“Derived from an ancient Greek word signifying both a ‘thin membrane’ and a sexually ambiguous minor god associated with the celebration of marriage, hymen is a historically contested sign that travels across geographic, temporal, and linguistic borders in ways that remind us that human female virgins are made, not born. And in some cultures, past and present, they can be remade, for a price.”
“The presence or absence of a hymen on (or in) the bodies of marriageable females matters enough in many societies to generate tests for the invisible state of virginity, and these tests both cause and reflect competing discourses about truth,” said Margaret Ferguson, Emeritus Professor in the Department of English at the University of California at Davis. Ferguson was presenting a seminar to STIAS fellows on her book in progress entitled Myths of Hymen.
“I’m walking on thin ice – which is appropriate for the topic,” she added. “Hymen is a scientific name for a female body part that many are uncomfortable to discuss in public. This discomfort crosses cultures and generations. Why the discomfort?”
“The hymen is not there as an object of public knowledge until it is represented as something that matters.”
Ferguson’s project asks how reflections on the female body part called the hymen or maidenhead in early modern English texts can illuminate debates about modern surgical practices called ‘hymenoplasty’ seen as a ‘restoration’ or ‘recreation’ of virginity. Ferguson will also seek to analyse the conceptual links between virginity testing, hymenoplasty and female genital mutilation.
Ferguson started by discussing what she described as some of the myths associated with the hymen. These include the idea that the hymen is a material object and all females are born with it; that there is clear visual evidence supporting the idea of an intact hymen; that the hymen can be known to exist through testing; re-virginisation; and, the myth of the analogy between the female virgin as a concept and the bounded nation or social group.
“I want to unsettle the constraining myths,” she said.
“There are doubts and gaps in our knowledge,” she pointed out. “For example, do other primates have hymens?; did it once have a protective function to stop pathogens?; is it a feature to attract males – in particular enhancing the bond with the woman’s first mate?”
“It’s unlikely that early females had intact hymens. We know that through early history virginity was not a big deal. Ideals of virginity (especially female) are a later acquisition.”
“At some point the hymen became part of the reinforcement of patriarchal norms under capitalism.”
“For Aristotle, ‘hymen’ denoted a membrane that surrounded the organs of all mammals. Classicists debate how and when the term came to denote a specifically female membrane.”
“In Hebrew, one word translated as ‘virgin’, ‘almah’, means a woman who has ‘not had a child’, not one who ‘has not had sex’. This is the word that Christians interpreted as signifying Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the famous prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, promising that ‘the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’. Jewish interpreters denied that Isaiah promised a miracle of virgin birth.”
“Philological work is needed on the different cultural definitions,” she added.
“I believe the hymen is arguably not a thing that all females have from birth. We also cannot assume that there is a female body part we can definitively know by testing.”
Ferguson also pointed out that the God Hymen is often depicted as cross-dressing and gender-fluid, going back and forth between male and female. “The book will ask who and what is H/hymen, and how is s/he/it represented in stories? And whether we can imagine Hymen as a queer female rather than a cross-dressed male?”
In addition to looking at depictions of the god Hymen, Ferguson will focus on the archive of printed texts and works of visual art produced in 16th and 17th century England depicting Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen who ruled an emergent Protestant nation state with imperial ambitions for almost 50 years. “This will attempt to unpack the notions of conquering ‘virgin’ lands and the gendered ideologies of national boundaries,” she said.
Revived virginity testing
Ferguson also discussed how her ideas for her book have been influenced by current debates in South Africa.
“I have begun, for instance, to read about the debates occurring between members of the South African Commission for Gender Equality and those Zulu-speaking women who have revived traditional virginity testing.”
“Virginity testing has been revived largely due to HIV/AIDS,” she said. “However, to some extent it seems to have become a policing of women’s bodies and sexuality – making them responsible for passing on the infection, blaming them for HIV. And setting up those who are virgins for potential rape. We have to ask whether the revival of virginity testing is potentially harmful to women?”
“The South African Constitution is contradictory. On the one hand, cultural practices are protected. On the other hand, security and protection of the person is highlighted.”
“What possibility exists for alternative hymens in a world where virginity testing is being revived?” she asked.
Turning to female circumcision, she said: “We have to study the economy of the hymen. Female genital mutilation cannot be a sign of cultural continuity. There have been changes – such as the use of anaesthetics and less drastic cutting – but we still have to ask who benefits from these changes.”
She also questioned the links between female circumcision and hymenoplasty. “Both are a desire to find a somatic sign of an invisible state of purity and an effort to control female sexual experience and fertility.”
“However, alternatively hymenoplasty could be seen as a form of resistance or pragmatic empowerment.”
“It’s important to investigate the lived experience of culture – the ways in which women and girls respond to or resist cultural practices,” she continued.
She described her research as an attempt to understand what is called virginity in the post-modern global society.
“The word has become associated with refraining from sexual pleasure,” she said. “I’m trying to blow up virginity – it’s very overrated. As long as it does no harm, we should take pleasure in pleasure – the world has too little of it.”
Words: Michelle Galloway, Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw