This summer, 16-year-old Lydia Playfoot lost her High Court battle to wear a silver chastity ring at school. The school, she’d argued, was discriminating against her religion and contravening her human rights. Lydia wanted to wear the ring as a way of expressing her faith: it represented her commitment to remain a virgin until she marries. It was a matter of free choice.

Sally Feldman's spread from New Humanist, September/October 2007But just how free was that choice? She was, after all, backed by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship. And her parents are members of the volunteer team which runs the UK branch of the Silver Ring Thing, an evangelical American movement which encourages teenagers to make a “pledge of chastity”. It also encourages them to pay £10 for the ring, which bears a “Biblical” inscription: “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honour.”

After decades of sexual liberation, celibacy is now being promoted by fundamentalist Christianity as the new freedom. That’s the message of the abstinence education programmes which, massively funded by successive governments, have been gradually replacing genuine sex education classes in American schools. And it’s not just Christianity that is urging young women to keep their legs crossed. The current anti-feminist backlash, particularly prominent in the United States, argues that the real woman’s right is abstinence rather than sexual expression. In The Cult of the Born-Again Virgin, for example, Wendy Keller argues that “the sexual freedom we have given ourselves since the 1960s might not be working for us anymore.”

So once again virginity has become the gold standard, and its primary signifier, the hymen, is being fetishised as a kind of must-have accessory, just as it was in the pre-liberation days. “The hymen obsessed everyone,” recalls the American writer Florence King in her article “Roll Me Over, Lay Me Down”, about dating in the 1950s. “Though it was never called by its proper name. It was referred to as your innocence, your purity, your goodness, your maidenhead, your mark, as in mark of Cain, and your shield, which never failed to make me think about the picture of the dead Spartan soldier in my history book. Dulce et decorum est not to get laid. We were told that ‘men can tell’ and warned not to wipe ourselves too hard, which led to untold confusion about the logistics of sexual congress. We were told everything about the hymen except where it is, what it is, and the whimsical fact that the human female shares this pearl with no other species of living creature except the elephant, the ass, and the pig.”

A decade or so later, we were just as anxious to hang on to our virginity at all costs. We knew that boys had a code for sexual activity. Number One was holding hands, Number Two was kissing, then came various levels of touching over and under clothes. It was like a kind of sexual Richter scale, where innocent trembles and shudders would rise to thunderous roars, right up to the ominous cracking of Number Nine, oral sex, and the ultimate, Number Ten, when the earth finally moves. Most of us were content to hover around the Sixes and Sevens, though one or two might daringly clock up a Number Eight. But we all knew that as long as you stopped short of Ten you were still a virgin. So we would have frenzied discussions about how far you could go, how heavy “heavy petting” could be before uncontrollable passion took over.

And even worse than all that overheated emergency planning was the awful threat that you could lose your hymen without even knowing it. We were warned not to ride broad horses too enthusiastically; to be careful where we wielded our hockey sticks; not to sit on the radiators at school for fear that too much pleasurable warm wriggling might wear away the precious membrane.

These days, though, the careless loss of your maidenhead need not be such a trauma as you can always get another one. In her new study, Virginity: A Cultural History, the medieval historian Anke Bernau comments on the increasing number of clinics offering “hymen restoration” promising to “repair or augment the hymen to restore it to its ‘virginal’ state.” The procedure, referred to as hymenoplasty or hymenorraphy, hymenal reconstruction or hymen repair surgery, caters for any woman who wishes to regain her virginity or even just to strengthen a fragile hymen.

And there are more of those than you might imagine, as this precious fibrous flap can vary so wildly in size and durability, and in some cases may even be completely absent. So its rupture is not a reliable guide to virginity, and neither is its intactness, since it is quite possible for a resilient hymen to survive penetration. But that hasn’t altered its acceptance as the unassailable proof of virginity, even though it wasn’t until the 16th century that it began to be mentioned in medical literature. Even then its existence was hotly debated by anatomists. But as virginity acquired such a premium in marriage settlements as a guarantee of rightful progeny, the bloodied sheets following the wedding night came to be seen as the indisputable confirmation of the dowry price and would be triumphantly waved to the public after royal consummations.

But although its value as a purity test may have emerged only recently, the hymen itself has an almost mystical, universal significance. In the classical world virginity was considered to have powerful magic properties, conferring strength and ritual purity. Hera, wife of Zeus, renewed her maidenhead annually when she was dipped by nymphs in the spring at Canathus. The vestal virgins guarding the Roman temple fires were similarly imbued with an aura of magical power.

Reverence for the power of the hymen is reflected in the marriage ceremonies of primitive cultures across the world, which often entailed the ritual perforation of the hymen. In some tribes, this would be done by an old woman, or by the father; in others, white men would be asked to deflower maidens, while among some Inuit tribes it was the priest. In the Philippines the job was the responsibility of privileged professionals.

In “The Taboo of Virginity” Freud suggests that these primitive practices reflect a primeval anxiety about the act of deflowering which can be traced to a man’s terror of being castrated and a woman’s fear of invasion. Puzzling over the hostility and frigidity that may accompany a woman’s first experiences of sex, Freud refers to the dream of a newly-married woman who wishes to castrate her young husband and to keep his penis for herself.

“Behind this envy for the penis, there comes to light the woman’s hostile bitterness against the man, which never completely disappears in the relations between the sexes, and which is clearly indicated in the strivings and in the literary production of ‘emancipated’ women.”

And the reason that this hostility is so pronounced in “emancipated” women, Freud implies, is that marriage bestows upon men “the right to exclusive possession of a woman,” and the sexual overpowering of her “creates a state of bondage in the woman which guarantees that possession of her shall continue undisturbed and makes her able to resist new impressions and enticements from outside.”

So Freud was not only astute in his recognition of the power of a woman’s virginity and the immense significance of its loss, but in his understanding of the nature of possession: that for a woman to belong completely to a man she must be his and his alone. So virginity came to be seen as a symbol not just of the woman’s purity, but of her value as property. Not only would a woman’s honour be measured by her hymen; so would that of her family. Muslim fathers who are driven to murder their daughters for sexual indiscretions regard their crimes as “honour killings” – an exorcism of contamination to protect the good name of the family. The most extreme form of female circumcision, infibulation, is in part at least intended to guarantee her virginity and hence her market value.

When Samuel Richardson’s beleaguered servant girl, Pamela, resists the lascivious advances of her master, she is preserving her honour, more precious to her than all the worldly goods he can offer her. On the other hand, by doing so she lands the worldly goods as well, so that there’s a delicious dual meaning to the novel’s subtitle, Virtue Rewarded. And that’s the point that Richardson’s contemporary Henry Fielding makes in his wicked satire Shamela, where the withholding of sexual favour is ridiculed as a calculating ruse to trap a wealthy man.

Virtue Rewarded has been a dominant literary theme ever since the publication of that first English novel. For every virginal Elizabeth Bennett who wins her man and his estate, there’s a sprightly Lydia tarnishing the family name. For every angelic Little Nell or sweetly blushing Dora there’s a Hetty Sorrel or a Tess, fallen from grace into tragedy through the loss of her jewel, her honour, her bargaining chip.

The ancient morality code that deemed a woman must say no in order to attract a man is now returning with a vengeance. In the best-selling modern guide to dating etiquette, The Rules, the authors recommend delaying sexual favours as one of the wiles to trap a man. And in another contemporary guide, Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues: “Female modesty gave men a frame of reference for a woman’s ‘no’.” These are flimsily disguised versions of the old adage that men won’t touch damaged goods and that only an unsullied woman can make a decent match.

Whether as a marketing tool or the symbol of family honour, a sign of virtue or a guarantee of first-time ownership, virginity is, as Anke Bernau argues, “always about power”. And the power that has had the most profound influence on women’s sexuality and enforced virginity is Christianity.

The inspiration for the Church’s obsession with female chastity is, of course, the Virgin Mary. Virginity and even the concept of the virgin birth are recurring themes in many mythologies, from South America to China. Krishna was believed to have been born of a virgin, while the Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped as a Madonna, fecund yet always a virgin. But in her monumental study of the Virgin Mary, Alone of All Her Sex, Marina Warner argues that it was Christianity that appropriated the cult of virginity as a fully developed moral philosophy. “The interpretation of the virgin birth as the moral sanction of the goodness of sexual chastity was the overwhelming and distinctive contribution of the Christian religion to the ancient mythological formula.”

For it was Christianity that insisted upon the division between body and soul, between the animal and the spiritual. And, argues Marina Warner, this revulsion against the physical was the root of the denigration of women. “It was this shift, from virgin birth to virginity, from religious sign to moral doctrine, that transformed a mother goddess like the Virgin Mary into an effective instrument of asceticism and female subjection.”

Mary may have been a goddess, a saint, a miracle-worker, the mother of Jesus and the second most important figure in the whole Christian edifice, but the qualities she embodies have come to define women’s weakness and inferiority. “The type of virtues decreed feminine degenerate easily,” Warner suggests. “Obedience becomes docility; gentleness, irresolution; humility, cringing; forbearance, long-suffering.”

Judy Walker's "Brides of Christ" cartoon for New Humanist, September/October 2007It was Mary’s virginity that was upheld by Catholicism as the ideal for women, and so to be a nun, a bride of Jesus, was the ultimate calling. “In their renunciation of human love and human relationships, Christian virgins also exemplify virginity’s sacrificial nature,” explains Anke Bernau. “Because it is vowed, lifelong virginity means the ‘perpetual sharing in the Cross of Christ’; it is to be understood as ‘an unbloody but lifelong martyrdom’.”

And this promise of spiritual rather than worldly bliss is probably among the most heinous deceptions that Christianity has imposed on women. For all those legions of women willingly led over the centuries to Christ’s altar, millions of others have been bludgeoned, coaxed or deluded into the nunneries and a life of bleak unfulfillment. And yet for some the vocation offered unexpected rewards.

“Because it could secure a degree of independence and equality, the ascetic life exercised a tremendous attraction over women from its earliest days,” Marina Warner argues. “The history of the Church is illuminated by saints of genius, who were able, once they had capitulated to the conditions the Church demanded, to assert their ideas and their authority as independent and active women. Some of the most notable advances in the worlds of teaching, nursing and social work of different kinds were achieved by . . . purposeful women who understood that the virginal state gave them a special claim on Christian society, and therefore exploited it to raise the condition of their sex.”

But Anke Bernau points out that the mediaeval religious establishment denied any suggestion that women who chose a life of virginity could expect a greater degree of independence from male supervision or authority. For while virginity is viewed as the perfect state for a woman, there was from ancient times a contradictory anxiety that it might also be a threat to her very womanhood. This fear stemmed from atavistic beliefs that a woman who remained virginal or abstinent for too long could become masculinised, growing facial hair and assuming a male personality.

So the assumption was that unless a woman was dedicated to the convent, she must be plucked in good time from her virginal state in order to fulfil her physical role as wife and mother. Women who maintained their celibacy beyond this window of opportunity would become shrivelled, less female, more like men. Or like witches. As in so many fairy tales, the ambrosial magic of the untried virgin is contrasted with the malevolent spells of the crone. The Sleeping Beauty’s purity is ravaged by the curse of the wicked fairy, her downfall signalled by blood as she pricks her fated finger and falls into cursed slumber. Rapunzel’s virginity is trapped in the tower by a vengeful harridan.

Like the post-menopausal virago, the virginal spinster is suspect, a figure of derision but also of fear. This prejudice was developed further by the Victorians, who regarded prolonged virginity as unnatural and referred to those who espoused it as viragints, living in an abnormal state of “masculo-femininity”. “Among the prime candidates for such an unfortunate state,” suggests Bernau, “were women who fought for suffrage.”

So women who reject their traditional roles, whether as wife and mother or bride of Christ, are suspect, unwomanly, a threat to the established order. And they become so by taking on not merely the characteristics of men but also their power and influence.

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king,” declared the most powerful woman in English history. Queen Elizabeth I may or may not have been swept off her feet by Robert Dudley, or enjoyed intimate love trysts with the Earl of Essex. What mattered, though, was that publicly and politically she was a virgin and her power resided in her refusal to abdicate that position, to marry and thereby accept a submissive, female role.
Joan of Arc, visionary, soldier, martyr and saint, also drew succour from her chastity. She declared herself and was believed by her followers to be a pure virgin, and that was the sign that God would lead her to victory. Her detractors, however, presented her as an unnatural woman, a boyish cross-dresser who might not even be a woman at all.

The association of virginity with masculinity is interpreted more literally by the “sworn virgins”, who can be found in different communities right across the Balkans, They are women who formally pledge that they will remain celibate and unmarried in order to assume the privileges of men, often acting as a replacement if there is no son in a family or if there is a shortage of men. They dress, work and live as men, and are accorded considerable respect and rights.

But there’s a vital difference between this elective abstinence, which is a claim to equal rights, and coercion which seeks to repress and contain women’s autonomy. Whether it’s the Church prescribing spiritual purity, families protecting their honour, a moral majority seeking to curb the excesses of liberalism or the new wave anti-feminism which promises husbands in exchange for denial, enforced virginity can never be a route to liberation.

These days you don’t have to sacrifice any part of yourself to become a queen or a soldier, a leader or a bread-winner. There’s no reason why a free-thinking, educated humanist should not decide to embrace virginity as a route to independence and freedom. But you’d do far better just to face up to the rational truth: that it’s a trap, a delusion, a social construct, a mere tool of patriarchal oppression, and should be discarded as early as possible, with as much joy, vigour, rebellion and abandon as you can muster. ■

Virgins: A Cultural History by Anke Bernau is published by Granta Books