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March 2017
Sexology
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VIRGINITY

VIRGINITY

Introduction
The concept of ‘virginity’ requires a definition in order to be able to talk about its sexological significance. The word ‘virgin’ can mean virgin in the common, sexual sense but it can also mean intact, untouched, inviolated and uncontaminated if it refers to a place, or genuine if it refers to a product or primary material. Losing one’s virginity can also be defined as ‘deflowering’ and all these meanings are confused which makes each conversation about virginity different depending on the view point taken.

Marcantonio Franceschini, preparatory cartoon for the fresco 'The Virginity'

Virginity is a term that is important in mythology and in many religions, philosophy, psychology and anthropology and it has changed over the years thanks to different customs, places and times. The scientific, sexological point of view however, tends to consist of all these different views so as to have a working definition that is useful for clinical practice and necessary for solving situations in which virginity can become a problem (see white marriages and vaginismus).

Psychology
In psychological terms, it is said that we are all a ‘place of the mind’ and a ‘product’ of a process, that is, our history, and feeling intact and untouched (and even more so for women) is something we want to protect from any processes of disintegration or disassociation which could violate out entirety and unity. This is why, psychologically, virginity is something many women want to protect, and not just for social reasons but also for their own, internal and structural reasons; they consider sex to be an intrusion of the body and mind. However, like all processes of maturity, losing one’s virginity leads on to growth, which is a something all women need to embark on for their female identity, their seductiveness and their prospects of motherhood. However, as with all losses, there is a sense of mourning and regret, but growing up has never been easy and, in fact, some people never manage it.

The history of an urban legend
Every girl has her own idea about virginity and it is usually created thanks to what their friends or mothers have told them. A girl’s first sexual experience seems to be poised between a prospect of pleasure, which is usually quite vague, and a feeling of pain, which is usually very real; there is almost always some bleeding after a girl loses her virginity because the hymen breaks, which marks the beginning of adulthood, the transformation from an intact girl and a new way to have relationships with males.

However, things do not always go like this since first time experiences do not always involve full penetration of the vagina and, in fact, the first urban legend about sex is that having sex only involves penetration, when in reality penetration on its own actually means that sexual intercourse is incomplete. The second legend is that the hymen is a difficult obstacle to overcome and that it will definitely tear, but this is not true for the majority of cases, and excess bleeding is actually quite rare.

Stories about having sex for the first time are often changed to include more impressive or shocking details, such as a penis getting stuck in the vagina for hours, bleeding which was so intense that the girl had to go to hospital, the pain was awful and feelings of humiliation that were so strong the girl felt overwhelmed or violated. For almost all females, the first time with penile penetration involves some discomfort, perhaps some fear and a touch of bleeding, if any at all. However, a lack of blood, which is completely normal, can make the male annoyed as he might feel he was not the first, but males can also be victims of prejudice when having sex for the first time.

Purity is very important for men and, in 1950, Dino Origlia wrote: ‘I’m pleased to have been the first, it is a thought that, effectively, corresponds to something in human psychology’. For some men, marrying a virgin and making her his own property is still something that is sought after and, in the 1950s, this was more common than not.

Almost everyone has heard about the ‘magic of the first night’ and, according to Freud, there is something attractive about a virgin for men: ‘he who has been first to satisfy the maiden’s desire for love and who has thus overcome the resistances to sexuality which have been imposed by her milieu and her education, will establish a lasting relationship with her which will not be possible for any other man. The woman ends up taking revenge for the defloration that occurred because the man who deflowered her is not the man, the father, to whom her virgin instincts were originally linked.

Anthropology of the hymen
What is the hymen? What exactly is its purpose? These are questions which appear to have very obvious answers but, obviously, things are a bit more complicated. The hymen is a fold of mucous membrane between the vestibule of the vagina (which, anatomically, includes the vulva) and the vagina. It has a small number of blood vessels, very little nerve sensation and a modest, supporting fibrous structure that is rich in elastic fibres. The shape and consistency can vary: it can be semicircular in shape, straight, ring shaped, cribriform or it may not even be present at all.

Rarely, a female is born with a complete transverse vaginal septum but, if she is, it means that the female will not menstruate, even though there is perfect hormonal development (cryptomenorrhoea), since the blood cannot get out of the vagina. This problem is usually noticed during childhood however, thus it is usually corrected surgically at a young age.

Every part of our body has a purpose and evolution would have acted on anatomy just like it does on other aspects (in fact, it was this evolutionary pressure that led on to the evolution of the clitoris and orgasmic function: both of these, which are seemingly unnecessary for procreation, were selected for their highly seductive value and stabilisation of relationships), thus talking about the purpose of the hymen means we have to talk about the sexual evolution of our species.
 
The sexual strategies we use today are the result of natural selection, even though current conditions are very different from the conditions that were present when sexual strategies were developed. Having said this, sexual strategies are the same and they work in the same, unstoppable way even though the way we mate is different from how our ancestors did so. What is more, the psychology we have developed during evolution has stayed the same, we just apply it to a modern context. In summary, everything we have and do was developed for a world that no longer exists and this is the case for the hymen, which appears to be an anti-Darwinian character or an apparent mating obstacle. Therefore, when viewed in a socio-biological sense, we can say that virginity and sexual modesty have mysteriously helped to improve our reproductive efficiency because only those who were able to overcome this obstacle went on to reproduce. If, on the other hand, virginity had been an impossible obstacle to overcome, our species would have ceased to exist due to the rigorous laws of sexual selection. The preferences we show towards a certain partner also have adaptive purposes, just like the preferences we show to food do in so much as we prefer foods that are high in calories and nutritional substances because the first humans who preferred these foods are the ones who survived and from whom we descend.

Our ancestors also developed mechanisms to perceive the indicators of a woman’s hidden reproductive worth; beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder but those eyes, and the mind behind it, have been shaped by millions of years of evolution. Why is a virgin considered to be beautiful then? Anthropological studies list the characteristics of females that adult males find attractive as; youth, physical beauty (which is not arbitrary or related to culture), the shape of her body (there is a preference for a particular ratio between the circumference of the waist and the circumference of the hips) and the symmetry of a healthy body. From this we can see that virginity is not only not visible but it would appear that it is not even a desirable characteristic, at least not directly, however evolution has produced a reproductive detail that is unique to all primates: secret female ovulation which hides a female’s reproductive state. How did our male ancestors face this problem? How could they be sure to father a child if they did not know when the female was ovulating? A long-lasting relationship provided the solution to this problem because being with a female for a long time meant that the male had more time and opportunities to father a child. Virginity was a desirable feature therefore, because it ensured that, at the time of the first sexual experience, the female was not pregnant with a possible competitor gene, and a small membrane, which is easily overcome, proved this. However, women who did not bleed after having sex for the first time ran the risk of being abandoned because the man could not be sure that the female was pregnant with his child and not that of a stranger.

The transition our species made to family units and a couple from sexuality promiscuity in a horde was neither quick nor easy though. Originally, being loyal and staying with one female was worth it for males so as to avoid investing resources in the child of a competitor. Nowadays though, loyalty is reinforced both by social and family bonds and by the couple themselves. What is more, today we have contraception like the pill which works against fathering a child, but the female’s loyalty remains unchanged and, of course, a man does not wish his wife to be any less faithful just because she takes the pill!

Human culture is about 12,000 years old, Homo sapiens are at least 400,000 years old and our hominid ancestors are more than four million years old and this means that, before being a cultural species, man has long been a natural species, and the consequences are still widely visible.

Religion

Religious protection of a woman’s body, and her spirit, has always been aggressive and strong in all religions from all eras and women have always been despised in every monotheistic religion; for instance, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and not forgetting Zen Buddhism which is chauvinist and Confucianism which despises women. What is more, the church has always detested physical love (eros, amor) and shown preference to the love of charity (agape, dialectio), and it is no coincidence that the Virgin Mary is an object of worship for all Catholics.

Following is a brief timeline about how virginity has been dealt with in Christianity:

In the 2nd Century, treatises about virginity were read by many, such as those written by Methodius of Olympus and Saint Cyprian, and some of these early Christians even went as far as being castrated, like Origen. On a theoretical level, Saint Jerome admired virginity and disagreed with marriage: if the end of the world is near, he asked himself, why have children. He also said ‘while we honour marriage, we prefer virginity’, and he even described pregnancy as hell.
The entire future of the doctrine was marked by this love for virginity because it was considered to be ideal, however, denying and degrading mothers would have caused serious demographic problems.
Between the 9th and 10th Century, the sexual doctrine of the church had repercussions on the European population and faced mild danger when politics began to encourage marriage, which in turn made this institution holy and sacramental, even though the presence of a priest was not obligatory until 1563.
From the 12th Century, having sexual intercourse was almost universally condemned, as well as the apology for virginity, and, thanks to the development of the worshipping of Mary, from the 12th Century a virgin woman became the model provided for females.
Soon enough Mary became the fourth figure in the Holy Trinity and the first Saint, and for eight centuries, from the 12th-20th Century, Rome focused very hard on perfecting, increasing and blocking this virginity.
The effort made in the 13th Century to make marriage a regulatory mechanism of society that was free of sin did not prevent the continuing admiration of virginity as absolute perfection though.
From the 18th Century, being in love was considered a curse of fate because of the fear that love and flesh could make men animal-like.
Nowadays, although defloration is followed by happy motherhood, it is still considered to be a true loss of being and value by Christianity.
Even though Mary never reached the ranking of a Goddess, her virginity has been insisted upon until the bitter end (but the Evangelists claim this is done to hide the fact Jesus had siblings). Not only did Mary conceive a God, not only did the birth leave her a virgin but, from 1854, it was affirmed that Mary escaped the curse of Eve and all her daughters: she was born without blemish, without the mark of original sin: the dogma of immaculate conception which is often confused with that of virginity.

'Ponteranica Polyptych' by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523?

In 1950, Pope Pius XII promulgated as the truth that Mary was taken up directly to heaven without waiting for the Last Judgement, which is now known as the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. Such a promotion could have helped to increase the worth of other mothers, but it was not so: Mary is always admired for her virginity, rather than motherhood and this model is unique and out of reach for other females. In fact, the most interesting (and hardly known) part of this contradiction is the absurd idea that unconsummated marriages are preferred by the church.
Around 1100, the theologian Peter Lombard listed and praised the cases of perfect wives, that is, women who solved the squaring of the sexual Christian circle, according to the literary genre of medieval exempla: those who had white marriages.
What is more, in the following century, St. Thomas said, "marriage without carnal union is the most sanctifying" and, drawing from the legend, the wonderful story of Valentine and Cecilia was repeated insistently about how they never had physical relations and, full of happiness, they were martyred by the Romans. Merit was also found in Melanie, who, around 400, refused to have sex with her husband and, as a virgin, founded a convent and praised Alexis, a Roman patrician, who, forced into marriage by his wealthy family, left his marital home immediately after being wed to become a mendicant. Furthermore, Saint Radegund, who most probably lived with her husband like all women from that era, said how she could not embrace her husband without feeling disgusted and then, later on, she said confirmed that 'the union had never been consummated'. Likewise for Emperor Henry II and his wife, it was pointed out that, since they had no children, they had lived in the name of moderation.

The worshipping of Mary had expanded so much at this point that, in the following centuries, bibliographies completely made up a terrible scene in which a couple was seen swearing that their marriage will remain unconsummated forever.

The unquestionable contradiction between virginity and maternity owes nothing to any principle of authority or any Catholic sources. It was simply accepted and wanted and it lies at the heart of a concept called the "orders of dignity." In this official ranking, a mother has never been placed in a good position, nor has a mother ever occupied a rank of honour in Christianity: glory is only promised to virgins.

Virginity in society
In 1936, tampons were invented in America but many Catholic countries did not agree with them as it was thought that they could destroy a girl’s virginity. Then, in 1950, Margaret Sanger, an American pioneer in birth control, met Gregory Pincus, a chemist who was studying hormones and six years later the Pincus pill was born, the first modern contraception that was tested on women of Puerto Rico, and this marked the beginning of a new era, a revolution in the millennia of human history: never before had sex been separated from procreation so clearly. As we know, the consequences of the pill have had many effects on customs and morals: women are no longer chained to motherhood as an obligation, women do not have to stay at home and not work and the responsibility of getting pregnant has gone from being that of men to women. Furthermore, getting married for love is not such hard work (reproductively) for women anymore because now they can have an equal role in the family.

Sexology, which recognises sexuality as more than just a reproductive role, was also a result of this. However, these things did not happen without facing fierce resistance. During this period (the early sixties), many priests denied absolution to women who confessed to having used contraception even though they were expected to permit birth control because the attitude of the Vatican was somewhat reformed.

In 1963, the Pontifical Commission appointed by Pope John XXIII pronounced in favour of "responsible use of contraceptives". However, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council was closed without the subject even being addressed and, in 1968, the Pope issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning contraception, which was a major blow for developed Catholic countries, but, in the sixties, the revolution spread like wildfire nonetheless.

Gynaecology

Is virginity restoration surgery still necessary?
In some parts of the world virginity restoration surgery is still performed. In Brazil, a country where every year an impressive number of plastic surgeries take place, a gynecologist has publicly claimed to have performed more than a thousand hymen reconstructions. Nowadays, the only hymen reconstruction surgery that is justified is that needed when penile penetration is related to anatomical abnormalities, such as vulvar vestibulitis syndrome. Surgery involves the removal of the vulvar fissures or a labiaplasty can be done when there is hypertrophy of the vaginal lips, which causes pain during penetration and reflex contractions of the perineal muscles. This surgery should be supplemented with an accurate, sexological diagnostic picture and a comprehensive consultation with a vulvologist.

VIRGINITY

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