Review: Virgins: A Cultural History – Anke Bernau

virgins a cultural historyIn the Middle Ages it was believed that only a virgin could charm a unicorn out of hiding; but far from being a quaint, anachronistic concept, virginity remains a central value in Western culture. Typing “virgin” into Google results in more than one million hits and includes everything from the Anti-Nicene Fathers to advertisements for free teen virgins, displaying a range of current cultural preoccupations with virginity. This lively, wide-ranging examination of a phenomenon that has touched many aspects of our culture names different archetypes and facets of the concept of virginity. Examples include the Medical Virgin—exploring what exactly virginity is and how to reliably identify one; the Religious Virgin—from the Madonna to the American Christian Right’s insistence on sexual abstinence before marriage; the Popular Virgin of Gothic fiction and modern day horror films; the Political Virgin—virginity’s intimate connection with money and power; and the Monstrous Virgin, as embodiment of what is ultimately unknowable and of violence, excess, and death. Anke Bernau’s witty and thought-provoking examination of virginity reveals its many bizarre manifestations throughout its long history as well as its growing contemporary potency.

Rating: 4/5

A fascinating non-fiction read that looks at the concept of virginity throughout the ages, and how it was used to alternately control and at certain points, free women from patriarchal expectations. (By dedicating themselves to the church, women could escape the demands of marriage and children under the guise of purity.) Very relevant in our era of purity balls, rape culture, slut shaming and the ‘we’re sexually liberated but not really’ society we live in.

There were a number of quotes that really stood out for me:

On hymenoplasty:

Yet there is no known physical function that the hymen fulfils, so despite the terminology and qualifications used to reassure the client of the professional and ‘medical’ nature of the procedure, it is undeniably in the service of either supporting or creating certain cultural demands – and not just those of barbaric, ‘other’ cultures out there, as it is sometimes suggested…It is often claimed that such procedures protect women who come from cultures where unfulfilled proof of virginity can lead to a women’s death. They also, however, reinforce and perpetuate the very myth of provable virginity that endangers these women in the first place.


Hymenoplasty and other procedures such as ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ are ‘enhancement’, while female circumcision is ‘mutilation’. The implication is that the concept of ‘individual choice’ – representative of Western ideals – is somehow not cultural, as if Western women exist in a vacuum where they are entirely free agents…and not at all influenced by their own culture’s frequently coercive ideals of female beauty and desirability. 

On policing virginity:

The anxiety that one often finds in writings on virginity is rooted in both misanthropic and misogynistic views. Human beings were fallen creatures, and women in particular were not to be trusted. Stories of feigned virginity appear wherever the culture places a great value on purity and reveal a fear that there is no secure way of policing this elusive state of being. 


Bentley gives a very good idea of exactly how precarious and fragile a state virginity was still considered to be – both physically and spiritually – when he lists the seemingly endless ‘snares of Satan’ the virgin must avoid if she hopes to maintain the ‘inestimable treasure’ of her virginity:
[B]anquets, weddings, idle games, heathenish sports, & dissolute plays, and pastimes, vain pleasures, and filthy dalliance and dancings, the extreme of all vices: finally, from all envy, arrogance, ambition, impudence, pertness, boldness, rashness, unshamefastness, dissolute laughing, excessive feeding, recklessness, dissoluteness, deliciousness, wantonness, lightness, inconstancy, curiousity… 

On subverting the patriarchy:

Motherhood and wifehood were the roles that became increasingly upheld as natural to and desirable for women; maintained virginity could only provoke suspicion and even derision. Furthermore, as in other moments in history, the maintenance of virginity was viewed as potentially subversive, a challenge to the patriarchal order, since it was suspected that women might use virginity as a means of escaping the roles society prescribed for them. 

On the Greek tale of Virginia and Apius:

Implicit in this view is the idea that if a man desires a woman, she cannot be truly innocent; that there is something in her that inflames his desire and that she is therefore also to blame for the consequences. No matter how obedient – how ‘pure’ – the woman is, she is at fault if illicit male desire focuses on her. She should have been more invisible… 

On the tropes in contemporary romance novels:

Similarly, in contemporary romance novels with virgin heroines, the women portrayed are certainly not asexual and they are not condemned for being sexual creatures. What is nonetheless also emphasized is that this ‘natural’ sexuality needs to be awoken, and that, in turn, can only happen with the ‘right’ man; thus, these virgins manage to be both innocent and sexy…While they are highly sexualized and highly sexed, they don’t ‘sleep around’; they are uninhibited and capable of pleasure and abandon with one man only, and the sign of specialness and their ‘gift’ to this man is that he recognizes this. 


On language using the female body:

Describing territories or landscapes in terms of women’s bodies and feminine qualities, particularly female fertility, was a familiar rhetorical move which occurs frequently in literary writings. It was also one used enthusiastically by those promoting colonization and conquest…The fecund virgin land – like the nubile human virgin – needs to be possessed; without ‘owner’, she is free for the taking. Indeed, it is for her own good that she should be taken for, as we know, virgin soil needs to be tilled to be fertile, the page needs to be inscribed in order to convey meaning. 

Seriously interesting, if rage-inducing at the treatment of women over the centuries.