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When is a Virgin Not a Virgin?

Monday, December 18, 2017 - 07:00

I find some interesting parallels in the concept of grouping lesbians and virgins together in a category "not women" (that is, women not sexually available to men) with the practice in some circles of the publishing world of creating projects or access campaigns on a category encompassing women, non-binary, and sometimes including trans people of all identifications. The unifying factor in the publishing approach is to recognize the historic privileged access that cis men have been given to publishing opportunities and to try to include writers who have not had access to that privilege. But on a symbolic level, the structure of these projects tends to reinforce the default centrality of cis masculinity, even when carefully avoiding defining the focus as "not cis men". It can erase the individual identities gathered under the umbrella, not only by silently defining the category in terms of what it is not, but because once you've created a heterogeneous group of "non-cis-men", the inherent and inescapable binarism in our society will result in a tendency to interact with the resulting composite category as in some way female.

In a similar way, the idea of joining virgins and lesbians into a conceptual category by virtue of their shared non-participation in the heterosexual sexual economy creates (and has historically created) some illogical conclusions, as well as reinforcing the default centrality of heterosexuality. "If you aren't having sex with men (or we a particular man) you must be / might as well be a lesbian." "If you haven't had sex with a man, then you're functionally a virgin not matter what you do with women." (One runs into this within lesbian communities sometimes. I recall one joke about how, "Being a lesbian means never being sure whether you're on a date--and never being entirely sure whether you're still a virgin or not.")

Of course, in certain segments of pre-modern society, there was official sanction for removing yourself from the heterosexual economy via virginity (religious or secular), whereas there was no such official (or even recognized) way to do it via lesbianism. This combined category of "not women", while identifying contexts that provided cover for lesbian identity, potentially erases genuine preferred virginity. And at the same time, it can erase genuine preferred lesbianism by implying that sex between women is a product of removal of access to (or by) men.

These thoughts aren't really directly relevant to the article covered here, but it sparked some ruminations that have been kicking around in my head for a while.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Jankowski, Theordora A. 2011. “’Virgins’ and ‘Not-women’: Dissident Gender Positions” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Jankowski, Theordora A. 2011. “’Virgins’ and ‘Not-women’: Dissident Gender Positions”

Jankowski begins with lesbian imagery in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House [note: a 17th century work exploring family history that includes tropes of predatory lesbians in convents] and its challenge to the patriarchal sexual system. There is a consideration of the problems and consequences of naming historical periods and cultures. The convent as a site of sexual dissidence encompasses not only the imagined lesbian activity but the virgin’s removal from the mainstream sexual economy entirely. There, women are sovereign. She uses this as an introduction to the concept of nuns in different places and times and the place of virgin women in the medieval social hierarchy. That place was disrupted by protestantism which viewed virginity as unnatural and perverse. Jankowski considers the “virgin pleasures” in Lyly’s play Gallathea in which two cross-dressing virgins fall in love with each other and enjoy off-stage “pleasures” that do no result in a revelation of gender, that is, ones that by definition cannot involve genital activity. The play frames their desire as having “no cause” (i.e., no penis) but undermines this assertion by showing and approving of the love itself. In this, like nuns, they remove themselves from the category of “woman” to “not-woman” (i.e., virgin). The virgin/not-woman category aligns consistently with opportunities for female same-sex eroticism. The pre-modern “virgin” category has resonances with some feminist theories on the importance of opting out of the heterosexual social economy as the only pure response to patriarchy.