Virgins: A cultural history, By Anke Bernau

First catch your unicorn... the myths, fears and fantasies surrounding a fragile membrane
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The Independent Culture

When I was 14 a classmate told me she was half a virgin. I puzzled over this. Surely being a virgin was like being pregnant: you either were or you weren't. But such a conundrum lies at the heart of Anke Bernau's enjoyable Virgins: a Cultural History. While virginity is generally accepted as a transitional state everyone experiences, there's no absolute definition.

Is virginity a physical condition or a stance? Does it have a spiritual aspect? Traditionally, an intact hymen has been taken as proof of maidenhood but what good is that when the membrane can rupture naturally, some girls are born without one and hymenoplasty is an option? Are you still a virgin if, when touched for the very first time, you have anal rather than vaginal sex? How different are female and male virginity? All this prompts a rather Alice-like question: How do you know you've lost it, if you're not sure you ever had it?

Bernau embraces wholeheartedly the teasing possibilities of her subject. Perhaps it's this very elusiveness which has preserved virginity's potency in our sexually liberated times. The belief in some countries that sex with virgins cures AIDS occupies the same territory as that of virgins' special rapport with unicorns: wishful myth-making. Virginity can be viewed romantically, prosaically, even politically. As a term it carries a charge, whether provoking playground giggles or nostalgic reminiscence. Vestals, viragints, "born-agains" – virgins have been the focus of much religious, medical and literary discussion.

The "nice-girls-don't" ideology may seem to belong to another era but Bernau shows that's not so. From the silver ring thing (no sex please we're pledgers) to abstinence-only sex education, virginity's making a comeback. Creepier are the burgeoning clinics providing cosmetic vaginal surgery. If circumcision is regarded as mutilation of a child with no choice, rehymenisation is enhancement for an adult who controls her own body – or so the marketing goes. For the woman who has everything, virginity has become yet another commodity, at $1,000 a throw.

While not offering a definitive account of virginity, Bernau's informative and serious survey spans the veiling of virgins to

the death of dating. Looking at the ways medical writings from the ancients onwards have defined virginity, Bernau considers too how Christian ideas have shaped Western culture's attitudes.

From fragrant to flagrant, the literary virgin crops up as an icon of purity or a pornographic temptress, artless or artful, innocent or inviting. Bernau examines how virginity has been related to the "common good" of society and finishes by contemplating the battles currently being fought over it. Should teenagers be fully briefed on sex or just be told to refrain? She writes: "Both sides of this debate argue that what is at stake is nothing less than the future of Western society."

The West's survival resting on an intact hymen conjures an alarming image. But the relationship of virginity to society's well-being is nothing new. From medieval times, virgins were valued by both the secular and the religious. The undefiled girl as a bargaining chip was a pragmatic necessity in aristocratic alliances, a means of guaranteeing that bloodlines stayed unpolluted. But for Catholics with their cult of Mary, virginity was "a call to perfection". It began with the soul and was finalised in the body – something harped on still by contemporary evangelical writers who urge their readers to let Christ control their love-life.

Yet until the 18th century medics warned against long-term virginity, associating it with ill health. Chlorosis (girls turned pale green) and womb suffocation (the womb roaming around the body) were blamed on lack of coitus. It was a case of gathering your rose buds or ending up a deranged old maid of the Miss Havisham type.

After the Reformation, while chastity was revered, maintained virginity looked suspiciously like avoiding marriage and child-rearing. Two of history's great subversive virgins did just that but with differing success. Joan of Arc, with her male clothing and direct line to God, paid for her insubordination at the stake. Elizabeth I, however, made a political virtue out of her celibacy. A kind of secular nun, she was married not to Christ but to her country.

A desire to both protect and control has always motivated enforced virginity. Staying virgin wasn't necessarily a personal choice. But is it, even now? It's arguable that peer pressure causes adolescents to have sex before they are ready. Yet, as Bernau indicates, abstinence-only education seems close to a kind of social regulation which holds back a natural coming of age. She concludes: "It is in this struggle over teen sexuality that virginity has re-emerged most visibly."

It may be visible but it's still hard to see. If Bernau draws any conclusion in herinteresting and intelligent book, it's that virginity can never be fully penetrated. Meanwhile, its "proliferation of meanings and desires" continues to fascinate us, ensuring its ongoing presence in Western culture.

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