Thrill Of The Chaste: On Modern Virginity

THERE WAS a time when people believed that only a virgin – and only females were considered true virgins – could coax a unicorn out of hiding. Like most other folk tales, that legend can now be easily re-read in Freudian terms. Seven centuries of secular thought and medical science have discounted, if not discredited, the idea that sexual inexperience is a source of spiritual power, along with any number of pseudo-biological theories as to how maidenhood manifests itself physically. But virginity has not yet been demythologised. A few still believe in unicorns. Almost everyone still believes in virginity, which is elusive in its own way.

“If someone asks you what it means to be a virgin,” says Anke Bernau, author of the newly published Virgins: A Cultural History, “or what it means to lose that virginity, you might start by saying, Of course, we all know what it is’, or Of course, it’s not important any more’. But the more you think about it, the less certain you become about defining it. Virginity is still important to people, but they don’t actually know what it is.” Bernau is speaking from experience as a professor of mediaeval literature at Manchester University, where her students consistently choose to write papers on such subjects as Joan of Arc and the sexual politics of the 15th century. Their assumptions, and her own research, led Bernau “into thinking about how the modern world regards the mediaeval in general”.

“Ideas of contemporary virginity, especially all this talk of abstinence education and chastity movements, made me interested in how scholars from other periods thought and wrote about it,” she says. How does the idea of a virgin saint make sense today?”

Virgins: A Cultural History begins, as do most examinations of this subject, with the hymen. First referred to in print by Italian physician Michael Savonarola in the 1400s, its existence was still being doubted and debated 400 years later. Doctors have since proven it, but also that its intactness proves nothing as regards virginity. What Savonarola called “the subtle membrane” has become common knowledge, as has the possibility that it may be broken by the mundane activities and accidents of girlhood, long before any form of sexual contact. Bernau quotes a 1978 article from medical journal The Lancet: “Contrary to popular belief, no definite criteria have ever been established for deciding whether a woman is a virgin or not.” That statement remains as true as when it was written, even though the patently false claims of mediaeval patricians – that a virgin was detectable by her facial expression, her body shape, or her smell – would seem to have modern equivalents in the “virginity tests” that women are still subjected to in certain countries, or the surgical “rehymenisation” procedures that some now volunteer and pay for as a means of restoring what they feel has been lost. “The modern,” says Bernau, “is more like the mediaeval than most people realise. Look at contemporary value concepts of female sexuality, where teenage girls are described by peers as slags’ or frigid’. Those concepts have a long history.” She accepts that she is talking, and writing, almost exclusively about the Western world, while the aforementioned tests and surgeries are much more common to the Middle East, where religious and social codes place anxious emphasis on a traditional association of male honour with female virginity.

Muslim extremists famously believe that suicide bombers will be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins, although Christoph Luxenberg’s contentious recent assertion that the original language of the Koran was Syriac, rather than Arabic, has given rise to an alternative translation – holy martyrs may in fact have been promised luscious “raisins”, rather than “virgins”. (The operative word in this confusion is “hur”, which has long been interpreted by scholars as an enigmatic mention of dark-eyed heavenly maidens. Luxenberg instead deciphered it as a feminine plural adjective which means “white” in Syriac, but implicitly refers to dried grapes, and arguably makes more sense within a written Islamic Hadith that describes the full buffet of Paradise.) “It’s a vast topic,” admits Bernau.

Bigger than her book can accommodate. She had no room for a planned chapter on male virginity, which is so rarely discussed outside of American teen comedies – a recent and honest example being the film Superbad – that when it does come up, the word “male” is still required as a modifier. “Absolutely. When you say virgin’, it shouldn’t automatically be assumed that you mean female’, but people do make that assumption, and it says something about how we perceive the differences between male and female sexuality. Also, female sexuality these days is so often talked about in terms of Islam and other cultures. There is a reluctance, perhaps, to talk about where Western secular culture gets its ideas of virginity. Which is, from 700 years of Christian thought.” In the middle ages, the Church idealised virginity because of the example set by Jesus Christ and his mother. Feudal aristocracies prized it no less, but for different reasons – a virginal bride was a guarantee of legitimate heirs to inherit property and title.

The combined effect was a confused and suspicious form of social control over women in particular, by which a rape victim might still be considered a virgin, if only the courts could be convinced that neither her body nor soul had consented. Protestantism arose partly from a conviction that humanity was too weak to sustain chastity, as demonstrated by the lapses of monks and nuns, and that marriage was therefore more natural, plausible, and worthy of veneration. (Sectarian animosity is, as such, partly the product of conflict over the figure of Mary, whose virginity is not necessarily doubted by Protestant denominations, but historically considered a distraction from the attention due to God himself.) With every advance towards sexual equality, there have been religious adaptations. During the Victorian era, “purity leagues” such as the White Cross Society demanded pre-marital abstinence of both genders, an equivocal concession to early modern feminist thought that also found validation in Biblical passages such as Ephesians 5:3 (“But among you there must be not even a hint of sexual immorality … “).

There is nothing new, then, about the US-based evangelical pressure groups which now militate for abstinence as the only acceptable form of sex education, and the only valid choice outside wedlock – the best known being the Silver Ring Thing. What is new is the recognition, among similar but secular organisations, that virginity may be a choice made independently. Denise Pfeiffer is media co-ordinator for the Silver Ring Thing in the UK, but also director of an internet-based support group called Celibrate, which provides a platform for non-religious abstainers. “This is a market that has not been catered for,” says Pfeiffer. “There is a fraction of our sexualised society for whom some of the ideas that have become the norm are quite repulsive. Their concerns are almost taboo now, but they shouldn’t be, because this society is damaging a lot of people in ways that haven’t really been measured yet. Look at the UK’s rate of sexually transmitted infections STIs … ”

Pfeiffer is celibate herself, having decided as a teenager that the standard biological sex education was going to “lead somewhere disastrous”. Celibrate is her belated resistance movement, attracting over 6000 members since it was founded last year. According to Pfeiffer, the website appeals to those who are chaste or virginal for their own private and positive reasons (as opposed to physical or psycho-sexual problems that may force people to become involuntary celibates, or “in-cels”), but they are generally dedicated to a few core propositions. First, that celibacy should be taught in schools as “the most viable and healthy option”. Second, that an organised response is required to the stigmatisation of virginity. And third, that asexuality should be considered a sexual category in itself. “If someone out there has never had a sex drive,” says Pfeiffer, “and never looked back or regretted it, then I would argue that person is not heterosexual, or homosexual, but something different.” The Celibrate site includes a “roll of honour” of the famous names who supposedly belong to this other type – JM Barrie, Isaac Newton, Cliff Richard, Marlene Dietrich (who had sex, but reportedly “hated” it). The list could be longer.

Besides the resounding examples set for women by Joan Of Arc and Queen Elizabeth I (both of whom achieved mythic political power through outright defiance of patriarchal custom), some of the world’s greatest male artists and thinkers are rumoured to have been virgins. Children’s authors form a peculiar cluster: Barrie, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson. Philosophers too: Kant, Descartes, Kierkegaard. Nietzsche, however, who is sometimes speculatively mentioned in that company, took the view that virginity, like liberty, was an invention of the ruling classes, having nothing to do with human nature. That view may now be less popular than ever. “I personally think this resurgence of concern for virginity is a negative thing,” says Anke Bernau. “I’m all for young men or women being confident enough to say no to sex and resist peer pressure. But I don’t think you can use the concept of virginity as a kind of ideal, and at the same time hope to illuminate all its very problematic connotations.”

The most fundamental of these is the question of definition. Who or what is a virgin? A person who has not (yet) engaged in penetrative sex? What about all the other kinds of sexual contact? What about gay men and lesbians? What about abused children? Do love, or morality, come into it? Even if virginity could be quantified, there would still be the question of how and why it is lost in the real world, where the young cannot always reflect on such abstracts. In Scotland, sex education is directed by a national policy of Respect And Responsibility, summarised as: “Delay until ready, be safe when active.”

But this country’s levels of STIs remain among the highest in Europe, and NHS Quality Improvement statistics suggest teenagers in deprived areas are at least three times more likely to get pregnant than middle-class peers. All of which suits what Bernau calls the “post-modern view”, that our governing institutions do not address either the environmental factors or private emotions at stake, and instead obstruct our understanding of virginity as a social construct which has no meaning other than that which the individual decides to give it. But even those who don’t feel represented by the definitions of church, or school, or parliament, still refuse to believe that it is meaningless.

Virginity, and its loss, satisfy our sense of narrative. On one hand, the women who undergo hymenoplasties, or declare themselves “revirginised” in the sense of being reformed, seem to buy back into a concept that predates and even repudiates feminism. Wendy Shalit’s book A Return To Modesty argued that women’s liberation has only increased misogynist violence, so the entire project should be reversed. Wendy Keller based her Cult Of The Born Again Virgin on the premise that sexual freedom “is not getting us what we thought it would”. On the other hand, so-called born-again virgins might be seen as rewriting their own stories, trying to find a way back through a rite of passage that they feel has been dictated to them.

In a recent interview, a spokesperson for London’s secretive and exclusive women-only chastity society The Prim And Proper Pussy Club said that “celibacy is as much a rebellion as promiscuity”. “No two girls are in the club for the same reason,” explained the pseudonymous Miss Angeline. “Some think abstinence is the new laid’. For me, abstinence is a personal quest … I am now as free as I can be in a capitalist world.”

For most, however, virginity is a private fairytale that still works because of its power as a metaphor for life itself – once lost, gone forever. Each story is unique, but universal. “The loss of virginity is a personal experience,” says Bernau, “but that is mediated through a cultural narrative that belongs to everyone. There are only so many plots and locations – the back seat of a car or whatever.

“For my research I read autobiographical stories about lesbian virginity loss, and they were similar to the heterosexual ones, which disappointed me a bit. Why are these narratives picking up on the concept of virginity rather than relinquishing it?” This is an academic question, which may not be of interest to those who cannot take the concept for granted. Earlier this year, at the age of 22, Nick Wallis lost his virginity to a sex worker after giving up hope of that conventional narrative. “I got fed up with waiting,” he says, six months after the fact.

Wallis was born with muscular dystrophy, a life-shortening illness which progressively debilitates the body without directly affecting the mind. He had the same sex education as most other British kids – “general biological stuff” – and all the same urges, but a narrowing window of time and opportunity to act on them. “I wanted the experience, like everyone else. I’ve got a right to feel normal. But there’s always this issue of not having a girlfriend. What I want more than anything is to be in a proper relationship. I thought it might happen at university, but approaching girls was a bit of a farce. From their body language you knew they weren’t interested. So I got disillusioned.”

His decision to pay a “surrogate worker” was recorded in a BBC documentary about Helen and Douglas House, the Oxfordshire hospice where Wallis receives part-time care. The staff, and his mother, had their problems with it, but could not dispute his logic or his urgency. “I just want things to happen now,” he said on camera, when someone called him brave for speaking out on the issue. Wallis hadn’t thought in those terms.

He thought it was his story, and his problem, alone. Since the deed was done, and the programme broadcast, there has been, he says, “a lot of bullshit out there making me out to be a bad person”. “I’m not bothered about what those people think. But it does make me sad that it didn’t happen with a girlfriend, within a proper relationship. I’ve had the physical experience of sex, but I still feel like a virgin.”

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