Why do we attach a phrase, such as “losing our virginity,” to our sexual experiences, as if once our virginity is “lost,” part of ourselves has essentially vanished?
Pairing the two word “losing” with “virginity” accomplishes two goals. First, we only lose what we consider valuable (e.g. “I lost the race,” “I lost my notebook,” or “I am lost.”). We also lose things we presume we ought to have kept (e.g. “I lost my temper,” or “I lost your phone number.”) Coupling “losing” with “virginity” implies that virginity is something of value that we ought to have kept.
Second, pairing “losing” with “virginity” is problematic, since losing is never something we do purposely in any other given situation.[i] After all, we cannot deliberately lose our keys. That is precisely why they are “lost.” And even if you intentionally lose a game of chess to your younger sister, you have not truly lost it. Rather, you have forfeited, and this move is an active one. Therefore, to lose anything is passive.
How, then, has this passive verb found its way into our (hopefully) active sexual experiences? In order to examine the issue further, we must not only discuss historical roots, but we must also analyze cultural phenomena.
Of perhaps many origins, the hymenization of virginity traces back to the Hebrew Bible, as found in the Book of Deuteronomy, where “losing” one’s virginity alludes to severing one’s hymen, or losing/popping one’s cherry, so to crudely speak. Women are assumed to be passively losing while men are thought to perform the active “popping.” Oddly enough, although both men and women speak of virginity in terms of “losing it,” the phenomenon of a lost cherry or hymen pertains only to women, as men do not possess an equivalent physical attribute.
When we “lose” our hymens, are we missing part of our body? Are we no longer whole? Since men do not have hymens, are men presumed to remain intact or complete human beings after they become sexually active, while women are not? The hymenization of virginity implicitly suggests that losing our hymens renders us yet another step removed from full humanness. Moreover, women (although, certainly not all women) are the only group pressured/forced into submitting to invasive “virginity exams” where either physicians or pseudo-physicians inspect our hymens for wear and tear, as it were.[ii]
Virginity tests, where the hymenal ring is examined for ruptures, may very well uncover grave mistruths about a woman’s sexual past. For instance, some women are born without remnants of ever having had a hymen. In these cases, women who have never asserted their sexuality in any manner might be accused of having “defiled” themselves. In some families and cultures, women may be ridiculed, slandered, abused, tortured and/or killed if no hymen is discovered because our bodies-and furthermore, our sexualities-are considered property of the men in the family: fathers, uncles, brothers, and male cousins. Other hymens can be quite elastic, and in this circumstance, hymens may not rupture at all during penile-vaginal intercourse.
Here, an elastic hymen would not produce blood – “proof of virginity” – on one’s wedding night. Once again, the bride may be subjected to ridicule, slander, abuse, torture and/or death.
The possibilities for these occurrences are not far fetched. Nor are they pieces of history from long ago, merely reduced to academic feminist folklore. Women today, in many parts of the world, know precisely what it is to live and die by the hymen. “Honor killings,” where women are murdered for any number of reasons, but namely for “sully[ing] the honor of men” in countries such as Egypt and India (among others), are socially and culturally legitimized so as to restore family honor.
According to Dr. Mohammed El-Hennawy, it is not unusual for a gynecologist to encounter “… in his office a blushing young female surrounded by a whole horde of male relatives demanding that she be examined. She did not bleed during sexual intercourse on her wedding night, and the men all want to know why. You always have to favor the girl, because if you don’t, she’ll be killed by her family. Sometimes, if the girl has the opportunity, she’ll beg you to cover for her. They are very frightened; they know they will be killed. So you tell the male relatives the bride had an elastic hymen, which many women do anyway, and in such cases she wouldn’t bleed. Honor killings are still carried out in Arabic countries. A family will arrange for an underage brother or male relative to do it. Then when there is an investigation, nothing happens. The case is dropped.”[iii]
Honor killings,[iv] while not socially acceptable in the west, are not the only negative consequences incurred by women for ruptured hymens. Many types of social sanctions as well as other punishments cross cultures as well as religions. From Muslims to Catholics, from Cairo to New York, virginity is hymenized, and as a result, women suffer.
Although in the U.S., women are not generally murdered for asserting our sexuality before marriage, in some communities, we are ostracized and discriminated against in many arenas, such as in our jobs, at home, and at school. In the United States as well as other Judeo-Christian based societies, the historical roots of the hymenization of virginity can be traced back to the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible, where an intact hymen – alleged “proof” of girls’ virginity during the that period – signified life or death for women.[v]
The hymenization of virginity is not based on “science” and “nature” of the physically torn hymen in relation to female sexuality. Instead, it is a social construct, rooted in one of the most misogynistic books of the Bible, Deuteronomy, which was written during the Greco-Roman era that was notoriously patriarchal.
The hymenization of virginity has not only gendered virginity itself, but it has also gendered our overall sexuality by molding the ways in which we discuss such issues. Given the background of the patriarchal social construction of the hymenization of virginity, is referring to our first sexual experience in terms of “losing our virginity” something that should be reconsidered?
“Losing” our virginity gives others power over us and linguistically forces women into mere recipients of sexual pressure. In cases where our first sexual experience was that of rape or incest, a renewed feminist linguistics and discourse pertaining to virginity may return subjectivity to us. Virginity must have everything to do with when we first decide to actively assert our sexuality as opposed to passively “losing” our hymens, having our hymens “taken away” from us, or linguistically giving someone the ability to do so.
When we begin to speak of our sexuality in active terms; when we refuse to adhere to the patriarchal dictatorship that our virginity be defined by a thin membrane that can be “lost,” “broken,” or “taken away;” when we actively decide when and whether we will sexually assert ourselves, and when we make these decisions necessary components to discussing virginity, we give the power of our sexuality and sexual experiences to ourselves and the women and girls with whom we come in contact.
[i] There are instances where individuals who had been raped at some point during their childhoods will claim that they “lost their virginity” at that time. See attorney Andrew Vachss’s article on language and child abuse, “Watch Your Language.” While recognizing that if one is raped, and therefore by popular understandings of “losing virginity” is considered to have “lost their virginity,” I argue otherwise, taking up Vachss’s urge for us to “watch our language.” This point shall be further explored and explained.
[ii] According to Lydia Laza (at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, held in June of 2005), in some cultures, boys are tested for virginity. However, these “tests” are not invasive, in that boys’ anatomy/genitalia are not examined and prodded at such as girls’ often are. Instead, boys are required to urinate in the sand, and virginity is judged by the stream produced. If boys’ urine projects in the form of a straight stream (as opposed to a “spray”), they are said to have proven their virginity. (Laza’s information is based on the work of Chris McGreal .)
[iii] See Dr. El-Hennaway’s PowerPoint presentation.
[iv] Souad. 2004. Burned alive: A survivor of an “honor killing” speaks out. New York: Warner Books, p. 114.
[v] See ,Deuteronomy 22:13-21, for example. It is worth mentioning that the husband in this passage is instructed to never divorce his new wife if she is found “innocent,” meaning that she was a virgin before marriage. Ironically, she is then forced to live with a man who has publicly humiliated her. However, this point of view is ignored in the text because historically and culturally, women were considered mere property, and were not treated as full adult human beings; they were often counted with objects, children, animals, and other plunder as spoils of war. See also Genesis 34:29, Numbers 14:3, 31:9-12, Deuteronomy 20:14.