Skip to content

Virgin Territory in the “Space-Off”: How Technologies of Revirginization Reinforce Gender Dichotomies


Recently, a 22 year-old woman named Natalie Dylan garnered media attention by auctioning her virginity through the Moonlight Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada. Dylan, who identifies as a feminist, is working on a master’s thesis with her sister on “the dichotomous nature between virginity and prostitution.” Dylan’s media attention included a telling interview on Tyra Banks’ talk show which revealed several facets of the conception of virginity in the United States. Banks simultaneously expressed disbelief that Dylan, 22, was still a virgin -saying that she didn’t “look like” one- and disgust that she might be willing to give up such a precious thing to someone she had never met, someone who Tyra suggested might be old or unattractive. The idea that there is such a thing as “looking like a virgin” is a construction of performative technological tools such as makeup and fashion. Because Dylan wore a low-cut top, high heels, and make up, she was not seen to be a virgin. The bids on her auction, which were reported to be up to 3.8 million dollars, reveal the fetishization of virginity. Reinforced by television and filmic technologies, pop culture in the United States defines the loss of virginity as the first act of heterosexual, penetrative sex. And the force of consequence is generally placed on heterosexual, cissexual women, for whom this act is considered momentous and often traumatic.


After hearing about Natalie Dylan, and reading the New York Times article, “In Europe, Debate over Islam and Virginity,” I became interested in the very concept of virginity, something I always took for granted as a solid fact of sexuality and sexual activity. Like gender and race, everyone seems to agree that such a thing as “virginity” exists, that it is important, and that the loss of it is, at least for women, life-changing. But no one can offer a real definition. If hymenoplasty can be used to surgically “restore,” virginity, what exactly does it mean to be a virgin? What technologies reinforce this meaning? Why is it different for men and women? The tension between the anatomical and the pop cultural definitions, constructed by differing technologies, reveals the fundamental cracks in the basis of the argument for virginity as a sacred or even solid state of being. Furthermore, the ability of LGBTQ people to reinterpret virginity to fit their own sexual orientation further destroys the concept. Lesbians and gay men who never engage in penetrative heterosexual sex do not remain virgins for life because their personal conception of virginity deviates from that created by dominant social technologies. What does it mean to “lose” one’s virginity, or to “take” some else’s? Once it’s gone, can you get it back? If you can regain it, why is its loss so profound? I came to realize that a lot of the norms in our society, like those around gender, are based on a concept which is hard to quantify and even harder to define.


In her dissertation, “Virgin Territories: The Social Construction of Virginity Loss in the Contemporary Unites States,” Laura M. Carpenter describes the socially constructed nature of virginity, stating that “although virginity loss is widely perceived as the signal act through which people become sexually active, the meaning of that act and the ways individuals experience it vary widely” (Carpenter 2). Similarly, in her book “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women,” Jessica Valenti states that “Any way you cut it, virginity is just too subjective to pretend we can define it,” adding that it is the “inextricable relationships between sexual purity and women- how we’re either virgins or not virgins- that makes the very concept of virginity so dangerous and so necessary to do away with” (21). This doing “away with” the concept of virginity is perhaps even harder to describe than the meaning of virginity itself. How would we go about doing this? What technologies would play a role in this process? What would a society without virgins look like? First, it is necessary to consider the basis for the value placed on virginity, and the symbolism which it holds today.


All discussion of virginity in the context of the modern United States, Europe, and many other parts of the world must naturally contend with the influence of religion upon its construction. It is obviously impossible to ignore the connection between the value placed on virginity, female virginity especially, and the role of virgin birth and the idolization of the Virgin Mary in Judeo-Christian and Islamic thought. The emphasis on Mary’s purity and motherhood is linked to her piety, passivity, and submission to god. Her continual idolization, together with the media and societal obsession with virginity, and political and economic technologies which promote a certain image of womanhood, is part of a societal whammy which Valenti argues ensures “that young women’s perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies,” and “their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality” (9). Undoubtedly, across most of the world virginity exists as a force for traditional gender norms and the commodification of women’s sexuality, whether or not it has any real basis in theology. Valenti quotes Hanne Blank from her book “Virgin: The Untouched History,” arguing that “historical interest in virginity is about establishing paternity,” and is “deeply entrenched in patriarchy and male ownership” (Valenti 22). Like Mary, women are expected to submit to god, father, and husband and remain pure until marriage. Natalie Dylan is actively participating in the perpetuation of virginity as a product of male ownership, by literally auctioning off her virginity. The women in the New York Times article who undergo hymenoplasty to please their religiously conservative Muslim families are participating in several technological processes- economic commodification, surgical transformation, and performative sexuality.


Valenti’s issues with the social construction of virginity are deeply tied to politics and largely concerned with what she calls, the “virginity movement,” described as an organized movement with


“conservatives and evangelical Christians at the helm, and our government, school systems, and social institutions taking orders. Composed of antifeminist think thanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and Concerned Women for America; abstinence-only “educators” and organizations; religious leaders; and legislators with regressive social values,” (23).


This “virginity movement,” concerned as it is with conservative social values, promotes definitions of virginity which are inherently sexist, racist, and classist in addition to simply being unrealistic. While claiming to be the arbiters of morality in modern American society, their parameters for acceptable sexual activity are dangerously narrow and tied to the continual oppositional definition of gender as an either/or process. They use governmental technologies to assert control over sexuality and gender. Valenti cites various examples of legislative measures attempting to control female sexuality, including laws to deny unmarried women (who, in the eyes of the movement, must naturally be virgins) the right to use reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization. The general attitude is that the government must be involved in controlling and protecting women from their own sexuality and the sexuality of men, who cannot be trusted around them. This attitude is clear in South Dakota Republican Bill Napoli’s description of his support for a statewide total abortion ban, in which he explained when an abortion would be permissible:


“A real life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possible make it, and is impregnated” (121).


This image is violent, and disturbing. It negates the experiences of rape survivors who are not virgins (whatever that means), are not religious, and did not plan on saving their virginity for marriage. Napoli’s description is the ideal virgin in the eyes of the “virginity movement.” She is “young, white, and skinny…a cheerleader, a baby sitter…accessible and eager to please,” and she must be protected, preferably by the government. “She’s never a woman of color. She’s never a low-income girl or a fat girl. She’s never disabled” (30). You may add to this list: she is never a non-Christian, never a transgendered person, never a lesbian, bisexual, or queer woman. And she is never, ever a man.


Laura Carpenter states that women are most likely to view virginity as a “gift,” and men as a “stigma” (vi). In fact, the Wall Street Journal article “Virgin Territory: U.S. Women Seek A Second First Time,” quotes a 40 year-old medical assistant as saying that a hymenoplasty is “the ultimate gift for the man who has everything.” The owner of a spa that offers the surgery characterizes the loss of virginity as akin to “losing a member of your family,” adding that “We can make it seem like nothing ever happened.” The differing gendered views of virginity have been changed slightly more recently, with women who remain virgins longer than the norm (whatever that may be) receiving the same treatment as men. In other words, they are seen as being slightly abnormal, or having something wrong with them (a la Natalie Dylan) which would prevent them from being sexually attractive enough to lose their virginity with the proper swiftness. But the dominant idea remains that for women, their virginity is something to be protected, and for men theirs is something to get rid of as soon as possible, in order to prove a kind of masculine sexual virility. Furthermore, a man could easily “pass” as a virgin in the dominant heterosexual definition of the term without the aid of any technologies. In this way, virginity as a concept is deployed in the service of perpetuating patriarchal concepts of male conquest and seizure and feminine loss and lack.


Surgical technologies, like hymenoplasty, which use the faulty characterization of virginity as anatomical, are interestingly scrutinized both by feminists and by members of Valenti’s “virginity movement.” Because the basis of the movement is Protestant Christian theology, beyond preaching abstinence until marriage the promotion of born-again virginity as a concept is common. This allows people to undergo a kind of baptismal experience in which they become virgins once more in the eyes of god. This revirginization is (supposedly, although it is more often proclaimed in front of a large group of people at a purity ball, or by wearing a ring or signing a pledge) personal and spiritual, and generally involves no surgical alteration to the body. Technologies such as hymenoplasty and the “Artificial Virginity Hymen” kit marketed by Gigimo, together with the evangelical idea of born-again virginity, de-construct the idea of virginity by making it harder to define exactly what it means to be a virgin. They allow (to use terminology employed in class discussion surrounding transgender issues, race, and gender in general), either physically or spiritually, people to “pass” as virgins. And the ability to “pass” implies the malleability of labels to start with.


Undoubtedly, both reconstructed and born-again virgins participate in the deconstruction of such a traditional role and yet still adhere to it. In a sense, they can have it both ways. Just as transgender and genderqueer people challenge the established categories of gender, reconstructed virgins challenge the established categories of the anatomical and emotional nature of sexual acts, the idea that there is a proper or normal way in which to be a sexual being. However, born-again virginity and surgical reconstruction of virginity are both targeted most forcefully towards heterosexual women. The need for the existence of such reconstructive technologies, both physically and spiritually, is complicit in the perpetuation of gender as dichotomous. While both can be used to appease conservative family members or possible romantic partners, surgical reconstruction in the United States has a reputation for generally being used by older women to please their husbands by returning to a younger (more “normal”) state of being.


This obsession with youth and normality is wrapped up in what psychologist and sex therapist Laurie Betito, quoted by Valenti, calls, “the pathologizing of changes associated with age,” creating “a surgical esthetic,” (74). In other words, in order to fit into the aforementioned stereotype of the “ideal,” virgin (young, skinny, blonde, eager to please etc.) women use surgical tools to return to what they see as a “normal” vaginal type, regarding the natural aging of the body as something to be deconstructed and fixed. Valenti notes, most fascinatingly, that when “this surgery is performed on women in Africa, we call it female genital mutilation, but in the oh-so-enlightened United States, we call them designer vaginas. You know, because American women are empowered” (74). Along with Victoria M. Bañales’ assertion in her article “ ‘The Face Value of Dreams’: Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery,” that cosmetic surgery serves as a modern stand in for eugenics, offering an “alternative and acceptable medical method of “cleansing” and “purifying” racial/ethnic phenotype” (138), the generally condescendingly sympathetic or disapproving media coverage of Muslim women undergoing hymenoplasties is comparable to Bañales’ description of the differences between American media coverage of cosmetic surgery in South America and the tabloid coverage of Paula Jones’ nose job. American women who undergo hymenoplasties as Valentine’s Day or anniversary presents for their husbands are generally depicted as just another example of modern technological advancement available for the upwardly mobile, in contrast with the coverage of hymenoplasty elsewhere in the world as a social and political issue. In terms of the “virginity movement,” Valenti remarked in an interview with that


“there is certainly an abstinence movement in communities of color and purity advocates who are people of color- but they’re not really shown in the mainstream abstinence movement. What do you see in the media? You see purity balls and “perfect virgins.” What you’re also much more likely to see is the white leadership of purity organizations holding up young white women as examples of perfect virgins….When you do see abstinence being targeted at young women of color, there’s not the same kind of talk of purity- it’s more about targeting a group of women that the movement has already focused on as “troubled,” and already-sexual.”


Additionally, because the surgeries covered in American newspapers and magazines are mostly undergone by married women, there is the implication that these women were virgins when they married their husbands and this makes the surgery more trivial and less of a purity issue. Vaginal surgery and revirginization are revealed to be both tools of sexual, gender, racial, and ethno-political purity and privilege.


These technologies of revirginization are supposedly, together with abstinence only education and purity balls, in opposition to the technologies of exploitation available to young American women: the porn industry, prostitution, sex trafficking, and the hyper-sexualization of young girls in the media and pop culture. However, these technologies of exploitation and the various revirginization methods have more in common than their dissimilar proponents might like to admit. Valenti notes that “The Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute…says on its website that “many women bring us magazines such as Playboy” to show the doctor the aesthetic they’re looking for. “Normalcy” is…defined by porn magazines and movies that feature young girls and uniform-looking vulvae” (74). Outside of this obvious connection, both purity technologies place the definition of self and worth on sexuality and sexual activity. Young women generally attend purity balls with their fathers, to whom they pledge to stay pure. This is a blatant and vaguely disturbing example of patriarchal notions of women’s sexuality as sacred and the commodification of women’s sexuality as the property of her father, husband, and god. Unsurprisingly, mothers are not asked to safeguard their son’s purity. Instead of characterizing girls and women by what they are doing, technologies of abstinence and revirginization canonize them for what they don’t do. Either way, women (and, by extension, everyone is society) are subjected to incredibly unrealistic sexual expectations and the continuing definition of womanhood by what Valenti calls “the ethics of passivity” (25).


Ultimately, this emphasis on sexuality as a marker of self harms everyone. It pigeonholes both men and women into traditional roles which deny knowledge, pleasure, and experimentation as a measure of sexuality and sexual fulfillment and keep everyone in the dark about various issues of health and wellbeing, regardless of how a person identifies. Abstinence-only education has been proved over and over to be ineffective in preventing disease and pregnancy among teens. Likewise, the hyper-sexualization in the media does not place emphasis on female sexual pleasure but instead on male pleasure through the spectacle of female performative and heteronormative sexuality. The problem of “virginity” reveals the fundamental problems with purity discourse of any kind. Possible interventions into what Valenti’s interviewer on Jezebel calls the “Virginity Industrial Complex,” contend with the same problems that feminists and anti-racists contend with in all interventions against oppression. Teresa deLauretis’ describes, in “The Technology of Gender” (1987), the very fundamental problems with attempting to intervene against purity discourse when all society is systematically based on and supportive of such discourse:


“the discrepancy, the tension, and the constant slippage between Woman as representation, as the object and the very condition of representation, and, on the other hand, women as historical beings, subjects of “real relations,” motivated and sustained by a logical contradiction in our culture and an irreconcilable one: women are both inside and outside gender, at once within and without representation….such is the contradiction that feminist theory must be built on, and its very condition of possibility” (10).


Her recommendation for intervening is to find the “ ‘space-off’…the space not visible in the frame but inferable from what the frame makes visible…The subject of feminism is en-gendered there. That is to say, elsewhere” (26). But where is elsewhere? Where is the world without virgins and how do we get there? The inability to choose something outside the dichotomy of virgin or whore is akin to Judy Wajcman’s frustration in “The Cyborg Solution,” with the inability to choose outside the dichotomy of “the cyborg solution and the goddess solution, ‘between a holistic, tree-identified, essentialist utopian feminist and a technologically savvy, cyber-identified anti-essentialist survivalism’?” (100).


Proper interventions into essentialist discourses on virginity and female sexuality would consist of the elimination of federal funding for abstinence-only education and organizations which hold purity balls that perpetuate “The Virginity Industrial Complex.” It is imperative to call publicly for the discontinuation of the practice of canonizing female celebrities who identify as virgins and then the slut-shaming of them when naked pictures surface on the internet or ex-boyfriends beg to differ. It is likewise necessary to call shenanigans on conservative politicians who claim that “emergency contraception of the HPV vaccine will make girls promiscuous” (Valenti 11) and “virginity movement” proponents whose catalogues sell shirts emblazoned with “VIRGINS ARE HOT” and “I’M TIGHT LIKE SPANDEX” (Valenti 13). Hypocrisy and double-standards are, incidentally, not hot.


Sex-education (which should be compulsory) for both girls and boys should place the highest emphasis on the importance of emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological health regardless of gender identification, sexual orientation or activity, or religious affiliation. A world in which people are taught that sexuality is not only not something to be afraid of but also not an all-encompassing marker of personal worth is a world in which the normal changes that come with age are not seen as pathologies which need to be fixed with surgery. Obviously, the fact that religion is at the root of much of these revirginization technologies and the perpetuation of such harmful stereotypes to begin with is tough to deal with, because faith is an important facet of many people’s lives and not something to be easily pushed aside or denigrated. Ultimately, however, the American government is not responsible for the religious lives of its people but for their general health and well-being. I was personally subjected to both an ill-advised and school-endorsed abstinence curriculum in my 10th grade health class- taught by employees of a pregnancy crisis center (the kind that shows women graphic pictures of dead babies when they try to get an abortion)- and a sexuality and lifestyle curriculum with my Unitarian Church group in the 8th grade. I can vouch for the effectiveness of sex education (offered by a faith-based community, no less) that emphasizes personal well-being and knowledge of all the options over scare tactics and purity myths.


Valenti, in her chapter called “Post-Virgin World,” offers up blogging as a technological tool for getting involved in media and affecting change. She describes how “ten years ago, if a woman wanted to be a prominent feminist voice, she had to be part of an elite national organization based in New York City or Washington, D.C. Now all she needs is a laptop!” (205). She also recommends paying attention to legislation and policy and speaking out against legislation which unfairly polices women’s sexuality and agency, citing the example of “a Virginia lawmaker named John Cosgrove,” who, in 2005,


“proposed a bill requiring women who miscarry to either report the miscarriage to a local law enforcement agency or go to jail for failure to report a death…Word of the bill spread through the blogosphere, and the outcry was so intense that he withdrew the bill within weeks- and he actually credited blogs as the reason why he retracted it” (208).


Such examples are heartening and serve to counteract arguments that blogging does not constitute real activism and that bloggers are amateurs who pontificate concerning issues about which they have no real expertise or knowledge. Certainly, on the internet the standard of “expertise” is lower than in an academic or governmental setting, but it allows for an interrogation and undermining of traditional ideas about authority which is useful politically and ideologically. Writing and speaking out against virginity and purity obsession and the harmful consequences of such is not writing and speaking out against technology in general, but about working to tear down the either/or and everything/nothing nature of both gender, technological, and purity discourse. It is about destroying, with relish, the traditional conception of technology as masculine or feminine, public or private, important or trivial. It is about acknowledging, and empowering others to acknowledge, that discourses of purity in all forms are necessarily essentialist, totalitarian, immaterial, and ineffective.




Works Cited


Anna. “The Purity Myth’s Jessica Valenti Talks Virginity, Weddings & Miss California.” Weblog post. Jezebel. 12 May 2009. 13 May 2009 <–miss-california?skyline=true&s=i>.


Bañales, Victoria. “The Face Value of Dreams”: Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery.” Beyond the Frame: Women of color and Visual Representation. Ed. Neferti X.M. Tadiar and Angela Y. Davis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 131-152.


Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008.


Carpenter, Laura M. Virgin Territories: The Social Construction of Virginity Loss in the Contemporary United States. Diss. University of Pennsylvania, 1999.


deLauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Indiana University, 1987. 1-30.


Hortense. “Like an Artifical Virgin.” Weblog post. Jezebel. 10 Jan. 2009. 12 Feb. 2009 <>.


Sciolino, Elaine, and Souad Mekhnnet. “In Europe, Debate over Islam and Virginity.” The New York Times 11 June 2008.


Staff Writer. “Virgin Territory: U.S. Women Seek A Second First Time.” Wall Street Journal 15 Dec. 2005. Aguirre Speciality Care. 13 May 2009 <>.


Tracie. “Tyra: Woman Auctioning Off Her Virginity Says It Is A Feminist Act.” Weblog post. Jezebel. 3 Nov. 2008. 12 Feb. 2009 <>.


Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. New York: Seal P, 2009.


Wajcman, Judy. “The Cyborg Solution.” Technofeminism. Cambridge, U.K: Polity, 2004. pp. 78-101.