The Untouched History
By Hanne Blank
Bloomsbury. 290 pp. $24.95
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 Báthory, 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, which can blur the differences between minor anecdote and major principle. At its worst, this leads to awful wordplay ("Cut to the Chaste," "Pop Goes the Virgin"), accounts of prurient photographs and Web site material, and misleading sweeping comments: Female circumcision, for example, is not a custom prescribed by Islam as such but a practice found in parts of Muslim Africa -- the equivalent would be to describe male circumcision as a Christian custom because it has been and is performed by and on many Christians. But 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's most recent book is "Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors,