Use It and/or Lose It

February 7, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nearly $4 million dollars – $3.8 million to be precise. That’s the current bid for the virginity of a 22-year-old who goes by the nom de vierge Natalie Dylan. She was also recently offered a live tiger in exchange for the obviously precious commodity. (It’s a tough choice, I know, but I bet she’ll go with the cash.)

She refers to her auction as “a sociological experiment” (with experiments like this, who needs grants?), and one thing it’s already shown is the different ways it can be construed. Dylan herself styles it as feminist:
the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with men. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism.
Brooke Harrington at Economic Sociology is skeptical. Putting your hymen on e-bay doesn’t subvert or even challenge the patriarchal system, but merely exploits it.

But why is it worth so much?

The evolutionary psychology people have an answer, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Men value female virginity for the same reason they value female chastity and marital fidelity: without those, a man can’t be sure whether it’s really his genes that are being passed on to the next generation.

“Virginity and chastity in pre-menopausal women is fiercely guarded and socially hallowed the world over. Why? To minimise wasted paternal investment.” (Source here.)

The trouble with this idea is that “world over” part isn’t exactly correct. Hunter-gatherers – and that’s what we’ve been for most of the time that our psyches have been evolving on this planet – aren’t much concerned with virginity. That concern is something that arises (and turns into something of an obsession) with the transition to agricultural and pastoral societies. The pastoralist Biblical Hebrews provide an excellent example.
But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die, (Deut. 22: 20-21)
And we thought wedding nights in our society could be problematic.*

The high valuation on virginity seems to be part of a cluster of customs found where we also find high levels of inequality, especially inequality between sexes. Those hunter-gatherers besides not worrying much about virginity are also famously egalitarian. And the industrial societies today that are least concerned with virginity are the more egalitarian ones. Like Finland.

From an article by evolutionary psychologist David Buss.

* I wonder how all those Evangelicals and born-agains – the people who quote Deuteronomy to justify discrimination against homosexuals – I wonder how they react to the lack of virginity of brides in their communities. I haven't heard too may calls for stoning (See my earlier post on Bristol Palin.)

From the blogs I glanced at, Christians seem predictably torn about Natalie Dylan's marketing her virginity. On the one hand, she provides confirmation that virginity still has great value. But they really don’t like a girl actually cashing in that value rather than giving it away.

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