Virginity isn’t actually a medical term. It’s just a concept that’s been kicking around for centuries. Sadly, however, it’s one that’s loaded with so much significance it’s still used as a tool of gender discrimination today.

“It actually feels like we’re regressing,” says Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey, a psychologist and sex and intimacy coach. “Since the rise of the far right, there’s a growing focus on the binary. World views are becoming more polarized.” Notably, there’s also renewed pressure on women in certain communities to demonstrate their virginity. Yet doesn’t this “good girl” theory belong to another era?

The Birth of Virginity

Virginity was deemed important when marriage was considered to be a business transaction. For thousands of years, up until the nineteenth century, women with dowries or inheritances were subjected to the financial control of their husbands. “Knowing your wife was a virgin was the only way to make sure that any children she had were yours, which was vital to protecting your inheritance,” says Lori Beth.

“What’s more, this idea of purity may be antiquated yet some men still find it a turn-on knowing they’re a woman’s first—and maybe even their first and only— partner. There’s excitement and a huge amount of power in that. Ask the average man if he’d like to sleep with a virgin and he’ll say yes, then ask the average woman and she’s likely to say no, what would I gain from that?”

Born Again Virgin

Virginity testing is still a normal part of life in many countries, and abstinence-only sex-education is encouraging young people to cherish their innocence. It’s not necessarily working, however, since anal sex and oral sex aren’t seen as being off limits. While virginity is interpreted as avoidance of vaginal penetration, oral sex and masturbation are often more enjoyable for women anyway. “This kind of education is certainly being delivered in born-again Christian communities in the US.” says Lori Beth, “But there is no religious text or scripture that actually prescribes it.”

“Religious leaders, like pastors and Imams, are teaching their own religious interpretations to communities, and it’s these men who teach women that they’re expected to be pure. Therefore, in some parts of society, there’s so much pressure on a woman to demonstrate her virginity before she consummates her marriage that she’ll pay to have her hymen reconstructed.”

Becoming a “born again virgin” is now an option for every woman at no small cost since the concept of female purity is marketed and sold as a commodity. “Re-virginization (or a hymenoplasty) is an absurd concept,” adds Lori Beth. “It’s basically a cosmetic procedure that either sutures what remains of the hymen or creates a new one from the labia—yet this repairing procedure only benefits the man.” Indeed, can a woman truly be re-virginized?

Hymen Hype

The hymen is basically a membrane that partially covers the vaginal opening and is believed to break during the first attempt at intercourse. Given that an intact hymen is presumed to be an indication of virginity, this small piece of tissue has assumed huge meaning within the culture of patriarchy, and much of this meaning is based on myth.

“Scientifically this concept doesn’t work,” says Lori Beth. “The hymen is like the labia, it’s not uniform in any way. Some women are even born without one; others are spread thin and already have a hole in them—plus they break for many reasons other than vaginal penetration. Breakage could happen when riding a horse or a bike, or even when inserting a tampon.”   

Given time, a hymen may regenerate without medical intervention, but if a woman has already been penetrated vaginally, how can she really be re-virginized? It all comes down to social and cultural optics since the hymen is deemed to be evidence of purity. “If you’re not a virgin on your wedding night,” says Lori Beth, “you bring shame upon your whole family. That said; if you’ve had a hymenoplasty, you’re basically starting your relationship with a lie.” Yet, to some people, this lie doesn’t matter.

Original Sin

Certain religious communities will not decipher rape from consensual sex, which is something that is reinforced by the Old Testament. “Catholics see women as being responsible for Original Sin, others see women as Jezebels or temptresses, so when adulterers or rapists get caught, it’s often the woman who is vilified as being responsible for the man’s desire,” says Lori Beth. “Yet this is nothing more than insidious patriarchy.”

In fact, it’s so insidious that the interloper is often blamed in lesbian relationships too. “Women blame the “other woman”. Meanwhile we’re teaching men and boys to take whatever they want without taking responsibility.” This gender divide is just one example of binary thinking that’s polarizing the way we see the world—and it’s also one reason why Lori Beth believes we’re moving backwards in time. 

Thinking Outside the Binary

“Things are becoming increasingly and dangerously black and white. We’d have to walk into the gray area together and take responsibility for ourselves, but it’s messy in the gray and we need to cultivate certain emotional skills before we can go there.”

Key to this is the ability to maintain an ambivalent attitude. “If we’re able to recognize both the good and the bad in a person, we’re also able to hold two different emotions about that person. I fear we’re losing the ability to be ambivalent the more we insist on polarizing the world. It’s as if the only way to cope is to see everything as good or bad, but nobody is good all of the time, and nobody is truly pure. That’s part of the wonder of being human.”

By Jo Murphy

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