Constructing Value - Virginity, Balls, and Art

August 19, 2010
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.

(One of these balls is not like the other. One of these balls is worth $100K.)

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.

(Click on the image for a larger view and see if you can tell which is the real Cézanne . . .*)

All realities and values are constructed, but some are more constructed than others. The reality of something depends on the degree of consensus and on the other practices and institutions that get built around it. The value of economic wealth seems like rock solid reality because we all agree on the value of money and because it is so central to so many other things we do.

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.


Unknown said...

A website by the name sells the artificial hymen product. They do deliver these artificial virginity kits worldwide

Robin Hanson said...

Wait, your values are "less constructed" that others' values because yours seem "rock solid" to you, you all agree, and they seem "central"? That's it, that's your argument? Surely you can see that others' values will seem to them to have the same sort of features.

Jay Livingston said...

Danny: Thanks for the tip. It would be interesting to see who and where their customers are.

Robin: I wish classes were in session so I could ask my students this question. “Which lie does more harm – a girl telling her fiancé that she’s a virgin, or a guy telling his fiancée that he’s rich?”

I don’t know about GMU students, but I’m pretty sure mine would say that the lie about wealth is far more serious. They would be incredulous that the lie about virginity could do real harm.

So yes, my argument is that the reality of something (e.g., the value of virginity) depends on the degree to which it is institutionalized and agreed upon. I suppose that there are also individual values. Maybe some guy wants to marry a woman whose mother is named Brunhilde, his fiancée assures him that this is indeed her mother’s name, and then the poor schmuck is devastated when he discovers on his wedding night that his mother-in-law is in fact named Denise.
But what if she’d told him the lie that her mother was a Rockefeller and that she was in line for a ton of money come inheritance time?

My argument is not that the value of money (or anything else) is not constructed but rather that its institutionalization makes it seem more real, more solid and less constructed and much harder to ignore or unconstruct.

What I’d want my students to get, wishy-washy cultural relativist that I am, is that in some societies the value on virginity has this same kind of reality.

Robin Hanson said...

Why can't different people in our "society" have grown up in different sub-cultures, or have different personalities, to make them value such things differently. Why does a poll of your college students tell other people in our "society" what preferences of theirs are legitimate?

Todd Krohn said...

Robin writes: "Why can't different people in our "society" have grown up in different sub-cultures, or have different personalities, to make them value such things differently."

Who says they can't? Obviously, as in the case of this disturbing trend, some subcultures find hymen reconstruction to be of great value.

Of course, once upon a time, vast "subcultures" of the south "valued" segregation too. Should "society" have condoned that as a subcultural quirk?

On the A-Rod ball, I'd pay $100,000 for #600, if I had an extra hundred g laying around. Steroids, shmeroids, dude deserves the praise.