Are you really a virgin?

If somebody asks whether you're a virgin, you know the answer. But do you really? The idea of "virginity" is actually surprisingly difficult to define, and decidedly unscientific.

So let's start with some basics. In the west, most of us would define a virgin as a person who hasn't yet engaged in any sexual activity. But of course "sexual activity" is a pretty vague notion. Are you still a virgin if you have oral and anal, but not genital sex? What if you have genital sex, but don't have an orgasm? What if you have an orgasm from kissing someone? Are you still a virgin then? And what if you've never had sex but you get impregnated via IVF, and have a baby? Is that a virgin birth?

While you're pondering that, consider that the definition of virginity has changed radically over the past several centuries. As Hanne Blank writes in her excellent book Virgin: The Untouched History, the contemporary idea of "virginity" can probably be traced to the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas. He and his fellow Christians believed that virginity was a state of mind, "chastity," that involved refusing to enjoy anything that hadn't been explicitly endorsed by God. For hundreds of years, "virginity" was most often used as a metaphor for spiritual purity — certainly it involved denying sins of the flesh (hence, chastity belts, which were actually quite rare), but it went way beyond that.

A few hundred years after Aquinas praised chastity, in the sixteenth century, a physician named Hilkiah Crooke was one of the first people to identify the hymen and describe it as a sign of virginity. (Of course he also thought you could determine a woman's virginity by measuring her head with a string.) But as contemporary doctors can attest, a broken or intact hymen doesn't tell you much about a woman's sexual activity. It can be broken from non-sexual physical activities, or it can cause a few medical problems by remaining stubbornly intact. There is also very little known about the evolution of the hymen, though some researchers have suggested it may protect against infections early in life.

So there is no foolproof definition of virginity, nor is there any way to measure it scientifically.

As Blank argues:

What we mean when we say "virginity" is as ephemeral, as relative, and as socially determined as what we mean when we say "freedom."

Still, that doesn't stop people from trying to lose or retain this meaningless thing. Millions of teenagers have taken virginity pledges, swearing to remain chaste until marriage. One sociological study found that virginity pledges do work, but only in areas where a lot of other people have taken the pledge too. So you need a lot of peer pressure to raise the average age of first sexual activity. Other studies have shown that people who take a virginity pledge have about as much sex, and catch as many STDs, as the average teenager.

Maybe churches that push for virginity pledges should focus more on spiritual virginity and Aquinas' idea of chastity. It might be easier to remain pure of heart than to put off having sex.

But for some groups, a virginity pledge isn't enough. They want to prove their virginity by having an intact hymen on their wedding nights. A recent Swedish survey of doctors and social workers found that a substantial minority had been asked by their patients about hymen repair surgery. Write the researchers:

Questionnaires were sent to 1,086 gynaecologists, midwives, youth welfare and social officers, and school nurses and doctors in four Swedish cities. Of the 507 who returned the questionnaire, 271 had seen patients seeking virginity-related care. Of these, 14 had turned the patients away; 221 had made 429 referrals, mostly to a welfare officer or a gynaecologist; and 26 had referred patients to a plastic surgeon. Nine gynaecologists had carried out such surgery themselves.

Ten years ago in North America, it cost about $2500 to have what's called hymen repair surgery, and many plastic surgeons still do a brisk business in it. If you can't afford surgery, though, there's always the cheaper option: DiY virginity kits, complete with fake blood, to make your partner feel like he's taken the flower of your womanhood.

Virginity has always been a state of mind. It's defined by people who want to "take" someone's virginity (real or surgically-enhanced), by virginity pledgers, by sacred prostitutes, and by your friends. There is no way to be a virgin, nor to prove that you are a virgin, because the definition changes depending on where you are.

So the next time somebody asks whether you're a virgin, what will you say?