Who is a bad girl? Unpacking ‘virginity’ under capitalism

Image by Javie Huxley @javhux

Two years before graduating from high school I was absent for the majority of my classes. I decided that school wasn’t for me. I came to that conclusion because me no longer being a virgin motivated my older boyfriend at the time to intensify his physical and sexual abuse. One day, he showed up at my school and assaulted me in front of the horrified faces of my classmates. He threatened to tell my parents that I am not a virgin if I left him or stepped out of line – with him controlling the parameters of those lines.

I told myself I wouldn’t go to school anymore because I had no interest in having to measure my intellectual value through the facade of educational institutions. This ironically meant I was smart enough to know I was living in denial about leaving school, as my boyfriend desired, and would later be subject to another set of dominance and social orders.

Today TV shows such as Sex Education and Big Mouth on Netflix hilariously cover teenage sexuality in a way that touches on virginity beyond women operating as fantasies on the sideline. However, while we talk less about paternal ownership, it does not mean the virginity construct is extinguished. It has transmuted into a new implicit structure that amplifies internal and external struggles. It holds colonial scripts that interplays between capitalist desires, the shifting culture of sexuality, and “othering“ – indicating a continuation of historical systems.

The truth is, the day I was assaulted I witnessed the other students’ eyes fill with pity – the weapon with which we strip someone off their dignity under the pretense of empathy. I always strive to be dignified. Hence, not having control over how someone saw me in that public moment was terrifying. I learned that shame is best navigated in private.

“’Virginity’ also perpetuates the heteronormative perspective”

In case you wondered, “virginity“ simply does not exist. The medical mythology centres largely around a membrane surrounding cisgender women’s vaginal openings called the “hymen“. The Greek term “hymen” derives from the word membrane and is also the name of the Greek god of marriage. The link between a fabled tissue and a god of state-defined family unionship should already tell you where this is going.  The hymen has been said to be “torn” when women have penile penetration for the first time, but can also happen from sports and other physical activity, and some women are not born with one.

A non-scarred hymen being a medico-legal marker for intercourse was debunked after forensic scientists in sexual violence and molestation cases reiterated that these erroneous notions around virginity hinder the progression of those cases. It also perpetuates the heteronormative perspective of penetration as “real sex” and everything else as foreplay – so do queer women never lose their virginity?

Although virginity is not a biological reality, it is certainly a political and social projection that some gynecologists are financially and culturally invested in by offering hymenoplasty – a medical procedure that claims to restore the hymen and thereby the illusion of virginity. No reliable statistics are available, because unsurprisingly the procedure is predominately taking place in private clinics.

The link between doctors being able to financially gain from a concept that simply does not exist, is another indicator that the medical field is a significant gatekeeper of social structures that the trans and intersex community have been trying to raise awareness of; the complicity of medical violence for upholding dominant ideas of what is socially acceptable.

“The virginity construct is closely related to patriarchal infrastructures”

What is rarely discussed is how virginity is closely related to patriarchal infrastructures and attributes immorality to members of lower classes. For instance, under Maximilian I’s order in Bavaria from 1638, women’s virginity was exploited to sustain the state’s control over members of the autocratic society. Often marriage was denied to poor couples, resulting in more relationships outside of marriage among the lower classes. The link between virginity and religious doctrine became a pillar of strengthening moral rationale, crystallising the Virgin Mary, the image of pure angelic perfection, in replace of Eve, the vessel of original sin.

In The History of Sexuality, French philosopher Michel Foucault frames virginity in terms of a network that determines social and sexual ordering. He links erotic stimulation and pleasure with knowledge, discourse and power. As such, dictating sexuality is an incentive of controlling population based on its ties to the body, which are connected to knowledge and power.

I was 13-years-old and on a class trip when a 13-year-old boy called me a slut. I turned to my teacher as she responded: “It was not ok for him to call you a slut, but when you wear those tops you just look different than the German girls … it looks classy on them, but you … well, you know, it just has a different association, you know, it just isn’t the same.” So, it appears virginity perpetually shifts to other forms of power and perceptions depending on the cultural context. In a time of heightened anti-Muslim racism, I realise how those shifts reframe the virginity versus whore narrative to stigmatise and further emphasise “the other“ in Western society.

In media, we often speak about virginity in order to discuss “honor culture“, which I always wonder if it is code for “inferior muslim“ communities. In the NY Times an Italian women states “these women can live in Italy, adopt our mentality and wear jeans. But in the moments that matter, they don’t always have the strength to go against their culture.” The colonial undertones in this particular rhetoric is very familiar. As culture shifts, there are ranks to it that ultimately seem to reflect who is institutionally safeguarded. From doctors and schools to media and the politicised framings of bodies.

We often talk about virginity in terms of access to human rights, as a means of attaining the highest standard of medical care and access to education, but we still operate under sexual social framings. A dogma of virgin versus whore is alive and well, and has culturally mutated to reflect the original infrastructures and functions of our patriarchal society. As long as we do not address these concerns, barriers to these basic human rights will likely remain. By reframing the language we use, opting for “having sex for the first time” instead of “losing our virginity”, we break away from the cycle of shaming women.

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