The power of words in female health – (part 3) what does virginity even mean?

Hymens meaning virginity and vaginas being vulvas – a three-parter on the concepts, misconceptions and grey areas surrounding these parts of female health 

The takeaway from my hymenectomy experience, especially after the reconciliatory encounter with the doctor, was extremely positive. However, the topic of my virginity being at the detriment of having necessary surgery has stayed with me, even if it only confirmed what I already believed. In one of the case studies I read, it was noted, that to the patient and her family it was important that the hymen’s condition was kept intact to preserve her virginity. In the concluding paragraph, it states that ‘incision type depends on patient’s desire or surgeon’s preference’, thus in many cases the decision comes down to you, the occupant of your body, as to how you are operated on. What I’m trying to say is that if unlike me you would be afraid to undergo a hymenectomy on the basis of virginity, ask your doctor – it is possible to have both! Everyone is so unerringly entitled to their beliefs and opinions, but in my first hospital meeting the doctor’s opinion became fact and that’s where I became uncomfortable.

In her interview with Elizabeth Day’s podcast ‘How to Fail’, Gloria Steinem was asked about anger, specifically ‘female anger’. Her reply was

‘I think [it] is an important source of energy, because when you see something or experience something just not right anger gives you the energy to do something about it, anger is the energy cell’.

Gloria Steinem on ‘how to fail with elizabeth day’

And it’s true, regardless as to how big or small the matter is. Over the years I’ve been pondering what virginity actually means and what it actually is when you break it down, in an effort to inform my true opinion of it. Though I wouldn’t say this came from a place of anger, more a sudden flash of awareness. I became acutely aware that I had relaxed into a state of oblivious indifference, towards something that when confronted with, actually didn’t sit well with me at all. I would hear phrases such as ‘patriarchal construct’ and think ‘yes it very probably is’ but then delve no further.  By researching, I was working backwards from the moment it didn’t ring true to the unsettled feeling of its problematic nature. 

Having studied Classics at university, I’m well aware of its lasting impression on western civilisation in a variety of ways, ritually and linguistically. Virginity accompanies theatre, democracy, legal systems and the Hippocratic oath in its cultural origins. Hymen was the Greek god of marriage, and marriage was what virginity was saved for. The synonymity between hymens and virginity is born. It’s no wonder the hymen can’t escape association with chastity when it’s named after the marital deity! 

The second fact and the one that really clinched it for me, was the etymology of virgin. In the article ‘Hymen: Facts and Conceptions’, they reveal the latin origins of the French word virgine. Here it breaks down into vir meaning ‘man’, and genere which means (wait for it) ‘created for’. The word still bandied around today is derived in this archaic view that chastity is all a woman has to offer her partner. It’s not even for women, despite it being her most valued sign of morality! In the modern world the derivation of virginity is also discussed in its contribution to the toxicity of slut shaming and – due to its heterosexual origins – marginalisation of anyone who is not the heteronormative stereotype.

In instances where so many peoples’ (though not mine obviously) hymens break unawares before they have sex, is it not clear grounds that the ancient view of virginity has more loopholes than not? 

You could argue that to ‘reclaim’ virginity for the women could be an empowering way to perceive it. Kudos to you if you do, and kudos if you don’t. Personally, it’s a word which though ingrained in my vocabulary, I plan to phase out. It’s not for me, and etymologically it was never really for me. 

I’m also against the idea that you ‘lose’ your virginity, as it denotes a sense of being less. I’ve talked to friends about how we all thought we would look at ourselves in the mirror differently after our first time, as if it’ll be marked all over our faces. But even in the very moment of sizing ourselves up in the mirror we laughed at that thought. Unsurprisingly, we looked and felt no different in who we were. 

There’s a quote that I love from a piece by Lauren Forster for Western University’s online journal ‘HerCampus’ – ‘You lose your keys, not your virginity’. Which sums it up rather perfectly to me. 

My main objective with these topics of vulvas, hymens and virginity is to highlight how the gaps in education are the common thread which inhibit vital understanding of our bodies. Euphemistic, evasive and misused language though seemingly harmless in their tiptoeing, apologetic (and sometimes amusing) nature, in truth intercepts and muddies the waters of basic, fundamental information. I would be surprised (though pleased) to find one woman who didn’t think they were ‘the only one’ when they first experienced a normal female bodily function or feature. This could be periods, discharge, stretch marks, desire, pubic hair – you name it. The female anatomy is like the biggest elephant in the room that’s been told to squeeze into a corner and cover itself with a tiny towel. An extravagant image I grant you. But what I am trying to say is that it is no secret, and yet its treated as such. How are we meant to know when something isn’t right down there, when the foundations of what is normal is shaky? How can you make an informed decision about your body without the facts? Not very easily.

Get to know your body, friends, and ask or research what you don’t understand! I’m only now taking initiative for this, to uncover and question things that I’d previously accepted. We’re working it out together! We humans have been knocking about for thousands of years now, and the changes in this duration are simultaneously enormous and infinitesimal. The euphemisms truly serve no one, least of all people born into female bodies, and the more we try to understand the anatomy the more we can feel a sense of clarity in ourselves.

Recommended articles: Hymen: Facts and Conceptions https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260578888_Hymen_Facts_and_conceptions

HerCampus – Why virginity is a social construct  https://www.hercampus.com/school/western/why-virginity-social-construct

Image courtesy of Georgia Hunt

Categories: Article, Opinion

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