In today’s world, the word virgin has a complicated connotation. It has become inherently interwoven with misogynistic ideals and standards for women and how they choose to explore their sexuality. In health class, students are taught to remain a virgin until they’re in a long-term, committed relationship, with videos using chewed gum and worn sneakers as metaphors for girls who have already had sex. There’s a lot of pressure on the concept of virginity, both to lose it and to keep it, which leads some people to feel bad about their status either way.
That’s not what the word always meant. Instead, “virgin” was used to describe a free woman, independent and autonomous from any man. The idea was that a virgin was a woman not owned by a man.
The word virgin originated from Anglo-French and Old French and meant a chaste or unmarried woman noted for her religious piety. Virgin most likely evolved from the Latin word virginem, meaning a maiden, an unwedded girl or woman, and from the adjective virga, which meant “young shoot.”
Historically, the word virgin has most commonly been used to refer to women, and often women of high standing. Take the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome. These women were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. Selected for duty between the ages of 6 and 10, the Vestal Virgins guarded the flame of Vesta in the city center of Rome for at least 30 years.
For those 30 years, the women had to remain celibate and unmarried because the fire was pure and uncorrupted and so must be entrusted to uncontaminated and undefiled bodies. The Vestal Virgins were revered by Roman citizens because the flame they guarded was meant to keep Rome safe from attack. They were given rights not allowed to most women, like owning their own property and being emancipated from their father’s rule.
However, these rights depended on remaining celibate. All of the priestesses’ power came from their chastity, and should they be accused of defiling their bodies while they served the goddess, they were punished by being buried alive. The lives and power of these women depended on them not having sex, and if one was accused of breaking the vow of chastity, there was no way for her to prove her innocence.
The Vestal Virgins are not the only powerful women whose clout originates in their purity. The Virgin Mary is one of the most important figures in modern Christianity, and she holds significant power in the church. However, it is thought she may not have actually been a virgin. There was a translation error when translating the Hebrew Bible, and scholars took the word “almah” to mean virgin, when it more realistically meant young. There is little supporting evidence that Mary was a virgin in the New Testament, and yet her “virginity” has now become a fundamental piece of current Christian interpretation and culture.
Throughout history, virgin didn’t necessarily have a medical definition, but was instead more of a concept of remaining pure. It’s always been a word that has a vague meaning. Chaste? Unmarried? Young? Pure? This definition has become no clearer with the passage of time.
Today, how you personally perceive what “virgin” means depends on a variety of factors, ranging from your sexual orientation to your defintion of sex. Even the “medical” definition of losing your virginity, the stretching of the hymen when you have sex for the first time, is not applicaple to everyone, because only women have a hymen and every body is different.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t consider “virgin” having a medical or scientific definition. Plus, people define sex in many different ways, and the regular penis-in-vagina definition doesn’t always apply. According to WHO, “the concept of ‘virginity’ is a social, cultural and religious construct — one that reflects gender discrimination against women and girls.”
Virginity, as a concept, is tightly interwoven in modern culture, but the roots of a woman having power because she remained pure stretch back into ancient times. Perhaps it’s time to move away from someone’s choices defining whether they get, as they did in Rome, buried alive by society.
Reach writer Zoe Schenk at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schenk_zoe
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