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When Virgins Attack!

Sat 6 May 2006 In: Comment

Virginities tend to get a bad press in the gay male community. After childhood and early adolescence, it's something to be dispensed with. So, what relationship do we have to its many forms? Unfortunately, recovering Catholic LGBTs may have had negative experiences of allegedly celibate clerical figures, given that authority and the absence of accountability within the institutional church led to tolerance and concealment of paedophiles within its structures. While this process of sexual and institutional abuse is usually attributed to male clerics, there have been recent revelations of female same-sex child sexual abuse that we should also consider. While nuns occupy a subordinate clerical role within the Catholic Church, that did not mean that they lacked authority over children under their charge, or that this authority might have been abused. While paedophilia is a serious issue, and not one to be mitigated, there are other sorts of virginities we should consider. Apparently, according to medieval historian Kathleen Kelly, there are apparently such things as unchaste virgins! Chastity (not Cher's lesbian daughter) is a state of mind, which may not neccessarily accompany a virginal body, so one might very well encounter a situation where an unchaste virgin reads copious amounts of pornography to campaign against it, and will probably be suffering interim remedies in purgatory for it if one believes Catholic doctrine on the issue. Incidentally, the hypothetical virgin cleric canbe of either gender, here. In the Middle Ages, heterosexual virginity was prized, and there were regular examinations of women before their wedding day to insure that they hadn't done the deed. Why? This may have been due to the fact that older tests, like sieve leakage, could be faked through the simple expedient of greasing the sieve, and women could also pop in contrived appliances to release faked pigs blood to simulate the loss of the hymen, a membranous layer that was said to permit menstruation, but not penetrative vaginal intercourse. Of course, menacing virgins existed! As lesbian readers will no doubt sagely respond, it is hard to see the Amazons as virginal at all, given that these mythical warrior women had the consolation of each other, but lesbian invisibility is sadly nothing new. Joan of Arc was a bona fide menacing virgin if one was English in the fifteenth century, but not to the French, whom she liberated from English occupation, to whom she was a national heroine for centuries afterward. And man-virgins also existed! Some heterosexualmale virginshad to be tied to the bed while assertive straight women deflowered them. However, there's also the story of Saint Pelagius, a cute fifteen year old. He stripped off in front of Caliph Abdrahemen of Corboda (Spain), c925-6 CE, but wouldn't led the Caliph touch him. Annoyed, Abdrahemen ordered Pelagius flung over the city wall through a catapult, thus turning Pelagius into a male virgin martyr. And then there's Saint George (of the dragon fame), who was initially a man-virgin, impaled on a vertical blade that sliced him in two, with leering onlookers. Anyway, nowadays, we face different virginities. Let me say that I'm not overly fussed if some heterosexual women decide they want to live asexual lives, given past histories of sexual abuse at the hands of straight men. Like medieval nuns, their single lives can be seen as empowering, and it's their choice. Non-theist, asexual women shouldn't be put in the same class as the likes of the predatory Catholic and other clerics noted above. For lesbians and gay men, virginities can also raise some troubling issues. Children have the right to say no to other than peer-based sex before the age of legal consent, and incest and paedophilia are violations of those rights and that legal freedom. Even after that, some lesbians and gay men may abstain from, or delay,sex with other women and men because of incest or other forms of child sexual abuse, and we should respect that. We also need to talk about how same-sex child sexual abuse might affect our relationships, and condemn it utterly, to insure that our communities are safe spaces for its survivors. Beyond that, lesbian and gay virginities raise some issues of unequal spaces for lesbian and gay adolescence, peer sex and maturation. Until recently, we didn't have those spaces available to heterosexual adolescents, due to school-based homophobia and the absence of teenage lesbian and gay support groups, and even now, these aren't always available in rural New Zealand. On a positive note, it means that we may delay first sexual contact until we are ready to negotiate it at a later age than heterosexuals. Unfortunately, it may not be safe sex, given the relative underacknowledgement of lesbian and gay adolescents within most otherwise comprehensive sex education programmes. Lesbian and gay virginities exist as transitional states to endure before one is ready to surrender it to Ms or Mr Right Now. And what counts as lesbian or gay virginity anyway? We get up to other things besides penetrative sex. Does oral sex count, and what about orgasms? And what about the lack of a male hymen? What if you don't particularly like anal sex, and don't incorporate it into your sexual reportoire? Are there different virginities to be lost depending on which bit you 'lose' it with? Not only we have these problems, as President Clinton's episode with Monica Lewinsky suggests. Why do we give celibate or asexual deliberate virgins such a bad time? Granted, there are the serious issues raised above of abuse of power and the absence of institutional accountability. However, I part company from feminist historian Sheila Jeffreys at this point. In her work on 'spinsterhood,' Jeffreys views voluntarily celibate women as feminist icons because they refuse male dominated heterosexual sex. As noted above, I think asexual women or men should be respected if they're trying to deal with past horrors of child sexual abuse within their lives. However, I also question why Jeffreys isn't thorough enough when it comes to precisely those serious issues that I have referred to above. What about feigned 'celibate' or 'virginal' predatory Christian religious clerics, whether male or female? In providing blanket approval of celibacy, Jeffreys displays a troubling lack of holistic analysis here. We don't respect clerical celibates precisely because of the issues of differential bans on lesbian and gay sex, whether outright or pervaded with confessional guilt, relative to heterosexuals. Apart from a few exceptions, like that saintly man Felix Donnelly, recent revelations of bad faith and toleration of paedophilia within the institutional church have raised issues of hypocrisy and moral complicity for many former lesbian and gay Catholics. It has made it difficult for voluntary celibacy to be presented as an option, given archaic dogma related to homosexuality and lesbianism as 'objective moral disorders' from the twelfth century work of Thomas Aquinas. And then there's the silly fundamentalist True Love Waits campaign, which promises teenagers that you can regain 'secondary virginity.' I'd be careful if I were them. Why hasn't some wag commented that tertiary virginity is the probable next step, and might well be fatal? On the other hand, not all clerical celibates are predatory. In the case of nuns, there are even some who act as feminist consciences within the institutional church, calling for change to church doctrine related to reproductive and sexual health and lesbian and gay rights. They are also to be found in Third World societies, providing medical care and essential social services, and sometimes, standing up for impoverished citizens w ithin those societies against vile dictatorships. Sometimes, these noble women have paid with their lives for their sacrifices. I don't mind these virgins at all, and it seems possible to be virgin feminists in their case, given that they do view it as a meaningfully made choice, which is okay for them, but not neccessarily for others. If those virgins attack right-wing tendencies within their institutions, they're my type of "menacing virgin!" Recommended: Kathleen Kelly and Marina Leslie (ed) Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages: University of Delaware Press: 1999. Kathleen Kelly: Performing Virginities and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages: London: Routledge: 2000. Craig Young - 6th May 2006    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Saturday, 6th May 2006 - 12:00pm

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