Watching this show on sex in ancient Egypt–it was that or “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and believe me, there’s no contest–where the speaker claims that, as far as they can determine, there was no concept of virginity in ancient Egypt.

I have no idea if this is true or not, but it’s certainly interesting speculation.

Now, as any anthropology student worth their salt will tell you, “virginity” is a culturally constructed category, and frequently doesn’t have much to do with the intactness of certain membranes in the nether regions. In some cultures, a woman is a virgin until she’s married, and in fact, you can even have a virgin with children in these cases, and nobody bats an eyelash. In others, you’re a virgin until you have a child. (I may die a virgin under this classification. Someone find me a volcano god…) In some cultures where sex is part of the religion, a woman may take part in sexual rituals–there were so many cults of religious prostitutes back in the day, you couldn’t throw a dollar without hitting one–and still be considered a virgin. In fact, insomuch as such a thing is quantifiable, in a number of cultures, “virgins” with children, or who had taken part in such rites, were even MORE virginal, and desirable, than somebody who just hadn’t had sex.

There are some more grim ones, of course–the few cultures that practice the really nasty forms of genital mutilation may tie virginity in to that–i.e. you’re a virgin until they’ve cut the opening bigger. (Some of those, you have to wonder–I’m as culturally relativist as the next person, and generally believe there’s at least a comprehensible cultural context, even if I don’t approve, but you’d have to be some kind of relentless foe of humanity–or at least women–to even concieve of those kinds of complicated, bizarre, ungodly Silence of the freakin’ Lambs sort of tortures. Infibulation isn’t the sort of thing you just spontaneously invent–somebody had to sit down and really think about it. But I digress, and into nasty areas.)

The notion of a culture that has no concept of virginity at all, however, is a little peculiar. I like the idea, myself–the notion that women are much more valuable before they’ve had sex always irked me, and the more you brood on the social mores leading to such beliefs, the more irked you get, until you’re slouched behind your desk silently wondering if parthogenesis would really be all that bad, and that doesn’t really do anybody any good.

Of course, there are no utopias–ancient Egyptians, plagued by high infant mortality, were apparently obsessed with infertility, and failure to have children seemed to carry all the social stigmas that having them outside of marriage does for us these days. And that’d suck far more for me, personally, than our culture’s relatively mild emphasis on virginity (which weighed into my own decisions there for the space of a brief chuckle.)

But still, it’s interesting stuff, and gets me asking those fundamental questions–“What if? How would we be different today? What institutions would not exist, or would now exist?” And those are always good questions to ask now and again.

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