College Angst and the Cult of Virginity, Part I.
Philia: But what am I supposed to do?
Pseudolus: Wait! Isn’t that what virgins do best?
–A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Advisory Warning: This is the first of a two-part blog on virginity, and it contains frank talk about sex. If you are under age, don’t want to read about such things, or can’t read about them without euphemisms, clinical terms, or obtuse allusions, please don’t read them. If you’re coming here directly to Altered Focus, by clicking the “read more” button, you agree that you can, and want, to go on. If you’re coming here directly to the blog and don’t want to read, just hit the “back” button now.
I think we really need to get over virginity.
Before I go any further in this or the next blog, I probably should get it out there that I’m NOT speaking as some kind of sexual profligate. As a young man, I was doggedly determined to remain pure. I persevered through high school and college girlfriends, and once actually took a girl home who wanted to fuck me silly. I could, back then, recite all the reasons — Biblical, medical, sociological, psychological — why I held the convictions I did and I believed them. I was technically (more on that later) a virgin until I was married. I have had only two sexual partners in my 50+ years of life, and I married both of them. I’ve never had, and never wanted, casual sex. I bring my observations about virginity from this experience, from my own historical knowledge, and my observation of others’ lives: my peers, my parents and their friends, my students, and people in general. So I come at virginity (no pun intended) from the point of view of someone who gets why it’s such a big deal to some people.
And please note: I am NOT saying in these pieces “Don’t be a virgin.” Go right ahead if you want. Be proud of it if you are and you know why. NOR am I saying “have indiscriminate, casual, early, or unprotected sex.” I’m just saying that, as adults, let’s be honest with what virginity is and isn’t, and can and can’t do. Let’s take away the confused, contradictory, and inaccurate mystique. Let’s stop venerating something that doesn’t exist in an attempt to ignore dealing with how things are. Let’s stop using it as a way to control our daughters and sons. And let’s stop lying to them about it, sex, ourselves, and themselves.
Virginity Is in the Head, Not the Hymen
There is no medical definition of “virginity.” Go ahead. Look it up. Breaking a hymen does not make a woman not a virgin. If that were so, women would have been deflowered, accidentally and intentionally, by a lot of things that we just don’t need to talk about here. And that’s why male virginity has always been somewhat of a conundrum. You can’t make male virginity about ejaculation; we’d all be deflowered in our sleep at about 13 years old. No, it’s generally about where a man ejaculates, under what conditions, and his state of mind at the time. Virginity is not a physical condition, but a term that encompasses a set of beliefs, practices, and taboos about sex.
Virginity Is in Other People’s Heads
That’s why virginity has never really been about whether the person in question is actually a virgin, but whether other people think the person is a virgin. “Virgin,” falls into the same labeling category as “whore,” “player,” and “slut.” Anyone who has labeled someone else, or has been labeled by others. as one of these knows what I mean. That means, I imagine, you.
In any case, that’s why we have special markers and demonstrations to others about virginity at weddings, the time when virginity matters most to people. After all, in most traditions, making virginity continue until marriage and end after it is the whole point. So we have demonstrations to others of this transition from virginity to … not-virginity. Brides, for example, are thought to proclaim their virginity by wearing white (although this is a recent development). It used to be that a woman getting married for the second time, or one whose sexual history was suspect, would elicit snickers and grumbles of disapproval from the crowd by wearing white. After all, what was she trying to pull over our eyes? Please. Nowadays wearing white is less of a marker of physical purity than a traditional color pick. And even if they have their doubts, most people who care about such things now just bite their lip and go on with the charade.
Still, we generally still pretend, even in fluffing the newlyweds with sexually charged gifts and parties, as if virginity successfully makes it to, and ends with, the wedding night. Even couples to whom this really matters and who have “slipped” a bit early will, from my observation, go to great lengths to pretend that this is really the way it was to others and eventually to their own kids. We generally take them at their word or let them have their story even if we know otherwise. But in some cultures the couple’s word isn’t good enough: someone has to run down to the wedding guests to wave a bloody sheet to prove to the assembly that a virgin really was present before, and no longer after, the marriage took place. Of course, women have had to develop all kinds of backup plans to make sure that there is blood, or enough blood, for such a demonstration to be made. But that’s because virginity, really, is all about convincing the crowd. Your reputation — and in some cases your life — depends upon it. You do whatever it takes.
Virginity Is Largely in Men’s Heads
And we should be honest here. As a cultural construct, virginity is — and has always been — in the heads of men. And not the small ones.
After all, nobody runs down on the wedding night with a sheet, points to a wet spot and shrieks, “Look! She just touched it and it went off like a Roman Candle! He’s a VIRGIN!” No, nobody does that. Nobody promises women that if they martyr themselves for a cause they will be rewarded with seventy male virgins every day in heaven, because, for women, that would be hell.
No, for the most part we make fun of male virgins, just as much as we fret over, fantasize about, and fabricate female ones. We venerate virginity for women, but it’s women in terms of their control by men. That’s why there’s stipulations in Deuteronomy (22: 13-21) that if a bride is found to not be a virgin she should be killed, and nothing about the bridegroom. That’s why no boy gets killed anywhere because he’s not a virgin or by a sister in an honor killing. That’s why there are “Purity Balls” and “Purity Weddings,” where young (often prepubescent) girls, in ceremonies dripping with latent sexuality and dolled up like Jonbenet Ramsey, pledge their virginity to their fathers as the gatekeepers and guardians of their chastity. Even in the epicenter of Purity Balls (Colorado Springs), it’s not really about the girls.
You see, when we get right down to it historically, virginity is a state where a woman’s sexuality remains under the control of one man (daddy) until it is passed to the control of another (hubby).
No wonder so many dad’s still get enraged by their daughter’s sexual activity (if they discover it) and weepy and maudlin about losing their daughter to another man up to the wedding. And, I think, that’s why some young women really value being virgins at certain points in their lives, especially when daddy doesn’t have that much control. Sex connotes a relation of subservience and obligation to men. Not having sex (whatever line that takes) with someone your own age is one way of maintaining independence and options without losing the (imagined or real) support of daddy until you want to jump ship. Until then, wear his ring proudly.
That’s why studies show that these kinds of things really don’t work any better at promoting or maintaining abstinence. A better — and more appropriate — guy is going to come along.
Along the way, physical virginity (however that was defined) and paternal bloodlines became conflated with ideas of spiritual purity, physical and spiritual health in about the second century AD. That’s when virginity became really complicated, and that’s the legacy we, and our kids, are living with today. It leads to all kinds of heart-wrenching, hand-wringing, trash-talking, soul-searching, denial-employing, stupid-ass proclamations and even stupider-ass decisions in college. But that’s my next post. See you then. Until then, stay pure.