What if we used the word ‘virgin’ in accordance with its original meaning?

In her text Willful Virgin, Marilyn Frye offers a sketch of what she calls “wild women,” or “willful virgins,” suggesting that a reclamation of the term virgin is a necessary feminist move. According to Frye’s redefinition, a virgin is an independent feminist who refuses to kowtow to patriarchal norms of femininity, attractiveness, or sexuality. Virgins, she argues, know that “Their sexual interactions are not sites where people with penises make themselves men and people with vaginas are made women.”  Rather, virgins are wild and willful humans, not subjugated property. This revamping of the word takes it back to its original meaning, according to Frye:

“The word ‘virgin’ did not originally mean a woman whose vagina was untouched by any penis, but a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person. In any version of patriarchy, there are no Virgins in this sense.”

Here that purity ball fanatics? There are NO virgins on our patriarchal planet as patriarchy rules out female freedom from male dominance. Granted, according to Frye’s concept of the term, there are many ‘demi-virgins’ or ‘near virgins’ – they are those women not controlled by male bosses, leaders, lovers, etc. However, I am not sure if we have any true virgins as even the woman who is sexually and socially her own person lives within a society in which rape, sexual harassment, and sexism are rampant. She lived within a society that does not allow women to be entirely free of male dominance.

But, how does Frye’s recuperation of the term differ from the use of virgin in common parlance today? Well, currently we use virgin to mean:

  • someone who is ‘holding out’ until marriage and may have promised their virginity to dear old dad in a sick, incestuous romp known as a purity ball
  • someone who is ‘tantalizing jailbait’
  • a female who has not had vaginal sex (apparently oral and anal don’t count)
  • someone who is sexually naïve and may very well be unf***able (as in ‘not hot’ via sexist standards)

Most often, the term virgin is used in association with women as the female body is the one designated as property within patriarchy. Ironically, this is in keeping with the original meaning of the term. Yet, today, ‘virgin’ is not used to refer to a free woman, but to designate whether a woman’s vagina has been penetrated by a penis.

Historically, virgin was often used to mean ‘unmarried’ – as in not owned by a man. A virgin was thus property for the taking (sadly, not all too different from today…).  Another interesting historical tidbit is that the so-called ‘Virgin Mary’ was actually the ‘Young Mary.’ As Barbara G. Walker documents in The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,  “Hebrew Gospels designated Mary by the word almah, mistakenly translated ‘virgin,’ but really meaning ‘young woman.'” Kind of puts a dent in the whole miraculous conception narrative, doesn’t it? Yet, this narrative took hold because it is so useful for patriarchy. Or, as Walker puts it, “The impossible virgin mother was everyman’s longed-for resolution of Oedipal conflicts: pure maternity, never distracted from her devotion by sexual desires.”

Currently, the cultural fixation on female virginity is accompanied by the excessive sexual objectification of women. As such, females are given the message to be as sexy as possible, to be sexually desirable, but to simultaneously stay ‘pure.’ This paradigm results in the designation of ‘non-virginal’ women as ‘sluts’; the cultural message is too ‘look slutty’ but not ‘be slutty.’

Now, if ‘slut’ were a compliment, that would be one thing. But it is not. It is far from the female equivalent of male terms such as stud, player, pimp, or manwhore. As Jessica Valenti writes in her book He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, “Men can’t be sluts…there isn’t a word-let alone a concept-to signify a male slut.” This is key as slut is the flipside of virgin: both terms are about controlling women. Even male purity balls make this agenda clear via their focus on not defiling someone else’s future wife!

While the reclamation of the term virgin is a nice theoretical dream, the reality is that within heteronormative corporatist patriarchy, women are the booty anyway you slice it – whether one is ‘hot virgin booty’ or a ‘dirty slut,’ our culture still defines women via their sexual availability (and desirability) to men. The use of the term virgin today is almost reaching fetish proportions. As if the cult of  virginity perpetuated by abstinence only education and the cultural espousal of virginity hawked in popular culture were not enough, we know have re-virginization surgery – a female genital mutilation procedure rapidly gaining in popularity. Too bad we don’t have a re-virginization of the term itself that would return it to what it once meant – a free woman. Wouldn’t that just put a nice spin on ‘purity balls’? Instead of the sick celebration of female as male property they are now, they would become feminist fests where females could declare their refusal to be owned or controlled by any man.

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46 thoughts on “What if we used the word ‘virgin’ in accordance with its original meaning?”

  1. My own mother likes to tell me how I am no longer “innocent” or “pure” since I got married, where marriage implies first sexual intercourse (not true in this case). For her, a female’s morals can be summed up entirely by the history of her vagina. Regardless of the female’s other actions, her inability to refrain from sex and save her “flower” (what a hideous word) for her almighty husband (as all women must get married, we know) reflects selfishness, impatience, etc. on her part – basically, an immoral nature which permeates her internally, if not externally obvious.

    Men, however, have natural urges beyond the realm of self-control, and are therefore free to act outside of the morality-genitals conundrum without damaging the fibers of their souls.

    It offends me, that according to these standards, a “virgin” female, who say, kills someone for fun, is still somehow more “innocent” than me simply because I’ve followed nature’s course rather than the patriarchy’s course and had sex before marriage (or really, had sex at all). It doesn’t matter if I personally solved world hunger, ended all wars, and cured all diseases – for people like my mother, my “tainted” vagina says everything.

    By the way, thanks for the great blog. I will definitely check back often.

  2. CC,
    Glad you like the blog!
    Wow — “For her, a female’s morals can be summed up entirely by the history of her vagina.” Wow, I can just picture right wing religious anti-sex people trying to find a way to map the history of women’s vagina’s — it could be kind of like a credit score. Ha!

    Thanks for commenting and I personally think you and your “tainted vagina” are awesome!

    1. Your article is great. I recommend doing an article on the hymen and first-time intercourse. I along with most earthlings was led to believe a woman’s first time is just supposed to be painful, which isn’t the case. Proper finger techniques before being active stretch the muscles naturally, and one can also use dilators.

      The whole politics and cultural views are definitely going to interest your readers.

      Karina

  3. I came upon this quite by accident. I just googled the original meaning of the word virgin as I was wondering if there was anyone else who actually thought about the original meaning of the word and the implications of the original definition.

    I don’t think it was a mistaken translation regarding the word. I think it was purposeful although I couldn’t say when the word was first mistranslated, but, for one, who would believe that God impregnated some other guy’s wife with his divine son *lol*

    What I would like to know is why more people don’t know that they have based their thought processes on an ideology that is completely wrong. At least women should know since I doubt most men would give a damn.

    Why don’t more women look into the history of their continued subjugation? Why do people just accept what they are told as truth?

    Sadly, most of the women I talk to believe that there isn’t anything wrong at all with how society treats/views women today.

    Thanks for a great read.

    1. Alice,
      Glad you found the blog!
      As per “Why don’t more women look into the history of their continued subjugation? Why do people just accept what they are told as truth?” — well, those are two BIG questions with many, complex answers. Here’s a few — women are discouraged from looking into their subjection (or, in other words, becoming feminists) in so many ways — feminism is still the “F word” and females are falsely led to believe we live in a “post-feminist” age of full equality. I wish! As per why do people (sheeple?) accept what there told, well Orwell has great answers in 1984… Or how about The Matrix — it’s easier to swallow those denial pills than wake up and smell reality (and have to do something about it.)
      Hope you will keep reading and commenting!

    2. I actually came across this because I was having a religious debate with someone and wanted to prove the original meaning of virgin wasn’t “to never have intercourse”. I feel as though Christian religion simply mistranslated this, because to admit Mary was unmarried at the time she conceived Jesus would be kind of a spit in the religious faith, don’t you agree? It’s like they purposely did this so women wouldn’t “sin” in such a way. But either way you look at it, it’s kind of messed up. Either Mary was a “slut” or god put his seed in a married woman who hadn’t yet had sex with her husband. Which also makes no sense to me, honestly. I don’t know. To me it’s just a messed up way for men to control women.

  4. I am currently in a philosophy of feminism coarse and having a hard time swallowing Fry’s ‘original’ definition of virgin. She fails to give any citations of this definition and upon my own research I have not found books on etymology which give a definition even closely resembling Fry’s. She does not even attempt to say whether it is a Greek word or a Hebrew word or where it comes from. I found that it had meant(does mean) not betrothed, but that means not engaged or not promised to – and there is a very loose connection from betrothed and free woman. It seems that in order to accept this definition that one must use the radical imagination she promotes. It’s not that I disagree with what she says, I just have a hard time accepting her definitions as correct. It seems as though she loves to redefine words. For instance lesbian as a status, a degree of how radical a feminist is. And female heterosexuality as a societal role of women in this patriarchal civilization. These words were made and now accepted as words applying to one’s sexual preference, which she also implies is a choice. I bet my sexuality class would have a field day with that. As I said before, I’m not necessarily against Fry, but I am weary of her definitions. Maybe if you could direct me to the sources she used to define virgin, or even support her claim, her article could be taken more to heart.

  5. I found this knowledge to be quite empowering.Like someone above,I also found this blog through Googling the original meaning of the word Virgin.Everytime I heard a man say “I lost my virginity”,I thought it was stupid,and politically incorrect.Just like a man saying he is a nympho is politically incorrect.Both are described as being reserved for Females.And when you think about it..that is a HUGE problem,and I dont know where I got that idea along my way of growing up..that the term “virgin” only applied to women.That in itself is wrong.

    I very much like the woman’s comment above that stated a woman’s morals,or entire being is based on her Vagina’s history.Why must a woman’s worth be based on whether a penis,or in (some Asian Countries)a tampon has been in the Vagina?

    Why must there be a Mr. salutation for a man,and a Miss,MRS,or MS for a Woman?Why should a Woman’s availability be her identity?

    Its unfortunate that women are treated like cattle because they have a Vagina.A comedian once said something that made a lot of sense as to why women are controlled with labels such as whores,sluts,tramps..etc.Since the beginning of Man,”Pussy” (as the Comedian said) has been the prime motivator in life.Therefore it needs to be controlled.

    And heres something that gets to me.The Vagina is only a small part that we could say is insignificant.The Vagina is a beautiful thing,but heres where I am getting at.The “Vagina” is what defines a woman to society still in todays times.Is not a mind,a talent,or the ability to do great things not more important and significant than where you put your Penis?Is the Uterus and female reproductive system as a whole not more important than the Vagina?The Uterus is the cradle of life.The Vagina is a passageway.But of course…the only thing that matters is the Vagina..because thats where the Penis goes right?The Clitoris,Labia Minora,and Labia Majora are all what make up the external organs called the VULVA.Yet,it is mistakenly mislabeled the Vagina.Pure ignorance!How wrong would it be to call the Testicles the Penis?!

  6. Hi there,
    I stumbled upon this website like many of the readers above – through a Google search about virginity. I host a feminist radio program and I’m doing my next show about virginity. I’ve got some excellent ideas from reading this page, from both the author and the other readers comments.
    I have been looking around your blog and it looks awesome… I’ve just bookmarked it and will be back!
    Thanks for an interesting read.
    Jennie

    1. The word virgin was first used in 1200 ad (when the church was asserting its power to name and define all things).

      In my own research, I have found quotes from Guagin, living in the Pacific Islands, where a woman who had left her father’s home and before her betrothal to a man was called, “A woman who belongs to herself.” She was free to have intercourse with whomever and whenever she pleased.

      We can also look to the constellation Virgo, for more insight. The origins of astronomy can be found in the middle east and here, the word virgin meant “a shaft of wheat.” The maiden part came in with white western patriarchal thought. Originally, however, let’s look at Virgo. Note her season of appearance: Fall. This is no innocent – she is the pregnant matron ready to release her cornucopia of abundance at the Fall Harvest. She is fecund and fertile and her gifts are undergoing their last ripening in her belly before she births her myriad of gifts upon the planet.

      Astronomically, it is also important to not that, in her extended “arms,” Virgo holds the largest clustering of stars and nebulae in our galaxy – the birthing place of new planets. It is why astronomers train their telescopes on this part of the sky for evidence of planets that may harbor life similar to our own.

      To the woman above who wants more citations regarding the original meanings of virgin – that’s a tough one, particularly since the male-controlled printing presses have been rolling off their version of reality for centuries. Much of the knowledge here must be reclaimed by looking at the obvious, such as the constellation Virgo. The dominant narrative has literally obliterated most information from pre-patriarchal narratives of relationship and cosmology. (That was really the purpose of the Inquisition). Many other examples exist in primarily indigenous populations, which usually have an oral tradition. And, one would have to go back well before colonialism to ascertain the wisdoms which guided so many of those cultures.

      Virgo – yes, well, in the brains of the adolescent males, I female lying on her back with legs spread apart would excite the sexual impulse. Unfortunately, they forgot that women also give birth in this position and that is why the adult female of empowerment was lost in the storytelling.

      1. Thanks for the info but just FYI, I’m not exactly sure what you are referring to regarding a woman laying on her back with her legs spread, but, women giving birth on their backs with their legs spread apart is not in any way traditional. It is a way for male-oriented medicine, doctors and medical personnel to have the most control over the woman and see best from their perspective. It’s how they take our power away during birth, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and oh, by the way, if you accept their pain medication, what they probably won’t tell you is you will not be allowed to stand afterward, not even supported. Before patriarchal medicine took over, women tended to give birth in other positions that made better use of gravity and opened up the birth canal.

      2. Molly, Yes, very good point that the “women on back with legs spread” is a very medicalized version of birth – a version that is, as you point out, male dominated and defined.

  7. Hey gals (and guys)! I’m doing a insignificant presentation on a story from my composition book. Its called the new feminism by kate gubata. And I also stumbled across judy brady’s why I want a wife. Its the best. Everyone here would enjoy it. I particularly loved it and this blog too. I actually found this looking to see if there was any connection between virgil and the word virgin. I was one of those who very anti-hairy legged feminists. I’m very heterosexual so feminism used to scare me but then I learned what feminism was really about. Anyway I think I’ll research Fry a little. I like how my classes are running together. Two birds with one stone and all.

  8. Googled “maening of word Virgin” after reading a section of “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom.” The idea is consistent with the dominance and control that patriarchy has demonstrated throughout recent history. My wife will love this as she has been helping me relearn what it means to be in a egalitarian (respectful) based marriage for over ten years. It is not an easy task to confront the cultural/religious brainwashing…but she is steadfast and slowly I am able to become more aware.
    Thanks for the article. And thanks to the pioneers for the new rules for gender equality in marriage- my wife being one of them.

    1. Thank you, sir, for demonstrating the courage to undo centuries of brainwashing that have separated men and women from experiencing the true power of equal warriorship (spiritual) on this planet together. The beauties of true union between us is far larger than our current (and previous) cultural limitations allow us to imagine.
      Equality and honoring of the other cannot happen without men like you willing to slog through the muck of our collective brainwashing, which women share in equal measure. Digging in the fields of our fecundity does lead to fertile gardens of our own making. Here’s to the future harvest of the cornucopia of our collective labors in seeking out the divine marriage.

  9. Where did I once read that “Virgin” was etymologically linked to VIR/GYN as in VIRile/GYNecological…that is ALL ONE in HERSELF?
    Loved original blog and comments! Enlightening stuff!!

  10. A few years back, I read that “virgin” originally meant “having no impure thoughts”. I don’t think the blog nor any of the comments mentioned this, so I thought I’d share another take on this term. Sadly, I can’t remember where I read this, so I can’t provide a link.

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  20. I’ve been looking for the source of this definition of virginity for some time – have heard it, but never with Marilyn Frye cited as author. Do you have a bibliography to share on this issue, by chance?

  21. You’re basing this on what, exactly? The word virgo has meant the same since the times of Rome. Unless you have an alternate etymology for “virgin”. I don’t care what other nonsense you spew (which is hurting your cause more than it is aiding it, believe me), but leave linguistics out of it, please.

  22. Hi, could you PLEASE give me any and all sources you may have for he original meaning of the word virgin? I am being interviewed TOMORROW and want to talk about this witho being laughed out of town.

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  26. I stumbled on the interesting site by luck, I think, for I have been thinking about the male-female conundrum a lot and has published my findings as a book, ‘The Unsure Male'(by JT). ‘Virginity’, as I explain, is nothing but a male ploy to reduce his customers!

  27. I’ve read that the ORIGINAL meaning of the word “virgin” was simply “a young woman who has not yet seen her own monthly blood flow”. If that’s true, then “virgin birth” is possible, since the egg will (as I understand it) become available to sperm BEFORE the monthly blood first flows. Does anybody have any proof of that original meaning of the word? Anyway, “It’s true because I believe it.” :=))

    Bob Powers

  28. I would find it so sickeningly creepy if my dad ever thought about or mentioned my “virginity”. It’s such a crazy alien idea to me that there are fathers out there who insist on being that involved with their daughter’s sex lives, to the point of obsession! My dad knows I’m on the pill and that is all he needs to know! He’s got no interest in knowing anything beyond that. Marriage or “finding the right man” are not my parents priority for me. the only thing my dad ever nags me about is getting good grades in university and that’s the way it should be!

  29. Amazing article , Lovable to read ..! Very specified and important news will be available in this website, daily for updates I will follow you guys

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