Why are we (still) so obsessed with virginity?
October 6 2022 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)
Disclaimer: The use of gendered terms is strictly to conform with research. Additionally, this blog post is not a critique of the Catholic religion.
The cultish obsession with a female’s virginity is something that definitely deserves the ick- but despite the modernization of society, why do we still care so much about virginity?
Well, let’s go back in time.
The Myth of Purity
Virginity has closely been linked to social and physical purity. We can credit this idea to 14th century practices of Mariology- the Roman Catholic worship of Virgin Mary. To many, Mary was an incredibly important figure in their universe. The image of the Virgin Mary was bolstered and revered, and more importantly, the expectation fell onto women that they too must be pure. As society celebrated The Virgin Mary’s status, this began to conflate her holiness with her virginity.
Sexuality = Morality
So to make matters even worse, as the eras and centuries progressed, sexuality became intertwined with morality. I mean, did we really not have any other units to measure one’s character?
Women were still not considered equal to men, and so an easy way to rank them was to use their virginity as a metric. In N.M Heckel’s book, “Sex, Society and Medieval Women,” the scholar outlines an era back when paternity tests didn’t exist. Men needed assurance that their wives “purity” was still intact, therefore, virginity was truly the only barometer to ensure this. Virginal brides came with higher dowries, were married off to better and wealthier men, and of course, this meant more gifts for the bride's family.
Virginity became a class-based commodification. This also was the birth of the ‘virginity’ test, or a ‘chastity’ test, where a potential bride would be subjected to a physical test to ensure she was still a virgin. Today, such practices, which include testing for the ‘breakage’ of the hymen, are commonly classified as sexual assault, not to mention largely inaccurate. In this blog, we cited a 2019 study from the Reproductive Health Journal that urged clinicians not to rely on the state of the hymen to determine one’s history of sexual intercourse.
This conflation is dangerous for several reasons, but namely, to associate one’s fitness into society based solely on whether they have had sex reduces them to merely a body. It also places them into the category of social commodity that is not only designed to be saved, but also, in need of protection. And if this commodity is not protected, then a woman is deemed less than pure, which is basically an extension of being slut shamed.
Strange Social Clout
So, now you have a society who has stumbled upon this fascinating virgin who miraculously was blessed with a child. This became a cultural breeding ground for paternalistic ideals to infiltrate beyond the medieval times and into the modern world. Yes, females might be acknowledged for more than their child-bearing abilities, but there’s still a large focus on their virginities.
Enter social emblems that basically solidified the relationship between a female’s virginity and her closeness to God. So, events like Purity Balls seem like natural extensions of this ideal.
A Purity Ball is a formal dance and dinner wherein fathers formally pledge to protect the virginity of their unmarried daughters. However, there is a lot of myth about the proliferation of purity balls and whether as many take place as actually reported. In her 2010 book, The Purity Myth, writer Jessica Valenti reported that there were approximately 1,400 purity balls held in 2006. But, this figure was taken from the National Abstinence Clearinghouse (NAC), based out of South Dakota- which makes you wonder the validity of this figure, and the motivations behind this organization. Moreover, when reached by telephone, the President of the NAC was rather vague with her numbers.
The Public Fetishization of Virginity
The case for mainstream pornography is that it has peddled the image of a sexy virgin trope. Most porn websites have virgin categories (some may or may not be legal), and this is a dangerous propagation of the very definition of what it is to be a virgin. The “sexy” women featured in these videos are supposed to be “girls”. This is a tricky two sided coin and it illustrates a dangerous dichotomy of sexuality. Quite literally, people fantasize about seeing a virgin have sex, and then they can simply
The Case for Celebrities
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Pop culture is also a troubling source of pressure to keep its starlets ‘pure.’ In fact, there’s entire articles dedicated to naming and ranking celebrities who waited until marriage to have sex.
One example is Jessica Simpson, who was a 2000s it-girl and poster child for being one of America’s sweethearts received a purity ring from her father at 12 years old. She famously spoke out multiple times about remaining a virgin until marriage. In her Newlyweds interview, Simpson said her decision to remain a virgin until marriage (to Nick Lachey), is the thing that makes her most proud. Slow clap, anyone?
The crux of the issue isn’t Simpson’s decision, but it’s the mere publication of it, and the apparent fascination and fetishization surrounding her virginity. Why is a celebrity's virginity anyone’s business? More so, why wasn’t anyone equally as concerned about Nick Lachey’s virginity? The harm stems from Hollywood’s obsession with exposing us to women who exemplify the desire of the male gaze, while simultaneously glamorizing their virginity. The dichotomy is a whiplash for the average young girl to understand - what message are they really trying to send?
Reuters/ Lucas Jackson
Then there’s the case of American olympian Lolo Jones who for better or for worse became vocal about her decision to wait until marriage to have sex. In 2012, Jones was interviewed on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel when she said that she was waiting until marriage to lose her virginity. At the time of making the statement, Jones was 30 years old and this sparked a media frenzy of skeptics and critics who laughed at Jones’ decision.
Once again, Jones has every right to discuss this- but at what point did society turn wherein women felt compelled to have to disclose this information? What avenues must be taken to leave this fetishization behind once and for all?
The Double Edged Sword… How Do You Win?
For a society that seems grounded in puritanical order, there also lies the argument that the pressure to lose one’s virginity almost competes at the same pace as our fascination with praising those who maintain their virginity.
If you’ve grown up in the information era, this pressure is only exacerbated. Teens and young adults are raised under the limelight of a hierarchical order that invisibly dictates when they believe they should have sex. This hierarchical order also exists for adults. It’s almost like a rite of passage that coincides with certain ages. Conversations with my friends were often to the tune of, “By ___ years old, you should have your first kiss. Then, by ___, you should have sex.”
The double edged sword lies in the dichotomy between being a “prude”, or being a “slut”. But in what grey area can females emancipate themselves from this tiresome cycle?
Perhaps David G Berger said it best in his journal article, “The Ideology of Virginity.”
“If the sole value of females and/or their function in society is an exclusively sexual one (as a “sex object), then women’s control over their own sexual behavior provides the only possible control over their own destinies and their only source of power.”