Friday, December 25, 2009

Virgin School

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Embodied in the figure of the goddess Athena or Mother Mary, the virgin state has inspired universal cults, national myths, personal passions and unsurpassed works of art; it has excited religious mystics to praise it as the highest ideal and fastest way to heaven; it has also moved many a titillating plot about the seduction of the innocent -- from the notorious Liaisons Dangereuses to teen soaps focusing on "the first time." As Hanne Blank points out in her vigorous and eclectic study, "Virginity has been, and continues to be, a matter of life and death around the world."

For Blank, virginity is a social invention designed above all to control women; its connection to virtue flourishes in the fantasies of fathers, suitors, priests and pornographers. In the first part of the book, Blank gives a detailed account of the fetishized and numinous hymen. A puny ring or flap in the vulva, it remained unseen until the 16th century. But its appeal did not fade under the new scientific gaze; the anatomist Helkiah Crooke, for example, turned to the language of a love sonnet to describe his findings ("All these particles together make the form of the cup of a little rose half blowne"). However, even after physicians were able to inspect the interior of a woman's body, Blank is clear that sexual experience cannot be deduced from its condition, as some women have hymens that grow back after childbirth, while others have no obstruction to speak of and do not bleed during their "first time." The author therefore expresses her strongest indignation at the long, cruel story of virginity tests, when "women may not speak for themselves" and the one person who knows the truth of the case cannot make herself heard. Over the centuries, women have conspired to provide the evidence and stain the bridal sheets not because the bride wasn't innocent but because, as Blank makes clear, the dramatic rupturing of the hymen is a fable.

Virgin: The Untouched History

Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences

Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club

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