A billboard in Baltimore used to read, "Virgin: teach your kids it's not a dirty word." That it could be thought of as a dirty word, and that social forces might pay good money to change this concept, illustrate part of the ambivalent feelings our society has toward virgins and virginity. The ambivalence, at many levels, is exhaustively examined in _Virgin: The Untouched History_ (Bloomsbury) by Hanne Blank. An independent historian (with some books of erotica to her credit), Blank says that she was working as a sex educator and wanted to find authoritative sources on virginity. Despite the medical, historic, religious, and social implications of the subject, she found few. "Even though my interests were limited to virginity and virgins in the Western world, it was rapidly becoming obvious to me that if I wanted to read a comprehensive survey of virginity, I was going to have to write it." Her book is indeed comprehensive, and it is scholarly but far from dry, as she examines the surprisingly complicated topic of what a virgin is, and tries to make sense of why the subject has been on our collective minds for so many centuries.
Just defining what a virgin is is a tough exercise. And it isn't just a philosophical or verbal one: "It is an exercise in controlling how people behave, feel, and think, and in some cases, whether they live or die." The confusion is shown by Augustine, who said that if a virgin resisted rape, then she was still a virgin after rape. The defining emphasis on a potentially procreative act, rather than any other canoodling, isn't because of any inherent biological cause, but seems to be due to social factors, like a father's valuing his daughter's virginity as a bargaining chip in matrimonial negotiations No other animal besides ourselves seems to recognize or value a condition of virginity. Sometimes the explanation given is that humans are the only animals with hymens, but this is not true; lots of mammals have them, and they have hymens that are useful in, say, sealing out water, or only opening up when the female is in estrus. No animal besides ourselves pays the hymen any attention, and this is despite that the human hymen serves no function. There is no accurate test for virginity, although many have been proposed, from the supposedly physiological to the downright superstitious. "The simple fact is that short of catching someone in the act of sex, virginity can be neither proven nor disproven. We cannot prove it today, nor have we ever been able to." Just to show how patriarchal is the interest in such tests, there is always one form of evidence that is universally considered inadmissible in the matter: the woman's own verbal testimony.
"Of all the countries of the developed world," writes Blank, "the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." Our federal government is attempting to establish virginity as the only proper sexual status for its never-married citizens. That young people should abstain from sex is the basis of millions of dollars of federal programs; that they do not abstain, and never have, is obvious but makes no difference to those with a pro-virginity agenda. Usually such agendas come from religious groups. Funding, for instance, goes to a program called Free Teens USA, which is run by people with strong ties to the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The church maintains that any sexual activity outside of marriage is an abomination, and Reverend Moon has advocated that a woman who is threatened with rape ought to kill herself rather than undergo extramarital coitus. Less extreme religious groups may advocate virginity, but the results are poor. Abstinence programs do not reliably lower risky sexual behavior. When the Centers for Disease Control did research into programs that were supposed to reduce such behavior, none of the programs that were successful were centered on abstinence. (Since then, the CDC has discontinued such research and removed the results from its website, and its recommendations for contraception have been replaced by statements of official support for abstinence and abstinence only.) Blank's book is not a polemic, but her enlightening historical review of western attitudes to virginity would be good reading for anyone making governmental policy about our virgins. It is also a call to remember the long confusion of historical definitions and attitudes, and that "losing one's virginity" is probably not one physical, emotional, or psychological event, but a process of sexual development that is different for everyone and ought not be oversimplified as one coital act.