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What’s the big deal about virginity?

Updated Monday, 16 April 2012

Celibacy has been valued by women and men within many religious traditions. But why has such high spiritual significance been associated with women’s virginity? 

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Vesta Vesta, goddess of hearth (palace garden of Sanssouci, Potsdam) by Francois Gaspard Adam, 1758 Virginity, women’s lack of sexual experience before marriage in particular, has been highly valued in many different cultures. Some feminist critics have argued that the high value placed on the virginity of unmarried women has been used to control women, denying them sexual freedom and associating it with the transference of ‘unspoiled goods’ from fathers to husbands. Others celebrate virginity as an active, liberating choice. Virginity has also been valued for its very practical function of preventing unwanted pregnancy, particularly in the absence of other forms of reliable birth control. The veneration of the virgin goddess Athena in Ancient Greece and the power assigned to the Vestal Virgins in Ancient Rome and to the Virgin Mary within some forms of Christianity highlight the great spiritual significance that has been associated with female virginity. 

For the powerful priestesses of the Roman goddess Vesta, virginity was of central public importance. The Vestals held the highly prestigious role of totems of the Roman Republic, guarded the sacred fire and performed purification rituals. Their virginity was regarded as a symbol of the Vestals’ purity that enabled them to act as intermediaries between the human and divine worlds. The corruption of this purity (through the loss of virginity) during their 30 year office was seen as a threat to the security of the Roman Republic and therefore carried the death sentence. The Vestals’ virginity also had the very practical function of making sure that the priestesses were fully dedicated to their duties, rather than distracted by sex or corrupted by ties to particular families.

Another example of the spiritual importance assigned to female virginity is the veneration of Jesus’ mother as the Blessed Virgin Mary within many forms of Christianity. There have been fierce controversies within and between different Christian traditions around the importance assigned to different stages of Mary’s virginity before, at and after Jesus’ birth. In the descriptions of Jesus’ conception and birth in the Christian Bible, the virgin birth is primarily presented as a result of divine intervention and a sign of Jesus’ chosen status. Mary’s own superior status as a virgin is something that concerned Christians later. In early Christian communities, when the end of the world was believed to be imminent, virginity came to be seen as a liberating choice and a dedication to a higher, immortal life. Mary’s virginity itself came to be seen as a symbol of purity and of a higher spiritual calling. Particularly in the Middle Ages, sexually abstinent female monastic communities offered women a socially accepted alternative to marriage and motherhood.

The great importance assigned to Mary’s virginity can also be related to an increasing trend within Christian churches to present sex as sinful and to dissociate Jesus’ birth from sexual intercourse as far as possible. From this point of view, sexuality (female sexuality in particular) has been regarded as a temptation and threat to spiritual salvation. The Protestant Reformation, however, rejected virginity as the highest expression of Christian devotion and instead promoted the ideal of Christian marriage. 

Protestant Reformers criticised the extensive veneration of the Virgin Mary for its lack of foundation in the Biblical scriptures. Some feminist critics have argued that the idealisation of the Virgin Mary has been used to control women as it celebrates passive qualities, such as demure obedience, and presents sex in a negative way. It also confronts women with an unattainable ideal: the combination of spotless virginity and perfect motherhood. However, others have highlighted the empowering aspects of this global female icon and regard Mary as the mother of the poor and suffering and her womb as a place which brings new life and hope. From this point of view, Mary’s virginity can be seen as a symbol of resistance against male domination and other forms of oppression and inequality, and the virgin birth can be celebrated as a symbol of a new order where oppressive structures are overcome. 
Virgin Mary Virgin Mary depicted in a stained glass window by Sir Ninian Comper in Downside Abbey church

Celibacy or sexual abstinence has been practiced and valued by women and men within many religious traditions. However, the examples above show that particularly high spiritual significance has been associated with women’s virginity. Whether the idealisation of female virginity should be regarded as an attempt to keep women’s sexuality in check or as an empowering choice is a question open to debate.



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