Irregular Review: Virgin: The Untouched History

Virgin: The Untouched HistoryVirgin: The Untouched History
Hanne Blank
★★☆☆☆ (It was OK.)

Goodreads summary:

Why has an indefinable state of being commanded the attention and fascination of the human race since the dawn of time? In Virgin, Hanne Blank brings us a revolutionary, rich and entertaining survey of an astonishing untouched history.

From the simple task of determining what constitutes its loss to why it matters to us in the first place, Blank gets to the heart of why we even care about it in the first place. She tackles the reality of what we do and don’t know about virginity and provides a sweeping tour of virgins in history–from virgin martyrs to Queen Elizabeth to billboards in downtown Baltimore telling young women it’s not a “dirty word.” Virgin proves, as well, how utterly contemporary the topic is–the butt of innumerable jokes, center of spiritual mysteries, locus of teenage angst, popular genre for pornography and nucleus around which the world’s most powerful government has created an unprecedented abstinence policy. In this fascinating work, Hanne Blank shows for the first time why this is, and why everything we think we know about virginity is wrong.

While I was reading, a friend stopped by on my personal blog to ask how I was liking Virgin: The Untouched History. I told her, truthfully, that it was okay.

The Good

I like this kind of book, that examines, in detail, something everyday that we take for granted: cupcakes, harsh language, virginity, whatever. Virgin was a quick history of Western civilization from ancient Greek and Roman through Judaism and the rise Christianity, and then then advent of capitalism and urbanization through the lens of virginity. Interesting!

I also have a personal interest in this topic. I’m asexual; I’ve never been kissed. I wanted to read this and contextualize it in history. Blank covers it a bit towards the end, but virginity today gets a bad rap as “repressed” and associated with the heavy handed ideology of “abstinence-only education.” So what about holy virgins, Vestals and nuns?

The Bad

Virgin: The Untouched History was interesting, but not quite as interesting as I hope. Blank failed to strike an either properly academic tone (no footnotes, a casual writing style) or the jocular, chatty style of Mary Roach (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex) or Melissa Mohr (Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing). The attempts at humor fell flat, and detracted from the text as authoritative. (I’m not questioning her research, only her presentation.)

My other concern with this book was the hetero- and cis-sexism. I understand that the historical record might be thin about gay, lesbian, and bisexual virginities, and the virginities of trans people, but it can’t be empty. Even so, there is more recent writing on these subjects that warranted inclusion in the later chapters. There was a brief mention of a lesbian woman who sold her (penis-in-vagina) virginity, which would have benefitted from some exploration. Then at the end was a quote about stone butch lesbians, but it wasn’t explored, either. There was no mention of asexuality.

The Verdict

All I can say about Virgin: The Untouched History is “it’s okay.” If this is a topic that interests you, check it out. (I wouldn’t recommend spending money on it.) Otherwise, there are other, better popular nonfiction books that I’d recommend unless you have a particular interest in virginity. If you are, you’re in good company: virginity has been with humanity since the dawn of time.

If you’re not, I would suggest Holy Sh*t or Bonk instead.


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