A memory just came back to me, and it makes me realize just how intimately connected certain concepts in our culture are. We all understand what virginity is, even though we may have differing opinions on this cultural construct. We also all understand how virginity relates to Christianity, the religion which is almost certainly the largest promulgator and promoter of the concept in European and Euro-colonized nations.
Can anyone really escape the grip of such a pervasive concept? It turns out I did, for a time. Some background: my parents didn't raise me Christian, and I never really had a solid grasp on what Christianity exactly was when I was younger. I knew that some people went to church, but that meant pretty much nothing to me. When my mother gave me the talk, the word virginity never came up. It was not part of the conversation in any way.
I remember, around the time I was 11 or 12, the first time I ever encountered the word virgin used to talk about sex. We were young middle schoolers, burgeoning sexual beings. And people started asking each other if they were virgins. Eventually one of my friends asked me, and I answered as honestly as I knew how:
"I am not from the Virgin Islands. I'm Puerto Rican."
This was greatly amusing to my friends, who continued to ask me over the next few weeks, while I explaining that I was not (nor was anybody in my direct ancestry) from the Virgin Islands. I truly had no idea what was funny, why they were asking, and why my answer seemed to be puzzling to them. After a few weeks I think I looked in the dictionary and figured out what was so funny.
I haven't thought about this in about twelve years. But it strikes me at this moment for two reasons. 1) I'm procrastinating on a paper for a medieval drama class, for which I've read many plays about the Virgin and realizing that even though she has nothing to do with the text I'm writing about, she still made it into the paper. 2) I've been thinking recently about Christianity and religious privilege, how Christians enjoy a culture in Europe and the Americas which is not only default supportive of their beliefs and marginalizing of other religious and nonreligious viewpoints, but how much that culture has defined its parameters so everyone fits in the Christian mold.
Nonchristian people are expected to abide by Christian precepts - pro-life organizations push their version of Christianity's rules about life on everyone, movements to install Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses (if Christianity had not colonized Judaism, no such push would be made), marriage has until recently hewn toward a very Christian model. The broader culture looks at families like the Browns of Sister Wives as a curiosity, not as something which might be potentially acceptable in the larger culture. Over here in the land of internet feminism we might be more accepting of different sexualities, models other than monogamy, etc., but we aren't the broader culture - that culture is still heavily invested in the perpetuation of Christian cultural norms, even as it declares itself secular.
The ubiquity of the obsession over the word virgin, and with peoples' status vis a vis virginity ultimately comes from the same place. I don't know how it is that I managed to avoid knowing what it meant until I was nearly a teenager. I know that if my parents had raised me religious I probably would have and could have saved myself eventual embarrassment when my friends started asking. I also know that virginity only has power if people are made aware of the concept, and that it is possible to eliminate (or at least weaken) the concept and the more its pernicious aspects from the culture if we raise our children outside of the Christian sexual paradigm. Of course, it could just work out in such a way that our children have really weird answers to the question when they encounter it outside the home, which they will.