s bodies were (and are) presented as products for consumption, tools for labor, and a conduit for the continuity of a bloodline.

According to Sex, Society, and Medieval Women by scholar N.M. Heckel:

“In an era long before paternity tests, husbands needed some sort of assurance that the children borne by their wives were indeed of their blood, and taking a virgin wife was one way that a husband could increase those odds in his favor . . . Virginity’s monetary importance created a desire for ways to assure that a woman was indeed a virgin. Virgin brides generally came with higher dowries, making them more attractive to prospective grooms, and these prospective grooms, in return, were more likely to feel generous when it came to giving a return gift to the bride’s family. In order to help grooms ensure that the bride’s family was truthful about her ‘condition,’ many medical texts included descriptions of methods and processes that could be used to prove or disprove a woman’s chastity.”

These “physical exams” are something many would consider sexual assault today.

The commodification of women’s bodies is a longstanding tradition of capitalist patriarchy. If a woman’s body is an object, then virginity is a condition. In this way, women’s bodies become reliquaries for capitalist desire — blank spaces for projections of male fantasy — over-sexualized in order to move product in advertisements, for example. Originally, this notion of pure vs. impure was motivated by a spirit of conquest, oscillating between religious motivations and colonialist enterprise. This model yokes the woman into a painful binary: again, she’s either a virgin or a slut. This logic dictates that if something as “dangerous” as a women’s sexuality can be controlled, then so too can chaos; culturally we crave symbols of innocence and control, distancing ourselves from anything that renders us helpless, overwhelmed, or weak.

Virginity has been so exalted, we’ve even come up with ways to restore it, a physical impossibility that we happily suspend our logic for.

The 15th-century Hebrew Book of Women’s Love describes a sort of magical potion a woman can make in order to regain her purity. “Take myrtle leaves and boil them well with water until only a third part remains; then, take nettles without prickles and boil them in this water until a third remains. She must wash her secret parts with this water in the morning and at bedtime, up to nine days.”

If this sounds ridiculous and antiquated, consider that a hymenoplasty costs up to $5,000 just to reconstruct this tiny skin membrane. Considering the availability of this surgery, and the fact that a woman can rupture her hymen through masturbation, physical exercise, injury, or medical examination, it’s pretty much impossible to determine whether or not a woman is a virgin. Administered as “pelvic exams,” virginity tests are invasive procedures with inconclusive results, and have been deemed unethical by practicing gynecologists. (In fact, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) spoke out against against virginity testing in 2014, stating that it has “no scientific validity” whatsoever. )

While our cultural norms and attitudes about sexuality have fluctuated over time, traditional gendered approaches to sexuality and virginity have not disappeared so much as they’ve transmuted into new configurations; it’s merely a new sexual double standard. Men can go out and have sex with little to no consequence — in fact, it’s encouraged and celebrated! — while women, to this day, struggle with basic reproductive rights and ubiquitous slut-shaming.

Sociologist Dr. Laura Carpenter has written extensively about virginity, noting that a majority of lingering ideas we have about heterosexual sex have to do with the traditional need to control women’s fertility. And while the argument surrounding women’s reproductive rights is usually framed as an issue of fertility or the “lives of the unborn,” the continued struggle for control is about agency. “I’m finding it harder to believe that it’s about anything other than controlling women’s sexuality and that fertility is incidental to that,” Dr. Carpenter says. We are deeply threatened by “the idea that women could just go have sex with anyone that they wanted to, penalty-free.”

Traditional gendered approaches to sexuality and virginity have not disappeared so much as they’ve transmuted into new configurations.

By definition, virginity is both a state of passivity and an ideal; it’s “a designation for those who meet a certain standard of what women, especially younger women, are supposed to look like,” as Valenti writes. In tandem, the rhetoric surrounding virginity echoes a narrative of conquest: Virginity is “lost” or “taken,” foregoing the agency of the person whose body it refers to. This inextricably links the ideas that women’s bodies are not only objects, but objects that can be ranked and used in the service of men, which in turn, is a defining concept behind rape culture.

As we move toward a more fluid, spectrum-based understanding of gender relations and sexuality, virginity is the last bastion of the binary that relegates sex as “inside or outside” the institution of marriage, serving as another means for us to limit women.

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