Like a Virgin – Whatever That Was

July 13, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
Virginity has mattered as far back as we can tell. It is introduced in Genesis . . . and is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible.
So says Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his recent book How Pleasure Works. But Bloom’s “as far back as we can tell” ignores most of the evolution of the human species.

Bloom is certainly no creationist who believes that our species dates back only a few thousand years and is no older than the people in the Bible. He believes in evolution, and one of his arguments about how pleasure works is that evolution accounts, in part, for what we find pleasurable.
Pleasure draws upon deep intuitions . . . it is smart, and . . . it is evolved and universal and largely inborn. [my emphasis]
Culture and society, in Bloom’s view, matter only in that they vary the foods that feed these largely inborn hungers.
Belgian chocolates and barbecued ribs are modern inventions, but they appeal to our prior love of sugar and fat.
Since the importance of virginity goes back “as far back as we can tell,” it must be like the love of sugar – largely inborn. In that same chapter on sex (you couldn’t very well write a book called How Pleasure Works and not have a chapter on sex), he writes,
The obsession with virginity is one of the ugliest aspects of our sexual psyche.
I could be wrong; Bloom is, after all, a Yale professor – smart and well-educated and the book jacket has accolades from heavy hitters like Steven Pinker. But if the obsession with virginity, like the taste for fat and sugar, is hard-wired  by evolution, it must have been with us since our earliest days on the savanna. But unfortunately, Bloom’s truncated history (“as far back as we can tell”) ignores most of our time on this planet.

For a few hundred thousand years, we humans lived as hunter-gatherers – small, egalitarian bands, nomadic and with fluid membership . . . and not much concern for virginity. The societies that prize virginity are agricultural and pastoral. They have been around for only the past 15,000 years or so. Agrarian societies may seem like the “real” humans, but that’s only because they account for all of our recorded history. Pre-literate hunter-gatherers left no accounts detailing their canons of morality.*

So maybe the concern with virginity is not inborn or universal but just a patriarchal blip in a much longer history, a fad that captured our imaginations for a few thousand years and fit well with other ideas but is now fading. As societies move from agricultural to industrial or post-industrial modes, people come to regard virginity as something like the plow – a curious, antiquated instrument that might have been important to people once upon a time but is not really of much use today at the office. Even in an advanced country like the US, you can still see the link between agrarian life and the value on virginity.  It is in the regions closest to their agrarian past (and present) where people are likely to see virginity as a necessary sign of virtue.

Also, even in the agrarian era, just whose obsession with virginity was this anyway? My guess is that women were and are far less obsessed than men. If you want to argue that the obsession is part of the sexual psyche that evolved over millennia, you would have to show how the male and female brain evolved differently with regard to this very specific idea that virginity is of paramount importance.

So when I read that sentence about the obsession with virginity being part of “our sexual psyche,” I am tempted to ask, “What you mean ‘we,’ patriarchal agrarian?”

*Update. True, we have no information about the morals of humans who lived long before the dawn of recorded history. But we do have accounts of hunter-gatherers in the past few centuries, and these do not provide much support for the idea that virginity has always been a universal and eternal obsession.


Bob S. said...

Aren't you contradicting yourself?

For a few hundred thousand years, we humans lived as hunter-gatherers – small, egalitarian bands, nomadic and with fluid membership . . . and not much concern for virginity. The societies that prize virginity are agricultural and pastoral... Pre-literate hunter-gatherers left no accounts their canons of morality.

If they left no accounts, how can you say they weren't concerned about virginity?

Jay Livingston said...

It's true that we don't know for certain about humans of 100,000 years ago. But we do have 19th- and 20th-century ethnographies of hunter-gatherers like th !Kung San, the Mbuti Pygmies, aboriginal Australians, groups in New Guinea, the Philipines, Africa, and elsewhere. Paleontologists extrapolate back from these. Besides, it seems unlikely that the ancestors of these foragers, going back many millenia, would have been more virginity-obsessed and that with no change in their basic way of life, that obsession would have disappeared.