Virgin America

by Sonia Saraiya

In this exhibit, Sonia Saraiya explores the concept of virginity and what it means in our society when looked at through a feminist lens. This article was originally published at nist.tv.

INTRODUCTION

Everyone seems to know what virginity is – but, oddly, few people can entirely define the term. Though virginity is moored in murky, hard-to-define concepts like “purity,” “sex,” and “first,” most people have a concrete idea of what it is – and either consider themselves virgins or remember the time they “lost their virginity.” In suburban America, teenagers are nervously asking, “If I did ____ with my boyfriend, am I still a virgin?” and in other cultures, kissing on the lips is just as much of a transgression as having sex for the first time – never mind trying to define “sex” or even “first time” in any satisfying, comprehensive way.

Virginity is historically a women’s issue – because the ideal of virginity is heavily, though somewhat subtly, gendered. In common English parlance, a “virgin” is anyone who has not had sex. But the contemporary social pressure, globally, on women’s virginity (as a way of retaining their purity) belies the word’s etymology. “Virgin” comes from the Latin “virgo,” which means “sexually inexperienced woman” and could be interchanged with “maiden.” Though both the ancient Romans and current English-speakers use the term virgin somewhat loosely to encompass more than women, the emphasis remains. Of the few women who managed to make a name for themselves in history, a large number of those are virgins: The Virgin Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, for example. Male monks and priests are “celibate”; pagan priestesses to Vesta, meanwhile, were the Vestal Virgins. The ancient Greeks (and later the Romans) categorized their goddesses based on whether or not they were virgins; there were exactly three major virgin goddesses, and three non-virgins. Though virginity is used for both men and women, it is a primarily feminized concept centered on the penetration of a vagina by a penis.

As with many social issues, the argument over women’s issues takes women’s bodies as the territory, often speaking for women at large. Maintaining virginity and losing virginity are both framed as feminist issues, both cited as the best way to maintain self-respect. And the constant background noise behind this conflict is the contradictory message of popular mainstream media – a shaky middle ground between conservatism and progressivism. Continue reading “Virgin America”