Virgins: A Cultural History


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Virgins have haunted the Western imagination for centuries. To the most devout in the Middle Ages, virginity was worth dying for. Nuns and saints threatened with rape would rather mutilate or kill themselves than lose their claim to perfection, for virginity made them equal to angels. Only a virgin could lure the mythical unicorn from its hiding place.

If God in heaven preferred virgins, so too did the marriage market, for other, more practical reasons. Widespread misogyny meant that women were always suspected of lying about their virginity. In case of doubt, physicians could be called in to verify a virgin's intactness. Helpfully, those same physicians could also offer recipes for patching up a virginity that had been lost.

Later centuries grew more ambivalent about virginity: before marriage it remained praiseworthy, but it was ridiculed and despised as unnatural if preserved too long. It was said that lack of sex would make a virgin ill, even venomous. Virginity could be both desirable and monstrous.

We would be wrong to think that today we are 'over' virginity. It remains a fraught concept. Hailed as a radical rebellion against secular culture, virginity movements are springing up and enjoy powerful political and religious backing, especially in the US. Their supporters argue that virginity is a cure-all for society's ills, from teen pregnancy to mental health and even crime. Meanwhile, plastic surgery promises women that re-hymenization can spice up a flagging love life...

Anke Bernau's lively and thought-provoking examination of virginity reveals its myriad manifestations throughout history as well as its growing contemporary potency.


Condition: Pre-loved book. Minor yellowing of pages. Otherwise in good condition.

Format: Hardcover
Year published: 2007

Pages: 232
Imprint: Granta Books

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