Intact hymens and the fetishization of virginity

14 07 2009

Via Sociological Images, an older ad marketing a tampon:


The beginning text of the ad goes like:

I really wanted to use tampons but I heard that you had to be, you know, ‘experienced’. So I asked my friend Lisa. Her mom is a nurse so I figured she’d know. Lisa told me she’d been using Petal Soft Plastic Applicator Tampax tampons since her very first period and she’s a virgin. In fact, you can use them at any age and still be a virgin.

It’s laughable that this is the actual text of the ad. It’s also ridiculous that people used to fear that girls could lose their virginity by using tampons. “In fact, you can use them at any age and still be a virgin” – OMG Yay! What a relief! Oh gee, society and its fetishization of virginity.

On her post Lisa writes:

Remember the hymen? The hymen is that flap of skin that “seals” the vagina until a woman has sexual intercourse for the first time. Supposedly one could tell whether a girl/woman was a virgin by whether her hymen was “intact.” (It bears repeating that neither of these things are true: it doesn’t “seal” the vagina and is not a sign of virginity at all.)

Because an intact hymen signaled virginity, and virginity has been considered very important, preserving and protecting the hymen was, at one time, an important task for girls and women.

To add onto this, using an intact hymen as an indicator of a female’s virginity is problematic on several counts because not only is it highly heteronormative but it also contributes to rape culture. It is based on and feeds into a heteronormative construction of virginity and sex in which sex is portrayed as a transaction where men are the active doers who go and “get some”, while women are the passive receivers who just “give some”. This cultural paradigm of sex can be thought of as the “commodity model” in which sex is a commodity that men try to get as much of as they can, while women are responsible for both marketing and safeguarding this commodity.

In Yes Means Yes, a fantastic book edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman, Thomas Millar has an essay called “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” in which he writes that according to the commodity model of sex:

…sex is not so much of an act as a thing: a substance that can be given, bought, sold, or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve.  In this “commodity model”, sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it.  Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction.  This puts women in the position of not only seller, but also guardian or gatekeeper… (30).

This commodity model of sex reifies the virgin/whore dichotomy. Two conclusions often follow – men can maximize their tickets and the women who give out lots of tickets are sluts or whores, OR that these tickets are very valuable and therefore men encourage women to guard these tickets (or to have their fathers guard these tickets…creepy things called purity balls) until they find Mr. Right who will be their husband, their provider, their protector. The commodity model caters to cisgender, heterosexual males and feeds into rape culture:

The logical conclusion of this model is that rape is narrowly understood and consent is presumed. Under the commodity model, consent is not necessarily enthusiastic participation, or even necessarily an affirmative act. If someone tries to take something and the owner raises no objection, then that something is free for the taking. To this way of thinking, consent is the absence of “no” (Millar, 35).

Consent is misconstrued as the absence of “no”, but the absence of “no” does not mean “yes”. So here arises the rape myth that women who are raped but don’t say “no” aren’t really raped. Consent is assumed because women are “open for business” and cannot withdraw or deny the sexual act unless they say “no”. It was just a “bad transaction” that can’t be refunded or undone.

Obsession with the hymen and maintaining an intact hymen in order to show that you were still a virgin reinforces ageist standards of beauty and ideas about sex/sexuality. I’ve blogged about our society’s ongoing obsession with virginity before (here and here) and how it is unhealthy and harms women but it remains pervasive and demands a critical eye and attention.



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