This is the second prequel to a series on virginity and sex. The first can be found here. It was taken and translated from the French Causette magazine.
Since the sexual liberation, virginity has lost its original significance, that of ensuring paternity. Causette met with Yvonne Knibieheler, historian and author of La Virginté feminine** (Female Virginity).
Causette : How should we define virginity ?
Yvonne Knibiehler : There are three definitions : anatomical, psychological and symbolic. A woman is an anatomical virgin if her hymen is intact, except that there is a psychological dimension to virginity: a person can be an anatomical virgin and experience sexual pleasure. Midwives are seeing more and more cases of girls who are virgins requesting abortions… And yes, sperm cells can really travel far. In this case, what is psychological virginity? A girl who has no experience, or who has experience but still has her hymen intact? Virginity also has a symbolic meaning: when we say a virgin forest, virgin land, or virgin snow, we mean that these things are yet to be revealed or explored.
What has the significance of virginity been up till now ?
Y.K. : Until the sexual revolution, in the 60s and 70s, virginity was supposed to preserve a girl from all contact with men in order to preserve family lineage. It was the foundation of marriage: a man was given a virgin bride so he could be certain that he was indeed the father of the children she bore. It was true in the western world and in Islam. This form of virginity that ensures paternity has been made obsolete firstly, by contraception, and secondly, by DNA testing. And these eliminate the need for virginity as biological evidence or as a “moral” value.
So, virginity lost its original significance when women discovered that sexuality could simply be for pleasure, and not just procreation?
Y.K. : In the past, it was the prostitute’s role to dissociate the two. The fact that this role became accessible to all women caused a great social divide. It was a revolution in social norms that changed our perspective on virginity.
It really caused social divisions ?
Y.K. : Indeed ! At least for fundamental monotheists. It caused social tension. Nevertheless, Christianity and Islam have two very different positions. The Church has always considered virginity to be a moral value : a girl who is raped is still morally a virgin. In Islam, this is not the case: a girl who loses her hymen is soiled; she has lost all her value.
France has been a secular state since the beginning of the 20th century. Why didn’t we let go of these religious ideas earlier?
Y.K. : In the past, male domination relied heavily on keeping girls ignorant of things like sex and love, and this was the case for religious and secular people alike. It’s about machismo. The primary reason for demanding that girls remained virgins was preserving lineage. But there was another reason: the desire to dominate. A man who married a virgin hoped to introduce her to sensual pleasures. This way she would fall in love with him and would stay faithful to him… at least, this was what he hoped.
Between purity balls in the United States and the No Sex movement, are we not witnessing virginity rise to popularity ?
Y.K. : Socially speaking, in Western Europe, it doesn’t seem to be the case. But in the US, where people express themselves more openly, yes. There are demonstrations and events supporting a return to virginity as the norm. The general argument behind this is: “I want to be free, I don’t want to yield to desires of the flesh like everyone else. Sexuality is a powerful force; I am protecting myself from it”. Women aren’t saving themselves for a man, they’re saving themselves for themselves. In these cases, virginity is an expression of freedom, even feminism.
The Second Vatican Council re-established an ancient rite, “consecrated virginity”. Could you say more about this?
Y.K. Beginning in the first century, the Catholic Church allowed women to refuse marriage and childbearing. Many happily chose this option which freed them from having to live under their father’s or husband’s control. These virgins consecrated by the Church came together to live and pray in communities. Early Christian women therefore considered virginity to be a type of liberation. Over time, the Church obligated these women to shut themselves in convents. Consecrated virginity became a monastic vow. The Second Vatican Council [1962-1965 Ed] restored the initial possibility for a single lady to declare to a bishop that she wishes to remain a virgin, without being obliged to enter a convent.
What is its significance today?
Y.K. : By devoting themselves to Christ, these virgins want to make their freedom as individuals known, while living a “normal” life. There is one, for instance, who is a dancer at the opera. Those who live in convents lose their individual liberty. There is such a thing as Christian feminism: the Christian who was closest to God was Mary, a virgin woman.
Is virginity a standard for womanhood ?
Y.K. : No, the hymen is not standard for virginity or for femininity, since it can get torn from intense physical activity, but that is how some men chose to imagine it. It was a construct of the male fantasy.
Is this a common fantasy?
Y.K. : No, it is has become much less frequent since the sexual revolution : a young man is not going to ask a girl if she is a virgin. It is old-fashioned, ridiculous, and she could ask him “what about you?” In the past, a man who simply wanted a fling would find a prostitute. Today, if he wants a one-night-stand, he’s not going to burden himself with a virgin. And this goes for girls too!
*Originally Vierges Pas Si Saintes
**La Virginité féminine , by Yvonne Knibiehler. Ed. Odile Jacob 2012
Interview and commentary compiled by Pauline Marceillac
Translated from French