The virginity paradox

Does female virginity still carry currency in the 21st century? Amanda Slater/flickr

In 1981, way back when Charles married Di in that big hoopla ceremony with the meringue dress and the Dame Kiri numbers, a less remembered, less valorised, element was the virginity thing. Di needed to _prove _that she was “in-tact” to the in-laws. Indeed: the mind boggles.

In 2011, Will’ll marry Kate in an equally big hoopla ceremony. There’ll be another fancy dress and again, the world will stop and watch. And Tweet. And interestingly, this time round, the son, the heir, has already been shacked up with his fiancé for a good number of years now, quite probably romping with her under the doona for years. That both have invited exes to the wedding suggests that, my oh my, they may not have even been each other’s firsts!

How things have changed!

Social attitudes about sex and marriage, of course, started changing long before 1983. Since the 1960s, the numbers of people approving of pre-marital sex and co-habitation have increased; our disapproval for divorce and “bastard” children has sharply declined.

Sure, it might have taken them a few years longer, but even the staid and sober Royals appear resigned to contemporary sexual mores.

And yet, while few hold any delusions about Kate’s maidenhood, pretending virginity is a non-issue would be quite the overstatement. Maybe it’s not the deal-breaker or trophy it once was, but the virginity of women remains still topical. Albeit a problem framed in a few new ways.

The supposed sexualisation of girls is a topic that gets much hyperbolic airplay. MTV’s consistent offerings of hip-gyrating teen stars and booby popettes has fed this conjured calamity, being vocally blamed for mainstreaming youth sexuality.

While I’d suggest that it’s a very long bow to draw to assume that a bare-midriff immediately infers sexual activity, nonetheless ours is indeed a culture that has readily mainstreamed youth sexuality. Teens on _Neighbours _and _Home and Away _have sex, teen pregnancy is a global issue and one might suggest that amidst so much youth bonking maybe virginity no longer matters. While certainly not the big deal it once was in Western culture, for women it’s not yet rendered irrelevant.

Of all the social changes to emerge from the 1960s, the availability of the contraceptive pill was what truly revolutionised the lives of women.

Not only did it place reproduction in their hands, but sex free of the fears of pregnancy meant that bedroom shenanigans could be enjoyed for recreation and partaken of without the constraints of marriage.

Half a century of reproductive control and half a century of women experiencing sex for fun, has dramatically changed attitudes towards virginity. Rather than a prize or a gift for a husband, most women will have first-time sex with a man who wouldn’t even dream of marrying.

Needless to say, not everyone’s happy about this.

In the US in recent years there’s been an upsurge in purity balls. Christian events were dads ‘n daughters dance and where virginity is pledged until marriage. Rings and prayer a’plenty lubricate the path to legs-together spiritual cleanliness. The burden of correcting society’s wrongs, of course, placed squarely on the girl’s shoulders.

These balls are symptomatic of conservative Christian fears of sexualisation, of moral degradation, of social decay. Not new fears, but nonetheless responded to in a new way.

The balls, the rings, are about safeguarding virginity, however virginity is really just one aspect of the all-importance of abstinence. Sure, saving one’s first-time until marriage is important, more important however, is not become a dirty statistic and doing the deed in the first place.

Also rising in popularity in the US is hymen reconstruction surgery. While in parts of Africa and the Middle East this is a surgery that has been practised for many years to “repair” girls who needs to simulate virginity for their wedding nights, in the US these procedures present a whole new way to think about virginity: as a fetish and as a commodity.

While hymen reconstruction does occur in the US for faith-based reasons, even more interesting are those secular adult women who are having the stitches sewn for cosmetic reasons.

On the menu of vaginal tinkering and tightening procedures peddled by surgeons nowadays are cosmetic hymen reconstructions. Such surgery gives women the opportunity to re-experience virginity; to relive the illusion of first-time sex. Testimonials document women who have bought to surgery as an anniversary gift for their husband. Yes, the mind really does boggle.

For some, virginity today is about stoically abstaining from sex as a response to modernisation and liberalisation. For others, virginity has become a commodity that can be bought and fetishized at will.

What remains consistent, of course, is that it’s only _female _virginity – complete with the physical signs of _male _penetration – that is of interest. Same as it ever was.