Monday, January 9, 2017

Virgin Envy: How, exactly, does one 'lose' something that technically is a lack in the first place?

I was browsing NetGalley for some new titles when I stumbled on this book Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen. And yes, I am there for that. Luckily I was approved and now here we are.

What are your feelings on academic essays about the cultural significance of the hymen? Because if your response is anything other than...
[find enthusiastic gif]
...then this probably isn't for you.

I was thinking this would be less academic and more pop sciency. Think Jessica Valenti style. And it's fine that it wasn't since I am down with the academic stuff (though I realize how little academic stuff I've actually read since my academic days). But fair warning for those that may think otherwise.
Virginity loss is regularly figured in popular discourse as something deeply transformative for the woman, but the instability of the hymen is a reflection of the instability of this idea. 
The book is a collection of essays looking at the history and cultural meaning of virginity, from medieval poetry, to romance novels, to Bollywood films, to queer theater. It's a nice slice across a number of areas though they do acknowledge the lack of research on lesbian virginity. (Or as they say: It is surprising that, though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship.)

Anytime I'm trying to review a collection (essays, short stories) I'm never really sure the best way to go about it. Especially when it's a collection by different authors. Since there are so few essays here, why don't I include a quick thought on each.

Before we get into this,
just had to share this and a link to the episode of Adam Ruins Everything, which is relevant to the topic at hand.

"I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet: Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance" by Amy Burge
Yet, despite the diversity, there are some aspects of common to all virginity tests. For a start, they are unreliable. For as long as there have been virginity tests, there have been ways to cheat them.
Burge looks at the ways virginity tests (blood on a sheet on the wedding night or how loud she pees or if they can drink out of a magical horn without spilling or other ridiculous tests) have been used, both in the past and in a subgenre of romance where "foreign" (here means basically not-white/not-Western) hero is from a culture that still focuses on a woman's virginity and thus there is a hymen-breaking scene or some other sort of proof of the heroine's virginity.

"Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen" by Jodi McAlister
Though virginity as a notion was somewhat demedicalized, the hymen remained a subject of "profound interest".
This chapter opens with a discussion of Derrida, so YOU KNOW you're in for a good time. But skipping over this, there is some discussion about how historical people don't have a clue where the hymen is. Sort of like the wandering uterus. But eventually people settled on a location for the hymen and then the focus is all about poetry with guys busting through it and the pain it caused the woman. Pain, but it could also cure disease (oh those humors) and turned women into nymphomaniacs. A whole genre popped up around this called "defloration mania" some of which was subtle and some of which was...not.

"The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga" by Jonathan Allan and Cristina Santos
Virginity fascinates the imagination in numerous ways, probably because it has been turned into a myth
This essay obviously focuses on virginity and Twilight, if not clear from the title, but they look at the interesting fact that it's not just Bella who is the virgin, but Edward as well. So much of the conversation is focused on female virginity, and the few times male virginity is discussed it's to make the person less masculine and used for comedic value (think The 40-Year-Old Virgin). The essay does discuss how the traditional script is reversed a bit, with Edward being the one "protecting the virginity" and Bella wanted to get her some.

"Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood" by Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos
How does one approach the construction of Jessica's perpetual virginity in conjunction with her hypersexualized state as a vampire?
I haven't watched True Blood which I think could have helped me follow this a bit more. But the idea is around the position of Jessica before and after turning, especially the fact that she is turned while she's still a virgin and apparently part of the vampireness means you heal, ala Wolverine. Which means that when she, while a vampire, has sexy times, the hymen keeps getting busted and keeps growing back.

"The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane" by Kevin McGuiness
Death and sexual intercourse are bound together...serving to illustrate the analogous notion of orgasm as the petite mort.
McGuiness tackles a film from the '70s about St. Sebastian, "a chaste religious zealot within the hedonistic world of the ancient Roman Empire who sublimates his sexual desires and redirects them toward God." There is a bunch about the saints homosexuality and apparently ends with a metaphorical gang rape.

"Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abedllah Taia and Eyet-Chekib Djaziri" by Gibson Ncube
There is a cavernous gap in the research on male virginity
Ncube examines the work of two openly gay Moroccan writers who play with the idea of queer virginity. I bet there's a lot of good stuff in this chapter, except there are long passages from the authors, which are untranslated from their original French, which I can sort-of-but-not-really read and ended skimming a lot of this.

"Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood" by Asma Sayed
After marriage, women are expected to become sacrificial mothers and dedicated wives who abdicate their own desires and needs for the good of their families, particularly their husbands, and the nation.
A look at the tropes in Bollywood romance where a good and proper woman was expected to remain a virgin and dedicate her life to her husband and country. Sayed examines the evolution of the genre, though really things don't change so much in terms of the woman has to be a virgin, or at least only have ever slept with one guy. Makes me wish I knew more about Bollywood movies.

"The Policing of Viragos and Other 'Fuckable' Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America" by Tracy Crowe Morey and Adriana Spahr
[Viragos] create a space centered not on virginity or the lack of it but on the capacity to perform as 'male' in the public sphere.
The essay discusses a history of groups of women from various periods in Latin American history (Catalina de Erauso, 1952-1650; female soldiers of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1917; and guerrilla women from Argentina and military women from Chile during military dictatorships of 1970s & 1980s), who exhibited traditionally male traits and upended gender roles. They could be pretty great, but also cos history is terrible, they were also often tortured for this transgression.

Gif rating:
Title quote from location 1395

eds. Allan, Jonathan A., Cristina Santos, Adriana Spahr. Virgin Envy. University of Regina Press, 2016. Netgalley.