From blushing medieval maidens to Bush-era abstinence campaigns, Western views about the importance of virginity reflect a continuing anxiety about innocence, experience and control, writes Anke Bernau
On 17 April 2005, The Observer ran a short article about an 18-year-old Peruvian woman, Graciela Yataco, who had offered in a local newspaper to sell her virginity for the equivalent of £5,000, in order to pay for her mother's medical treatment. Peruvians responded with moral outrage: Yataco was rebuked by politicians and social commentators, and was verbally and physically threatened. She responded by stating: "I got thousands of e-mails, most using words I would not dare repeat. But nobody offered a solution for my family." She concluded: "I think virginity exists in the mind, not really in a little membrane."
This story, as I show in my new book Virgins: A Cultural History , indicates how age-old attitudes and anxieties still influence the ways we think and feel today. And this applies even in the supposedly secular, post-Christian West. From early Christianity onwards, virginity was understood as fundamentally (and problematically) connected to knowledge. Humanity's condition before the Fall was virginal; after the Fall, with the acquisition of knowledge, came the entry into sin and the loss of virginal innocence and perfection.
Yet virginity has also proved consistently resistant to knowledge - and defining it, over the centuries, has occupied poets as well as medical and religious writers. Yataco's words pinpoint one of the main problems they grappled with: is virginity a physical state or a state of mind?
Certainly there were and are those who seek physical proof of virginity. Thus, it is still widely believed that a woman's virginal status can be ascertained by checking her hymen, even though the hymen cannot, in fact, provide such proof. ("Virginity", of course, was - and still is - a term considered particularly relevant to women.) Nevertheless, virginity tests and hymen reconstruction surgery are performed in many parts of the world, bolstering a myth of physically verifiable virginity that is often used to control women.
What remains obscure is precisely which sexual activities are considered to lead to a loss of virginity - and which not. There are those who would argue that anal penetration does not count - a claim that reveals heterosexist assumptions. Equally, any penetration of the vagina that is not by a penis, even if it results in the tearing of the hymenal membrane, tends not to be counted as loss of virginity. Such uncertainties are reflected in the questions asked by adolescents in magazines and on websites.
In the past, and notably in the Middle Ages, it was not so much the hymen that was looked to for evidence of intact virginity as a combination of physical traits and behaviour. Female virgins were thought to be discernible by their modesty, their propensity for blushing, and the colour and quality of their urine. A true virgin was also characterised by her innocence - that is, her absence of knowledge and experience, particularly in sexual matters.
On the other hand, women were often suspected of pretending to be virgins, and of performing the traits associated with virginity. Such suspicions - expressed by medical, legal, religious and literary writers - were based on the belief that women all potentially possessed a dangerous knowledge that allowed them to exploit the elusive nature of virginity, and to deceive those around them.
Virginity was also linked to knowledge in other ways. For Christian thinkers, virginity was not primarily a physical state. In order to claim true Christian virginity, especially if one was a man or woman dedicated to a religious life, one had to achieve the correct state of mind.
For example, even if one did not actually engage in sexual activity, the desire to do so was already a threat to virginal integrity. Virginity guides were written in order to aid those intent on maintaining lifelong virginity in the name of Christ. Both the body and the mind had to be guarded carefully, the soul continually searched for any sign of sinfulness. Women in particular had to be wary, for it was thought that their carnal natures made them more susceptible to lascivious thoughts. After all, it was Eve who first fell for the Devil's flattery. This meant that virginity encompassed what we might think of today as both psychological and physical status: a person's thoughts, intentions, desires as well as her actions. In other words, virginity was a complete identity, and one which, in its ideal state, had to be worked for constantly, demanding endless self-scrutiny.
Yet when virginity was understood as both a state of mind and a physical state, it meant that loss of anatomical intactness did not automatically result in the loss of virginity. St Augustine, for instance, believed that a virgin who was raped still counted as a virgin as long as she resisted the violation in her soul. Interestingly, a recent study of young adults' attitudes to virginity in the US revealed that the majority of the women also felt that virginity was not lost if the woman was raped. Equally, young lesbians and gay men have begun to appropriate the term to describe their own sexual experiences, thereby challenging the traditional definition.
Yet another recent development is the idea of secondary virginity, which refers to the idea that women and men who have had sexual relationships but want to make a fresh start can regain their virginity after a period of abstinence.
If virginity was a way of life that had to be learnt, it was also seen as opening up opportunities, especially for women. The virgin, rhapsodised medieval writers, was free from the sexual demands of an abusive husband and did not have to spend her life in fear of him or the dangers of childbirth. The tedium of a domestic life, with all its chores and indignities, was contrasted to the serene freedom enjoyed by the virgin who dedicated her life to Christ. This is maintained virginity, as opposed to the virginity that one was expected to hold on to only until marriage. The threat that this posed to patriarchal control is evident in numerous stories that portray the single woman as monstrous and unnatural. (Similarly, when women started claiming a role in public life in the 19th century, male commentators expressed the view that too much education spoiled a woman for marriage and children, thereby threatening the stability of the social order.) Yet some women recognised the advantages that such a life could offer them. Espousing maintained virginity in the 17th century, Jane Barker wrote in her poem A Virgin Life that she was grateful for it, as it allowed her to dedicate herself to God, her books and her friends.
A similar sentiment is found in a recent novel aimed at a teenage audience. In Kate Brian's The V Club (2004), girls at a high school join the V[irginity] Club and find that it allows them to focus on friends, hobbies and career choices rather than seeing their worth defined by the attention received from boys. This, in turn, echoes the stance of promoters of abstinence education in the US, who argue that abstaining from sex until marriage allows young men and women to concentrate on their education and friendships, thereby improving their self-esteem and economic future. Debates over abstinence education crystallise virginity's associations with education and the intersection of he personal and the social.
Abstinence education in the US, which receives millions of dollars of funding from the Bush Administration, teaches young people that the only safe way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sex until (ideally) marriage. Early abstinence education curricula contained misleading information, which led opponents to accuse them of scaremongering.
The issue sparked a heated debate, at the heart of which lies the question of knowledge. One side claims comprehensive sex education encourages teen promiscuity as well as promoting moral and social decay. Opponents argue that withholding the facts from young people does not stop them from having sex, but prevents them from making informed choices. Yet others see the abstinence agenda as part of a wider attack on welfare aimed against specific segments of society. Abstinence education makes clear that virginity is not just a personal, but also a social and political issue.
For supporters of the abstinence agenda - many of whom are evangelical Christians - virginity allows the individual to develop the necessary personal qualities (self-respect, self-control, responsibility) and economic resources to enter the one state within which sex is deemed acceptable: marriage. The family, in turn, is seen as the mainstay of an ordered society.
This view excludes sexualities that do not conform to a heterosexual, procreative model. Even those who do not subscribe to a strict religious understanding of the term may see virginity as a protection against soulless promiscuity.
Virginity becomes a symbol of resistance against a culture that is perceived as dangerously hollow, focused solely on instant gratification and devoid of emotional or spiritual values. While it is often claimed that virginity in today's secular society is no more than an embarrassment, something to be lost as soon as possible, even this dismissal concedes its ongoing importance, testifying to its stubborn persistence as an idea.
That virginity - whether in maintenance or in loss - is in fundamental ways about identity is evident from the many coming-of-age movies that present it as a significant threshold in the lives of adolescents. When, how and with whom we lose our virginity still says much about who we are, to ourselves and to others, even while it remains unclear exactly what virginity is. Its protean nature, its ability to signify widely divergent things, to reinvent itself even as it remains rooted in ideas that go back to the classical period, has facilitated its survival as a culturally meaningful concept.
This alone makes it worthy of investigation and discussion. Yataco's observation that virginity exists in the mind is astute, for it highlights its constructed nature. Yet, as the intense hostility she experienced demonstrates, knowing that virginity is a construct does not make it any less potent.
Anke Bernau teaches medieval literature at Manchester University. Her book Virgins: A Cultural History has just been published by Granta, £18.99.