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Virgin: The Untouched History

by Hanne Blank
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publishing date: 04/03/2008
  • Language: Français
  • ISBN-13: 9781596910119
  • ISBN: 1596910119

Synopsis

“A well-researched history of virginity…In an era marked by a ‘chaotic maelstrom of virginities,’ Blank’s book is a useful…antidote to our confusion.”—New York Times Book Review

Hanne Blank’s revolutionary, rich, and entertaining survey of an astonishing untouched history reveals why humans have been fixated on an indefinable state of being since the dawn of time. As the butt of innumerable jokes, center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography, and nucleus around which the world’s most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy, Virgin also shows how utterly important to contemporary times the topic is.
Hanne Blank is a writer, historian, and public speaker whose work has been featured everywhere from OUT to Penthouse. An independent scholar, she has served in faculty positions at several colleges and universities, most recently as the 2004-2005 Scholar of the Institute For Teaching and Research on Women at Towson University, Maryland.
Virginity has been the source of enormous fascination from the earliest days of recorded history to the present.  How did it come to mean so much to our culture, and have so much power in our individual lives?  Why does it command the attention and fascination of politicians, activists, religious figures, teenagers and educators?  In Virgin, Hanne Blank brings us a revolutionary, rich and entertaining survey of an astonishingly untouched history. 
 
From the simple task of determining what constitutes its loss to why it matters to us in the first place, Blank gets to the heart of virginity's significance in Western culture. She tackles the reality of what we do and don't know about virginity and provides a sweeping tour of virgins in history—from martyrs to Queen Elizabeth to billboards in downtown Baltimore telling young women it’s not a “dirty word.”
 
Virgin proves, as well, how utterly contemporary the topic is—the center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography and nucleus around which the world’s most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy.  Hanne Blank probes the shape and scope of the obsession, and in the process, shows what we do and don't know about virginity and reveals a great deal about just why humans have come to care so much about this fundamentally intangible state of being.
“Entertaining and erudite.  Virgin is a treasure trove of obscure and fascinating material, presented with wit and clarity. Blank's eye-opening cultural history will make you re-think everything you ever thought you knew about its familiar yet under-analyzed subject.”—Rachel Mania Brown, author of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost
 
"Embodied in the figure of the goddess Athena or Mother Mary, the virgin state has inspired universal cults, national myths, personal passions and unsurpassed works of art; it has excited religious mystics to praise it as the highest ideal and fastest way to heaven; it has also moved many a titillating plot about the seduction of the innocent -- from the notorious Liaisons Dangereuses to teen soaps focusing on 'the first time.' As Hanne Blank points out in her vigorous and eclectic study, 'Virginity has been, and continues to be, a matter of life and death around the world.' 
 
For Blank, virginity is a social invention designed above all to control women; its connection to virtue flourishes in the fantasies of fathers, suitors, priests and pornographers. In the first part of the book, Blank gives a detailed account of the fetishized and numinous hymen. A puny ring or flap in the vulva, it remained unseen until the 16th century. But its appeal did not fade under the new scientific gaze; the anatomist Helkiah Crooke, for example, turned to the language of a love sonnet to describe his findings ('All these particles together make the form of the cup of a little rose half blowne'). However, even after physicians were able to inspect the interior of a woman's body, Blank is clear that sexual experience cannot be deduced from its condition, as some women have hymens that grow back after childbirth, while others have no obstruction to speak of and do not bleed during their 'first time.' The author therefore expresses her strongest indignation at the long, cruel story of virginity tests, when 'women may not speak for themselves' and the one person who knows the truth of the case cannot make herself heard. Over the centuries, women have conspired to provide the evidence and stain the bridal sheets not because the bride wasn't innocent but because, as Blank makes clear, the dramatic rupturing of the hymen is a fable.

In the second half, Blank unfolds the cultural history—buzzing through myths about temple prostitutes, vestal virgins, the cult of Mary and the gory martyrdoms of the saints, Protestant diagnosis of the 'greensickness' that overcame old maids, droit du seigneur (the lord's feudal right to every bride) and many other pieces of fascinating lore. Only a virgin could capture a unicorn, as visitors to the Cloisters in New York will know from the medieval tapestries there: Attracted by her unique smell, the fierce creature will lay its horn in her lap. The blood of 600 virgins was required to revive the aging powers of the infamous Countess B?thory, the most lurid of female vampires but also a historical figure, born in 1560, whose notorious diaries are kept under wraps in the Hungarian state archives (or so Blank tells us).

As these stories reveal, Blank's method involves conscientious data-gathering and titillating gossip . . . on the whole, Blank is judicious when entering very difficult territory, placing both sex trafficking in children and the belief that virgins cure sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS) within a longer history of damage and exploitation.

Toward the end, on home ground, Blank closes in fiercely on the current abstention crusade, which, she convincingly argues, succeeds only in revisiting on the young those once discarded, venerable virtues of guilt and ignorance. At its best, this entertaining history is a passionate polemic, brimming with a genuine spirit of emancipatory activism."—Marina Warner, The Washington Post Book World
 
"Blank's revealing history of virginity begins with discoveries related to women's bodies over time, then quickly moves on to a fascinating analysis of the roles economics, religion, and urbanization have played in the changing attitudes toward virginity. From the Roman Empire to the Jazz Age and beyond, with appearances by Jesus, Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys, and Alfred Kinsey, this is a rich history indeed. Some common threads favored by Blank include virginity as commodity (trading virgin daughters for land) and the ideology of virginity (Mary's importance in Catholicism). Offering compelling insights, Blank is upfront about telling a female history."—Annie Tully, Booklist
 
"'By any material reckoning, virginity does not exist,' writes Blank in this informative, funny and provocative analysis of one of the most elusive—and prized—qualities of human sexuality. Blank, an independent scholar, has pieced together a history of how humans have constructed the idea of virginity (almost always

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  • A little dry for what should be a sexy topic
    From Amazon

    The author complains of the limitations of space several times in the book but nevertheless can digress into what feels like too much of the minutiae of medieval politics. There are some interesting insights, such as how the distrust of (women's) sexuality and the body by the Catholic Church made the Protestant Reformation seem more practical. Ultimately the story is really about women and how their virginity was valuable in marriage, which many argue has for most of history been an economic rather than a romantic or religious institution. I wish that the author had either written an exclusively European cultural history, a modern political cultural analysis of the U.S., or a cross-cultural analysis of virginity around the world. This book felt like it put some of those elements together but in an unsatisfying way. Reading a book like Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers made me realize how an author can cover in a small volume a topic that intersects with both history and science in an engaging way. Virginity is a potentially interesting subject but the book doesn't quite live up to its potential.

  • Extremely Interesting
    From Amazon

    As someone interested in history and anthropology, I found this book to be fascinating. In nearly every section I found information I wanted to pass on to someone else. I didn't necessarily agree with all of it, but that's what critical reading is for! I would highly reccomend it to anyone who wants to know more about the social, political, biological, mental, etc. impacts of virginity--whether academically or for leisure.

  • Ho Hum
    From Amazon

    The bottom line (no pun intended) is that the only reason virginity is valuable to men, as a commodity, is because they don't want to be with women who have the experience that would enable them to critique their performance. Consequently, men have made a religion or a cult or a fetish (and in some cases laws) out of this one male fantasy, based on their own sense of inadequacy or desire for control and ownership, that has resulted in untold suffering for women and children, world-wide, for millenia. Religious and government-enforced virginity results in women being judged only on their value as sexual objects. The discussion of it has become as tiresome as the reality, but hopefully not as futile.

  • battle of the hymen
    From Amazon

    I have been looking forward to this book with vivid interest, since I have studied the subject myself in the context of sociobiology and given it more than a passing thought. The author divided her book in two main sections, the first being devoted chiefly to the bio-medical aspects of virginity, the second to its cultural and religious aspects. Both parts are well written and read sometimes as a thriller on a fascinating subject. Since the author limited herself to the Western history of the subject, she can hardly be blamed for incompleteness, but the result is, as a consequence, somewhat biased. Some examples. The Greek word 'hymen' means 'membrane' in general, but Hymen is also the Greco-Roman god of marriage. I have always found the learned question whether there is a link between the two highly prosaic, but the author seems to agree with the view that there is no relation. Yet, the mytho-poetical transformation of empirical data often splits the meaning of words into different spheres of significance. So, for Hippocrates epilepsy was merely a process within the brain, whereas it was a 'holy sickness' in Greek religion. Hymen, the god, and hymen, the word, both have roots in Sanskrit culture. Such loose ends get lost in a study which limits itself to the Western history only. The original manuscript of the book had about 1000 pages which the publisher wanted to be reduced to less than 300, so it is hardly amazing that only a selection of the enormous amount of material in the medical literature is included in the publication. The author concentrates on the final 'discovery of the hymen' by Vesalius, but its existence was still denied afterwards, not only by Paré. There was a real ideological 'battle of the hymen', with an obvious division between conservatives, sceptics and libertines. This highly relevant battle, with philosophical parallels, is not adequately expounded. The conclusion of the first part of the book is that the hymen does indeed exist, but has no discernible function, so that its significance in culture is a malleable social construct void of any fundament in human nature. The name Havelock Ellis is mentioned by the author, but his viable conjecture concerning the biological function of the hymen gets no attention at all. In line with the idea of Havelock Ellis the conclusion of the first part of the book could have been that the probable function of the hymen is to form a barrier against weak, unfit suitors, thus being valuable underpinning for a careful selection of partners in the dialectics of human courtship. This conclusion would have made a real difference for the second part of the book, since it would support a certain conservative concern with virginity. Then the last paragraph, just before the epilogue, wouldn't be a politicised diatribe against conservative campaigns in favour of traditional sexual morality, but probably have been a lot more constructive (without being less critical of patriarchal prejudices). In spite of this ideological bias I admire the author for having delved into this perennial topic and come out of the mines with a lot of relevant material. She deserves honour for being at the helm of this maiden voyage into a fascinating, almost untouched history. There is much more material to be gathered together, both in the Western world and outside of it.The author considers her book to be a first journey and she is rightly confident that, in spite of our changing culture, 'virginity and virgins will continue to matter profoundly to us all'. There is a selected bibliography and an index. Read this book with an open and critical mind!

  • A Historical View of an Important and Immaterial Topic
    From Amazon

    A billboard in Baltimore used to read, "Virgin: teach your kids it's not a dirty word." That it could be thought of as a dirty word, and that social forces might pay good money to change this concept, illustrate part of the ambivalent feelings our society has toward virgins and virginity. The ambivalence, at many levels, is exhaustively examined in _Virgin: The Untouched History_ (Bloomsbury) by Hanne Blank. An independent historian (with some books of erotica to her credit), Blank says that she was working as a sex educator and wanted to find authoritative sources on virginity. Despite the medical, historic, religious, and social implications of the subject, she found few. "Even though my interests were limited to virginity and virgins in the Western world, it was rapidly becoming obvious to me that if I wanted to read a comprehensive survey of virginity, I was going to have to write it." Her book is indeed comprehensive, and it is scholarly but far from dry, as she examines the surprisingly complicated topic of what a virgin is, and tries to make sense of why the subject has been on our collective minds for so many centuries. Just defining what a virgin is is a tough exercise. And it isn't just a philosophical or verbal one: "It is an exercise in controlling how people behave, feel, and think, and in some cases, whether they live or die." The confusion is shown by Augustine, who said that if a virgin resisted rape, then she was still a virgin after rape. The defining emphasis on a potentially procreative act, rather than any other canoodling, isn't because of any inherent biological cause, but seems to be due to social factors, like a father's valuing his daughter's virginity as a bargaining chip in matrimonial negotiations No other animal besides ourselves seems to recognize or value a condition of virginity. Sometimes the explanation given is that humans are the only animals with hymens, but this is not true; lots of mammals have them, and they have hymens that are useful in, say, sealing out water, or only opening up when the female is in estrus. No animal besides ourselves pays the hymen any attention, and this is despite that the human hymen serves no function. There is no accurate test for virginity, although many have been proposed, from the supposedly physiological to the downright superstitious. "The simple fact is that short of catching someone in the act of sex, virginity can be neither proven nor disproven. We cannot prove it today, nor have we ever been able to." Just to show how patriarchal is the interest in such tests, there is always one form of evidence that is universally considered inadmissible in the matter: the woman's own verbal testimony. "Of all the countries of the developed world," writes Blank, "the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." Our federal government is attempting to establish virginity as the only proper sexual status for its never-married citizens. That young people should abstain from sex is the basis of millions of dollars of federal programs; that they do not abstain, and never have, is obvious but makes no difference to those with a pro-virginity agenda. Usually such agendas come from religious groups. Funding, for instance, goes to a program called Free Teens USA, which is run by people with strong ties to the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The church maintains that any sexual activity outside of marriage is an abomination, and Reverend Moon has advocated that a woman who is threatened with rape ought to kill herself rather than undergo extramarital coitus. Less extreme religious groups may advocate virginity, but the results are poor. Abstinence programs do not reliably lower risky sexual behavior. When the Centers for Disease Control did research into programs that were supposed to reduce such behavior, none of the programs that were successful were centered on abstinence. (Since then, the CDC has discontinued such research and removed the results from its website, and its recommendations for contraception have been replaced by statements of official support for abstinence and abstinence only.) Blank's book is not a polemic, but her enlightening historical review of western attitudes to virginity would be good reading for anyone making governmental policy about our virgins. It is also a call to remember the long confusion of historical definitions and attitudes, and that "losing one's virginity" is probably not one physical, emotional, or psychological event, but a process of sexual development that is different for everyone and ought not be oversimplified as one coital act.

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