Synopses & Reviews
A well-researched history of virginity...In an era marked by a 'chaotic maelstrom of virginities, ' Blank's book is a useful...antidote to our confusion.--New York Times Book Review
Hanne Blank's revolutionary, rich, and entertaining survey of an astonishing untouched history reveals why humans have been fixated on an indefinable state of being since the dawn of time. As the butt of innumerable jokes, center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography, and nucleus around which the world's most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy, Virgin also shows how utterly important to contemporary times the topic is. Hanne Blank is a writer, historian, and public speaker whose work has been featured everywhere from OUT to Penthouse. An independent scholar, she has served in faculty positions at several colleges and universities, most recently as the 2004-2005 Scholar of the Institute For Teaching and Research on Women at Towson University, Maryland. Virginity has been the source of enormous fascination from the earliest days of recorded history to the present. How did it come to mean so much to our culture, and have so much power in our individual lives? Why does it command the attention and fascination of politicians, activists, religious figures, teenagers and educators? In Virgin, Hanne Blank brings us a revolutionary, rich and entertaining survey of an astonishingly untouched history.
From the simple task of determining what constitutes its loss to why it matters to us in the first place, Blank gets to the heart of virginity's significance in Western culture. She tackles the reality of what we do and don't know about virginity and provides a sweeping tour of virgins in history--from martyrs to Queen Elizabeth to billboards in downtown Baltimore telling young women it's not a dirty word. Virgin proves, as well, how utterly contemporary the topic is--the center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography and nucleus around which the world's most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy. Hanne Blank probes the shape and scope of the obsession, and in the process, shows 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 of being. Embodied in the figure of the goddess Athena or Mother Mary, the virgin state has inspired universal cults, national myths, personal passions and unsurpassed works of art; it has excited religious mystics to praise it as the highest ideal and fastest way to heaven; it has also moved many a titillating plot about the seduction of the innocent--from the notorious Liaisons Dangereuses to teen soaps focusing on 'the first time.' As Hanne Blank points out in her vigorous and eclectic study, 'Virginity has been, and continues to be, a matter of life and death around the world.' For Blank, virginity is a social invention designed above all to control women; its connection to virtue flourishes in the fantasies of fathers, suitors, priests and pornographers. In the first part of the book, Blank gives a detailed account of the fetishized and numinous hymen. A puny ring or flap in the vulva, it remained unseen until the 16th century. But its appeal did not fade under the new scientific gaze; the anatomist Helkiah Crooke, for example, turned to the language of a love sonnet to describe his findings ('All these particles together make the form of the cup of a little rose half blowne'). However, even after physicians were able to inspect the interior of a woman's body, Blank is clear that sexual experience cannot be deduced from its condition, as some women have hymens that grow back after childbirth, while others have no obstruction to speak of and do not bleed during their 'first time.' The author therefore expresses her strongest indignation at the long, cruel story of virginity tests, when 'women may not speak for themselves' and the one person who knows the truth of the case cannot make herself heard. Over the centuries, women have conspired to provide the evidence and stain the bridal sheets not because the bride wasn't innocent but because, as Blank makes clear, the dramatic rupturing of the hymen is a fable. In the second half, Blank unfolds the cultural history--buzzing through myths about temple prostitutes, vestal virgins, the cult of Mary and the gory martyrdoms of the saints, Protestant diagnosis of the 'greensickness' that overcame old maids, droit du seigneur (the lord's feudal right to every bride) and many other pieces of fascinating lore. Only a virgin could capture a unicorn, as visitors to the Cloisters in New York will know from the medieval tapestries there: Attracted by her unique smell, the fierce creature will lay its horn in her lap. The blood of 600 virgins was required to revive the aging powers of the infamous Countess Bathory, the most lurid of female vampires but also a historical figure, born in 1560, whose notorious diaries are kept under wraps in the Hungarian state archives (or so Blank tells us). As these stories reveal, Blank's method involves conscientious data-gathering and titillating gossip . . . on the whole, Blank is judicious when entering very difficult territory, placing both sex trafficking in children and the belief that virgins cure sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS) within a longer history of damage and exploitation. Toward the end, on home ground, Blank closes in fiercely on the current abstention crusade, which, she convincingly argues, succeeds only in revisiting on the young those once discarded, venerable virtues of guilt and ignorance. At its best, this entertaining history is a passionate polemic, brimming with a genuine spirit of emancipatory activism.--Marina Warner, The Washington Post Book World
Entertaining and erudite. Virgin is a treasure trove of obsc
Praise for Virgin:
“Entertaining and erudite…Virgin is a treasure trove of obscure and fascinating material . . . presented with wit and clarity. Blank's eye-opening cultural history will make you re-think everything you ever thought you knew about its familiar yet under-analyzed subject.”—Rachel Mania Brown, author of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost “This entertaining history is a passionate polemic, brimming with a genuine spirit of emancipatory activism.” —Washington Post Book World “A passionate polemic, brimming with a genuine spirit of emancipatory activism.” —Washington Post
“Erudite and witty.” —Chicago Sun Times
“It would all be exhausting if it weren't so enlightening and, for reasons both prurient and educational, page-turning.” —Baltimore City Paper
“Her survey is engrossing and informative...she¹s willing to do research both in the stacks of law libraries and in the back shelves of video stores.” —New York Observer
“Fascinating...Her history of virginity's importance to Western culture goes a long way toward explaining why, in the wake of the women's movement, the sexual revolution and the wholesale modernization and secularization of American culture, we have abstinence-only sex education, virginity pledges and admiration for chaste pop princesses...the book is a pleasure to read.” —San Diego Union Tribune
“A well-researched history of virginity…Blank entertains…delicious facts are scattered throughout…In an era marked by a 'chaotic maelstrom of virginities,' Blank's book is a useful…antidote to our confusion.” —New York Times Book Review
“In her lively book on virginity, Blank writes with forthright gusto...She has a juicy time cataloguing cultural associations, historical trends...and physiological factoids...[written] with a cheery, erudite, feminist eye.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Scholarly...Blank is scrupulous about trying to understand why and how ignorant theories have developed and established themselves.” —San Francisco Chronicle
"Blank's revealing history of virginity begins with discoveries related to women's bodies over time, then quickly moves on to a fascinating analysis of the roles economics, religion, and urbanization have played in the changing attitudes toward virginity. From the Roman Empire to the Jazz Age and beyond, with appearances by Jesus, Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys, and Alfred Kinsey, this is a rich history indeed." —Booklist
"Blank touches on virtually every aspect of the indefinable state and the result is something much more enticing than the actual experience of losing it." —Nylon “A bright addition to the popular literature of women's and cultural studies [and an] informative, funny and provocative analysis of one of the most elusive‹and prized‹qualities of human sexuality...Blank has no shortage of fascinating facts...Blank also has a pleasing, highly readable style that allows her to convey large amounts of information with wit and agility...Thoroughly researched, carefully argued and written with a sly sense of humor, this is a bright addition to the popular literature of women's and cultural studies.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“It's a rare book that can provide a deeper understanding of our cultural relationship to female sexuality along with an array of lively cocktail party trivia. Impeccably researched and engagingly written, Virgin does both with wit, style, and intellectual rigor. Before I read it, I didn't even realize how little I knew about virginity, and how much there is to know. What a huge contribution to study of sexuality and gender.”--Lisa Jervis, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture
“A well-researched history of virginity…In an era marked by a ‘chaotic maelstrom of virginities, Blanks book is a useful…antidote to our confusion.”—New York Times Book Review
Hanne Blanks revolutionary, rich, and entertaining survey of an astonishing untouched history reveals why humans have been fixated on an indefinable state of being since the dawn of time. As the butt of innumerable jokes, center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography, and nucleus around which the worlds most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy, Virgin also shows how utterly important to contemporary times the topic is.
Blank presents a revolutionary and entertaining survey of the history of virginity. From the simple task of determining what constitutes its loss to why it matters in the first place, Blank tackles the reality--and the perceived reality--surrounding this indefinable state of being.
About the Author
Hanne Blank is a writer, historian, and public speaker whose work has been featured everywhere from OUT to Penthouse. An independent scholar, she has served in faculty positions at several colleges and universities, most recently as the 2004–2005 scholar of the Institute for Teaching and Research on Women at Towson University, Maryland.