• Not that innocent? The original meaning of the word 'virgin' was used to describe a free woman - independent, autonomous, untied. (EyeEm / Getty Images)
Once upon a time, the word 'virgin' was used specifically to describe a free woman - independent, autonomous, untied.
By
Madison Griffiths

13 Apr 2017 - 12:49 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2017 - 12:49 PM

Virgin. Ver-gin. The word has long occupied a space in crowded school-buses and recess discussion. It was exercised religiously (pun intended) in the Bible to contextualise Mary’s virtuousness. It even attached itself to Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to remind us that, in order to be masculine, one must have ticked-off the ‘slept with a woman’ box amongst other, less objectifying, things.

Nowadays, the word refers to somebody who has not had penetrative sex… because of course it does. Heteronormativity and conservatism have been in a long, unwavering partnership for as long as the word ‘virgin’ (and each of its insidious connotations) was appropriated and employed to shame women.

Virginity is deemed to exist hand-in-hand with purity—at least when considering a woman’s sexual autonomy (or lack thereof)—especially in the context of marriage. In fact, it is almost granted tangible meaning; something to clutch a hold of, preserve, or sacrifice in the name of love. Because there’s nothing sexier than wrapping up one’s inherent purity and gifting it to somebody else - “here, hubby” - in a majestic display of awkward, graceless, first-time sex.

But the word didn’t always mean ‘untouched’. In fact, once upon a time, it was used specifically to describe a free woman - independent, autonomous, untied. Her own sovereign. Her own lover. This means that if we used the word in accordance with its original meaning, I’d be a woman basking in her maidenhood, alongside an entire collection of dignified virgins. Condoms, dubious relationships, one-night-stands and morning-after-pills considered.

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Even Virgin Mary - the most virginal of all virgins in the land of virginity. Despite perceptions, Mary wasn’t given the title because of her lack of sexual encounters. Barbara G. Walker in The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets suggests that Mary is instead simply a young, unmarried woman, and thus a ‘virgin’; which is a much less creepy thing to be identified with (sacred babies immaculately conceived considered).

In fact, it was Mary’s ‘virginity’, so to speak, that resulted in a total linguistic shift. In The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, authors Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor claim that rather than praying to, worshipping and plainly conceiving of a sexually independent woman, Christian translators were more comfortable having Mary’s autonomy be discounted in the name of ‘innocence’ and chastity. In other words, for her womb to home a God-like figure, it had to be the purest of wombs.

While this knowledge is at least trivial and perhaps worth pitching to Libra sanitary products so that the true definition of virgin will eventually feature on the tear-away strip of their pads, is reclamation the answer? The word itself doesn’t stray too far from other words that have been employed to degrade a woman’s self-government and sexual freedom - such as ‘slut’. ‘Virgin’, although arguably the antithesis of ‘slut’, still assumes a woman’s appearance and worth, and justifies how she is to be received socially and romantically. Whether or not the feminist movement’s long, arduous attempts at reclaiming ‘slut’ - think Riot Grrl Kathleen Hanna’s having scribbled the word ‘SLUT’ on her stomach in 1992 - have worked, the sentiment remains. There is nothing wrong with being both a woman, and having sexual freedom. In the same way that, by redeeming ‘virgin’, the intention is to propose there is nothing inherently unchaste or impure about a woman with a sexual history. I, with my numerous bedfellows over the years and sexual curiosity, am no less a virgin than my sixteen-year-old self.

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The arguments for and against reclamation of any given slur are compelling. Against being: perhaps it isn’t worth attempting to secure a word which packs a punch. But in the same breath, perhaps it is. As a teenager, I was acutely aware of what it meant to be a ‘virgin’; and even more so, what it meant to be relinquishing that part of my identity. It was supposed to be ceremonious, because my virginity was special and a part of me. And so, when it wasn’t smooth sailing, and when the fireworks and candles I’d anticipated would surface out of nowhere were replaced with a whole lot of floundering about and an equal amount of grimacing, I didn’t know what to make of it. And, most upsettingly, I didn’t know what to make of myself, having felt the loss of something I hadn’t ever been able to hold.

Because of its religious roots (again, pun intended), it’s difficult to see ‘virgin’ employed in a cheeky, positive fashion in the same way that “bitch” has been appropriated to be comical and unifying. For example, if someone was to state that she was “getting ready with [her] bitches”, it would come across as light-hearted and, in many cases, ironic, according to Tony Thorne, curator of the Slang and New Language archive at King’s College London. So, perhaps it’s worth starting. And, if you ever hear me referring to “my virgins”; I simply mean my collection of self-determining, women-identifying, powerful friends, and not a group of young girls I am harbouring in my spare room in case a vampire demands I provide them with virginal blood.

I admit. It’s going to take a while.