The Shocking History of Virgin Tests and Cures
Virginity has been the obsession of men for thousands of years. It has driven the best people, like the virgin warrior Joan of Arc, to fight for just cause. Virginity has also lured the worst people, such as the sadistic Countess Elizabeth Bathory , to cause the murder of virgin maidens in order to bathe in their blood, or so the history books tell us. But why? What exactly is so alluring about those who cherish virginity? Is it about virtue or is it about something else?
Though virginity no longer defines the commodious value of women, around the world, the controversial belief in virgin cure myths, involving sex with a virgin to be cleansed of sexually transmitted diseases, and virgin testing, the inspection for the existence of the hymen.
In Hanne Blank’s book Virgin: The Untouched History , virginity tests shared three consistent characteristics: they looked for measurements, they referenced cultural myth and the latest notions of science, and they made sure the woman being inspected had no say.
But how could all these things be for the oppression and the commoditization of women? In order to understand how virgin tests have come to be, one must first understand the origins of virginity and why obsession with it has remained prevalent in the modern world.
Ancient Beliefs About Virginity
With the rise of agriculture some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, depending on the region, it is believed the concept of giving importance to virginity arose due to a father’s need to commoditize his daughters for the continuation of an agricultural society.
This was known as the paternity/property hypothesis, which placed virgin women as material property. Their purpose was to become pregnant, raise children, and make sure the paternal family line continued. By creating the concept of virginity, a father could assure the family of the groom that there were no children from other males.
Some of the earliest accounts about virginity come from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and early Christianity. From these sources, it is clear to see the cultural development into what it is currently. Virginity did not carry universal definitions.
Often, the concept of virginity was synonymous with chastity; however, chastity and virginity could have meant two different things in pre-Christian societies. In some instances, celibacy was not essential for marriage.
Statue of naked Venus, Rome, Italy. Credit: neurobite / Adobe Stock
According to Douglass and Teeter, Ancient Egypt, during the New Kingdom (1570 BC and 1544 BC), did not see virginity as essential in order to be married. It is assumed that sexual intercourse was socially acceptable during this time. However, once married, both couples were expected to be exclusively monogamous.
Famed Greek historian Herodotus (450 BC) mentioned the virgin testing with the Amazons of Scythia. According to historical accounts, whose accuracy have not been verified, Scythian Amazon girls were not considered women until they had killed a man in battle. Only then they could be regarded as pure and ready for marriage, and that if no man was killed, the girl would remain a virgin.
In this sense, virginity meant the purity of value as opposed to having an intact hymen. In fact, virginity in the ancient world might have referred to whether a woman was married or single.
In another example, Herodotus depicted another virginity test in the festival of Ibyia (modern Tunisia) involving several chariots driving young maidens divided into two groups armed with sticks and stones. These women would fight to the death.
An ancient virginity test involved chariots with young maidens fighting to the death. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Those who died were considered 'non-virgins' and those who survived would be 'virgins' and ready for marriage. However, other Greek accounts would give different perspectives to the definition of virginity.
According to Hanne Blank, it was common for a father to murder his daughter if she was caught losing her virginity before marriage. In ancient Greece, a daughter's role was her worth in marriage.
Marriage was a legally binding contract between two families to gain power, land, reputation, and peace. The total value of a woman depended on her virginity.
In another example, the Cretan legal code from 450 BC, stated the value of virginity in women as a very crucial commodity for marriage. The Cretan penalties for rapes of virgins were far more severe than the rapes of non-virgins.
"The rapist of a female household serf would be fined at two staters if the serf in question had been a virgin, and only one obol, essentially a slap on the wrist if she had not.” (Blank, Hanne. 2007).
The Cretan laws about rape essentially forced the rapist to pay reparations to the husband, father, or slave owner, conveying the perspective that a woman was viewed as mere property.
Ancient physicians used instruments such as the speculum, a duck-billed widening contraption, in order to inspect a woman's gynecological health. However, as Judeo-Christian beliefs became more prevalent, the fear of ruining the hymen by such an instrument became a significant worry.
Due to the fear of being seen as a sexual deviant, many gynecologists, devised alternative methods for examining the sexual organs by inserting their fingers into the rectum of a woman rather than the vagina in order to check the uterus and ovaries. This method was considered more clinical and safer in preserving the hymen.
- Vestal Virgins: Powerful Priestesses of Rome’s Sacred Flame
- Artemis, the Chaste Huntress: You Really Didn’t Want to Mess With This Greek Goddess
- Virgin Mothers and Miracle Babies: The Ancient History of Miraculous Conceptions
14th, 15 th, and 16 th century specula. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Roma Virginity Test
The Spanish Roma Gypsy people believed in a virginity test called Gitanos. This was the belief that a grape-like gland existed in the vagina and that it contained a yellowish liquid called the Uva, or juice. When this gland was pressed, the fluid was expelled, resulting in the end of a woman's virginity. This process was called the loss of Honra, the honor.
This test was performed only in the ceremonial defloration of a bride. Members of both sides of the family would come to watch the first act of copulation in order to see both blood and Honra stains on the sheets. This act was considered an occasion for witness, pride, and celebration.
Another aspect towards virginity slowly took shape among early Christianity. The Christian virgin martyr legends spoke of chaste women waging wars against demons in order to protect their pact with god.
However, a dangerous belief slowly developed from these legends that the strength of a Christian virgin woman could be strong enough to defeat sexually transmitted diseases. This belief, unfortunately, would cause some of the worst crimes of sexual abuse prominent to this day.
Virginity During the Middle Ages
During the 1200s, the De Secretis Mulierum , 'the woman's secrets' was a manual designed to identify a woman's chastity through her demeanor. It was written for physicians to rely on physical signs that would not involve touching the vagina.
In the De Secretis Mulierum , it stated: “…Shame, modesty, fear, a faultless gait and speech, casting eyes down before men […] The urine of virgins is clear and lucid, sometimes white, sometimes sparkling […]” However, the notion of clear urine still seemed to be the main factor in both the Spanish Roma gypsies as well as many other European cultures of the middle ages.
The De Secretis Mulierum was a manual designed to identify a woman's virginity through her demeanor. (Fæ / Public Domain )
By 1625, gynecologists became more prevalent and even earned the title of ‘men-mid-wives’. Though the examination of women genitalia was starting to become more frequent, it was still considered to be a disrespectable act.
In 1810 France, prostitution was legalized and regulated. The new laws required that each registering prostitute needed a speculum exam to check for venereal diseases.
Student doctors from all regions of Europe, as well as the United States, flooded Paris for the chance to study the medical definitions of what a prostitute’s vagina looked like via the speculum vaginal examination technique. In response to this, the need for virgin tests might have been due to the mandatory genital examinations performed by registering French prostitutes.
Medical Tests for Virginity
By the late 19th century, the speculum became known as a violating tool encouraging an unwanted intrusion into the vagina. Physicians feared that further use of the speculum would awaken a sexual appetite resulting in nymphomania or even hysteria. Because of this fear, alternative methods for medical virgin testing became necessary to maintain the honor of women, especially virgins.
One method mentioned by Mary Roach, the writer of Bonk, who wrote about gynecologist Robert Latou Dickenson’s discussion of alternative methods for checking a woman’s virginity in 1910. "The volume of the virgin vagina is 'one finger'; the married woman rates at 'two fingers’. Once the babies start coming out, its 'three fingers' and up…" (Roach, 2008). As noted, by the early 20th century, the controversial beliefs of the times lead most medical gynecological physicians to return to physical methods of touch only if necessary.
The historic taboo associated with the examination of female genitalia has long inhibited the science of gynecology. (Morgoth666 / Public Domain )
The Virgin Cure Myth
By the late 19th century, the cure for syphilis and other venereal diseases had one medical option: to inject the infected urethra with heated mercury to burn out the infection. Such treatments were extremely humiliating as well as painful for those who went through the procedure.
There was, however, the growing virgin cure myth, a belief that sexual intercourse with a virgin could cure all diseases. This myth became so prevalent that brothels in the 19th century would advertise having both young and disabled virgins available for paying customers.
Though it was previously mentioned that virgin cure myths might have originated from stories of virgin martyrs in early Christendom, other scholars believed it developed from the uneducated observation of the STD’s symptom stages. When the symptoms such as sores, blisters, or discharges, would eventually disappear after several acts of sexual intercourse with different women, the suspicion was that one of the women might have been a virgin. Therefore, to a non-educated person, sex with a virgin was the cure.
- Women and Medicine in Rome
- The Erotic Art of Ancient Greece and Rome
- Marriage: Is the Sacred Bond a Result of Social Evolution or Deliberate Design?
Rape of a virgin was believed to be a cure for venereal disease. (Wmpearl / Public Domain )
Virgin cures became so problematic that early 20th-century British lawyers and judges found it difficult when attempting to prosecute cases involving child sexual assault. A case study from Glasgow in 1913 in which Robert James C, a 37-year-old coal miner was being charged with the rape of his nine-year-old niece with the additional charge of transmitting gonorrhea to her. This case led the crown council into an investigation revealing that commoners throughout England, Scotland, and other regions of western Europe believed in the virgin cure myth.
According to scholar Roger Davidson, in the early 20th century, one in every five child rape cases in London had to do with the myth of the virgin cure. This was so rampant that many child rapists used the ‘virgin curing myth’ as a legitimate defense in court. This myth, unfortunately, continues to wreak havoc in some cultures still today.
The Controversy of Virgin Cures and Virgin Testing
Though people are more educated about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the virgin cure myth currently maintains influence in Africa, Egypt, and other former European colonial countries. As with the virgin cure myth, virginity tests are also still in practice in many other countries as well.
Many countries continue to implement virginity for social, political, and/or cultural reasons. In 2003 in Jamaica, the Jamaican parliament proposed to initiate virginity tests for all Jamaican girls in order to prevent unplanned pregnancies as opposed to sex education classes.
In regions of Afghanistan, tests are often done without the consent of the women. In other countries such as Egypt and Iran, there are still physicians who engage in the virginity test.
With the changing of the times, it is crucial to bring up the traumas brought forth by both the virginity test and the virgin cure myth. As with the controversial effects of colonialism, the spread of the virgin cure myth has caused much damage to places such as regions all over Africa.
The belief of virgin curing has caused AIDS to spread throughout the continent. Child virgin rape, as well as the violation of disabled girls, continues to grow.
A street sign in South Africa, appealing to adults not to rape virgin children in the belief that it will cure them of AIDS. (John / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The shift from child virgins to disabled virgin rape might have grown due to the lack of legal protection. Most rape cases involving disabled victims are usually dismissed due to their inability to report rape; and the fear of misunderstanding often leaves their testimony to be untrustworthy. Because of this, there are many sexual offenders that remain unpunished.
Virgin Testing and Women’s Rights
Throughout history, the urge for the protection of a woman’s virginity, though seemingly for the honor of females, has inevitably never been for the benefit of women. Historically, the security and examination of virginity were designed to commoditize women for trade, reproduction, and the curing of sexual diseases. If there is any emphasis to be made, it is that women indeed had no say.
In later years, the greatest tragedy to virginity is that medical physicians have claimed time and time again that virginity testing was morally and ethically wrong for the sole fact that there is no proven medical way to test for it. But even with this information, there are still many countries such as Africa, Europe, America, and Asia which still believe in the necessity for virgin tests as well as the healing powers of the virgin cure myth.
Top image: Statue of a woman covering herself. Credit: macondos / Adobe Stock
By B.B. Wagner
Behrens, K. 2015. Why physicians ought not to perform virginity tests . Journal of Medical Ethics. [Online] Available at: https://jme.bmj.com/content/41/8/691
Blank, H. 2007. Virgin: The Untouched History . Bloomsbury.
Brewer, D., and Teeter, E. 2001. Ancient Egyptian and Family Life. Session 1. Marriage and the Family . Cambridge University Press. [Online] Available at: http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/2/21701778/
Burg, G. 2012. History of sexually transmitted infections (STI). PubMed. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23007208
d’Avignon, A. 2016. Why Have We Always Been So Obsessed With Virginity? Medium. [Online] Available at: https://medium.com/the-establishment/a-quick-and-dirty-history-of-virginity-9ceb24b7e08a
Davidson, Roger. 2001. “This pernicious delusion:” law, medicine, and child sexual abuse in early-twentieth-century Scotland . [Online] Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/%22This-pernicious-delusion%22%3A-law%2C-medicine%2C-and-in-Davidson/fb70bb61a76a593b501a5ce6705d81e14c18da90
Groce, N., and Trasi, R. 2004. Rape of individuals with disability: AIDs and the folk belief of virgin cleansing . The Lancelot. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8547042_Rape_of_individuals_with_disability_AIDS_and_the_folk_belief_of_virgin_cleansing
History.com Editors. 2009. Bathory’s torturous escapades are exposed . A&E Television Networks. [Online] Available at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bathorys-torturous-escapades-are-exposed
Kelly, K. 2000. Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages . Routledge.
Lyon, A. 2014. Ancient Egyptian Sexuality. Anthropology.msu.edu. [Online] Available at: https://anthropology.msu.edu/anp455-fs14/2014/10/23/ancient-egyptian-sexuality/
Mayor, A. 2014. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World . Princeton University Press.
Monaghan, P. 2007. Impotence and Virginity Through the Ages . The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Murray, L., and Burnham, G. 2009. Understanding childhood sexual abuse in Africa . The Lancet. [Online] Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)60344-5/fulltext
OHSU. Date Unknown. Mercury, Marriage, and Magic Bullets: Four Centuries of STD Prevention and Treatment . Historical Collections and Archives. [Online] Available at: https://www.ohsu.edu/historical-collections-archives/mercury-marriage-and-magic-bullets-four-centuries-std-prevention
Roach, M. 2008. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex . W. W. Norton & Co.
The New Humanitarian. 2002. Focus on the virgin myth and HIV / AIDS . [Online] Available at: http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/feature/2002/04/25/focus-virgin-myth-and-hivaids-0
V., B. Date Unknown. Women Warriors in Slavic and Scytho-Sarmatian Culture . Slavorum. [Online] Available at: https://www.slavorum.org/women-warriors-in-slavic-and-scytho-sarmatian-culture/
Zevenbergen, A. 2012. The Other Virgin Myth . The Africanists. [Online] Available at: https://theafricanists.info/the-other-virgin-myth/