VIRGINITY THROUGH THE AGES AND ITS TABOOS
I remember the dilemma of a friend of mine, gynecologist by profession, just starting a new practice in the Midwest. He was approached by the parents of a teen-age girl requesting that he performs a “virginity examination”. Being a new physician in the community, he did not feel comfortable is a such situation. The mother insisted on the check-up.
He first thought that the parents wanted to discuss birth control issues or menstrual cramps or other problems associated to the periods especially when the girl was suffering from acne, preventing her to venture in public. He was quickly reminded of the subject of discussion and the mother went directly to the goal of her visit to tell my friend how concerned she was because her daughter may have become sexually active under her watch. They wanted him to examine her and clear any doubt they may have.
The daughter did not feel too comfortable while glaring at her mother, almost in tears. She looked so mortified and uncomfortable in her skin that she wanted to hide. My friend told me that he was deeply panicking and did not imagine such a confrontation. How was he going to handle the moment? Unfortunately, no medical textbook and no ethic course in medical school or elsewhere can adequately teach a physician how to handle the situation. My friend took a deep breath and calmly approached the mother explaining to her that he was unable to act on her request.
The mother did not accept the answer and became agitated dissipating a little, the daughter’s anxiety. Soon, the atmosphere cooled off and everybody were able to sit down and discuss the topic. This is the kind of situation which can happen to a physician especially when practicing in a remote town in the South or in the Midwest of the United States of America.
I was then the parent of a teenager myself and if I may understand the desire of parents to protect and monitor their children. We have nowadays better teaching tools in our hands to help us. I mean the new “apps” on the phones suggesting where about they are and the way we can check on them using social media. We even can drug test them and participate to their activities and whenever we become suspicious, we certainly can’t decide to check their vagina just on the suspicion that they may have lost their virginity. It is an unacceptable practice.
Society has placed a misguided emphasis on puberty and on a young woman “purity”. Chastity belts have for years been used to preserve virginity and purity among young women. Many have bought the notion of an “unperforated” hymen as a proof that a woman has never had any sexual intercourse. This is a myth that has been destroyed over the years and one needs to ask frankly what it means to be a Virgin.
Virginity can be defined as the state of a person who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. Religious and cultural traditions have given special value and importance to this state especially when you are dealing with unmarried women personal purity, honor and worth.
Virginity and Chastity have both traditionally involved sexual abstinence. In Virginity, the concept deals with the moral or the religious aspect until it transgresses to social of even legal implications in the society. The term “Virgen” originally referred to sexually inexperienced women. A wide range of definition dealing with tradition, ethics and modern concepts may differ nowadays.
A heterosexual may consider the loss of virginity only after penile-vaginal penetration while other sexual orientations may also include oral, anal penetration and even masturbation in their definitions of losing one’s virginity. The topic of virginity still remains a taboo in many societies.
Let us discover what it means to be a Virgin over the ages. The term “Virgin” (vierge) originates from the old French “virgine” with a Latin root “Virgo, Virginis” meaning maiden or virgin known as a sexually intact young woman or sexually inexperienced. In the English language, there is a wider reference like the virgin Queen, the skydiving virgin (uninitiated). The first known virgin in the English literature was described in a manuscript at Trinity College Cambridge around 1200… In Botanic science, “virga” means a strip of wood… The early Christian churches had an order of Virgins (Ordo Virginum), applied to the consecrated virgins. Around 1300, the name Virgin was also applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Another term “Maid” in English imply virginity. It is why during the time of Robin Hood, Maid Marian become his love interest.
In the 1400, a virgin was also considered as a virtuous or a naïve woman. The German word for virgin is “Jungfrau” meaning young woman but actually Jungfrau is exactly the word for sexual inexperience. A frau is a woman. Male virginity had also an interest among the French (Puceau), or among the Greeks (Parthenos). In the Medieval times it was the Unicorn which become the symbol of purity and many paintings during the Renaissance also reflected on the notion.
Although virginity has historically been correlated with purity, many feminist scholars believe that virginity itself is a myth and they argue that there is no medical definition for the term and there may not have scientifically a veritable proof of losing it. Sexual intercourse results in no change in the personality. In her book, “The Purity Myth”, Jessica Valenti states that the concept of virginity is dubious because “virginity is valued to the woman’s morality between her legs”.
The urge of desiring a partner who have never engaged in sexual activities is now a days called a “Virgin complex”. There are many ways to lose his/her virginity through vaginal penetration by the penis or the finger, consensual or non-consensual, during oral, anal sex, mutual masturbation or any other forms of non-penetrative sex etc… The partners may be heterosexuals or homosexuals and they have a different vision of the virginity loss.
The concept of “technical virginity “or sexual abstinence through oral sex is popular among teenagers. Oral sex is common among adolescent girls who fellate their boyfriends to preserve their virginity while maintaining intimacy and also to avoid pregnancy. In 1999, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) published a study sampling 599 college students and found that 60% did not believe that oral-genital contact (Fellatio and Cunnilingus) was considered as having sex. But another study in 2008 at the Guttmacher Institute stated that teens will engage in non-vaginal forms of sex like oral sex as a way to be sexually active while still claiming being technically virgins. It is well known now that any supposed substitution of oral for vaginal sex is largely a myth.
Another Canadian study in 2003 have tried to link sex to orgasms, meaning that if you had sex without having an orgasm, perhaps, you did not have any penile-vaginal intercourse. Parallelly, two sociologists Bearman and Brueckner looked at virginity pledgers and found similar proportions of sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) compared to the one practicing oral or anal sex.
In brief, there is no textbook in Gynecology which can define with certainty the term of: “Virginity”. Much like sex, the definition can be suggestive based on the presence or the absence of a hymen. It may be unusual to believe that a woman who had vaginal intercourse with a penis can still have a hymen. If it is not intact, there may be many other reasons… By examples, the use of a sanitary tampon can certainly perforate a hymen which has this facility to stretch as well under a heavy menstrual flow… Self-manipulation (masturbation), a normal process in the sexual development of a young girl can lead to a stretched hymen also. Anatomist believe that some girls may come to the world without a hymen and others may have a hymen with more than one opening or even form a thicker membrane with hymenal bands worsening the problem of menstruation. Occasionally, such situation may require a surgical removal of the hymen.
Early loss of virginity has been linked to factors such as the level of education or other biologic factors like age and gender or the level of independence, the lack of parental supervision and even their religious affiliations etc. Sexual initiation with no protection and with multiple partners promoting promiscuity has increased the chances of catching sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), cervical cancer, pelvic Inflammatory disease and/or unwanted pregnancies etc.
The first time a woman has sex is generally considered in most cultures to be an important personal milestone. Expressions like “losing one’s virginity” or “saving one’s virginity” are commonly repeated and reflects on the importance of such moment while “taking someone’s virginity” or “deflowering” are associated with the act itself. It is generally, the end of innocence or purity and the beginning of sexualization of the individual. It is not given to the first comer to take the virginity of a woman unless the virginity did not represent much for the young woman or man.
Let us describe what represent a Hymen and ask the question if it is true that an absence of hymen means the loss of Purity or Puberty:
A hymen is a thin membrane considered as a fold of tissue at the vaginal opening (entry) expending between the two ‘labia”. It has generally a central opening narrower than the orifice of the vagina. This membrane has no clinical purpose but it is a remnant from the embryological development of the vagina.
There are wide varieties of hymen in thickness and in shape. It is thought that at least 10% of girls are born with some type of abnormality and even some may be born without one. Others may have one with or without an opening allowing only the blood flow from the periods to run out. If the opening in the hymen is too small, it can obstruct the outflow forcing treatments with a vaginal dilatator. There may occasionally be a need for surgically enlarge the opening to allow the passage of the blood.
Some women can present a hymenal band, where extra tissue forms one or many small openings with a thicker band separating the orifices. These hymenal bands can cause problems especially if a teen uses tampons, but they remain fairly easy to remove surgically. The hymen can be stretched when once is inserting and removing the tampons. Self-stimulation as we already stressed earlier is a normal part of the sexual development and such act can lead to a stretched hymen.
Women may desire to have their hymen reconstructed especially when they have been sexually active and they belong to societies where unmarried women are expected to have an intact hymen prior to become a spouse. In France, women especially from Turquie have used many of such clinics to reconstruct their hymen. Such women will undergo hymenorrhaphy (repair) or hymenoplasty (reconstruct) the hymen because female virginity prior to marriage is closely related to family honor. In Africa, until recent years, sex with an elder suffering from HIV/AIDS was believed to provide a cure the disease.
In the bible, it is stated that a man who seduced or raped a virgin must pay her bride price to her father. In other countries, a woman can sue a man who had taken her virginity but did not marry her. This represents damages or “wreath money”. More, some other cultures require a proof of a bride virginity like an insurance that the bride is a virgin prior to enter the marriage ceremony. This may bring us back to my friend in the Midwest just starting his practice which I mentioned at the beginning.
Hymen can be also thin and rupture with a young female falling of a bike or following any other athletic activities perhaps riding horses. Replacing a hymen (hymenoplasty) is often called “virginity fraud” especially when the one looking for the procedure also require a certificate of proof prior to being married. The term “virginity fraud” has long-time described such practice while these women may well call themselves “born-again virgins”.
Female virginity has always been regarded with more importance than male virginity. In various countries, males are encouraged to engage in sexual activities so they can become more experienced. Most studies showed that men have experienced sexual intercourse by their 20th birthday, age at which marriages would normally take place. Sons are encouraged to practice with older women or prostitutes before marriage and it is seen especially in the Latin cultures among countries like Portugal, Greece, Romania, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic.
The same can be seen in many Asian societies or in non-Latin societies like Thailand, Poland, Lithuania…etc. In 2001 a survey from the UNICEF showed that in 10 out of 12 developed nations, like Germany, Finland, Iceland, United Kingdom, USA etc, two thirds of their young people had sexual intercourse while still teens. I will leave this aspect of sexuality -abstinence-psychology to the anthropologist and perhaps the psychologist to develop.
Most religions have disapproved premarital sexual relations although it has always been widely practiced. Virginity may be considered as a virtue denoting purity and physical self-restraint in the Greek mythology. Homer referred to the subject through the goddesses Athena, Artemis, Hestia, Hera and Aphrodite which pledged to remain virgins.
During the Roman times, the Vestal virgins were destined to priesthood at the age of 6-10 and they were highly celibate not always virginal but they were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. If a Vestal Virgin was found to have had sexual relations while in office, the penalty to her crime was to be buried her alive.
In the Buddhism, the followers have 5 precepts to follow starting from the personal undertaking instructions to the commitment for refraining from sensual misconduct. Virginity is not mentioned but Buddhist monks and nuns are expected to refrain from all sexual activity. The mother of Buddha did not have to be a virgin because she has never been a child.
In the Hinduism, virginity prior to marriage is ideal and the marriage ceremony (Vedic wedding) in the “kanya dan” ritual where the father will make a gift of a virgin, to gain the greatest spiritual merit. The intactness of the hymen has nothing to do with virginity.
In Judaism, sex was forbidden as reported in the Deuteronomy book 22:25-29. Virginity is also discussed in the Torah Genesis 19.8 where Lot offered his virgin daughters to the people of Sodom for sex while Israelites will avoid homosexual activities. A child born from a single woman is not illegitimate (manzer). In Torah, a damsel who has not the sign of virginity in the early marriage shall be punished by death and the un-virgin woman is equal to a whore in her father’s house.
In Christianity, Paul expressed in the Corinthians 6.13, 3.16 that pre-marital sex was immoral and that sexual abstinence was a preferred state for men and women while sexual relations were expected between a married couple.
In Islam, extramarital sex is sinful and forbidden. There are punishments but you need 4 respectable witnesses to the actual act of penetration. In western cultures, premarital sex and loss of virginity may be considered shameful to the individual, but in some Muslim societies an act of pre-marital sex may result in personal shame and loss of honor. In Turkey, up to now vaginal examinations for verifying a woman’s virginity are current practice with a woman’s consent.
In Sikhism, sexual activities occur between married individuals and pre-marital sex is advised against. Virginity is an important aspect of spirituality and must be encouraged and preserved prior to marriage.
We would not like to conclude without discuss a little about changes found in the body of a young teen after engaging in sex for the first time?
Sex does change you. It is not anymore hugs or kisses. Are you ready to reach the finish line? I wrote once a poem on a young girl who thought she found the ideal companion but she was deceived that she became another trophy in his room. Psychologically a teenager may feel a sense of elation or a subtle loss or not even feel much in emotions, but no matter, the body will metamorphose after losing her/his Virginity.
Women may always remember because they may have a certain idea in what to expect the first time especially if it happens as planned or not. Women may be anxious of the act and it becomes normal to have doubts especially with all the taboos we have exposed through the ages. The concept of pain is a little left behind while new studies have shown that most women have a tendency of liking the moment of losing their virginity when it is well planned.
A young woman who just lost her virginity has to be ready to expect changes in her body. The breast will become firmer and even bigger, easily increasing to a quarter of their previous size. They will change form while becoming more sensitive. The nipples represent an erotic zone, oversensitive with a tendency to shrink. They are tender after sexual arousal because the act of sex triggers more blood flow to the breast, the areola and the nipples areas. Just with a slight touch, they can tighten and contract.
The vaginal area also becomes more flexible and prepare the canal for sexual intercourse allowing penetration more pleasurable. Once you lose the virginity, the clitoris begins to respond to advances helping the women to lubricate for the final act.
Most women will bleed after losing their virginity (hymen) but as you read above some of the hymen can be so thin or even inexistant that the rupture may become insignificant. Others will have only spots of blood at the rupture or bleed a day or two after the act.
After the first time, the periods can be delayed and although it is normal to feel an urge after sex, some women may have their menstrual cycle disrupted but will need to take extra-precaution to avoid unwanted pregnancy. If you have had unprotected sex and experienced nausea, headaches, you should think about a pregnancy test in order to avoid any unplanned pregnancy.
Remember the first time you have had sex, there is always an emotional expectation attached to the moment. You may want to be more or less attracted to the partner or simply avoid him/her because he/she deceived you. You may want to seal the relationship because you want to validate the act but perhaps, he/she may not have the same interest in the relation etc… Many will see a conquest or a trophy to add to their palmares but others would want to build on it. But no matter how long you have been dating or even married, the first time you have sex will make you feel affectionate to the partner at least after during the act. A hormone “Oxytocin” will spray happiness to make you enjoy the moment.
Your body will also release “Dopamine” to boost your confidence and will allow you to encourage good social behavior. “Testosterone” will help you become more oratory in allowing you to be more sociable. After all, Sex may make you nervous while you may feel guilty after the act but you will surely be asking yourself if you gave yourself to the good one and if it is love after all? Finally, your skin will glow like never while you will be feeling confident and happy to have discovered Sex and lost your Virginity. Remember when you are sexually active to perform sex with protection especially if you have chosen to use multiple partners.
This page is dedicated to all the teenagers who are ready to venture in the new world, ready to lose their Virginity.
Maxime Coles MD
Boca Raton 9-26-21
1- Ciocani, Vichi Eugenia (2013). “Virginity and representation in the Greek novel and early Greek poetry” ProQuest publishing.
2- Ancient Rome’s maidens- who were vestal Virgins? BBC Archives 2019-04-08.
3- Ramusack, Sharon, Sievers, Barbara NL (1999). Women in Asia: restoring women to history. Indiana Press pp 266.
4- Deuteronomy 22:20-21
5- Stagg, Evelyn and Frank: Woman in the World of Jesus: Philadelphia Westminster, 1978.
6- The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Virginity”. Newadvent.org 1912-10-01
7- “The Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. Gottesdienst, 15 August 2019.
8- Parla, Ayse (2001) “The Honor” of the State: Virginity Examinations in Turkey”. Feminist Studies 27(1).
9- Carpenter, Laura M (2001). “The ambiguity of “having sex”. The subjective experience of virginity loss in the USA”. Journal of sex Research 38 (2): pp 127-139.
10- Perception that Teens frequently substitute Oral Sex for Intercourse: A myth” 2008-05-20.
11- “Moslem women in France regain virginity in clinics”. Reuters April 30, 2007.
12- South African men rape babies as a “cure” for AIDS. The daily Telegraph. November 11, 2001.