Virginity is a term used to describe the state of never having engaged in sexual intercourse. A person who still has his or her virginity can accordingly be described as being a virgin. In broader usage of these terms, they can characterize a state of purity.
Psychologically, sexuality is the means to express the fullness of love between a man and a woman. Biologically, it is the means through which a child is conceived and the lineage is passed on to the next generation. Maintaining virginity, sexual purity, until ready for these life-changing experiences has been held as the standard in most cultures. The world's major religions concur in viewing sexual intimacy as proper only within marriage; otherwise it can be destructive to human flourishing. Sexuality has social ramifications; therefore most societies set limits, through social norms and taboos, moral and religious guidelines, and legal constraints on what is permissible sexual behavior.
While virginity has not always been legally mandated for young people prior to marriage, the benefits of maintaining this state have been generally recognized. However, the "sexual revolution" of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, led to loss of this standard. In more recent times, however, efforts to reinstate the value of premarital virginity are found in the "virginity pledge," a commitment to remain pure prior to marriage. When supported by medical, psychological, social, and spiritual understanding such pledges have positive impact on the lives of young people.
The terms virgin and virginity were introduced into English in the thirteenth century via the French virgine derived from Latin virgo (Genitive virginis), which is composed of "vir" meaning "man" or "husband," and "genere," "created (for)," and already had the meaning of a female in (nuptial) subjection to a male. With the standard usage of these terms (where the state of purity comes from a lack of sexual relations), they have been more commonly applied to women than to men, both historically and in many present-day situations.
A woman who is a virgin is also sometimes referred to as a maiden. In fact, the terms traditionally were used to simply describe a female unmarried person. During the Middle English period, the word "maid" referred to a person, whether male or female, who had never been married or sexually active. Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance, used that word in reference to Christ and St. Paul. However, applying the term to men as well has become uncommon in modern times, as the word "maid" lost currency in reference to men and began to refer only to unmarried women (called maidens) and later, unmarried domestic servants.
In some cultures, women are not regarded as virgins after a sexual assault, but some people disavow this notion. There are also those who take the "spiritual" concept of virginity to its maximum, considering "born again virgins" to be virgins, regardless of their past sexual conduct. However, the word "chastity" is often used in this context, rather than "virginity."
Historians and anthropologists have noted that many societies that place a high value on virginity before marriage, such as the United States before the sexual revolution, actually have a large amount of premarital sexual activity that does not involve vaginal penetration: Such as oral sex, anal sex, and mutual masturbation. This is considered "technical" virginity as vaginal intercourse has not occurred but the participants are sexually active.
Female virginity is closely interwoven with personal or even family honor in many cultures. Traditionally, there has been a widespread belief that the loss of virginity before marriage is a matter of deep shame. In some cultures (for example the Bantu of South Africa), virginity testing or even surgical procedures guaranteeing premarital abstinence (infibulation) are commonplace. This would typically involve personal inspection by a female elder.
In Western marriage ceremonies, brides traditionally wear veils and white wedding dresses, which are inaccurately believed by many people to be symbols of virginity. In fact, wearing white is a comparatively recent custom among western brides, who previously wore whatever colors they wished or simply their "best dress." Wearing white became a matter first of fashion and then of custom and tradition only over the course of the nineteenth century.
The act of losing one's virginity, that is, of a first sexual experience, is commonly considered within Western culture to be an important life event and a rite of passage. It is highlighted by many mainstream Western movies (particularly films aimed at a teenage audience). The loss of virginity can be viewed as a milestone to be proud of or as a failure to be ashamed of, depending on cultural perceptions. Historically, these perceptions were heavily influenced by perceived gender roles, such that for a male the association was more often with pride and for a female the association was more often with shame.
The partner during the loss of virginity is sometimes colloquially said to "take" the virginity of the virgin partner. In some places, this colloquialism is only used when the partner is not a virgin, but in other places, the virginity of the partner does not matter. The archaic term, "deflower," is sometimes used in modern times to also describe the act of the virgin's partner, and the clinical term, "defloration," is another way to describe the event.
In some countries, until the late twentieth century, if a man did not marry a woman whose virginity he had taken, the woman was allowed to sue the man for money, in some languages named "wreath money."
Virginity has been often considered to be a virtue denoting purity and physical self-restraint and is an important characteristic of some mythical figures, such as the Greek goddesses Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. The Vestal Virgins were strictly celibate priestesses of Vesta. The Maiden or Virgin is one of the three persons of the Triple Goddess in many Neopagan traditions. The constellation Virgo represents a wide selection of sacred virgins.
In predominantly Hindu societies in Nepal and India, virginity prior to marriage is the norm and expected of all. Any form of premarital sexual intercourse is frowned upon immensely and is considered an act designed to bring great dishonor and disrespect to the family.
Christians believe that the New Testament and Old Testament of the Christian Bible forbid premarital sex of any form. These ideas are more specifically discussed throughout the Old Testament. Genesis describes sex as a gift from God to be celebrated within the context of marriage. The New Testament also speaks of the Christian's body as a holy temple that the Spirit of God comes to dwell in (1 Corinthians 3:16). Purity in general is deeply threaded throughout the entire Bible.
Most Christians believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin at the time Jesus was conceived, based on the account in the Gospel of Luke. In Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christianity, her perpetual virginity is held as dogma, although other Christians do not necessarily accept this view. Christians may refer to her as the Virgin Mary or the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke assert that Mary had "no relations with man" before Jesus' conception (Matthew 1:18, 25; Luke 1:34). It is commonplace for Christian believers to accept this claim at face value—especially given its theological import that Jesus was literally the "son" of God. Mary was a relative of Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, who herself was of the lineage of Aaron (Luke 1:5; 1:36). Mary resided at Nazareth in Galilee while betrothed to Joseph of the House of David (Luke 1:26). During their betrothal—the first stage of a Jewish marriage—the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to become the mother of the promised Messiah.
Asking how this could be since "I have known no man," Mary was told about Elizabeth's miraculous conception and informed that the "power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). Mary immediately left for Zechariah's house, where she was greeted prophetically by Elizabeth and remained for three months. Matthew's gospel mentions that Joseph intended to divorce her when he learned of her pregnancy. However, an angel informed him in a dream to be unafraid and take her as his wife, because her unborn child is "from the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18-25).
That Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus is a doctrinal stance of the Catholic, Eastern, and Oriental Orthodox churches. However, most Protestants reject the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Nevertheless, Mary continues to be revered as a symbol of purity and godliness, of which her virginity prior to becoming the mother of Jesus is an integral part.
Until recently, some states which have a significant Christian population have or have had laws protecting virginity. Germany abandoned a law (§1300 BGB) only in 1998 that entitled the deflowered virgin to compensation if the relationship ended. In Mexico, there is a very old saying still used by women today: "Fulfill your promise to marry me (if we had sex), or leave me how I was (virgin)."
Islam provides a decree that sexual activity must occur only between married individuals. Quotes such as, "Do not even go near Adultery" (Al-Israa 17: 32), are testament to this. Islam teaches both partners in a marriage to fulfill and satisfy each other to the fullest extent. Marriage is considered to be "half of the Deen (Faith)." The husband and wife must always keep in mind the needs, both sexual and emotional, of each other.
Qur'an 17:32 says, "And come not near to the unlawful sexual intercourse. Verily, it is a Fâhishah [i.e. anything that transgresses its limits (a great sin)], and an evil way (that leads one to Hell unless Allâh forgives him)." Unlawful sexual intercourse in this context refers both to adultery and premarital sex.
Virginity appears in Judaism as early as the verse in Genesis referring to Eliezer's encounter with Rebekah: "And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her" (Genesis 24:16). It is a recurring theme throughout the Bible, especially with regard to the laws governing betrothal, marriage, and divorce.
However, in practice, Judaism is fairly lenient about sexual relations, and has been since its early days, fairly pragmatic about the realities of sex and sexuality. Jewish law contains rules related to and protecting female virgins and dealing with consensual and non-consensual premarital sex. The thrust of Jewish law's guidance on sex is effectively that it should not be rejected, but should be lived as a wholesome part of life. Sex in Judaism is not seen as dirty or undesirable—in fact, sex within a marriage is considered a mitzvah, or desirable virtue.
According to Jewish law, sex before marriage is not acceptable. A child born of certain forbidden relationships, such as adultery, incest, and similar, is considered a mamzer, approximately translated as illegitimate, who can only marry another mamzer. A child born out of wedlock is not considered a mamzer unless the relationship was also adulterous or incestuous. Thus, extramarital sex alone is less serious than sex with a person with whom marriage is impossible or forbidden.
The more liberal denominations (Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Conservative Judaism) are relatively open to premarital sex: While it is not encouraged, it is not ignored, either—rules governing sexuality still apply. In stricter denominations, sex before marriage can be relatively uncommon, as religious practices of modesty, marriages at a younger age, and other practices, may apply.
Virginity pledges (or abstinence pledges) are commitments made by teenagers and young adults to refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage. They are most common in the United States, especially among Evangelical Christian denominations.
The first virginity pledge program was True Love Waits, started in 1993, by the Southern Baptist Convention, which now claims over 2.5 million pledgers world-wide in dozens of countries. A torrent of virginity pledge programs followed.
Virginity pledge programs take a variety of stances on the role of religion in the pledge: Some use religion to motivate the pledge, putting Biblical quotes on the cards, while others use statistics and arguments to motivate the pledge. Regardless of the approach, the vast majority of virginity pledge programs are run and staffed by individuals with ties to Christian organizations, mostly evangelical, although the Catholic Church sponsors both secular and a religious virginity pledges. Advocacy of virginity pledges is often coupled with support for abstinence-only sex education in public schools. Advocates argue that any other type of sexual education would promote sex outside of marriage, which they hold to be immoral and risky.
While virginity pledge programs have not necessarily succeeded in having pledgers maintain sexual purity until marriage, a number of positive outcomes have been reported. In 2004, the Heritage Foundation released a report showing that virginity pledges carry a number of benefits for participants including lower rates of teen pregnancy, giving birth out of wedlock, and engaging in unprotected sex.
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