In mainstream Australian society, there is little expectation that the bride or groom will arrive as virgins to the matrimonial bed.
According to the 2013 Australian Study of Health and Relationships the median age of first vaginal intercourse has remained steady at 17 for over a decade, while the median age for marriage is much older, at 31 for men and 29 for women. In 1975, 16 per cent of couples who married lived together before tying the knot; today that figure is 77 per cent.
So, sex before marriage is the norm. But in some cultures, virginity – particularly for brides – is a big deal.
In fact, in this week’s episode of SBS’s Marry Me, Marry My Family, Macedonian-Australian Derian agrees to take part in the post-marriage ritual called Blaga Rakija to confirm her virginity. The ancient ceremony involves Derian’s father, Izzy, inspecting the sheets of her bed after their wedding night. If Izzy discovers his daughter was not a virgin before marriage, he will disown her. It may sound outrageous, but virginity testing has occurs in many cultures.
The virgin bride is still prized as untouched, ‘unsoiled’, and thus still pure.
“Blood or sheet ceremonies are part of the long history of virginity testing, which is designed to generate proof that a bride's sexual encounter with her new husband is her first sexual experience: blood on the sheets is, apparently, demonstration, that her hymen was ‘broken’ on her wedding night,” says Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
Blood ceremonies have a long history. “In Western culture, such tests date back at least as early as the Middle Ages,” she says. In an age of primogeniture – where the eldest son was the family’s heir – virginity testing was justified as a way of guaranteeing paternity. Often, women in medieval times were subjected to a physical examination by a midwife to check the state of their hymen, as well as an inspection of their bedding after consummation of the marriage.
Many cultures around the world still practise blood ceremonies. “Virginity tests are still practised because there is still a value attached to virginity,” says Rosewarne. “The virgin bride is still prized as untouched, ‘unsoiled’, and thus still pure.”
In Armenia, wedding night-virginity testing is known as the ‘Red Apple’. In Georgia, a blood ceremony forms part of the wedding festivities among some Azerbaijani communities. A ‘yenge’ – usually an older female relative – is on hand to offer advice to the young couple and take receipt of the bloodstained wedding sheet, which will later be shown to dinner guests at a celebratory feast.
Among some groups in Tonga, a bride is expected to show her sheets to her family after her wedding night. Inez Manu-Sione, from Tonga, married her Samoan husband in Australia when she was 30. In an appearance on Insight in 2013, Manu-Sione explained why she agreed to take part in the sheet ceremony upon her marriage. “I wanted to honour my Mum because it's almost a disgrace on her if the process isn't completed.” It was a confronting process, she wrote at the time. “Yet I'm glad I did [it]. I've graduated from law, become a lawyer and a teacher, but I've never seen my parents, especially my Dad, so proud.”
A similar custom exists in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Newlyweds are expected to consummate their marriage on a white cloth, as eager family members wait close by. As soon as the deed is done, the sheet is handed over for inspection. If suitably blood-stained, ecstatic family members will take it on a tour to display it far-flung members. An absence of blood could see the woman divorced by her new husband and disowned by her family.
Virginity is one of many ways patriarchy is exerted: it is a way for women's sexuality to be controlled by the men in her culture.
While widespread, virginity tests like blood ceremonies are notoriously inaccurate. “Hymens get stretched and torn in all kinds of physical activity other than intercourse: a woman may not have had sex previously but may nonetheless not bleed during her first sexual encounter,” says Rosewarne. “The punishment for ‘failing’ a virginity test varies depending on culture: at the extreme end of the spectrum, corporal punishment or even death may result.”
Enterprising women throughout history have come up with workarounds to ensure that their sheets are satisfactorily blood-spattered after their wedding night, no matter the state of their hymen, usually at the expense of farmyard animals. In Greece, the blood of an unlucky rooster would be surreptitiously applied to the sheets in place of the bride’s.
A telling feature of blood ceremonies is their preoccupation with female virginity. This gendered double standard reflects women’s lack of status in society. “Male virginity has never been prized nor expected to be proven,” says Rosewarne. “Virginity is one of many ways patriarchy is exerted: it is a way for women's sexuality to be controlled by the men in her culture; that her sexuality does not belong to her, but rather to her future husband.”
Marry Me, Marry My Family is the familiar story of multicultural Australians, as they are today- trying to embrace their Australian identity, whilst staying true to their culture, identity and family.
Marry Me, Marry My Family airs Tuesday, 16 January at 8.40pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Follow the conversation on social media: #MarryMeMarryMyFamily