Despite the many intersections of female bodies, female sexuality, and the state there has been little attention paid to the construct of virginity and how it supports the state as an incarnation of heteropatriarchal power. Second wave feminist scholars did draw some attention to the issue. In her 1978 article “The Virgin and the State” Sherry Ortner argues that, “In an extraordinarily wide range of societies in the world one finds a peculiar ‘complex’: ideologically it is held that the purity of the women reflects on the honor and status of their families; and the ideology is enforced by systematic and often quite severe control of women’s social and especially sexual behavior.”[i] Ortner proceeds to critique the existing explanation for this “complex” as lacking time-depth, treating the system under study (be it family, caste, and so on) as a closed system not influenced by external factors, and by presuming that female purity is an issue in relations between men without considering its effects on relations between men and women. Ortner’s own conclusion is given away in the title of her article. She suggests that the ideology of female sexual purity arose in tandem with the social structure known as the state. [ii] Though Ortner offers speculation as to why this might be the main purpose of her article is to suggest areas of further study for feminist scholars to pursue in the future.[iii]
Unfortunately, few scholars have heeded Ortner’s call. By far the most thorough investigation along these lines is Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy. Like Ortner, Lerner rejects existing explanations for the devaluing of the feminine in patriarchal cultures. Arguing that such a value system must have been created at a previous point in history, Lerner seeks to uncover the historical forces that shaped the development of patriarchy and women’s participation in them. Lerner rejects the essentialist argument that patriarchal society has dominated written history because of biological differences between men and women. Instead, Lerner concludes that patriarchal state society and written history emerged at roughly the same time. Assuming this, Lerner defines her study between 3100 to 600 B.C.E. in the Ancient Near East. By the end of this time the process that created patriarchal states and subordinated women and women’s activities was completed.[iv] According to Lerner, “The oppression of women antedates slavery and makes it possible.”[v] Lerner goes on to argue that class society is rooted in the oppression of women and this primarily through men’s control of women’s reproductive capacity. This, in turn, creates the rudiments for a hierarchal organization of social groups which paves the way for the emergence of the state.[vi]
Scholars before and after Lerner have identified virginity as a necessary economic consequence of patrilineal, and later patriarchal, communities. In matrilineal communities where inheritance is passed down through mothers there is no need for virginity because the mother’s identity is never in question. In patrilineal communities, female virginity before marriage, and female chastity within marriage is enforced, because it is necessary to make sure that property or other inheritance is passed to the right offspring. If Lerner’s supposition is correct, that slavery and all other class divisions are originally based on the oppression of women, and this primarily through control of women’s reproductive capacity, then the connection between virginity and the patriarchal nation-state is self-evident. Female virginity, as a physical and social reality, before marriage is a requirement for inheritance in patrilineal communities. This is our “then.” The preceding “if” is as follows: before virginity can be socially enforced on the physical bodies of women there must be an agreed upon conception of virginity within a community. Moreover, this conception of female virginity only has meaning in a patrilineal community. Where identity and inheritance are passed down through the mother there can be no state reserved exclusively for women who have not yet had sex. There may certainly be a social distinction between people who have and have not yet engaged in partnered sexual activity (however that may be defined) but no special value would accrue to women in this group as it would be equally shared among both men and women. Female virginity, as a concept must exist at the beginning of the separation of matrilineal and patrilineal communities. In this way, female virginity is the sine qua non of the patriarchal nation state. The concept of virginity delineates patrilineal and matrilineal communities while the enforcement of female virginity ensures patrilineal succession. Upon this model the patriarchal nation-state is built. That is, without the concept and regulation of female virginity, the patriarchal nation-state cannot exist which is why, despite all rational incentives to abandon female virginity as state policy, it endures.
[i] Sherry B. Ortner, “The Virgin and the Sate,” in Feminist Studies 4, no. 3 (1978): 19-35.
[ii] Ibid., 22.
[iii] Ibid., 26-33.
[iv] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 6-9.
[v] Ibid., 77.
[vi] Ibid., 80-135.