Local Scholar And Writer Hanne Blank Delves Into The Scant Facts--And Ludicrous Myths--About Virginity
Think of the word "virgin," and what probably comes to mind is the image of Steve Carrell, in his baby-blue striped shirt and his goofy grin, as pictured on the movie poster of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. For better or worse, this is the current pop-cultural epitome of virginity: a clueless state of innocence rife with two hours of comedic material. Now think of the annunciation of the much younger Virgin Mary as depicted in a medieval illustration; the connotations are completely different--the humor immediately replaced with mystic wonder. Here are two of culture's great virgins, separated by the span of more than two millennia and representing virginity in two completely different ways. For the former, virginity is an embarrassing characteristic; for the latter, it is serious business.
The complicated story of how we evolved to Point B from Point A is the subject of Hanne Blank's Virgin: The Untouched Story. Working from relatively little prior scholarly material, Blank sets out to confront and deconstruct a nebulous concept that has held sway over civilization from the earliest Neanderthals to the latest abstinence-only education programs in public schools. "Far from being a monolithic, universal, ahistorical given of the human condition, virginity is a profoundly changeable and malleable cultural idea with an enormous, vital, and mostly hidden history," she writes. "With virginity as with so much else that pertains to the human condition, the only real constant is change."
Virgin works in two ways. The first is as a biological and medical study of virginity and its perception through the eyes of many (predominantly male) doctors and intellectuals. It is crucial to note that, while virginity certainly extends across the demographics of gender and sexuality, Blank focuses on the female body as the central site of this concept--if only because early social structures were developed by men who saw virginity and its loss as a way to mark territory or ensure the perpetuation of certain bloodlines.
It is here where "virginology" segues into "hymenology": the focused study of that tiny, mysterious flap of skin that serves as the most concrete evidence of a young woman's virginity we might ever have. Among the many sexual myths Blank dispels throughout her engrossing work, predominant among these is the traditional belief that the word hymen derives from Hymenaeus, the Greek god of marriage. "As it stands," Blank writes, "Greeks of the era during which Hymenaeus was actively worshipped did not . . . acknowledge the existence of a specific vaginal membrane, much less name it after their patron god of weddings." Indeed, it is only during the 15th century that the word "hymen" is used to refer to a specific body part.
The second half of Blank's book works as a survey of the cultural history of virginity. We see how the celibate vows of male and female saints reflected a higher spiritual purity. History's greatest virgin, Mary, is described as "both a major medieval legacy and a complicated, messy mixed bag." Millennia later, the serious nature of virginity in medieval Europe transplanted itself to North America with the arrival of the Puritans, who treated the loss of virginity as both "an ideological and dogmatic crisis." Blank's exploration of the evolution of virginal thinking, despite its female-centered focus, leaves little unexplored. The Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, ribald 17th-century poetry, greensickness (in which virginity caused some young women to become physically and mentally unbalanced), billboards in Baltimore calling for abstinence--it would all be exhausting if it weren't so enlightening and, for reasons both prurient and educational, page-turning.
The one culminating idea in Virgin is that, regardless of expert studies such as this, virginity as a physical and psychological concept will forever be in flux. Blank suggests that however much we pore over the subject, we can never understand virginity any more definitively than what our history and culture offer up. While there's certainly enough trivia on display here to make you the center of attention at your next visit to singles night at the local bar, Virgin is more than just a reservoir of sexual trivia. At times, there are painful sociological implications on display. As Blank notes:
A woman who loses her virginity loses her mastery over access to her own person: she has been had. A man who loses his virginity, on the other hand, gains mastery. Our slang reflects it: a man "pops her cherry," but a woman "gives it up to him," a man "breaks her in," a woman "gets her hymen busted." Sex makes both men and women "real," but the subtext that the real male masters, while the real woman is mastered, remains.
For first-timers preparing for their moment of glory (be they 14 or 40 years old), insights such as these might stave off a commitment to crossing this cultural rite of passage. For those who have already given up that special part of themselves, however, it appears there remains much to be learned from the awkward gropings, messy fumblings, and bedroom tumblings of the past.