Virginity: The Myth We Didn’t Know We Were Living
A defining feature of the effort to control women’s sexuality is its ability to birth traditions, cultural practices, and religious beliefs that serve as a means to that end. And, while those methods have evolved across historical decades, perhaps no one method has been as effective in accomplishing that goal than that of virginity.
We commonly understand virginity to be the state of never having had sexual intercourse but despite having a seemingly broad definition, its real life application is as narrow as they come. To talk of virginity is often to talk of a woman. And, to talk of a woman’s virginity is almost always to talk of the metric used to determine it: the hymen. A rim of tissue at the outer opening of the vagina, the hymen is thought to break and bleed the first time a woman has vaginal sex. Through that act, we associate a woman’s purity as being forever altered. This ideal has rendered the hymen an object of praise for women when present and of shame, mistrust, harm, and death when absent. In Indonesia, women's hymens are examined as a prerequisite for military service. In Oslo, doctors routinely examine the hymen of young girls during medical exams to reassure anxious parents. In India, a white thread is often placed on the marital bed after a couple’s wedding to detect bleeding. In Afghanistan, two-finger vaginal examinations are regularly conducted to allow girls’ access to school and work. In South Africa, groups of girls undergo public testing to ascertain their virginity. Around the world, virginity operates as a social construct so powerful to justify the control of women’s sexuality and define how they are to be viewed.
Behind the curtains, we know the principle of virginity to be of a dark beauty not for the persistence with which it degrades girls and women around the world but for the way it does so without a sound scientific basis.
The very heteronormative ideology upon which our understanding of virginity rests has also been the one to cloud our understanding of the hymen. Beyond a rim of tissue at the outer rim of the vagina, the hymen varies greatly in shape across women, making it hard to be detected. Unlike popular belief, it is elastic in form and easily stretches to allow for vaginal intercourse without sustaining any damage for fifty percent of women. Bleeding from vaginal intercourse becomes then an anatomical impossibility for women with elastic hymens. For many other women, the hymen may simply dent or fold without disappearing completely. Within the medical community, it has been widely known that an examination of the hymen is not an accurate or reliable test of previous sexual activity for precisely these reasons. One study by Norwegian Dr. Marie Jeancet particularly stands out for finding the genitalia of a middle-aged sex worker identical to that of a teenage virgin. Her findings reveal to us the deep extent to which our perception of virginity is grounded in a veiled sexual oppression of women.
Birthed out of a much grander effort, practices to affirm virginity have effectively endowed women with fear and affronted their dignity. Still, we would be doomed to forever consider the space between a woman’s legs as an entry point for her self-worth for it reveals much more about us and the place we go looking than it does the person through which we do.