Virgin TerritoryDecember 22, 2008
So much fuss over a little flap of skin. I mean, really. Especially given most scientists aren’t sure why it even still exists. Some believe it’s there to protect our vaginas from infection but our happy place seems to do fine once we lose it. But most research believes that the hymen is vestigial tissue, that is, tissue that possibly once had a function in a different evolutionary stage but has since become redundant, much like our appendix.
Yet no one gets killed for having removed her appendix removed before getting married. Yes, despite its physical redundancy, this little piece of membrane has taken on huge societal, religious and moral significance.
Virgins didn’t always have a reputation as the meek, innocent, babes in white-flowing dresses the word conjures up today. There was a point when virgins were actually seen as powerful and virginity signified female independence and autonomy more than sexual abstinence. Many Greek Goddesses were Virgin Goddesses and were seen as all powerful because they were autonomous and didn’t need a man. Much like the Fertility Goddesses of the past, Virgin Goddesses were believed to have control over crops, animals and weather. Back in the 1stcentury, the Romans believed virgins could turn wine to vinegar and could blunt knives and rust brass. And in one of the more bizarre bits of research I’ve encountered, thieves in Medieval Russia believed that if they carried a candle made of the tallow – that is, the fat – of a murdered virgin, when they pillaged churches, they wouldn’t get caught.
I’m not exactly sure where one gets the fat of a murdered virgin but this sense that virgins protect you isn’t so ancient. The belief that sex with a virgin will protect you from HIV is prevalent in parts of Africa where AIDS is rampant. Frighteningly, this has resulted in the rape of young girls and even female babies by people who believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS.
So when did virginity go from something that could blunt knives to something precious that young women must “save” for marriage? Researchers credit the shift from a hunting and gathering to an agricultural-based patriarchal society. Once men owned property that they could pass on to sons, it became very important to make sure you knew your wife’s kids were your own. By ensuring she was a virgin when you married her, you could be more certain that her kids were yours. And if you look around the world even today, the more patriarchal a society, the more value that is usually placed on virginity.
Religion, as usual, is also largely to blame. By the time the most famous Virgin came around – the Virgin Mary, very popular at this time of year — there was so much negative press around sexuality that really, how could the mother of Jesus be anything but virginal. A story about how Mary was sleeping around on Joseph and got pregnant with the saviour of the world wouldn’t exactly be the stuff of Christmas Eve sermons now would it? But most girls couldn’t use the Holy Spirit as an alibi so, rather than risk pregnancy out of wedlock, they had to wait until marriage to have sex.
Once virginity was established as a requirement for marriage, proving a young girl’s virginity became de rigueur. Checking the sheets after the wedding night for bloodstains has always been the popular method, one that is still practiced even today, despite the fact that plenty of women don’t even bleed the first time they have sex.
And yes, as mentioned above, in some cultures, proof a girl isn’t a virgin at marriage is reason enough to kill her. Even today, thousands of girls in the Middle East and Asia die every year because of what are called “honour killings.”
It’s no wonder that, with these kinds of stakes, there have been as many ways to fake one’s virginity throughout history as there have been ways to prove it. Like taking the bladder of a fish, filling it with pig’s blood and pop it in your vagina before the big night so that it would burst when you had sex. And today, there are doctors who will actually reconstruct a girl’s hymen. The practice is called hymenorraphy and, in some cultures, it is done using sheep’s membrane while others use catgut to stretch across a young woman’s vagina. Occasionally, they will pop in a gelatin capsule full of blood-like liquid that is meant to burst when the girl has intercourse.
Like I said, so much fuss over a little flap of skin. Imagine if male virginity was under the same scrutiny and boys were constantly preached at to save themselves for marriage. And how would they prove it?