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March 29th, 2007 at 8:18 pm

The Convoluted World of Virginity Testing

The Convoluted World of Virginity Testing

Dr. Marc Abecassis, who does two to four hymen restorations a week, with a 23-year-old patient.

Virginity tests merely tell us, as Blank puts it, whether a particular woman “conforms to what people of her time and place believe to be true of virgins.” The most common tests look for evidence only “as experienced and reported by the man who penetrates the virgin’s body.” The “one constant” in the whole process is depressing: “women may not speak for themselves.”

 The Convoluted World of Virginity Testing

In a ceremony before being tested to see whether they are virgins,
Zulu girls in Lamontville, South Africa, had their faces painted with mud.

How do you tell if someone is a virgin? The oldest token, of course, is blood, and anxious brides have inserted everything into their vaginas from ground glass to leeches — to the blood-filled “bladders of fish and the innards of songbirds, the blood of chickens and ducks and doves, and sponges soaked in pigs’ blood.”

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The 17th century English physician Helkiah Crooke, on the other hand, a believer in the hymen (which he described as an eight-part conglomeration of particles and membranes that “together make the form of the cup of a little rose half blowne”), offers his own practical virginity test: If a woman is a virgin, a thread stretched from the tip of her nose to the base of her skull “should precisely encompass her neck, but if it is too long or too short, she is not.”

The Convoluted World of Virginity Testing

And what of the Gitano, Roma people of Spain, who have their own tests? As Hanne Blank explains in her erudite and witty book, the Gitano believe that in every virgin’s vagina “is a grape, an uva, that contains a yellowish liquid,” the honra. “It is burst — virginity and honra spilled at the very same time — in a ceremonial defloration that happens as part of the wedding celebration, for a woman’s honra should not be permitted to just trickle away unnoticed. It would hardly be proper.”
Surrounded by married women and propped up on a pillow, the bride spreads her legs as a village elder inserts a finger, wrapped in a lacy white handkerchief, into the bride’s vagina. As long as the handkerchief emerges with yellowish stains from the honra, all is well.

The Convoluted World of Virginity Testing

Virgin detectors are everywhere. Medieval drinking horns spill wine on unchaste women who dare to sip. The Sultan of Babylon’s enchanted fountain runs red when a nonvirgin tries to wash her hands. Renaissance virgin hunters make women smell lettuce: If she isn’t pure, “she will urinate immediately.” In some rural communities in the American South, a man tests a woman’s virginity by pressing a glob of his earwax to her vulva. And at one college party, Blank tells us, a student “explained quite earnestly … that only a virgin could remove the label from a beer bottle in one piece.”

We laugh, of course — but we could as easily cry. For so many women, historically and right this minute, a wrong answer on a virginity test can ruin, even end, their lives. A woman can be “imprisoned, maimed, mutilated, flogged, raped, or even killed as punishment for losing her virginity,” says Blank, an independent scholar, musician and sex columnist whose previous books include several collections of erotica.

And make no mistake, only women take this test. Men, Blank notes, can be “continent” or “celibate,” but virgins are always female. “The question of who gets to define what virgins are and what virginity is matters enormously,” argues Blank in this wide-ranging cultural history. “Despite what some people appear to think, defining virginity is not merely a philosophical exercise. It is an exercise in controlling how people behave, feel, and think, and in some cases, whether they live or die.”

Virginity is also, by definition, heterosexual — a matter of that “particular combination of a penis and a vagina that has for so long been considered the definitive sex act.” We can examine the fine print all we like: all the technical virgins in the world wondering whether oral sex “counts” — or more recently, whether a woman who has never had sex but has given birth via donor insemination is still a virgin — are mere distractions. Virginity is purely a matter of penis-vagina intercourse, the one sex act that leads to pregnancy. Blank asks why, but the key reason is no mystery: Female virginity assures men that no cuckoos infiltrate their nests. Virginity thus becomes a vital underpinning of patriarchy. Women’s sexuality is controlled, often harshly, and men appoint themselves to the virginity court.

Because there is no actually valid virginity test — you can just stop waving that lettuce around — virginity tests really test cultural beliefs. (Even the important hymen of my youth, which I imagined as something like rubbery saran wrap, turns out not quite to exist. Read Virgin’s fascinating chapter on hymenology for the details.) Many bona fide virgins don’t bleed at first intercourse.

Virginity tests merely tell us, as Blank puts it, whether a particular woman “conforms to what people of her time and place believe to be true of virgins.” The most common tests look for evidence only “as experienced and reported by the man who penetrates the virgin’s body.” The “one constant” in the whole process is depressing: “women may not speak for themselves.”

These days, in Western cultures at least, the value of female virginity is in decline, thanks to the sexual and reproductive revolutions, a growing belief in personal autonomy, and feminism. Nice girls do it now and teenage characters lose their virginity on primetime TV. It’s easy to turn the entire subject into an extended joke. Virgin vividly reminds us of thousands of years of not-so-funny history; of the value of women’s chastity … and the devaluation of women’s word.

 The Convoluted World of Virginity Testing

Dr. Marc Abecassis carries out hymen reconstruction surgery
on a 23-year-old French woman of north-African origin.

And what of the Gitano, Roma people of Spain, who have their own tests? As Hanne Blank explains in her erudite and witty book, the Gitano believe that in every virgin’s vagina “is a grape, an uva, that contains a yellowish liquid,” the honra. “It is burst — virginity and honra spilled at the very same time — in a ceremonial defloration that happens as part of the wedding celebration, for a woman’s honra should not be permitted to just trickle away unnoticed. It would hardly be proper.”

Via Sun Times

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