Why We're Still So Obsessed with Virginity
"Virgin Envy," a new collection of essays, explores the tricky ambiguities of popping your cherry. We spoke to co-editor Cristina Santos about vampire hymens, "Twilight," and queer virgins.
Photo by Kirsty Begg via Stocksy
We all remember our first time—the night you punch your V-card and triumphantly enter the plush halls of adulthood, lined with grown-up things like tax returns and STIs. Except it's not usually that simple. As anyone who ever gossiped in elementary school about that one girl who allegedly broke her hymen riding a bicycle knows, the path to de-virginization never is never clear cut.
It's the subject of Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen, a collection of essays that peers into the messy, tangled world of virginity via examinations of Twilight, True Blood, Tahrir Square activism, and Bollywood. In the process, it aims to answer several important questions, like why female and male virgins are treated so radically different, why hymens are even a thing, and men are always trying to control female virginity.
We spoke to co-editor Cristina Santos about vampire hymens, Edward and Bella, and the importance of talking about queer virgins.
Read more: The History of Virgins in Art
BROADLY: What drew you to this topic of virginity?
Cristina Santos: I've always worked on women's identity and the sociocultural factors that influence how women construct their sense of self and how they see themselves—not only as part of the community that they live in, but [also] how they see themselves as a being, and how what happens when that sense of self-definition is in opposition to the sociocultural norm. That particular year was the inaugural year of our Masters program in comparative literature, and I proposed this course on the use of the monstrous woman archetype [and how it] relies on an inherent anxiety and fear around female sexuality. Everyone always says, "Why virgins? Virgins aren't monstrous." But yes, yes they are.
Why do you think virginity continues to be such a fraught subject?
[lists off questions] Do you count masturbation [as something] that doesn't affect your virginity? Are you still a virgin or are you not a virgin? What is with this obsession of needing to clearly define virginity? I started doing a lot of research on social media and seeing other embodiments or views of female virginity and I came across this interesting trend—so to speak— of virginity auctions where girls are putting up their virginity for auction because they recognize the market value [and] the fetish with their status as virgins. [One] case in the States was done by a young girl who wanted to fund her Masters. Her sister before her had funded her university education by working at a legal brothel house, and she thought, "I might as well auction off my virginity." There was a recognition of economic value in virginity.
Do you think that's the reason why male and female virginities are thought of differently, or there is commonality between the male and female experience of being a virgin?
I don't want to use universalism, but let's say that most cases from a North American context, you still get the view of valuing female virginity as purity, whereas the viewing of male virginity [is seen] as [he is] not yet a man. The virility side of that discussion—that a man who loses his virginity is a positive thing—does not have to be within the confines of marriage.
This is bringing us to Twilight, which is what started myself and [co-editor Jonathan A. Allan] on this discussion of female and male virginity. Jonathan works in masculinity studies and he started [writing] about Edward. I started looking at Bella, which I found very frustrating. We started bringing what we were doing and discussing it together: Here we have two parallel virginities on the gender normative binary, female and male. Edward is a virgin and we know Bella is, too. Both are very much concerned‚ Edward more so—with the idea of purity and abstinence. He has been abstinent for the 100 plus years he has been a vampire, right? Bella, on the other hand, it has this sexual drive that is constantly being buffed back by Edward in a very paternalistic way.
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Even though she's not the powerful, strong vampire here.
Yes, exactly. Where is Bella's agency? Her love interest keeps dampening her sexual awakening because he sees it as threatening and he will only agree to it within the confines of marriage.
What about True Blood? I think that's a really interesting depiction of virginity in vampires. I was really surprised by how they put a twist on it—I didn't expect Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) to remain a virgin, but if you take the vampire logic they never suffer from injury, it makes sense she is always a virgin.
One thing I found interesting is that the series is known for being radical, very out there, but in those scenes, the word "hymen" is never said: "It grew back, I can't believe it grew back!" We say it a little bit in the chapter: The idea of her being a perpetual virgin is this fetish of the female virginity. But from the female perspective, it's... like you're being punished for having sex and not being married. That is further emphasized in a later episode when she is leaving [her boyfriend, Hoyt] and he says it was the fact that she was always a virgin that made her monstrous.
It's an idea you go back to in the introduction—many of the chapters relate to ideas about how much is too much or too little virginity, and at what point the scales tip.
[It's] the idea that female virginity needs to be clearly defined within certain parameters... Unless it's within positively defined enclosure, [like] religious women, nuns. But women who remain to be virginal beyond what is perceived to be the normal scope are seen as abnormal, deviant.
How do we move to an idea of virginity that is not just about hymen? Will the idea of the virginity be irrelevant in the next few decades?
I think there is still a lot of work to be done in that scope... [It's] not my area of expertise [but] I think it's extremely important to look at those questions for the trans and queer community. When we were putting this together, we had been working on it for a good four or five years, maybe it's out there now [and] maybe there are scholars who are looking at this. I just saw this morning on a commercial, the new CoverGirl in Canada is a male. This is it; this is the time to start discussing about this. There is a taboo around [virginity] still, but if we're going to be discussing identities—female, male, trans, queer, lesbian—you cannot take out sexuality. That's an intrinsic component to establishing some definition [of identity] and I really think that with a lot that's happening right now, we need to talk about it.
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