Posted by Jay Livingston
Robin Hanson has a post about “fake virgins” in China – women who have had “hymen restoration” surgery. This surgery, Hanson says, can harm men. As Dave Barry says, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. That’s what he says.
It seems to me many men really do have a strong preference for virginity, and are willing to pay a high price for it in a marriage bargain. This male preference for virgins seems as legitimate as the female preference for high status husbands. So it can do husbands a great harm to deceive them about virginity. [emphasis added]The woman who fakes virginity is no different from a man who presents himself as wealthy when in fact he’s broke.
Imagine a woman [who] married a man in part because of his great job and income, and as soon as she has his first kid he reveals that it was a fake; his parents had paid for a temporary high-status job and big house/car/etc. so she could give them a high quality grandkid. Now that the kid has arrived, husband goes back to being a janitor with a bike and one-room apartment.Hanson’s post got a ton of comments, many arguing that comparing virginity to wealth was ludicrous or worse.
But none of the comments made the point that immediately occurred to me: value is socially constructed. What something is worth depends entirely on what people think it’s worth. The baseball that ARod just hit for his 600th homer is indistinguishable from a baseball that anyone can buy at Sears for $12.99. But the value of the home run ball is far greater – just how much greater, we don’t yet know, but #500 went for $100,000.
The difference in value between real virginity and fake virginity (or no virginity) is like the difference in value between the ARod ball and the Sears ball. Or between a real Cézanne and a perfect copy. One isn’t inherently better than the other; it’s just worth more because people think it’s better.
The value of virginity, at least in our society (and maybe in China too), is much more obviously a matter of social construction. Not everyone agrees on its value, and it doesn’t affect much else in our lives. But in some societies, the value of female virginity has the same kind of reality that money has. The consensus is so unanimous that it’s impossible for people to see it as constructed. It seems entirely external to them. In those societies, virginity is also a central aspect of marriage, family, and gender roles.
For those societies, Hanson’s idea about harm may well be accurate. When there’s that much consensus, when everyone thinks that virginity is a treasure, then it really is a treasure, just like the ARod ball or the real Cézanne. The man who gets a fake can suffer harm, just like the person who buys the fake ball or the forged Cézanne.
Of course, in all cases, the deal harms the buyer only if he knows he got a fake, and the harm he suffers is greater if other people too know that it was a fake – more evidence for the idea that value is a social construction.
* . . . and which is by Joe Spooner.