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On the last weekend before the official start of the semester (when one is “thesising” there really is not any official start . . . it just keeps on going ’til you turn in that final draft) I picked up what often consistutes my “non-required” leisure reading: nonfiction works on sex and gender. Not that it’s the only thing that catches my fancy; in the past couple of weeks, I’ve also dipped into Hanna’s manga collection (Fushigi Yugi and Revolutionary Girl Utena which I’d been meaning to read for going on four years) as well as Tom Stoppard and Andrea Barrett. But then I was at the bookstore the other day and Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History (2007) caught my eye.

My historian’s heart is always warmed by the promise of de-normalizaton: the ability of an author to take an idea or practice so ubiquitous in our culture that it is considered inevitable, “natural,” and common-sensical and persuade us to ask “why?” Why do we believe there is such a state — physical and metaphysical — as virginity? What, exactly, do we believe constitutes virginity or proof of virginity? And what if it became clear that virginity, in fact, does not materially exist . . . but is, in fact, a conceptual way of organizing human sexuality that has varied in detail enormously across time and place? This is the story Hanne Blank sets out to tell (however briefly) in her three-hundred page book: the story of how the non-existent thing called “virginity” has nonetheless come to exert enormous power over human thought and practice concerning sexuality — and specifically female sexuality.

I can’t say this book offered any huge revelations to the reader (me); though I’ve not read any other book-length treatments of this specific subject, I’ve certainly read enough histories of human sexuality and women’s sexuality specifically to understand that much of what we consider to be immutable fact about sex actually resides, under closer examination, in the slippery realm of ideological work: the various systems of thought human beings construct to make sense of the world and their experience within it. As Blank notes in her opening sentence, “by any material reckoning, virginity does not exist.” Yet humans have, across the centuries and around the globe, devised elaborate methods for determining virgin status that made sense to them in the context of their own belief systems. Why they have felt compelled to do this is the recurring (possibly unanswerable) question at the heart of Blank’s narrative.

I think what I found most thought-provoking about Virgin was Blank’s suggestion that “virgin” is actually a sexual identity that is taken up and performed quasi-separately from the individual’s actual embodied sexual experience — and that that identity contains within it multiple and often contradictory meanings. Blank suggests that there is something of a “virginity void” that exists in the world, allowing the concept of virginity to flourish through lack of examination: it is presumed to exist and we all assume we understand how it works, so our beliefs about it remain unchallenged — yet if we start to ask “why” we realize how disparate and often contradictory our understandings of virginity really are. For example, what do we make of the story Blank tells of a young English woman, Rosie Reid, who — despite being open about her identity as a lesbian in a long-term relationship with another woman — auctioned her “virginity” off on eBay to the highest bidder, making $14,500 in exchange for sex with a man who, presumably, believed that despite a sexually-active relationship Reid was still a virgin because she had not experienced penetrative heterosexual intercourse (pp. 9-12).

Most interesting to me, as a feminist scholar, is Blank’s suggestion that what she terms “parthenophilia” — or the eroticization of sexual innocence — is so normalized in our culture that we fail to study it,

Despite the strength and breadth of the erotic interest taken in virginity in our culture . . . the erotic desire for virginity has been continually avoided as a subject of intellectual and clinical inquiry, as if there were no reason to ask and nothing that could possibly be learned by asking.

The virginity void exists on the other side of the fence as well. As little as we know about the erotic desire for virginity, we know even less about the erotic lives of virgins. Specifically, we know very little about how virgins themselves might understand themselves to exist as erotic objects or how they might themselves be erotically affected by the mythology of the erotic virgin that so permeates the culture. Virgins are not exempt from the mythologies of their own sexual status, after all. A virgin may well be every bit as erotically caught up in the implications of her own sexual status as the man who fantasizes about popping her cherry, but she is even less likely than he to be asked about it . . .

Virginity is not the opposite of sex. Rather, it is its own unique and uniquely troublesome sexual entity.

The idea that abstaining from sex is, in itself, a sexual practice has no doubt been argued before yet possibly it has not yet been examined in tandem with the closed-related (though not identical) concept of virginity.

On a related note: those of you interested in a more contemporary analysis of how virginity works in American culture would do well to check out Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (2009) which focuses specifically on the policing of adolescent female sexuality — largely through narratives of virginity and sexual “purity.”