Author: Hanne Blank (misia)
Details: (c) 2007 Hanne Blank; Pub 2007 Bloomsbury USA; ISBN 1-59691-010-0
Verdict: Virgin is lively and interesting.
Reasons for reading it: I was reading misia's journal while she was writing Virgin and it seemed such a fascinating project I wanted to read the end result.
How it came into my hands: I bought it from Amazon, nice shiny new hardback, because reading her blog meant I had enough trust in Blank's writing to pay real money for the book. And it is a very nice edition, lovely paper, attractive typeface, and a sparsely elegant cover (I am so glad that misia won her argument and stopped the publishes from using the clichéd image of a naked woman's torso).
Virgin is extremely readable and lively, but you can tell it's presenting real scholarship because of the extensive bibliography. I generally struggle with social history, particularly feminist social history, but I found Virgin as positively enjoyable to read as fiction. It's not a stereotypical trashy popularizing book, though, because Blank is always careful to point out how conclusions relate to evidence, and labels reasonable conjectures as such rather than just stating them as fact, so I still felt as if I was learning real history rather than reading a collection of tall tales.
I started out just dipping into it, which it's very well suited to, but decided I was never going to get through it fast enough to follow the development of the argument that way, so I sat down and read it cover to cover. Although it's still very good taken that way, sometimes the puns and witticisms got a little grating in large doses, and there's a slight tendency to repeat the same points in different sections (presumably to facilitate the dipping approach).
In some ways Virgin is a little depressing, because a social history of virginity is essentially a history of misogyny. However, it never gets heavy handed with polemic, and just states the historical situation with a kind of resigned acceptance of all the often cruel means of controlling women's sexuality described. Ire is reserved for the backlash against feminism and women's autonomy from modern American so-called conservative Christians and modern pornographers, who can much more reasonably be judged harshly than pre-modern societies. There are a few mentions of the dreaded term patriarchy, but Blank defines very clearly what she means by that and doesn't just use it as a personification of everything that we don't like about society. In fact Virgin is as refreshingly free of feminist jargon as it is of sociological jargon, but it still makes feminist points very clearly. I should mention that misia's writing on LJ is one of the major reasons why I decided that feminism might have some relevance to me, and the book lives up to that high standard.
Although I am far from expert in either aspect, it seemed to me that the history of religion and culture is stronger than the medical history. In any case there's some absolutely fascinating material illustrating the different ways that virginity has been socially constructed in different historical periods, connecting the topic to major historical developments such as the beginning of agriculture, the rise of Christianity, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and modern public health and women's rights. It is abundantly clear that even us enlightened moderns have very muddled ideas about virginity which do more to serve social purposes than describe any physiological reality. To take myself as an example, I had pretty good sex education, including plenty of detailed biological information and very little ridiculous anti-sex propaganda, and I would have said I had a fairly good idea how to tell facts from sensationalism, but as a teenager I was totally confused by the question of whether having sex physically alters a woman's body. If Virgin had been around then it would have cleared everything up for me.
So Virgin is very informative, not just about facts but about a sort of meta level of explaining the context of how certain beliefs about virginity become prevalent. And it's also very entertaining even when dealing with rather complex and often unpleasant subject matter. It rates pretty highly as an example of what good non-fiction can be.