by Dr Margaret Aranda
The traditional definition of a virgin is a girl or woman who has not had sexual intercourse. Many times, the hymen is still intact. The hymen is a band of membranous tissue inside the vulvar entrance to the vagina. It has to be ‘broken’ for example, during the first session of intercourse, and this can be painful. On her wedding night, display of the white bed sheets’ stained with nuptial blood has been used as ‘proof’ of both virginity and the consummation of marriage, as the hymen was broken (Kelly 2000). Virginity is associated with the color white as a symbol of innocence and purity.
The term ‘virgin’ has been applied to nonsexual concepts as in the ‘virgin’ Margarita, as well as ethical and modern concepts. Some include the definition of virginity to not just mean heterosexual intercourse with penile-vagina penetration, but also to include rape, mutual masturbation, anal sex, and oral sex (Carpenter 2001). In Carpenter’s work, the concept of virginity requires consensual sex, therefore does not ‘count’ rape as a loss of virginity.
In many cultures, loss of virginity before marriage has been viewed as a terrible thing. So much so that in one 2012 interview of a Persian woman I met, she related how her big sister would look “between my legs every time I fell” as a child playing outside. She remembers wondering why the worry about her private parts if she fell down while playing outside. She would fall down and then her sister would check between the legs. “Open your legs!” In the course of time, she would fall again, and her sister would check between her legs again, “Open your legs!” This happened over and over again during her childhood. Only much later, as a young adult, did she realize that the older sister was checking the fallen girl to ensure that she did not lose her virginity.
The concept of virginity bestows social status, judgment, and consequences for interpersonal relationships. It involves moral, cultural, and religious attitudes as well as community acceptance versus rejection and isolation. In extreme cases, family shame vs family honor revolve around sham societies that place a family in a hierarchy of social worth, and ostracism for unacceptable loss of virginity can even result in an honor killing. Virginity can affect whether or not a woman can get married, as in many cultures and tribes, the woman must be a virgin. If the woman lost her hymen due to tampon use or other cause, a surgical repair by hymenoplasty or hymenorrhaphy replaces the hymen with the intent that upon intercourse, the woman will bleed. In this way, she can prove her virginity.
Social norms of expectations lead to legal implications of the age of consent, and at the end of the 18th Century, age of consent laws were beginning to be enacted. Child prostitution had made headlines and sensation, earmarking this as a cause of the times (Stead 1885).
In 1885, The Pall Mall Gazette published The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon I, II, III, and IV. In this expose, W.T. Stead and Antony E. Simpson, Editor, described in lurid detail a shocking depiction of a criminal underground child sex trade that thrived in London.
William Thomas Stead; 1849 - 1912.
The Maiden Tribute began with scheming abductresses and greedy flesh merchants who cajoled unwary young girls to age 13 into prostitution by manipulation and coercion. After entrapping them, they were abducted and “sold” to stinking brothels in London. In at least one case, they purchased them from their mothers for a mere and meager £5. Stead described rooms in London that were designed to withhold the child’s screams from the outer rooms, as they had special padding on the walls. Drugs, sex, and money were traded and used. Reprints were published in London’s Gazette, which underwent torrids of reproductions of these Tributes as they hit international sensation.
Moral panic hit when Stead entitled his works with such gripping titles as “The Violation of Virgins”, “Strapping Girls Down”, and “The Maiden Tribute”. William T. Stead took journalism to an extreme and perhaps hapless level when he took, a reformed prostitute, and simulated what happened with children bought for prostitution.
Government by Journalism was birthed again by Stead, as moral outcry turned to legislative reform. The controversy of The Maiden Tribute, this milestone in modern journalism, caused public outcry. The Maiden was a victim. Literally within a month, The Maiden Tribute led to reformation in the age of consent for girls, pushing it from the age of 13 to 16 years in the United Kingdom. The Criminal Law Amendment Act was implemented. In America, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union then instigated reform, pushing for similar legislation such that by 1920, American lawmakers increased the age of consent to 16 years. In some states, it increased to as high as 18 years of age.
Stead had an agent, Rebecca Jarrett, who was a reformed prostitute. She went into the poor town of Marylebone in order to purchase a child. The goal was to prove the ease with which this could be performed. It was Eliza Armstrong, at 13 years old, who was procured for L5. Subsequently, Eliza passed through the different ‘Stages’ that a child prostitute would have had to go through: “certification” of being a virgin, visitation of a brothel, and drugging by chloroform. After that, Eliza was taken by the Salvation Army to France and Stead used her true story at the end of The Maiden Tribute, as the character of Lily.
Eliza’s mother recognized her daughter’s character in the Gazette, and then claimed that there were false pretenses that Stead used to get her daughter away from her. She also filed charges of indecent assault and child abduction against the accomplices and Stead. On August 21, 1885, Stead gave a speech on the “Maiden Tribute”. In it, he states, “…I am solely responsible for taking Lizzie Armstrong away from her mother’s house.”
Two trials later, Stead was convicted and incarcerated for three months. He had already served time during the judgment, so that he spent two months and a week in prison. He writes of his judgment, and referred to imprisonment as “…it is a feel of stone and iron, hard and cold…” (Stead 1886). At the time of imprisonment, Stead was a father to a five year old girl.
Carpenter, LM. The Ambiguity of Having Sex: The Subjective Experience of Virginity Loss in the United States – Statistical Data Included. United States: The Journal of Sex Research. United States: The Journal of Sex Research. 2001. Retrieved June 5, 2012.
Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. Performing virginity and testing chastity in the Middle Ages. Volume 2 of Routledge research in medieval studies. Psychology Press. P197. 2000.
Stead WT and Simpson AE. The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of the Secret Commission. Pall MallGazette, July 1885. http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/
Stead WT. Speech. Extracted from the Eliza Armstrong Case: Being a Verbatim Report of the Proceedings at Bow Street. Pall Mall Gazette Supplement, October 3, 1885. http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/speech.php
Stead WT. My First Imprisonment: Coldbath-in-the-Fields. E Marlborough & Co, 1886. http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/steadworks/imprisonment.php
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