The case of the missing virginity

UC DAVIS (US) — For generations and across cultures, marriage for women has been a test of chastity, and the proof was in the hymen.

Proving a hymen’s existence has had legal ramifications in relation to the institution of marriage and has been an object of scientific discourse. It also has been a point of ongoing contention between the sexes.

“The transition from virgin to wife has been a subject of intense social concern in many societies,” says Margaret Ferguson, professor of English at the University of California, Davis, who is writing a book about that mystery titled Missing the Maidenhead: Cultural Debates About the Hymen in the Early Modern Period.

“I’m focusing on debates about the meaning of female virginity during the Reformation era in England because those debates—inspired in part by the long reign of a queen who refused to marry at all, Elizabeth I—offer a particularly interesting lens through which to reassess modern debates about female virginity.”

Modern examples of societies’ obsession with the body part whose original translation in ancient Greek means “thin membrane” include debates about the sexual experience of young female pop stars, the popularity of Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin,” and the prevalence of hymenoplasty, a surgery that creates a hymen-like membrane in women who lack one, Ferguson says.

“Hymenoplasty is a surgery that has no rationale, except for the myths of virginity,” she says. “Through my book I want to question why having a hymen is such an important idea around the world, why there are punishments for women in many cultures throughout time for the loss of this alleged body part, and why it is important for some people to have certainty about its existence. If these questions can be posed then we can have a more productive debate about virginity and its role in society.

“The hymen is a magnet for the debate about the relationship between the visible and invisible state, and the material and immaterial,” Ferguson adds. “It pertains to a state of being that is not testable and also speaks to an area of mistrust between the sexes.”

Her work is supported by a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

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