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The Value of Virginity:
A Historical Analysis of Gendered Valuation and
Commodification of Sexual Purity in America

Mikayla Findlay

Sex and Sexuality in American History
Professor Carolyn Herbst Lewis
Spring 2014

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The issues of when, how, and with who peoples‟ first sexual encounters take place have
been in question as long as people having been having sex. The concept of virginity as a
component of sexuality is inescapable despite its complete lack of corporeality. In the opening of
her book entitled Virgin: The Untouched History, historian Hanne Blank notes “by any material
reckoning, virginity does not exist. It can‟t be weighed on a scale, sniffed out like a truffle or a
smuggled bundle of cocaine, retrieved form the lost-and-found, or photographed for posterity.”

Like many socially constructed ideas, virginity‟s intangibility does not invalidate its very real
consequences. Virginity and its association with sexual purity have become commodities within
the greater sexual market of society. The value associated with the first sexual act of both men
and women are contingent on the then-current social landscapes they take place in. It is a
common thread throughout American history that women‟s virginity is an asset with high social
value whereas men‟s virginity is a valueless stigma. These attitudes reflect the larger theme of a
sexual double standard which grants men have more sexual freedoms and systematically
subordinates women.
In this project of tracking the valuation of various groups‟ virginities through American
history, it is important acknowledge the socially constructed nature of virginity as a tradable
commodity. Sharon Pateman‟s 1988 book The Sexual Contract, integrates theory of property in
the person into the larger context of the social contract model. Pateman is concerned with the
commodification and subsequent exploitation of the sexual property that individuals have
intrinsically within their bodies. “Exploitation is possible precisely because…contracts about
property in the person place right of command in the hands of one party to the contract.”
bodily property of women, including their sexual purity, is systematically controlled by men.

Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York, Bloomsbury USA, 2007), 3.
Carole Pateman, The Sexual Conract (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1988), 8.
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Pateman also contrasts this sexual manipulation with the ideal of autonomy typically insured by
a contract. “The social contract is a story of freedom; the sexual contract is a story of
subjugation…The original pact is a sexual as well as a social contract: it is sexual in the sense of
patriarchal – that is, he contract establishes men‟s political right over women – and also sexual in
the sense of establishing orderly access by men to women‟s bodies.”
The sexual domination of
female bodies by men is one way in which women‟s purity is enforced and men‟s overlooked.
Unravelling the meaning of virginity is key to understanding its social value as bodily
property within the sexual contract. There is no universal definition of virginity or sex, even
within the field of medicine. American psychological studies show that even today what
constitutes virginity varies widely.
In compliance with the sexual contract, notions of virginity
normalize certain sexual acts while rendering anything outside of those bounds invalid. Virginity
most frequently refers to a lack of vaginal penetration by a penis, a heteronormative concept.
Carolyn Lewis describes the academic notion of heteronormativity as “the notion that the gender
and sexual performances of heterosexuality constitute the only legitimate expression of self,
desire, and identity.”
The definition of sex as penetrative inherently delegitimizes sexual
behavior with forms of sexual expression. Lewis goes on to stress the consequences of this
legitimization. “Moreover, the institutionalization of heteronormativity ensures that
heterosexuality and its corresponding gender expectations form the basis of the social, political,
and economic order.” Embedded in sexual norms is the gendered supposition that women are
passive receptors and men must play the active role. Such erroneous assumptions effect the
development of history and hinder meaningful social progress toward gender equality.

Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract, 2.
Lauren Cox, “Study: Adults Can't Agree What 'Sex' Means” (ABC News Network, March 8
, 2010).
Carolyn Herbst Lewis, Prescription for Heterosexuality (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
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Another assumption that effects how virginity has been value is the idea that it is
fundamentally female. The word virgin is feminine in etymological origin. According to the
Oxford English Dictionary, the word virginity derives from the Latin term “virago” which is
used to describe a woman who demonstrates exemplary characteristics.
Another way virginity is
gendered its speculative location within the female anatomy. Over emphasis on the hymen, a
vaginal membrane, results in an inaccurate, gendered physicalization of virginity. “Despite the
fact that a virginity/hymen connection is not absolute, women are desperate to have a physical
indicator of virginity.”
Inconclusive anatomical science is used to reinforce the notion of
virginity as a characteristically female phenomenon because there is no male equivalent to the
hymen. The physicality of virginity is also present it the capitalist conceptualizations that are
associated with the term. The idea that one can “lose” their virginity or “save” it until marriage
parallels monetary vocabulary. Expressions such as to keep and to lose one‟s virginity entered
the English language around 1390.
While these expressions can be applied to both genders, the
implication of tangible realness specifically applies to the female hymen which has no male
The concept of female virginity as a valuable asset in the social-sexual market is
pervasive in American culture. Its origins are rooted in Western-European ideas of sexuality that
were brought to the new world during English colonization and have changed over time,
adapting with the country and its people. The history of male virginity, though similarly based,
exhibits reversed valuation. The historical context and development of double standards of
gender predispose the interpretation of the virgin standard.

Laura M. Carpenter, Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrate of First Sexual Experiences (New York: New York
University Press, 2005), 18-19.
Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal
Press, 2009), 75.
Carpenter, Virginity Lost, 19.
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Religion was entrenched in nearly every aspect of precolonial American life.
Understandings of sexuality were highly influenced by Protestant Christianity that brought
settlers to the America in search of freedom from religious persecution. Refraining from sex and
maintenance of chastity were notably virtuous behaviors. Various biblical verses stress the
importance of chastity for both sexes, but emphasize women‟s virginity especially. Leviticus 21:
13-14 states the following imperative for a Christian man; “He shall take a wife in her virginity.
A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is profaned by harlotry, these he may not take; but
rather he is to marry a virgin...” Similarly, in Isaiah 62: 5, it is said that God “will rejoice over
you” as “the bridegroom rejoices over the [virgin] bride,”
explicitly condoning the preferential
treatment of the pure woman who had not been tainted through sexual contact. The predilection
of Christian men in choosing virgin women as wives highlights how men have systematically
controlled and manipulated female sexuality and commodified the bodies of women.
One particular Christian allegory had an immense bearing on the position of women
within early American society. The creation myth, the symbolic narrative explaining the origins
of the world shared by all Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is one of the
most well-known and influential stories in the Western world. The narrative describes God‟s
creation of man and then woman from man‟s rib. This is significant due to the use of the myth to
justify patriarchal claims to women‟s bodies both as property and as less venerated entities.
According to the bible, the first human couple, known as Adam and Eve, are allowed to live in
the utopic Garden of Eden and granted dominion over the earth by God. Eve, as the original
sinner, submits herself to the temptations of Satan in the form of a serpent and disobeys God by
eating the forbidden fruit and convincing Adam to go along with her. Resultantly, humanity fell

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from the grace of God, banned from the garden, and doomed to mortality. According to the Jude-
Christian mythology, woman is unquestionably the downfall of all of mankind.
This mythical foundation has been much of the justification for gender prejudice in the
early Western world. Tertullian, a prolific author of early Christianity and “founder of Western
Theology,” expresses the following sentiment about the inherent sinfulness of women based on
the creation myth in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, which was widely reproduced in early America.
“You are the devil‟s gateway: You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree: You are the first
deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant
enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God‟s image, man.”
Negativity surrounding women
in religious contexts legitimated female inferiority and thus the need for male dominance.
The trope of the „Fallen Women,‟ used to describe a female who lost her innocence as
Eve did in the Garden of Eden, has become indivisible with the loss of sexual purity. Its use was
an expression of the religious belief the only acceptable area for a woman to express sexual
desire is within the confines of a marriage where she is under the supervision and care of an
authoritative man. The metaphor of women „falling‟ from divine graces because of sexual
activity is common even in personal musings of early American women. The night before her
marriage, Sarah Connell of Portland, Maine lamented to her diary about the unfortunate
seduction and resultant downfall of women who had “fallen victim to the baseness of those who
call themselves lords of the Creation.”
This all too common use of symbolism rejects female
sexual agency and reinforces the commodification of virginity by assuming victimhood and
sexual robbery at the hands of men. The focus on protecting female virginity in order to prevent

Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature
Company, 1886), Vol. IV, 14.
Sarah Connell to Susan Kittredge, Diary of Sarah Connell Ayer, March 13, 1810 (Portland ME: n. p., 1910), 372-73.
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their metaphorical downfall creates an unattainable cultural ideal of women as both chaste and
sexually available to men for the purpose of reproduction.
In some ways, these contradictory standards created opportunities for women that were
previously unavailable. According to a mid-twentieth century sociological review of “the
Relative Social and Cultural Integration of American Sexual Standards,” the ascendancy of
Christian principles allowed women limited mobility to gain social capital by controlling their
sexuality. “It is known that, in some respects, the status of women under Christianity reached
depths never before approached…The women that was not a temptress could perform a
respectable role in Christian Society.”
As long as women obeyed Christian sexual law,
specifically by maintaining their virginity until honestly married in the eyes of God, they could
hypothetically be worthy persons in society.
Other stories within the Christian tradition reinforce virgin romanticism and
demonization of female sexuality. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the archetypal virgin who
conceived by the will of God and the Holy Spirit. She is one of the most honored women in the
Christian tradition. Contrastingly, Mary Magdalene, another important biblical woman, is
condemned for her sexuality and labeled an adultress though there are no references that directly
indicate this in the New Testament.
While these two women both hold weighty places in
Christian ideology because of their sexual status, the former has honor while the latter does not.
This religious binary is characteristic of pre-modern, colonial female sexuality.
Contrastingly, the religious significance of the virginity of men is not nearly as
underscored as that of women. There are no biblical imperatives that men must be virgins when
they marry nor that women gained grace from God for choosing virgin men. While texts imply

Ira L. Reiss, Premarital Sexual Standards in America (Glencoe, IL, The Free Press, 1960), 52.
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that men should not indulge in carnal pleasures such as adultery, the value of their sexual
abstinence is negligible in comparison with the import of female pureness. Another early
Western theologian, Saint Augustine, typifies the Christian approach to male sexuality in the
following prayer; “Give me chastity and continence, but not just now.”
This exemplifies the
historical disinterest of Christian men regarding the practice of abstinence. Unlike women, men
did not face social ostracization or demeaning labels because of their sexual participation. The
lack of regulation and consequences surrounding male sexuality reflects the perceived
worthlessness and lack of value of male virginity in early America. Gender stereotypes that
originate from religious mythology supported a double standard of sexual morality that
necessitated inflexibility for women and laxity toward men.
In spite of this strict moral code, other less didactic influences such as simple
demographics effected sexual value. In early America, settlement composition often affected the
enforceability of virgin standards amongst colonial women. Areas like the Chesapeake, where
there was a shortage of sexually available women, became zones in which women had more
power and could negotiate second or even third marriages regardless of their purity status. In
areas where the gender divide was more even such New England, it was easier for communities
to enforce regulations. “Single women in the southern colonies were in such high demand as
wives that they may have been less concerned about guarding their virginity than woman in
England or the Puritan settlements.”
This example of colonial marriage patterns shows how the
value of virginity varies based on the practical circumstances surrounding the matter. A society‟s
need to reproduce outweighs its preoccupation with venerating purity.

Augustine, The confessions, trans. J. Gibb and W. Montgomery (New York: Garland, 1980), XIII.7.
John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper
and Row Publishers, 1988), 11.
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During the late 18
century, a decrease in formal control of church and state led to more
opportunities for sexual exploration and social backlash against these transgressions. A thirteen
percent increase of the premarital pregnancy rate from 1760 to 1800 proves that more people
experimented with unsanctioned promiscuity. The drop in the quantity of pure women linked
with the relaxation of regulation of sexuality led to an increase in virginity‟s value. Purity was an
increasing rarity and those who possessed it gained precious social capital. Contrastingly, women
who were not virgins prior to marriage risked far more than their male counterparts and were
significantly more vulnerable than early American women.
Because of the social climate,
women were still economically dependent on men and thus faced rising pressure to conform to
social standards that would ensure their livelihood.
Using an example of popular literature, it is clear to see she shift away from formal,
institutional policing of sexuality to more familiar forms of interpersonal, social control. Susanna
Rowson‟s 1794 novel entitled Charlotte Temple
demonstrates the value of virginity in a society
with increasing social anxiety about sexuality. In the book, the title character, white fifteen-year-
old Charlotte Temple, is seduced by an American Lieutenant and convinced to leave England
with him based on the promise of marriage. After her subsequent impregnation, the man
abandons her. Later, as a sickly predestitute, Charlotte regretfully describes her lost virginity as
“the only gem that could render me respectable in the eye of the world.”
This cautionary tale
instructing women to avoid temptation and remain chaste was the essential narrative of
nineteenth century sexuality. The novel ends with explicit advice to the intended female reader to
„protect themselves.‟ In a later analysis of the book and its cultural impact, Carpenter notes
“many concluded, Like Rowson, that women could be best protected not by merely restraining

Carpenter, Virginity Lost, 22.
Susanna Haswell Rowson, Charlotte Temple (Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Rowson, Charlotte Temple, 80.
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their sexual passions but by actually lacking them all together.”
This new goal of ridding
oneself of all sexual impulse resonated strongly in America. Complete purity through virginity
became the ultimate goal as it signified total lack of sexual desire.
In her 1978 article, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology,
1790-1850,” Nancy Cott investigates the emergence and subsequent dominance of the
passionless female ideal.
She examines how early understandings of female sexuality as
insatiable and licentious underwent a reversal in the Victorian era. The ideal woman was
essentially asexual apart from marital want strictly for the purpose of procreation. Classifying
women as passionless grants them the guise of morality while simultaneously robbing them of
any sexual capital and mobility they may have had otherwise. Lack of motivation, concerning
sexual desire or otherwise, became characteristic of the emerging Cult of True Womanhood
which upheld the standard of femininity defined as pious, domestic, submissiveness. This
standard prevailed among the upper and middle class Western world during the nineteenth
century as it supported both the patriarchal gender hierarchy that ensured male dominance as
well as overall freedom of choice, so long as women chose to be wholesome virgins.
While a standard of self-control was increasing in social momentum, certain axes of
identity faced barriers to autonomy. The institution of slavery, which was the foundation for
much of the early American economy, commodified the bodies of people of African descent,
creating a radicalized hierarchy in the United States. Slave owners asserted their own sexual
ideology thus slaves lacked any control over their sexuality. Black women were especially
susceptible to sexual regulation of white men. On May 29
of 1851 at a Women‟s Convention in
Akron, Ohio, former slave Sojourner Truth delivered an extemporaneous speech which has since

Carpenter, Virginity Lost, 23.
Nancy F. Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850,” Signs 4, no. 2
(Winter, 1978).
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been titled “Ain‟t I a Woman?”
Though only mentioned briefly by contemporaneous
publications, it has become one of the foremost works on the historical intersection of race and
gender. In her speech, she expresses that white women are exalted; however, her identity as a
black woman has denies her the privilege of femininity. Slave owners habitually sexually abused
female slaves without opposition, as it was as a use of one‟s property rather than an attack of a
person. This dehumanization also occurred when owners interfered with the relationships of their
slaves and, in practice, bred offspring to be high performing laborers. Slavery systematically
devalued the bodies of people of color and kept them from dictating their own sexualities.
The Victorian social idealization of the passionless women restrictively applied to the
white, upper-middle class. Cott‟s study acknowledges the limitations of the standard of female
„passionlessness‟ as it can only apply to “literate, Protestant, middle-class women elsewhere
would require further testing.”
This is important in understanding larger dynamics of power as
it applies to issues of the history of sexuality. The dominant group typically understands their
ideal sexual morality in contrast to the inferior precepts of a minority, such as people of color, as
a means of justifying their superiority.
The virgin paradigm became strategically advantageous
for women who already demonstrated refined gentility and further hurdles to those who did not.
Exclusivity based on sexual status, as in the exaltation of the passionless woman, was one of the
most dominant ways that those in power restricted the privilege.
The white majority applied stereotypes of promiscuity and aggressiveness to blacks in
order to simultaneously legitimate and maintain their socially dominant position. In the South in
particular, whites sought racial domination within pre-established economic systems of
inequality. Martha Hodes reinforces this point in her book White Women, Black Men. “In an

Cott, Passionlessness, 221.
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 35.
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effort to maintain the rigid racial categories of „black‟ and „white‟ that were vital to racial
hierarchy, whites argues as well for the purity of white women in a way that began to cut more
thoroughly across class lines.”
Social dynamics of race had a large impact on how virginal
standards functioned in reality. Generally, the importance of purity reified preexisting models of
oppression rather than subverting them. It is imperative to distinguish that the most dominant
groups benefitted from the principle that virginity is an admirable quality and subordinate groups
that were excluded from the beginning suffered.
The modesty that characterized the early part of the century gave way in the face of rapid
social change of the latter half of the 1800s despite strong resistance. Industrialization and
urbanization initiated a rethinking of the social role of sex and, necessarily, virginity. Increased
privacy and anonymity allowed for more lewd sexual behavior to take place, though the
prevailing beliefs held true. A reprise of Christian morality in the late 19
century led to a call
for reformation against this moral liberation especially in the realm of sexuality. There was a
strong accent on sexual restraint tied to a low tolerance for crime and overall constriction of the
social code. This phenomenon, referenced frequently in primary documents of the Social Purity
Movement, sought to abolish amoral sexual behaviors, including premarital sex and rape.
Under the pretense of preventing sexual perversion, leaders of the Social Purity
Movement demonized all forms of sexuality aiming to decontaminate the country.
primarily by women, the goal was to create a shared utopia that eradicated the sins of the world,
specifically those related to sex and disease. Two common tactics used to fight impurity were
ending prostitution and raising the age of consent. Legislature passed on a state-by-state basis to
outlaw the solicitation of sex for money and disallow youth from consensually engaging in

Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th Century South. (New York and London: Yale
University Press, 1997), 177.
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 205-208.
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sexual behavior. These approaches were meant to protect virgins from losing their pureness and
worth as did Charlotte Temple. Language in laws regarding the age of consent underscore the
tangible value of virginity during this period. In an anonymous article published in September
1888 entitled “Seduction a Felony,” the author compares of the theft of a girl's virginity with the
theft of her money.
This method was a frequently used to make the case for raising the legal
age of consent as monetary theft is a crime but sexual theft, while worse, was not yet illegal.
Another period novel set in contemporary 1889, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
illustrates the overall shift in perceived consequence of illicit female sexual conduct. The story
follows the life of Carrie Meeber who, like many young Americans, moved from rural areas to
quickly growing urban centers.
In desperation, she begins cleaning the home of salesman
Charles Drouet who takes her virginity with the unfulfilled promise of marriage. Much like
Charlotte Temple in Rowson‟s novel, Carrie comes to regret her loss of sexual innocence
representing the stronghold of purity in society. Dissimilarly from Charlotte Temple and
emblematic of a change in attitudes, Sister Carrie ends favorably with the protagonist leaving
her deadbeat, predacious male partner and becoming a successful stage actress. Though both
novels warn of the danger of interacting with predatory men and urge women to protect their
virginity, Dreiser‟s novel shows a crucial shift in the breadth of female worth to incorporate
more than their virgin status, increasing freedoms and a reduction of the gender gap.
Despite this reduction, the disparity between valuations of men‟s and women‟s virginities
remained substantive. The difference highlights the historical gender double standard within
which different sets of principles for similar situations apply to men and women. In his 1959

Melissa J. Doak “Seduction a Felony” Philanthropist, 3 (September, 1888) in How Did Gender And Class Shape
The Age Of Consent Campaign Within The Social Purity Movement, 1886-1914?. (Binghamton, NY, State University
of New York, 2000), 4.
Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie (city: publisher).
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historical analysis entitled “The Double Standard,” Keith Thomas describes the historical effect
of separate regulation on behavior and legal restrictions based on sex.
Women, who were
traditionally disallowed from property rights, were devalued and subordinate to men who
controlled their bodies and determined their value based on an ideal of purity that did not apply
to themselves.
Keith Thomas also notes in his early historiography how women were traditionally
assumed to be the protectors of morality and keep men at a distance, protecting the overall purity
of society, while men are taught to push boundaries and take advantage of any opportunity
presented. Prescriptive literature targeting youth exemplifies the differing expectations for girls
and boys.
Prescriptive manuals for both boys and girls as well as young married couples
engrained prescirptive gender identities into the mind of the nation. Women were expected to
constantly be on the defensive, guarding their feminine passivity, while men offensively assert
their sexual efficacy and masculinity through acts of dominance. The contrasting principles reify
and legitimize social sexual difference.
The gendered double standard was exacerbated with the proliferation of industrial society
and the doctrine of separate spheres.
As the experiences of men and women grew farther apart,
so did their respective roles in sex. Virginal women further became men‟s property, assets and
prizes to be won. Women faced strict expectations to save themselves, assumedly for their
husbands as it was his natural right to possess a pure, untainted woman. While industrialization
led to women tightening their belts, it granted men more liberty to explore sexual opportunity
and rid themselves of the stigma of masculine inexperience associated with virginity. According

Keith Thomas, “The Double Standard,” Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (April 1959): 195-216.
William Lamartine Snyder, The geography of marriage : or, Legal perplexities of wedlock in the United States
(New York: Putnam, 1889).
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 172.
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to early sex surveys, “a sizable minority of men in the late 1800s had paid to lose their virginity
before marriage, though moral decency required that they do so discreetly.”
There was a
general consensus about the immorality of prostitution, however male transgressions were
overlooked in the name of sexual necessity.
Men were presented with conflicting opinions on the need to preserve their virginity.
Sylvester Graham, a late nineteenth century physician, produced a model of overall health that
suggested that men as well as women could benefit economically from sexual restraint.
other popular models of male sexuality maintained the position that men have inherent „sexual
needs‟ that must be fulfilled. “In contrast to the irrevocably „fallen‟ women, young unmarried
men who failed to control their lusts were typically thought amenable to rehabilitation, thanks to
the relative invisibility of their sexual indiscretions (lacking hymeneal blood and potential
pregnancy) and the fact that they were not morally elevated to virgin with.”
The loss of male
virginity was not irreparable in the way it was for women. Unlike their female counterparts, men
had the advantage of condemning their sexual instinct instead of being accountable for their
sexual desires. This was made possible by the lack of anatomical culpability directly associated
with the female hymen. As such, American men at the end of the nineteenth century held a
distinct sexual advantage due to the de-emphasis on their capacity for purity.
Under the guise of sexual necessity, respectable upper-class men of the Victorian era took
advantage of commonly available prostitutes with the glorified justification that they were
protecting the virtue and virginity of the women of their own class. “At a time when male lust
was thought to be natural, the availability of paid consorts, like that of black slaves in the South,

Carpenter, Virginity Lost, 24.
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 68-69.
Kevin J. Mumford, “’Lost Manhood’ found: Male sexual impotence and Victorian culture in the United States” in
American Sexual Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 75-99.
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provided an outlet that protected middle- and upper-class women from unwanted intercourse.”

The pure, passionless female ideal was made possible by the exploitation of sexually
promiscuous women in the name of male satisfaction. The “virgin” and the “fallen women”
could not exist independently of one another.
Industrialization during the late 1800s led to massive foundational changes that effected
power distributions within society. Similar to systems of race-based hierarchies, organizations of
class emerged as a central social order. The economically dominant group purported their
morality through structures that inherently subordinated the experiences of the less fortunate.
Class differences played an important role as working-class persons had fewer disincentives and
more opportunities to indulge sexually.
Historian Victoria Bynum notes the parallels between
the intersection of experiences of race and class in her book Unruly Women. “Poverty
defeminized white women much as race defeminized black women.”
This sentiment is echoed
by Martha Hodes who refers to the role of „illicit‟-ness in the prolonged devaluation of
disenfranchised persons. “Like black women, white women of the lower classes, and especially
those who defied the rules of patriarchy, could not count on ideology about female purity to
absolve them of alleged illicit sexual activity.”
Ideals of femininity did not apply to poor
women, nor could they use them to protect themselves. Members of the non-elite, like black and
poor women, were unable to obtain or preserve sexual value and were unavoidably perceived as
immoral by society at large.
Issues of class were very pervasive during the Social Purity Movement. White middle-
class activists often targeted the lower class as a group that needed to be reformed, assumedly

D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 133.
Carpenter, Virginity Lost, 23.
Victoria E. Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 7.
Hodes, White Women, Black Men, 161.
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due to the impure stereotypes systematically applied to subordinate minorities. However, a lack
of accurate historical records concerning the experience of non-privileged groups makes it
difficult to determine if the practices and beliefs of the lower class differed from that of the
dominant culture.
Though there is little documentation concerning the sexual lives of the lower
class, there is evidence that suggest that they may have valued women‟s virginity for religious
reasons rather than the more popular upper-class concern for protecting familial inheritance.
“Virginity was generally viewed as a temporary stage through which a young girl passed on the
way to chaste marriage. Virginity was a valuable commodity but it had a very limited shelf-
Changing social expectations that increased pressure to have sex at an earlier age, chiefly
among lower classes, resulted in a loosening of moral policing for less elite groups in late
Victorian America.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, American society faced a break with the past
characterized by massive economic and social upheaval. Three major changes challenged the
social valuation of purity and standard virginity. First, urbanization that resulted from capitalist
development through industrialization across most American cities led to increased opportunities
for illicit sexual encounters. By 1920 one out of every two Americans lived in an urban area,
twice as many as did in 1870.
The younger generation began moving out of their parents‟
homes and away from the watchful eyes of family members, creating a physical, private space
for sex to be had.
Young adults, including women, who began to work outside of the family in
the emerging economies including factory work and growing storefronts experienced an overall

D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 85-108.
Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Marina Leslie, Introduction: The epistemology of virginity. In Menacing virgins:
Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. K. C. Kelly and M. Leslie, 15-25 (Newark, DE:
University of Delaware Press, 1999), 21.
"United States Summary: 2010" 2010 Census of Population and Housing, Population and Housing Unit Counts,
CPH-2-5 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), 20–26.
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 188-189.
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increase in privacy and anonymity within the haven of growing cities. Living in urban centers led
to increased personal autonomy and, for the first time ever, the ability to be secretive about
having sex outside of marriage. The increased freedom of independent living created a new
environment within which standards of purity could be questioned and sexuality explored.
The second change was the rise of dating culture. The economic shift also resulted
increased earners wages, creating the potential for pocket money, or excess wealth which could
be budgeted for recreational activities. Dating culture arose from the changing economic
landscape. Increased wages allowed working-class as well as middle- and upper-class youth to
spend on entertainment and leisure.
The introduction of dating culture that emerged with a
consumption-based economy gave men more power within relationships as they earned higher-
wages and typically paid for the dates, commonly referred to „treating‟ a woman. This dynamic
increased the pressure of women to repay these favors. The emerging commercialized,
consumption based economy where men had monetary assets forced women to compensate with
one of the only resources available them – their body. “Embedded within the system of treating
were expectations of sexual exchange – what would a young woman give, sexually, in return for
the favors of a man.”
The dating market that called for women to use their sexuality to
reimburse men arose alongside markets of consumptive entertainment.
It is important to note that this system of dating reciprocity was socially exclusive of
groups that could not fully participate. Dating and the system of treating women “depended upon
surplus income for clothes and entertainment, access to automobiles outside major cities, school
attendance to enforce peer-based norms and sufficient population density to sustain a range of

D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 194-195.
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 197.
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commercialized amusements.”
As such dating culture, like the standards of purity which it put
into question, was a white, middle class ritual that necessarily omitted those outside of the
normative experience.
Understandings of sexual behavior began to be examined in a scientific environment
through emerging surveys conducted on the American populous. One of the most famous sex
researchers, Alfred Kinsey, piloted the field of sexual research through his two studies and
resultant books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human
Female (1953).
One of the most controversial findings of the Kinsey Report was the
recognition of non-marital, non-procreative sexual behavior in women. Kinsey also looked at the
effect of factors such as class, age, and religious affiliation on sexual activity. His findings show
that the ideal virgin women were becoming increasingly rare. There was a distinct rift between
sexual ideology and reality.
The third major change of the modern era was the advent of the birth control pill, which
contributed to the breaking from traditional standards of purity. The introduction of birth control
methods decreased the risk of sexual behavior and revolutionized the perception of the purpose
of intercourse. One of the most substantial disincentives to sexual activity was the potential to
get pregnant which was mediated with regular use of the pill. Without the deterrent of child-
birth, sex became more attractive and less stigmatized, especially to lower class persons who
could not afford to support a family. The subsequent ideological shift toward family planning
and voluntary motherhood allowed for a dissociation of sex and progeny. No longer did women
have to settle down with a husband and secure finances to have a romp around the bed. This
attitude that sex was no longer exclusive to the family was seen as a menace to the pure

D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 258.
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 246-247.
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American standard. In the following quote, Lewis refers to the sexual threat of disassociation.
“When the sex life is associated with marriage, children, and everything that responsible
parenting implies, this not only stabilizes the family but society as well.”
Birth control freed
women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy while supporting a revolutionary lifestyle in which
sex did not necessarily destroy one‟s life, questioning the American standard of female virginity
and abstinence.
The changing norms were reflected in popular literature, as in the case of Charlotte
Temple and Sister Carrie in late eighteenth and nineteenth century America. Two twentieth
century novels depict the moral laxity that accompanied the developments of the modern age.
First, Percy Marks‟ The Plastic Age, published in 1924, describes dating culture and the shifting
sex-lives of young adults.
The protagonist, Hugh Carver, is a sexually inexperienced college
coed at Stanford who feels like he is falling behind as his rich, good-looking roommate loses his
virginity. His peers echo his confused sentiment of not wanting to be pure nor dirty. Hugh then
falls deeply in love with Cynthia Day, a girl with a reputation for promiscuity, who ends the
relationship based on their lack of emotional connectivity. One year later, despite her presumed
loss of virginity to another man, Hugh asks Cynthia for her hand in marriage. She declines,
leaving him heartbroken. By the mid-1920s, the traditional standards of purity and Victorian
model of female passionlessness no longer controlled the sexual lives of the next generation.
Non-virgin women, such as Cynthia, were no longer worthless, labeled unmarriageable, or even
immoral for engaging in sexual activity.
A second twentieth century novel, written after the sexual revolution of that occurred in
the late 1960s, models the change in social perception of sex and virginity. Fiction author Alix

Lewis, Prescription for Heterosexuality, 5.
Percy Marks, The Plastic Age (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1924).
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Kates Shulman‟s 1972 novel, entitled Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, represents modern notions
of sexuality and is known as one of the first literary works of the Women‟s Liberation
The story follows the life of the protagonist Sasha Davis and examines the
contradicting expectations and consequential social pressure during the mid-1900s. Raised in
Baybury Heights, Ohio, Sasha is the most beautiful girl in school who has ambitions to both be
popular and smart. She is sexually molested at a young age, putting her virginity in question,
unlike earlier American novels including The Plastic Age. The story‟s protagonist is also active
in her sexuality, pursuing sexual partners of her own accord and questioning female passivity.
Sasha goes on to college and then grad school where she marries, divorces, marries again, has
kids, and an abortion. Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen represents a growth in popular awareness
about the variety of experience of women. It examines the subjectivity of female experience and
the wide-ranging aspects of identity. The novel shows the life of the new, liberated woman with
control over her sexuality.
The transformation of attitudes surrounding sexuality during modernization did not lead
to a social utopia. Issues of race and class were still very present. During the twentieth century,
non-black minority groups such as Hispanics and Asian-Americans faced sexual restriction.
Cultural traditions of Mexican Americans placed a high value on premarital virginity while also
promoting public dancing between boys and girls.
Hispanic culture places great emphasis on
the role of the family therefore, many dates and pre-marital encounters were chaperoned by elder
family members to ensure wholesomeness and protect their kin. Other communities, like
laboring Asian immigrants, faced large gender discrepancies that meant there were many more
men than women. As a result, women had large incentives to participate in sex work which led to

Alix Kates Shulman, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (Knopf, 1972).
D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 198.
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the conventionalization of the „lotus blossom.‟
Minority groups faced different types of
pressure to conform to sexual standards within their own ethnic groups as well as in the larger
American society.
Though the modernization period opened the door for much progress concerning female
sexuality and lessening the sexual double standard, there is still a continued dominance of virgin-
worship in American culture. In her book entitled, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession
with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, feminist activist Jessica Valenti calls for a
reconstruction of sexuality away from the unreasonable measurement of female worth based
solely on their sexual purity.
She outlines multiple ways in which modern American society
idolizes female virginity. The practice of Purity Balls, attended by fathers and their daughters,
promote defensing girls‟ virginities through the issuing of Virginity Vows, or pledges to remain
abstinent until marriage. In 2006, over 1,400 federally funded Purity Balls took place across the
United States.
In the same vein, it is common among young Christian couples to exchange
„Promise Rings‟ prior to engagement under the pretense that they will save their virginities for
each other. The culture of virgin worship and male ownership of female sexuality, whether it is
by her father or future husband, is made possible by a general lack of sex-positivity. The
persistence of abstinence only sex-education and promises of virginity do nothing to combat
larger sexual problems including sexual health. Valenti cites a 2005 study by the Journal of
Adolescent Health which found that “teenagers who took abstinence-only education classes and
pledged their virginity were not only less likely to use condoms, but also more likely to engage
in oral and anal sex.”
The lack of sex positivity and relentless slut-shaming combine to teach

D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 135.
Valenti, The Purity Myth.
Valenti, The Purity Myth, 217.
Valenti, The Purity Myth, 120.
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American children that penetrative-vaginal sex is immoral and wrong unless it falls within the
restrictive category of marriage. The artificially inflated value of virginity directly leads to a lack
of comprehensive education about other, non-normative forms of sex and contraceptive and
disease prevention options.
Another recent development that confirms the continued predominance of the virgin ideal
is the rise of hymen reconstruction surgery among women. A hymenorrhaphy is the surgical
restoration of the vaginal membrane known as the hymen. Though not considered mainstream
gynecology, it is widely available at private plastic surgery centers across the United States as
well as in Western Europe and South Korea. To the same effect, there are kits marketed toward
women that are designed to simulate the tearing of the hymen through packets of blood which
are placed inside the vagina. The fact that there are markets for women to artificially regain their
virginity represents the continued social dominance of the asset of female virginity.
In summation, the commodification and gender based valuation of sexual purity can be
seen throughout American history. The ideal of female virginity can be traced as far back as the
country itself. Christian tradition that accompanied colonial settlers emphasizes sexual control
for everyone though men had more flexibility due to their dominant social position. Religious
double standards forced women to adhere to strict moral codes as men were free to largely do as
the pleased. The institution of slavery and dehumanization of black bodies granted men an outlet
for their sexual desires. Hypersexualization of the African-American and lower class woman
allowed for the invention of passionless women during the mid-eighteenth century.
During the Victorian era America experienced a moral revival. Campaigns such as the
Social Purity Movement emerged to defend the exclusive moral standard of sexual purity. While
women were busy cleaning the streets, men exploited their theoretical need for sexual

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satisfaction as an excuse to pay for sex from inferiors. The lived experiences of disenfranchised
groups is difficult to determine due to irreparable holes in the historical record.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the American economy underwent massive
reconstruction. Industrialization led to a shift away from rural areas into urban centers. Within
these urban areas, young adults experienced new-found privacy from their parents and were free
to experiment with their sexuality. The economic change also allowed people to budget for
entertainment, thus revolutionizing courtship. The advent of birth control disassociated sex from
reproduction, freeing people from the burden of involuntary parenthood and giving reproductive
control to women who no longer risked the stamp of impurity associated with childbirth.
The systematic overemphasis on female virginity in American society represents a larger
trend of sexual double standards between the two genders. Trends of association highlight these
differences from pre-colonial times to today. Carpenter‟s book accurately summarizes the central
issue of gender difference as it applies to purity in America. “As we have seen, Americans have
historically viewed men‟s virginity as a stigma and woman‟s as a gift – perceptions that
undergird the sexual double standard.”
Both male and female virginities are objectified but
only women‟s seem to matter. This can be accounted for by recognizing how male sexuality has
been taken for granted whereas women faced insurmountable pressure to abstain from sex.
One last conclusion that can be derived from this research relates to structural hierarchies
of power and politics of identity. The idealization of „purity‟ that is based on heteronormative
sexual relations reinforces racial and class-based chains of command by devaluing both the
bodies and experiences of people outside of positions of power. Martha Hodes writes, “the
image of elite White women as paragons of asexual virtue depended on a contrast with the

Carpenter, Virginity Lost, 103.
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purported promiscuity of Black and nonelite White women”
The value of virginity is
contingent upon the historic subordination of women to men, racial minorities to whites, the
lower-class to the elite, and non-normative forms of sex to the heterosexual standard.

Hodes, White Women, Black Men.
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