Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in virginity

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

To define the word virginity, or virgin, which the dictionary describes as ‘a person who has not had sexual intercourse’[1], one must first define sexual intercourse. This in itself is a highly contended topic as, when looking for a definition, one is presented with the very heteronormative idea that it is merely the process of ‘heterosexual intercourse involving penetration of the vagina by the penis’[2], ignoring the LGBTQ+ community and what sex is to them. The word virginity originates from the latin ‘virgo’, which then evolved into ‘virginitatem’, or in French ‘virginité’, and translated into English it becomes maiden: a sexually intact young woman[3]. Even the etymology of the word highlights the role the patriarchy has had in the concept of virginity, and how when talking of its importance and value, societies almost exclusively think of female virginity, which will be the main topic of our research also. An interdisciplinary approach is required when finding the truth in what virginity truly is as it can be defined in so many ways. Biologists often take the positivist approach and describe in purely scientific terms, viewing it merely as a biological process. This view conflicts with that of gender studies or anthropology, in which virginity is not a fixed universal idea applicable to all, rather it is more of a state of mind. It is important to look at how the different definitions of virginity in different cultures affect the value they each place on it.

Positivist approach[edit | edit source]

Virginity can only be regarded as true when you believe in its existence, either through faith or evidence. The scientific approach to this concept would be to search for a transition after virginity loss. Traditionally, this has been proven by a damaged hymen [4], the membrane that covers the vaginal opening.

Through this definition, virginity is a biological phenomenon: the alteration of an organ. In the past, women would undergo virginity tests (either by physical examination or proof of blood [5]), and sometimes even have reconstructive virginity surgery to rebuild their hymen [6].

But researcher has proven that the absence of an intact hymen isn’t reliable evidence for virginity loss[7]. Thus, a positivist approach to the truth of virginity is easily negated by sciences’ objectivity and neutrality. Nonetheless, this invalidated theory still impacts what society considers true concerning this Virginity. Furthermore, those assumptions reflect heteronormativity because they only consider penetration as sexual intercourse.

Constructivist approach[edit | edit source]

Gender Studies[edit | edit source]

Gender Studies examines the way we think about gender. According to gender theorists, our perception of gender is largely influenced by the binary conception of femininity and masculinity, and the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm in society.[8] Gender theories have a constructivist approach to truth, and gender refers to "culturally mediated expectations and roles associated with masculinity and femininity", [9] an prime example of a social construct.

Sexuality is influenced by gender stereotypes and expectations. Traditionally, women's sexuality has been restricted and virginity encouraged. As Jessica Valenti explains in The Cult of Virginity, there is an "inextricable relationship between sexual purity and women"[10]. According to her, it is the result of a long-standing tradition of establishing paternity through virginity; in the Middle Ages, marriage to a virgin was a means of ensuring paternity. If a woman's sexual relations are controlled, there is no uncertainty around the paternity of her children, and men can retain authority over them.[11]

Virginity is often analysed through the prism of heterosexuality, as, historically, the terms of “virgin” and “non virgin” were used by social scientists to describe individuals who engaged or not in vaginal intercourse, completely ignoring those engaging in non-penetrative intercourse.[12]. However, gender studies also explore how heterosexuality is an institution that participates to oppression. Heterosexuality is socially and culturally constructed, as argued by Judith Butler in Gender Book. She coined the expression ‘heterosexual matrix’, referring to "a grid or frame through which culture make sense of the ways that our bodies, genders and desires seem to appear naturally heterosexual”[13]. As a result, every sexuality that doesn’t conform to this spectrum also doesn’t conform to the norm. Therefore, because there is so much emphasis on heterosexual practices in one losing their virginity, it raises questions as to the exclusion of the sexual practices of members of the LGTBQIA+ community, in the 'standard' definition.

Anthropology[edit | edit source]

There is no cross-cultural, universal definition of virginity; Laura M. Carpenter in Gender and the Meaning of Virginity Loss in the Contemporary United States, says “I bracket (or decline to consider) the physiological definition of virginity loss so as to draw explicit attention to the diverse meanings young men attach to the transition and to show how these meaning are socially created”. Here, she comes completely off the physiological virginity loss concept to get closer to the social meaning it holds, proving how socially constructed it is. This is how constructivist Anthropologists approach the concepts of gender and virginity. [14]

As Mauss argues, body phenomena are frequently used as a way to symbolize wider society specialty in relation to ritual and myth. In a society still dominated mostly by men, virginity is the perfect body phenomena example. “One is not born, but rather become a woman”, in saying that, de Beauvoir denies any biological aspect of gender, instead asserting that the gender is socially constructed, [15] [16] as is virginity. There have been numerous ethnographic reports that touch upon virginity in relation to various forms of social organization from marriage, to kinship, to caste systems.

In defining virginity in today’s western society, people place importance on the loss of the hymen. However, there are countless other markers of virginity loss in women: from the constitution of her urine to the feel of her breast. The Zulus, an Nguni ethnic group in Southern Africa, believe that the virginity of a woman can be defined by her taut muscle tone. There can be no definitive answer as to which factor is the truth, therefore taking a positivist approach to it impossible.

In monotheists religions, which constitute a large part of global culture, primary importance is given to virginity, particularly for women: in Islamic culture, importance is placed on the idea of women remaining a virgin and ‘saving their hymen’ until their wedding night. In the Catholic religion, the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus (for the Catholics, God, in other words), is praised for staying a virgin.

Today, the importance given to the sexual education is gradually changing, and, in admitting that virginity is entirely socially constructed, a new way to educate young men and women must emerge. For example, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education is attempting to redefine virginity in order to requalify concepts of prestige and purity amongst young people. [17]

Conclusion of Virginia[edit | edit source]

The scientific, positivist approach to truth in virginity is almost certainly wrong, or at least incomplete, as a definition of what virginity is. In the constructivist approach to truth, virginity is more of a spectrum, encompassing more of society as it allows the inclusion of the LGBT community, and virginity is no longer considered a dichotomy. However, society has been formed around this binary assumption of the positivist truth of virginity, due to its patriarchal origins assigning greater value to women who have retained their virginity. One of the few examples of when value is placed on male virginity is in religion, with chastity being a requirement for monkhood. Virginity within men also does not have the historical significance of being treated as a commodity, which is not true for women. Due to the fact that virginity loss has a spectrum of definitions, and the concept of virginity is a patriarchal construct, it cannot be considered a positivist truth as, rather than being an observable thing in the material world, it is an idea created by society and their experiences.

  1. “Virgin.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 11 Dec. 2020.
  2. “Sexual intercourse.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 11 Dec. 2020.
  4. "Torn hymen (virgin or not?)". December 12, 2005. Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  5. Perlman, Sally E.; Nakajyma, Steven T.; Hertweck, S. Paige (2004). Clinical protocols in pediatric and adolescent gynecology. Parthenon. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-84214-199-1.
  6. 1.Cindoglu D. Virginity tests and artificial virginity in modern Turkish medicine. Women’s Studies International Forum [Internet]. 1997 Mar [cited 2020 Dec 10];20(2):253–61. Available from:
  7. Perlman, Sally E.; Nakajyma, Steven T.; Hertweck, S. Paige (2004). Clinical protocols in pediatric and adolescent gynecology. Parthenon. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-84214-199-1.
  8. 1. Cranny-Francis A, Waring W, Stavropoulos P, Kirkby J. Gender Studies: Terms and Debates [Internet]. Google Books. 2020 [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  9. Lee HM. Gender: The Basics [Internet]. Perlego eReader. [cited 2020Dec11]. Available from:, p2
  10. Valenti J. The Cult of Virgnity [Internet]. [cited 2020Dec11]. Available from:, p182
  11. Lee HM. Gender: The Basics [Internet]. Perlego eReader. [cited 2020Dec11]. Available from:
  12. Cranny-Francis A, Waring W, Stavropoulos P, Kirkby J. Gender Studies: Terms and Debates [Internet]. Google Books. 2020 [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  13. Cranny-Francis A, Waring W, Stavropoulos P, Kirkby J. Gender Studies: Terms and Debates [Internet]. Google Books. 2020 [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:, p.20
  14. Carpenter, L., 2002. Gender And The Meaning And Experience Of Virginity Loss In The Contemporary United States. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 December 2020].
  15. McCall, L., 1992. Does Gender Fit? Bourdieu, Feminism, And Conceptions Of Social Order. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 December 2020].
  16. Techniques of the body, by Marcel Mauss (1934)
  17. Cooper, R. and Nylander, L., 2010. (DE)CONSTRUCTING SEXUALITY AND VIRGINITY, An Anthropological Analysis Of Slidkrans In Sweden. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 December 2020].