Virgin Envy

19 May 2017

Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen
Edited by Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos and Adriana Spahr
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95 ISBN 9-780889-774230

Until I read Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen, I never knew that viragos are Latinas who assume “‘male’ traits and [transgress] popularly accepted gender roles.'” I didn’t know that sexual abstinence in Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight series is a subject of academic study, nor was I aware of the sketchy business of virginity testing as a literary motif in both medieval romance novels and contemporary English Orientalist romance literature. The trio of editors for this illuminating eight-essay collection by University of Regina Press invite readers to consider the myriad political, social, cultural, and literary complexities concerning the “utter messiness” of virginity.

Firstly, the editors tackle the difficulty of a singular definition of “virginity,” and point to subjective and objective meanings, and the notion that the hymen is not always “the signifier of virginity,” (boys and queer people lose their virginity, too). The editors and writers of this text “go beyond the hymen” in their considerations of virginity, and this makes for an especially provocative treatise. They also look at perceptions around losing one’s virginity, ie: at what age does it become embarrassing to remain “intact”?

Virginity is a serious subject, but one need only read the section titles to ascertain that the editors also have good fun with their disparate material. Part 1 is titled “Too Much Pain for Such Little Reward,” and the essays in Part 4 appear under the title “F*ck: They Entrapped Us In Social Issues And Politics”.

The first essay, by researcher Amy Burge, examines virginity testing both historically and in literature, comparing medieval romance approaches to those in contemporary romance literature. Historical tests included the ability to carry water in a sieve, and how loudly-and for what length of time-one urinated, while folk stories and medieval romances included magical proofs, ie: “a harp that plays out of tune when a non-virgin approaches.” Burge explains that the problems with virginity testing include veracity and the “patriarchal structures” that make virginity testing an “almost exclusively female discourse.”

It’s interesting that the editors have selected contributors with disparate credentials, ie: Gibson Ncube earned a PhD (in French and francophone literatures) in South Africa, three have connections to Brock University, and Jodi McAlister researches the histories of love, sex, romance, and pop culture, and is linked to Macquarie University in Sydney. The latter notes that contemporary romance novels are largely written by and for women, and “the hymen is regularly represented,” but the pain associated with virginity loss is becoming less of a “gory” emphasis than it was in previous texts (in which blood and passing out was frequently featured), and female pleasure is receiving more emphasis.

From the Virgin Mary to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, from British director Derek Jarman’s experimental 1976 film Sebastiane to HBO’s True Blood vampire series that unsettles “socially conservative ideologies, such as female virginity and sexuality,” Virgin Envy delivers a rip-roaring ride (bad pun?) through the ins and outs (again?), perceptions and misperceptions of virginity now and then, here and there.


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