Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hanne Blank's "Virgin: The Untouched History"

In Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Alex Kuczynski reviews Hanne Blank's book, “Virgin: The Untouched History":

A well-researched history of virginity, it veers from the medical (who knew there are five different types of hymens?) to the pop-cultural (discussions of “Beverly Hills 90210,” the movie “Little Darlings” and so on) to the scholarly (dissections of Christian theology, 19th-century British social policy and the like). One minute you’re plodding through an account of the Counter-Reformation, and the next reading about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer lost her virginity to a vampire living under a Gypsy curse.

I must admit that some of the review's descriptions of the historical treatment of virgins were sufficiently stomach-turning to make me wonder whether I could stomach reading the book itself. Nevertheless, the book addresses an important topic, especially given that the world has hardly outgrown its obsession with virginity and persists in horrific treatment of virgins. Kuczynski makes this point with respect to "virgin cures":

Virginity has also been considered a life-saving antidote. Blank gives the history of the so-called “virgin cure,” the belief that men could be cured of sexually transmitted diseases by having sex with a virgin. She links this idea to Christian legends of virgin martyrs who battle demons while protected by their own purity. In 18th-century London, one in every five capital rape cases involved children under the age of 10, and the rapists commonly cited the virgin-cure myth in their defense. It would be nice to think this notion has long since been abandoned to the gruesome past, but that is cruelly not so: it persists in southern Africa and is a major contributor to the escalating AIDS crisis.

For more on modern-day virginity obsessions, see Designer Vaginas.

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