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Virgins are individuals of both sexes who have never had sexual intercourse, most commonly defined as vaginal penetration. Historically, virginity—particularly female— has been important in many cultures. The virginity of a bride has often been regarded as a mark of her purity, a sign of her family’s honor, and as a means of guaranteeing the passage of her husband’s bloodlines to her children. For Christians, male and female virginity has long been associated with spiritual purity, and most Christian religions today still place a high value on premarital virginity, even in societies where the vast majority of individuals do not remain virgins until marriage. In many contemporary societies, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, premarital female virginity still has tremendous cultural significance. In other cultures, especially North American and European societies, it is uncommon for people to remain virgins much past late adolescence. However, in such societies, there remains a double standard that encourages women to remain virgins longer than men.
In the United States, contemporary definitions of virginity are fluid. Some regard any sexual activity short of vaginal penetration as compatible with maintaining virginity, whereas others believe that participation in oral or anal sex constitutes a loss of virginity. Although heterosexuals are more likely to link virginity to vaginal penetration, most homosexuals do not consider those who have engaged in oral or anal sex to be virgins. For some, whether one gives or receives oral sex affects the potential loss of virginity. Similarly, in the case of anal sex between two men, there is sometimes debate as to whether one must penetrate or be penetrated in order to lose one’s virginity.
In most cases one’s status as a virgin is linked to lack of experience with certain sexual activities. In some instances, however, virginity is more closely tied to emotional or spiritual definitions. Some men and women, including many victims of rape, do not believe that non-consensual sexual intercourse can be counted as losing one’s virginity. Certain Christians who, after losing their virginity, decide to abstain from sex before marriage, consider themselves to have regained their virginity, becoming “born-again virgins” and thereby tying the notion of virginity to a personal spiritual state rather than a physical act.
In the United States today, loss of virginity is much less likely to be considered medically than emotionally or physically. In many cultures (and in earlier U.S. history), however, loss of virginity has been associated with the breaking of the hymen, a ring of tissue partially occluding the vagina. Though there is no necessary correlation between virginity and an intact hymen, some women have opted to undergo vaginal reconstruction surgery, which repairs or replaces the hymen. Although some do equate this procedure with a restoration of virginity, many others believe that restoring the hymen cannot make one a virgin.
Female virginity has long been of great importance to many cultures. Anthropologists suggest that a society’s attitude toward virginity is an indication of the social roles of men and women: In traditional, patriarchal societies a woman’s virginity is often considered a commodity that enhances a woman’s desirability, enables a prestigious marriage, cements interfamily alliances, and ensures the legitimacy of heirs. In the Kanuri society of Africa virginal brides were considered more prestigious than older, divorced women because they were believed to be more submissive to their husbands. In China, well into the twentieth century, a bride’s virginity was thought to be something owed to her husband; a man would consider it beneath his dignity and honor to wed a woman who was not a virgin.
In societies that place a high value on virginity, ritual verification of a bride’s virginity were common; such tests persist in some traditional cultures. In many cultures throughout the world the virginity of a woman was verified on or before her wedding night. As late as the 1950s the bedsheets of Kurdish brides were examined after the wedding night, and a handkerchief smeared with hymenal blood was presented to the groom’s mother as evidence of the bride’s virginity. A bride who failed to prove her virginity was returned to her family, where she was killed. African Amhara women who were discovered to not be virgins on their wedding nights were returned to their families to be beaten. Brides among the Bulgarian Gypsies and the African Twi were required to present proof of virginity, in the form of stained bedclothes, to their husbands’ families after the wedding night. Bedouin men tested their brides’ virginity with togas wrapped around their forefingers. Though such rituals of virginity verification are rare in North American and European societies and disappearing in other areas of the world, some cultures, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, continue to practice them.
- Blank, Hanne. 2007. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury.
- Carpenter, Laura M. 2005. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. New York: New York University Press.
- Chozick, Amy. 2005. U.S. Women Seek a Second First Time with Hymen Surgery. Wall Street Journal, December 15.
- Holtzman, Deanna, and Nancy Kulish. 1997. Nevermore: The Hymen and the Loss of Virginity. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
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