Endowing Life With The Sacred: An Essay on Human Limitations and Exclusivity

Humans have the ability to self-generate “the sacred.” While the Platonist philosopher wishes to universalize human behavior, the human being chained to his or her own existential reality gets through life by making those relations “sacred” that are immediately most close to him or her; in essence, the existential human is concerned with the particular. Humans are finite creatures limited to time and place. We cannot possibly love everyone and make every moment sacred. Hence, we embrace those closest to us—set them apart—and, in effect, make our relations sacred. We are, by all means, an exclusive-making species. We exclude everyone else in the process. We include those we chose, and amongst those chosen, we further make sacred some relations. In this essay, I will argue that exclusivity is essential to the human life, since it is inherent to our finite natures. Moreover, I will argue that we self-generate “the sacred” by (a) a process of exclusion, which is an inherent by-product of our finite nature; and (b) a process of selecting from those included a select few individuals who share a particular act, a particular thing, with us in common. It is this particularity that makes something “sacred.” It is this particularity that makes up what we call “special moments.” The thing that we choose to willfully set-apart becomes holy (“sacred”) unto us.

In this essay, I will deal with the example of sacred sex, something common to many religions. Because sex has taken on this sort of “sacred element,” I have decided that it serves as a clear example of how humans go about excluding others and endowing life with the sacred by a process of particularization. I will first begin by dealing with human limitations. I will then proceed to show how this is inextricably related to our finite natures. After that, I will demonstrate that humans qua humans could only be exclusive-making creatures. Finally, I will argue that sex serves as a perfect example of self-generated “sacredness.” Moreover, I will argue that endowing life with “the sacred” is something all humans could, theoretically, do. In fact, I will argue for all of us to embrace particularity as it alone allows us to value one another as unique individuals.

Humans have limitations. We cannot think omnisciently, for one. And we cannot think for an infinite period of time; instead, we must limit ourselves to time-constrained actions. Let’s briefly deal with the first issue, namely, omniscience.

Let’s suppose that Anna and Mike go on a date. Anna tells Mike that she is a very honest person. Mike values honesty, and does not think that he would be able to love Anna (or any other woman for that matter) who could not make honesty a prioritized virtue. Let us suppose that Anna consciously thinks she is honest indeed. So she tells Mike on their tenth date that she values and embodies the virtue of honesty. Mike, being very keen on finding himself an honest person to date, takes Anna at her word and proceeds with the relationship.

But Mike is not omniscient. He doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t know that even while Anna was speaking honestly—that is, in her subjective opinion she was being “honest” about her “honesty”—Anna was actually not the most honest of human beings. In fact, relative to the rest of the human population, Anna’s “honesty ranking” was somewhere in the fiftieth percentile, making her mundanely stereotypical and average. But Mike isn’t omniscient, so he cannot possibly know that. He doesn’t have access to her thoughts—both conscious and subconscious. He doesn’t have access to her history, to her contextualized-to-self language-games. He doesn’t have access to her worldviews, be they tacit or explicit. He doesn’t have that sort of monopoly on truth. As we all know, none of us do. Given such facts, Mike, by continuing to date her, actually commits a sort of sin against himself: he acts in a way that is not consistent with what he believes.

As boring as this example may sound, humans do this all the time. That’s simply how we approach the world. We listen to people; we give them the benefit of the doubt; we trust their choice of words; we accept their version of themselves; we trust that the words spoken reflect who they actually are, etc., etc.

There is this certain strand of “basic trust” that runs throughout our engagement with other human beings. But, once exposed to critical scrutiny, much of what we believe about one another is misconstrued, misinterpreted, misplaced, misdiagnosed, etc., etc. And it’s not something to be upset about. Why should we be? When a million years is what one needs for perfection, a hundred years could only grant us faint slivers of it. Every decade or so we make a perfect move, a perfect decision; every month or two, we say something that sounds absolutely perfect to someone else. But these are rare glimpses of eternity. These are those special moments in which we strangely find ourselves doing things in a manner almost unnatural to us. We dance in a way that seems to have been written in the stars—for one night only. Again, this isn’t inherent to our natures. This is a misfire. Perfection could never be something we get served on a daily basis. For how could it be otherwise? In a world of omniscient-less beings, we can only expect acts that betray a certain lack of intelligence and thought. This brings us to the second issue: finitude.

For omniscience to be useful, it must also be found conjoined to infinity. Only an infinite existence, coupled with omniscience, could possibly create dates, scenes, vacations, etc., where things turned out perfectly planned. But we are finite creatures, bound to the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum. We spend decades growing up, only to discover that growing-up also involves the inevitability of growing-old. And growing-old also included dessert after the main dish: death. We live a life spending the majority of our youth—years wasted—on simply figuring ourselves out. And while we’re busy doing that, we realize that our twenties don’t last forever—they too shall pass. We hit our thirties and realize that (a) we are much more wiser now; and (b) we are certainly not as visually appealing. And the entire time we are pressured to be something, to do something. We get lost in the hypnotic mazes of our careers. We spend a decade trying to resurface. In the sea of dizzying freedom, we are then forced, by our very sexually driven natures, to find ourselves a companion who would take that road with us.

But our thoughts are lost. Shattered. Heads spinning. Out there in the twilight zone our minds are left wondering. We fall back to earth only to land in a vast blue sea of broken dreams, shitty errands, traffic, and all-things irritating; we get suffocated by the waters of our own lives. Underwater we learn to survive. Then—in the twinkling of an eye—we come up for air. Ah. That shit feels good. Every once in a while we catch glimpses of eternity. We transcend our skin and bones to realize that there’s got to be more to this stuff called “life.” It is in moments like these that we begin to value what little time we have been given.

A thought occurs to us. Call it a sacred thought. “Hmm,” we say to ourselves. “Maybe wasting my precious time on a sea of useless faces isn’t the best way to go about living life. Isn’t it possible to know and be known?” And in such moments we find the existentially appealing idea of particularization, of setting apart, of exclusive-making to be something worth pursuing.

And out of a dizzying array of faces, names, nicotine-stained smiles, tattoos and piercings, I have chosen you.

Here—in the midst of what was once an eternal hole the size of Texas, swirling in galactic black hole space-ness—I have called out, striking chords on imperative notes: you.

Here, falling to the ground like a leaf in dead winter, lonely and single, I have made an impression on someone. It’s a truly singular event. It’s an event where you discover that something sacred is going on. This you that I have called becomes set-apart from all other such yous.

I don’t how many of you feel anything right now, but I’m kind of giddy-all-over typing this, pausing and reflecting on my use of verbs, adjectives, and participles. Just writing this is making this sentence, this paragraph, feel special.

Why you?

And we find our thoughts continuously percolating around this particular individual, this you. Out of an infinite sea of innumerable I-Thou relationships, we find ourselves particularizing. Limiting. Setting apart. Making plans for an exclusive Other. We recognize that our finitude, our creatureliness, our very bad habit of familiarity, drives us into the wastelands of particularity. Moving from the universal, moving from the ideals we have created for ourselves, we zoom in on a specific individual. Moving from all of the contextualized history we have created about ourselves, for ourselves, we become cognizant of a very acute fact. The ideal world is ideal for a very specific reason: it has no boundaries, no realized finitude, no palatable reality to it. We imagine a perfect Other. We concoct for ourselves a dream life. (But allow me to emphasize the word “dream” in the sentence.) All of our ambitions, our dreams, our perfection-driven tendencies, find themselves useless due to one single fact: none of it is real.

Perhaps there is a reason why we do this, perhaps not. What is important to note, however, is that we all do this. These universal ideals, these unadulterated thoughts, only become embodied in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, forced to make decisions in poorly timed conditions.

Our ideals remain distant to us. They share brain-space with us, but that is all. Most of us, at some point, shed ideals like snakes shed their skins. We let go of our childhood fantasies and move on to conquer the day with Godspeed. Our need for reality, for embodiment, for Incarnation is written in our religious texts, our coffee shop meet-ups, our handshakes, and our face-to-face encounters with the objective Other. We cannot taste without touch. In this perpetual motion, this never-ending desire for a palatable reality, we become aware of just how tangible we want things to be. Our visions take on their own realities, growing hands and fingers as we speak them into life.

This all brings us to the very pressing issue of the process of particularization. We like doing things that are particular. Maybe because it is only in the particular that we find comfort. I don’t know why this is the case, but it is. A universal idea of a perfect spouse isn’t as comforting as the particular reality of an imperfect spouse holding your fragile body while your atoms decay with each collapse of the wave function.

When we particularize our lives, we begin to engage people on a more intimate level. Spending one minute on each individual out of a group of ten thousand persons isn’t as satisfying as spending ten thousand minutes with one person. The quality of our relationships is proportionally related to the amount of time we invest in them.

And so it is in moments like these that we perform what I have called “exclusive-making” actions. We start excluding all other relations in favor of one. Given the fact that we value our time, and given the fact that we have very little of it, the person whom we most value is blessed with the majority of what little time we have. We narrow down our choices. We select people on whom to spend our skin on. Life is short, so we don’t waste time excluding others.

Allow me to remind my readers that I am by no means arguing that this is bad. This is not only good; this is a brute fact of life. It is the only way a finite creature could and (probably) should live.

Finally, this brings us to the issue of sexual relations. If what you value is depth of knowledge, intimacy, and quality in your human relations, I suppose, by implication, you probably are careful with whom you share the sexual experience. (Now, this is not a universal claim that I am making. Some people, I am told, are perfectly fine with loose sexual mores, and say they are genuinely satisfied with them. I am not speaking on behalf of such people. In fact, I cannot possibly relate to them.) The process of particularization brings us to the issue of whom we choose to have sex with. Now, it is evident that relationships are not always sacred. Moreover, it should also be made clear that not everyone cares about the sacred. Some people just don’t give a fuck—and I won’t interrupt their orgy. Having said that, for those of us who do care about the sacred, who do care about investing every second of our time in someone we deeply care about, the rest is dedicated to us…

If the quality of our relationships is directly related to time spent on them, then, quite possibly, the quality of sexual intimacy is directly related to time invested in the person we’re having sex with. We go on dates, walk on foreign shores, and share sunsets—all for the sake of the possibility of loving and being loved. And sexual expression is one way of “doing love.” Generally speaking, we don’t get stark naked for those who do not know us. The act of clothing ourselves symbolizes our act of hiding ourselves from others. We don’t want to be known and seen by those we don’t care to be known and seen by. Most people cannot and do not know us. And so we remain forever “hidden” from their sights.

And then something happens.

We choose someone. Out of the plurality of voices beckoning to us, we respond to only one. Only they see us as we want to be seen; only they experience the nudity we have left impenetrable to others. In essence, then, we—as volitional human beings—self-generate our own notions of the sacred. If sex is sacred to you, you will set it apart. What I am stating here is that sacred sex is not something that religion has a monopoly on. In fact, the atheist could lead a life in which certain acts (such as the sexual act), certain traditions, or certain gestures are made sacred: they are set apart for special people and special occasions. One could, in theory, make sacred the phrase “I love you” and whisper it only to three people in the entire world. It doesn’t take a god to make life sacred. It takes a human being who wants to make it so.

Personally, I already lead a sacred life. I value my time, and try not to waste it on people I don’t care about. And, there, I said it: most people I don’t give a damn about. I don’t think there’s anything special about my not giving a damn. I just see it as something that must be. I can’t have it both ways. To give a damn, I have to spend time with you. But I won’t. For I have already chosen to do that with someone else. And that someone else has had my time graciously bestowed upon them. In the minutes that are leading up to midnight, I have chosen to set myself apart for someone else. Not because I don’t value people; no, it is precisely because of the fact that I do.

I relish every moment spent with a person who is both broken and familiar. I value our shared history, whatever it may include. I do this because I want to, nothing more and nothing less. I have chosen to endow my life with the sacred because I believe that this particular way of leading it is, for me, most existentially satisfying. I also encourage others to think about their lives. I encourage you to revaluate your priorities. What do you spend your finite time on? With whom have you chosen to share the sacred, if anyone? It is only in the particular that we are able to find a human being worth loving. And figuring out who that particular person is takes time. But in taking that finite time and spending it on a particular individual makes for some very good times. It allows us to know the Other on an intimate level. In knowing him or her on such a level, we are allowing them the chance to share their unique individuality with us. Only in experiencing the Other as they really are gives us the opportunity to love them in an appropriate manner. But all of that takes time, which brings us back to the issue of exclusive-making activities, the sacred, and…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 

A History of Virginity: Purity Culture’s Ideals, Feminist Critiques, and a Philosophy of History; Or, How in the Hell Did We Go From Virginity to Hymens to Purity Balls?

 

It’s a Saturday night somewhere. A warm summer breeze caresses a chiseled male jaw. The middle-aged man with grey streaks splattered in rusty patches on his head walks hand-in-hand with a younger lady. In fact, she’s drop dead gorgeous, dressed to kill, and much younger than he. They make their way to the entrance. It’s a late night and they’re going to a party. No, it’s more like a fancy-pants dance. The speakers are undoubtedly playing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” And, to be sure, this is about love: it’s about true love. Banners above the entrance read, like those awful planes-in-the-sky carrying messages, the following: True Love Waits. They enter the building, grab some drinks, and begin dancing. They are dancing away in celebration of the young lady. She’s doing something special: she’s keeping her virginity. And the man dancing away with her is her father. How sensible and how sweet.

Such dances are real. They happen in small towns and big towns just like yours. The evangelical Christians like to call them “purity balls.” It’s like the whole Cinderella story except it goes like this: “Once upon a time there lived an intact hymen. And Cinderella promised to keep it intact. And so one night…” But, of course, nobody really begins the fairytale of Cinderella like that. Instead, we use cute, sanitized words like “purity” and “virginity.”

While such balls may actually be fun—and maybe a little creepy?—they are intimately connected to their culture. The concept of virginity has a history; it has a past, a present, and, almost certainly, a future. It’s a living tradition. Purity culture, an outshoot of the conservative Christian evangelical movement, has some rather black-and-white lines drawn when it comes to defining virginity. In other words, they seem to know virginity’s history and its relationship to the present moment. On the other hand, you also have the feminists criticizing this purity culture stuff. Feminists such as Jessica Valenti have a lot of troubling words to say when it comes to the concept of virginity. To be sure, they’ve even written entire books on the subject. And—oh boy!—believe it or not, does virginity have a past! It’s as creepy as Frankenstein’s bastard child; as beautiful as the Mona Lisa; and is as raw-fully detailed as Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, an early textbook on human anatomy.

In this paper, I will trace ancient and modern perceptions of virginity. I will then examine how both purity culture and feminism view the concept of virginity, especially paying close attention to the way history intersects with modern culture, and how such a coalescence may have helped each of them shape their unique views on the subject of virginity. I will then examine virginity’s history, as it is treated by purity culture and feminism, from Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of history.

One of the earliest texts that we have specifically dealing with virginity comes from none other than the good old Bible. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, we encounter the following passage:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”[1]

A virgin, once de-virginized by a male is told to immediately marry her rapist. This passage makes perfect sense in an age where birth control and abortion did not exist. The virgin may have gotten pregnant from the rape, gave birth to a child, and would have needed support raising the child. And so, as punishment for the crime, and as a way to serve the rape victim some justice, the Bible prescribes marriage certificates when a female victim is diagnosed with rape. And, as far as we know, this sort of legislation may have prevented males from raping virgins. If you rape her, you marry her. And, as if to settle the case in eternity, the male is not allowed to ever divorce his rape-victim-turned-wife. In other words, here’s to a once-upon-a-time Cinderella story told in epic biblical proportions. Cheers.

The Bible doesn’t stop there. Apparently, the ancients even knew how to verify that a human being—specifically a female—were a virgin. Enter the “magic bed sheet.”

“Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, “I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.” The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate” (Deut. 22:13-15 NRSV).

The “evidence” that the parents of the bride would submit would be, it is theorized, the bed sheets from the wedding night.[2] Blood and the loss of virginity apparently go hand-in-hand, according to ancient Jewish customs. However you look at it, the ancient Jews were certainly concerned with the concept of virginity. It was a very important subject, hence it being mentioned in the Bible. The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is not necessarily about notions of purity or morality. It is, rather, about property and economics. The commandments concerning female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[3] To lose one’s virginity in ancient Israel was to lose one’s socioeconomic standing. Males sought female brides who were virgin. And if you weren’t a virgin daughter, you were an expensive long-term inhabitant of your father’s household. You were not marriage material by any means.

The New Testament, likewise, has some things to say about virginity. One well-known story is the tale of the Virgin Birth. Apparently, being a virgin—and giving birth—resulted in the birth of a god (or demi-god). While the New Testament itself doesn’t describe in detail Mary’s virginity, an apocryphal text that was extremely popular in the second-century, the Protoevangelium Jacobi, does. Bart D. Ehrman, a famous biblical scholar, summarizes the text’s tale:

The midwife is astonished at the miracle and goes off to another midwife, named Salome, that a virgin has given birth. Salome, however, is doubtful and indicates that she won’t believe until she herself gives Mary a postpartum inspection to see for herself. Really. They come to the cave, and the first midwife tells Mary, “Brace yourself.” Salome performs an internal inspection and becomes an instant believer. Mary has not only conceived as a virgin, she has given birth as a virgin: her hymen is still intact.[4]

For various reasons, virginity is seen as something good. To have it even after giving birth is a supernatural event. And, this should be noted, apparently there was an objective referent one could resort to when seeking out whether a woman was virgin or not. (Ehrman thinks this was the hymen, but, as the research shows, we cannot be too sure.) I will later show how even the prized hymen, so well known in today’s culture, was not discovered until the sixteenth century!

In ancient Greece, virginity was prized likewise. One Athenian archon gave his daughter to a “hunger-crazed horse” for nourishment after discovering that she had been de-virginized by some male.[5] In fact, the social custom under Solon was that a father, upon discovering that his daughter lost her virginity, would immediately disown her. “It was the single circumstance in all of Solon’s legal code in which a freeborn Athenian could be forced into slavery.”[6]

Why this obsession with virginity? Why did the ancient Romans, for example, have the Vestal Virgins? Why did Christianity produce an enormous amount of celibate monks, who lived in the desert, battled lustful thoughts and maintained their virginity? Why did the second-century theologian, Origen, castrate himself? Was sex really that bad? While the focus of this paper is not Origin’s psychological status in regards to his perpetual virginity caused by self-castration, this paper is interested in examining how, from a historical perspective, virginity was defined, tested for, and discussed. To that I now turn.

Virginity in females did not always have a relationship with the hymen. In fact, in the past, a good portion of the population believed that virginity had something to do with a tight vaginal canal engulfed by arteries and capillaries. One trailblazer seeking evidence for the hymen concluded that it was a mythical thing, something akin to Ponce de León’s fountain of youth.

In som virgins or maidens in the orifice of the neck of the womb there is found a certain tunicle or membrane called of antient writers Hymen…But I could never find it in anie, seeking of all ages from three to twelv, of all that I had under my hands in the Hospital of Paris.[7]

Those were the words of Ambroise Paré, a French surgeon and anatomist. Apparently, even the professional medical doctors of the day had trouble finding the elusive hymen. The word hymen comes to us from the Greek. It was used by Aristotle to mean “membrane.” “The thick membrane around the brain that we call the dura was one such hymen. The mesentery, which anchors all of our intestines in place inside the abdominal cavity, was another. So too with the sac around the heart we call the pericardium…Hymens, hymens everywhere.”[8] In other words, “hymen” was, in the ancient days, a catchall term for “membrane.” So, if you ever run across it in the ancient literature, it may—or may not—refer to what we now call the hymen.

The first time in the historical literature that we find the use of the word hymen in the sense that we use it occurs in Michael Savonarola’s Practica maior (writing sometime in the 1400s). For Savonarola, “the cervix is covered by a subtle membrane called the hymen, which is broken at the time of deflowering, so that the blood flows.”[9] After Savonarola, the word appeared in the English dictionary produced by Thomas Elyot. He defined it as “a skinne in the secrete place of a maiden, which whanne she is defloured is broken.”[10]

Prior to the discovery of the hymen, some ancient anatomists thought that the blood that sometimes resulted from first-time sex came from the vaginal canal itself. The earliest text describing this comes from third-century Rome, Soranus’s Gynecology.

In virgins the vagina is depressed and narrower, because it contains ridges that are held down by vessels originating in the uterus; when defloration occurs, these ridges unfold, causing pain; they burst, resulting in the excretion of blood that ordinarily flows. In fact, the belief that a thin membrane grows in the middle of the vagina and that it is this membrane that tears in defloration or when menstruation comes on too quickly, and that this membrane, by persisting and becoming thicker, causes the malady known as “imperforation,” is an error.[11]

And there you have it: no such thing as a hymen. But, of course, in retrospect Soranus was wrong. Dead wrong. In 1543, Vesalius finally found empirical proof of the hymen. He dissected a couple of stolen bodies and found it. It was right there in front of him in all its membrane glory.

History has a strange way of interacting with us. On the one hand, we clearly want objectivity when discussing it. On the other, it seems that all too often we simply see what we want to see. For example, purity culture believes in the existence of the hymen because it exists (a) today and (b) existed in the past. The Bible, along with the ancients, apparently knew about the hymen and its relation to virginity, so the thinking goes. But then, as you examine history, and dig through the historical texts, the truth may not be so simple. We now know that not everyone believed in the hymen. In fact, when reading the Bible, and its discussing proofs of virginity, even the Rabbis weren’t so sure that all virgins bled on that fateful wedding day. This is why the Talmud contains debates regarding this matter precisely.[12] They, too, were not sure testing for virginity in females was that simple, that black-and-white.

In the fourth-century, the church father Augustine of Hippo was faced with a particular dilemma. He believed that virginity was physical. It probably had something to do with hymens or capillaries in vaginal canals. But a historical situation—in his day, it was a modern one—caused him to rethink his notions of virginity. Christian virgins were being raped. Were they still virgins even though they were raped, and clearly did not consent? Augustine thought so. The reasoning went that if you resisted with your heart and soul, you did not lose your virginity. For Augustine, virginity was an attribute of the soul—it wasn’t merely physical.[13]

Purity culture has its own particular way of engaging with the concept of virginity. For the mostly evangelical Christian population, virginity is pretty much a female thing. Girls must have an intact hymen on their wedding day. Males, on the other hand, have no such “physical” requirements. They simply must not engage their penis in vaginal sexual intercourse. That seems to be the broad, working definition. For males, there’s no physical proof that they are “virgins.” Women, on the other hand, it is thought, have such proof. In fact, there are even theological arguments made discussing God’s design of the hymen and its theological functions. Dannah Gresh, author of And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity, writes, “You see, God created you and me with a protective membrane, the hymen, which in most cases is broken the first time that we have intercourse…When it breaks, a woman’s blood spills over her husband. Your sexual union is a blood covenant between you, your husband, and God.”[14] No commentary is needed here; God has spoken: your hymen serves as the crux of a blood covenant.

Gresh may be an unheard-of author, but Joshua Harris is not. It is he, after all, who wrote the best-selling, controversial book I Kissed Dating Goodbye; he, too, places big emphasis on virginity and first-time sex. He begins his book with the following “dream”:

It was finally here—Anna’s wedding day, the day she had dreamed about and planned for months. The small, picturesque church was crowded with friends and family…But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached him and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna. Anna felt her lip quiver as tears welled up in her eyes.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she whispered to David.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, staring at the floor… “They’re girls from my past… I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”

“I thought your hear was mine?” she said.

“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”[15]

As Harris sees it, the stakes are enormously high. The threshold for having the perfect marriage, the perfect wedding night, is set so high, so far up in heaven, even Stephen Hawking with all of his telescopes is having trouble seeing where it all ends. And if you make a mistake—God forbid!—if you even dare lose your virginity (whatever that means), your future is damned: you have effectively rendered yourself useless. “[E]ven the most innocent form of sexual expression outside of marriage could be dangerous.”[16] With teenagers reading such books, and the stakes so high for women with their hymens, it’s a surprise that a majority of them don’t resort to some kind of prison-like state of complete isolation from the male species in solitary confinement.

This obsession with the hymen in particular leads to strange things. This results in young Christian college girls engaging in all kinds of sex acts—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, implementation of dildos and vibrators, etc.—while remaining virgin. How? One sex act was missing from my list: vaginal sexual intercourse. As long as vaginal sexual intercourse is not engaged in—and the hymen remains intact—one could, theoretically speaking, consider oneself a “virgin.”

The way purity culture has valued virginity, and its notions of virginity, has also influenced the “science” of virginity. Since males are taught, incorrectly, that females almost always bleed upon their first sexual encounter, the males have assumed blood along with pain are good indicators of virginity. The problem is that a good portion of the population does not bleed and experiences no pain during first time sex. One study found that 63% of women experienced no blood after their first act of vaginal intercourse.[17] This is nothing new. Males have been duped all these years. They have believed in “blood and guts” because they so wanted to find them. Women have been using all kinds of tricks to maintain this illusion of virginity. For example, we have ancient texts instructing women how to bleed on their wedding night in order to make certain that the male believes in their virginity. The ninth-century Persian physician Rhazes recommended inserting the intestines of dove’s into the vaginal canal, along with the warm blood of the animal, to make the vagina tight and, of course, bloody.[18] I was not kidding when I said “blood and guts.” Literally. And even women today get what they come looking for. In one study conducted in Germany on 669 patients coming in for a gynecological exam, they found a direct correlation between anxiety and the experience of increased pain.[19] That is, if a girl is taught from a young age that first time sex is painful and bloody, it may not be bloody, but it will almost certainly be painful. Not in an objective sense, of course, but in a subjective sense. You will experience pain because you have duped yourself into thinking it’ll be painful. Hanne Blank writes, “A woman is also more likely to have a painless experience, as well as a more positive impression of losing her virginity overall, research tells us, if she is not coerced or pressured, feels safe and secure with her partner, and is not worried about being interrupted or discovered during sex.”[20]

Reality alone will not change Gresh’s “blood covenant’s theology of the hymen.” If the data is accurate, a majority of women will not bleed during first time sex. I guess God doesn’t bless their intercourse. (Such may be the theological response.) Oh well. However, this is not the only case in which the concept of virginity, as it has been traditionally understood by purity culture, has been scrutinized. The feminists have also criticized this extensively. It is to the feminist critiques that I now turn.

As in Augustine’s time, so today, a real modern issue forces one to rethink traditional concepts. With the rise of homosexuality and the invention of condoms, all kinds of sex acts are now, well, sex acts. Heterosexuals can engage in anal sex in a safe manner by using condoms and some lubricating jelly. Lesbians can use various phallic-shaped devices, be they dildos or vibrators, and engage in, well, sex acts. Gay men engage in anal sex. Traditional conceptions of virginity—that is, no vaginal sexual intercourse either passively [female] or actively [male] engaged in—have been usually accepted because heterosexuality has been accepted as the norm. Jessica Valenti points out how absurd the traditional conception is: “If it’s just heterosexual intercourse, then we’d have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins, and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing.”[21] But, of course, most of us here would be inclined to consider anal sex to be sexual intercourse. So, yes, a virgin with an intact hymen having anal sex with her boyfriend three times a day is, by the modern definition, not a virgin. Did I make myself clear? Or should I say “not” again?

And it’s not only homosexuality that has challenged traditional conceptions of virginity. With the rise of various sex toys, I think it’s high time we reevaluated what it means to be a virgin. If a male, without prior vaginal sexual intercourse, has sex with a blow up doll, isn’t he no longer a “virgin”? On the flip side, what if a “virgin” female with her hymen intact “loses” her “hymen intact-ness” to a dildo, is she still a virgin? (She did, according to the traditional conception of virginity, “lose” her intact hymen. But, in a strange way, a penis attached to a male never penetrated her.) Such scenarios make our heads spin. But it all makes sense. This is why Hanne Blank’s modern definition of “virginity” is so vague and broad. She defines it as “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[22] According to her, losing your virginity occurs when some kind of sex act—whether vaginal, oral, or otherwise—takes places between two (whether gay or straight) individuals. The requirements, then, for being a virgin are: (a) no sexual activity with (b) another human being. (Sexual activities, such as masturbation and/or the use of a dildo in a private setting, do not constitute a loss of virginity.)

The rise of homosexuality, various forms of birth control, and sex toys have not been the only thing that have forced moderns to reevaluate what they mean by “virgin.” Another fact has come to light: all hymens are not created equally. If the traditional conception is to be maintained in the modern era—which I don’t think it can be—it must address the problem the objective science presents us with. Hymens, we now know, are not all the same. They come in various shapes and sizes. Some women, for example, are born with imperforate hymens: that is, hymens that cover the entire vaginal opening. This presents menstruating women with a difficulty, so, naturally, the surgeons have to incise the hymen.[23] “Hymenal tissue itself appears in a number of forms. It might be fragile and barely there, or resilient and rubbery.”[24] Some hymens disintegrate on their own; others are “so resilient that they endure years of sexual intercourse quite handily…”[25] As far as hymenology goes, I think it is safe to conclude that it is unscientific and irrational to make an intact hymen bear the crux of “proof” when it, by no means, can do so. The hymen is not as “universal” as the ancients may have imagined or as “theological” as purity culture may have believed. It’s a piece of tissue that comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and, in an odd way, takes on a life of its own: disintegrating, at times; at other times, remaining intact throughout years of sexual intercourse.

The strangest thing, however, is that even animals have hymens. So, they’re nothing special. Yes, you heard me correctly: “llamas, guinea pigs, bush babies, manatees, moles, toothed whales, chimpanzees, elephants, rats, ruffed lemurs, and seals all have them.”[26] God must have been having nasty thoughts the moment He decided that a female rat needed to seal her “marriage” to another rat with a “blood covenant.” Strange gods, those guys.[27]

We have seen how conceptions of virginity were construed in the past, and how such historical conceptions were employed by purity culture only to be criticized by feminism. In both purity culture and feminism, traditional conceptions of virginity—as found in ancient texts, for example—guided the modern discussions. One question we have not addressed yet is the question of how we as people read and understand history. How is it that the history of virginity could be, in some ways, shaped by our own prejudices? How is it, for example, that we perpetrate the myth of “blood and guts” in association with first-time sex? Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher, has some interesting things to tell us.

For Ricoeur, all history is, essentially, an act of living interpretation. In the modern era, prior to Immanuel Kant, people generally believed in an objective world that was “out there,” one which they had access to. They were relatively certain in our ability to grasp the objective. After Kant, a shift occurred: people began recognizing their subjectivity. The mind was limited by its very nature. The world “out there,” the noumenon—that is, the thing-in-itself—was not to be confused with the way we perceived it to be; the perceptions were the phenomena, the thing-as-it-appears-to-us. There lie a vast chasm between the noumenon and the phenomenon. In the modern era, an era in which the philosopher Descartes worked, history was viewed as a collection of objective facts—a collection of noumena—to which we, the people, had access. After Kant dropped his atomic bomb in philosophy, and having initiated civilization into the post-modern era, historians began to recognize how un-objective the historical enterprise itself was. Ricoeur welcomed this more balanced-yet-critical approach towards history. For Ricoeur, a good method was one in which “[a] deep distrust for any simple reductive explanation of man or culture remains constant.”[28] The historical data should not just be seen as objective; no, humans who have subjectivities are engaging the historical data. But the historian must not stop there. Ricoeur believed that we should go even further than Kant: we should not merely criticize objectivity, while emphasizing subjectivity, we should criticize subjectivity too! There are methods and counter-methods, subjects and objects, one must not place greater emphasis on one or the other; instead, Ricoeur argues that they must together remain in dialectic tension, “the dialectic of oppositions.”[29] Out of this tension, Ricoeur was forced to discuss the elephant in the room: language. Language—“words”—are the things we use to write history. Ricoeur became increasingly aware that language should be carefully scrutinized. “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[30] It is only within the sphere of a given language that a historian operates, hence his having called “the word” his “kingdom”—it is the place in which one lives and breathes and does history. Ricoeur takes language to mean a system that incorporates the use of “symbols.” The symbols function as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols have multiple meanings, and, hence, can confuse interpreters. And, ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which use symbols—occurs are inevitably going to end up being interpretations. “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[31]

As one can readily tell, the concept of “virginity” undoubtedly has some grounding in objective fact. There are women who have some form or another of hymenal tissue, which can, at times, be torn during first-time sex. But, as our discussion has revealed—as we have lunged into the issue of history, meta-history, language, and the human experience—we have seen how problematic, how complex the symbol of virginity in our language really is. In fact, it is by no means absurd to conclude that we still have issues with grasping virginity’s “hidden meaning in the apparent meaning.” We are onto something but we cannot seem to grasp it. As Blank remarks in her own work, concluding a chapter on the history of “virginity testing”:

There is no single virginal body, no single virginal experience, no single virginal vagina, not even a single virginal hymen. There is only the question, how doe we know whether this woman is a virgin? The answer has been written innumerable times, with alum and doves’ blood and urine and decoctions of mint and lady’s mantle, with charts and graphs and clinical photography. But no matter how many times someone attempts to inscribe it, no matter how firmly they press the pen to the paper, we are left forever with the same blank page.[32]

In a rather strange turn of events, the history of virginity had become biography. As documented earlier, a woman who believes first-time sex would be painful, experiences pain. A woman who believes she will bleed excessively will, by all means, bleed—probably a little—but she’ll end up exaggerating the event.[33] “Sociologist Sharon Thompson’s research has shown that in telling their virginity-loss stories, some women seem to positively revel in gory (and in some cases clearly exaggerated) details…”[34] The males who expect their “virgin” wives to bleed, end up seeing blood on the wedding night because their new brides plan wedding days when they would be on their menstrual periods.[35] The history of virginity, then, is not really history so much as it is our own biography. We want to see blood, so blood we see. Why? Because we want to see it. And if we don’t see blood, somebody bring me dove’ intestines—or, better yet, make sure coitarche (first-time sex) occurs during a woman’s period! And so the “history” of virginity continues. It continues to write its story in blood and guts. But what were we expecting to find anyhow? Weren’t we all in it for the blood and the guts in the first place? As Ricoeur correctly points out:

The purpose of all interpretation is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself. By overcoming this distance, by making himself contemporary with the text, the exegete can appropriate its meaning to himself: foreign, he makes it familiar, that is, he makes it his own. It is thus the growth of his own understanding of himself that he pursues through his understanding of the other. Every hermeneutics is thus, explicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others.[36]

In such a way, we, too, have made the foreign familiar; we, too, have made the gory stories in times past our very own. We, as a people, as those who engage in the task of interpreting history, make the text into something that speaks to us—so long as it speaks to us in a domestic language. We want it all for ourselves.

Objective facts—what happened and how—are less important than communicating symbolic truths. The stories that we tell say less about what was literally experienced than they do about how we felt about the experience, how we wanted to feel about it, and how our culture expects us to feel about it.[37]

From Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Valenti’s The Purity Myth, virginity, and its shady history, played a central role. How it was understood in the past—be it in the Bible or in ancient medical texts—shaped and informed the modern discussions. However, as we have seen, the task of understanding history involved engagement with human subjectivities, even as Ricoeur philosophically theorized and as the science now suggests. What was theory in Ricoeur has become a working method in this paper. I hope I have, as Ricoeur suggested, examined the history of virginity while engaging in “the dialectic of oppositions.” Having said that, I do not think that virginity, either as it has been traditionally understood or otherwise, is going to stop engaging us as a culture. Sexuality is here to stay, for better or for worse, and we will continue to read ancient texts, medical texts, and blogs, allowing them to shape how we think about the concept of virginity. For the female, it may remain inextricably linked to her hymen; in males, it will probably remain something abstract, ambiguous and immaterial. Jesus was onto something when he slit the connection between physical adultery and “adultery of the heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28 NRSV). Even in the ancient past, a thinker such as Jesus recognized that sexuality was more than just “of hymens and dildos.” There was, perhaps, a spiritual element to the sexual. One could engage in adulterous behavior merely by looking at some woman and imagining a sex act. Jesus—like Augustine after him—must have considered the possibility that sexuality cannot merely be reduced to intact hymens; that virginity—and this is per Augustine—is a characteristic, a virtue even, of the soul. If the ancients could think along ambiguous lines—that is, they were willing to think about more than just the physical—so should we be willing to critically examine our own culturally influenced conceptions of virginity.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. New York: HarperOne, 2016.

Hanne, Blank. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Harris, Joshua. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997.

Ihde, Don. Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Lundbom, Jack R. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work. Edited by Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Jack R. Lundbom, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 633. “Other texts dealing with cases similar to the present one—one Old Babylonian and another from Qumran—report (trustworthy) women being called in to inspect the bride and hopefully to settle the matter. A similar procedure is attested among the Arabs. The whole procedure is admittedly primitive and could easily bring unjust verdicts, since women do not always emit blood on their first intercourse, hymens could have been broken for other reasons, and so on” (Ibid.).

[3] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 62.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 33-4.

[5] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 124

[6] Ibid.

[7] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 7-8.

[14] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 112.

[15] Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997), 13-4. There are so many things wrong with this immature paragraph that I will express what I think, at the very least, in a footnote. Harris was young when he wrote this. And, by all means, it sounds very much like an adolescent writing this, with an inability to see the world outside of hard-drawn black-and-white dichotomizing lines. No, Harris, people don’t give their wives “what’s left.” It is life itself that has created them in the present. Their past is a part of what made them, at any given present moment, who they are. Life is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Heidegger point out, “a becoming.” You never “are” anything. You are always in the process of “becoming.” What the fictional David is giving Anna is who he has become—up until that point. But he won’t remain static. He will continue to grow, develop, share history with others—be they male or female—and continue to “become” something of his choosing. To say that spending time with others is somehow immoral or wrong is idealistic and arrogant. People can’t read the future, neither can we know beforehand whom we are going to marry. In a perfect world, hell, I, too, would prefer to spend my youth on my future wife. But in this world—with all of our limitations—spending time with girls that won’t end up with me comes with the territory. I don’t know which world you live in, but on planet earth, people are not omniscient, do not forecast the weather, and—and this point is important—they make mistakes. But only in retrospect. Hindsight. We don’t always know something is a mistake in the present moment. I, for one, have no such crystal ball.

[16] Ibid., 96.

[17] Blank, Virgin, 89.

[18] Ibid., 91.

[19] Ibid., 114.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 20.

[22] Blank, Virgin, 6.

[23] The traditional conception of virginity as being directly related to the status of the hymen must, I assume, have problems with a surgeon “taking” a patient’s virginity.

[24] Blank, Virgin, 37.

[25] Ibid., 40.

[26] Ibid., 23.

[27] I’m rolling my eyes so much typing this; they are beginning to feel like bowling balls.

[28] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98.

[29] Don Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 16.

[30] Cited in Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology, 24.

[31] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 98. Italics original.

[32] Blank, Virgin, 95.

[33] Believe it or not, but there have been studies done on this too. And women make up “blood and guts” tales about their wedding nights all the time. See Blank, Virgin, pp. 111-3.

[34] Blank, Virgin, 111-2.

[35] Ibid., 91.

[36] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 101.

[37] Blank, Virgin, 103.