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Hanne Blank's "Virgin": The book that's awkward to be seen with in your workplace's lunchroom

"The more we look and the deeper we see, the more we realize that over the course of the millennia we have recognized virginity to exist, it has never been static or unitary. Answering the question of what exactly virginity is, for once and for all, is probably an impossibility. Even if we could, we would still be left with an even deeper problem: the question of why we care about virginity in the first place."

Ever since I read Hanne Blank's Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, I've been meaning to read Virgin: The Untouched History. I was tremendously impressed with her research and conclusions in Straight and thought she would do a good job synthesizing information on a topic that tends to arouse strong opinions.  Almost everyone has an emotional reaction to the topic of virginity. Maybe not on the surface, but it's a subject that is so wrapped up in our overall outlook on life, or related to issues from our past that it's nigh impossible to be objective.

That was way harsh, Tai.

I was particularly interested in Virgin because I was so militant on the topic for so long. The most important moral decision you could make in your life, to my mind, was not to have sex before marriage. You could be a fine person in all other aspects, but if you started having sex, you were making a terrible life choice and therefore reduced in my eyes. This is such a difficult mentality to escape. Going into this book, I wanted to know why I thought this way (meaning why my Christian high school thought this way), what virginity technically was (I thought I knew, but the moment you start asking questions, it becomes a deeply murky grey area), and could I develop a more informed opinion on my current position, a position which does not require abstinence in a Christian relationship?

Blank starts her book with "Virginology," saying "By any material reckoning, virginity does not exist." And we're off and running. She goes on to talk about how, like philanthropy, virginity is an invented concept: "We have fixed it as an integral part of how we experience our own bodies and selves. And we have done all this without actually being able to define it consistently, identify it accurately, or explain how or why it works."

She discusses the history of it, including how the male body has almost never been labeled virginal, so it is a female concern (and one which, as is popularly known, was primarily used to ensure a male's dynastic line). Upon thinking more carefully about virginity, I've become the most concerned about why has it become the end-all, be-all of our moral selves. Why is a girl's worth so predicated on her sexual experience rather than on something like her character? It's because of an accumulation of millennia of cultural values, and I hate that. I hate that my brain has been so influenced by the world in which I live that I would look at someone who is a lovely person, find out they were having sex in a non-legally bound sense, and think less of them (and most definitely judge their male counterpart less harshly).

I'm not saying that the overemphasized value of virginity in culture negates the abstinence argument (that argument's for another time), but the fact that virginity still means so much to our culture and the fact that it is that way because of men's ideas of property — it's beyond reason.

A lot of it comes down to a desire to control, and the "ick" factor — the same reasons that lie at the heart of why so many people rally against homosexuality. Are people reacting this way to divorce? No. Are they reacting this way to usury? No. It's the sexual "sins" — the ones that make us feel powerless and icky when we think about them. The second the thought pattern goes from "Oh gross, you're doing that with another dude," to "Oh, it's none of my business and I probably have my own shit to deal with," we all get a little better. This needs to happen with women and their sexual lives in our culture.

The chapter that's stuck with me the most is Hymenology. WHY IS THE HYMEN SO MYSTERIOUS. I honestly thought what apparently most people think (thank God, because I felt really dumb about this), that "the hymen actually covers the entirety of the vaginal opening with an unbroken expanse of skin, like the paper-covered hoop through which the circus lion tamer makes his charges leap." Apparently that sort of hymen exists, but it's very rare and considered a birth defect. What I hadn't thought through was periods and how THOSE would work in that situation. But again, when it comes to virginity, people seem to not think things through a lot.

You knew it was coming

Blank's research again impressed me, as she goes from a 2nd century physician named Galen, who scrupulously identifies every part of the genitals but leaves out the hymen, to 18th century author Nicholas Venette and his advice on how to counterfeit virginity, to that very special episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Angel, nooooo!).

Finally, like in Straight with her discussion of doxa, a concept I still bring up whenever I can, she makes some broader points about society, pointing out regarding the attractiveness of virgins that "We learn to desire these attributes because we learn that within the context of our culture, they are valued and desired," and blowing my doesn't-usually-think-about-why-things-are mind with ideas like the following:

Every taboo, every law, and every rule serves at least two functions. On an immediate level they exist to control behavior, to keep people from doing things that their culture considers inappropriate, unethical, or wrong. But on a larger level, rules and taboos exist as representations of the abstract concepts that a culture depends upon to help make sense of human experience. A rule like 'thou shalt not steal' enjoins people not to steal the belongings of others. But it also conveys the message that the concept of 'private property' plays an important role in the culture. Additionally, it presumes that there is something of a consensus within the society about what 'private property' is and what 'stealing' is, and that the people who live within this culture are aware of these ideas and what they mean.

Hanne Blank, I will read a book on any topic you decide to research. Especially if it explains hymens some more. (SO MYSTERIOUS)

Definitely gonna bow out on this metaphor


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