The History of Virginity Myths, fantasies, emancipation Publication date : March 1, 2012
A historian and committed feminist, Yvonne Knibiehler specialises in women’s history. She is the author of La Sexualité et l’Histoire (2002).
In our era of triumphant sexuality, has female virginity really lost its value and significance? Or has it kept its unique symbolic role — despite a multitude of social changes, including freer morals, the struggles for women’s liberation and the increased role of women in society?
Feminists correctly argue that virginity is a male invention, the product of a male fantasy. But why did men feel the need to invent such a notion and to fantasize about it? And why would they renounce it today? Is revealing a fantasy sufficient to make it disappear? We must not forget that during the centuries of Christian dominance, for many young women, safeguarding their virginity was a form of freedom and a source of power, which allowed them to express their autonomy and initiative — their “virility”. Among many others, one can cite the names of Genevieve of Paris, Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila and England’s Queen Elizabeth I. As well as the marvellous myths of Pallas Athena and the Virgin Mary. What was the basis of all those virgins’ self-confidence? How can their influence be explained? And what have we put in its place? In other words, what has virginity become for young girls, for women — and for men?
• More than twenty centuries of women’s history viewed through the major and rarely neutral concept of virginity, which in all societies has identified the status of girlhood that must be abandoned to enter womanhood.
• An original analysis of the evolution of male-female relations, as seen through the changes in their respective understanding of female virginity.