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Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank

Virgin: The Untouched History

by Hanne Blank

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I picked this book up because it seemed like an interesting subject, from a female perspective. The book was indeed very interesting. It explores the concept and perception of virginity from sociological, biological and historical perspectives. What struck me over and over again is how the concept of virginity is used to control women, in one way or another. I found the parts of the book focused on modern times to be the most interesting, and I would have liked the author to explore other concepts, such as purity balls (the concept of which creeps me out). Very enjoyable for women or readers looking for quirky non-fiction. ( )
  LISandKL | Aug 20, 2014 |
Kindof a neat idea. I assume it's about me, since I have a history of being a virgin.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Erudite, well-written, and wide-ranging, this is a lovely examination of the intersections of gender, religion, and medicine. Highly recommended. ( )
  cricketbats | Mar 30, 2013 |
This was an interesting history of virginity in Western culture, how it's been defined over the years, the standards women have been held to. An interesting read – I wonder if Blank has written other books? ( )
  Heduanna | Aug 5, 2012 |
Blank notes in her intro that a study of virginity requires information from a variety of disciplines and that there are large knowledge gaps in what we know about virgins and virginity. She describes virginity as a concept that was at one point extremely important and is still culturally relevant today but one that is hard to define and is an intangible quality. Blank’s point of view is obvious – the importance placed on and obsession with virginity is part of a patriarchal system to control sex, is generally only concerned with women’s virginity and is also dehumanizing. The book is divided into the physical/medical aspects and the historical/cultural view of virginity. I thought I’d find cultural issues to be more interesting but that section was somewhat too brief and I wondered at times if she was being inexact. The medical issues related to virginity were fascinating.

In the first couple chapters, Blank details the physiology of the hymen and the history of the search for the hymen as well as various illnesses and conditions attributed to virgins. I’ve taken a number of biology and sexuality classes but the majority of information about the hymen was new to me. Blank explains why – there are rarely medical issues associated with the hymen. This was a very interesting section. The myth of sex with virgins curing diseases wasn’t new to me, but Blank talks about various times in history when it seemed especially notable. Also, I’d never heard of greensickness before – one of those old diseases that makes you wonder what was causing all the cases. Medical issues related to virginity include the controversy over the speculum, hymen reconstruction and the rare imperforate hymen. Blank lists numerous virginity tests, some of which sound quite ridiculous today. In describing these varied topics, Blank often relates them to her previously described themes – concerns with virginity are perpetuated by men and generally leave women out of the equation. Sexuality of women is seen as a dangerous thing – for example, the belief that a doctor using a speculum on a virgin could lead to masturbation and prostitution.

The second half of the book covers the history of virginity in the West. A lot of this describes religious attitudes to religion and sexuality and this isn’t an area I am too familiar with so I wondered if at times Blank was being inexact. For example, she notes that the Greeks had an idea of virgin magic and mentions that Persephone was able to travel to the underworld because she was a virgin. While there are multiple versions of Greek myths, this is not an interpretation that I have ever heard of the Persephone story (though the story can be read as an allegory for loss of virginity, never heard that posited as a reason she could go to the underworld). The rise of Christianity gave new value to virginity especially with the importance of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism. This abated somewhat with Protestantism. The portrayal of virgins as sexual objects is covered then the book ends with virginity in 20th century American and how it was affected by tampons, birth control and feminism. Some of the topics she covers are ones that have been distorted by history and pop culture – vestal virgins, virgin martyrs, Erzsebet Bathory, jus primae noctis, Elizabeth I and William Stead, the journalist who bought a 13-year old virgin to illustrate a point. I thought the history was covered too quickly but does give a good starting point for further reading. In addition, the focus is only on Western attitudes and history. I appreciated that Blank’s history of Christianity, though short, is nuanced – it’s not all Christians are anti-sex. She’ll note that some very misogynistic Christian writers weren’t representative of the thought of the day and writes about how the convent allowed greater freedom to many women. While I did occasionally wonder about the veracity of all her interpretations, this is a informative book on the topic. ( )
4 vote DieFledermaus | Apr 9, 2012 |
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"In this social history, historian Hanne Blank illuminates the history of virginity in Western culture. How did virginity come to mean so much to our culture, and have so much power in our individual lives? Blank probes the shape and scope of the question, analyzing attempts to find out what constitutes virginity's loss (a task that only seems simple), and cataloging the myriad ways it has been tested and contested, guarded and faked and even restored. In the process she shows us what we do and don't know about virginity and reveals a great deal about just why humans have come to care so much about this fundamentally intangible state in the first place."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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