Once Was, Virgins Had Sex

Arianrhod, from the Llewellyn Tarot deck.

In some times and places virgins had sex.

I first discovered this while reading the story of Arianrhod in Welsh mythology.

In this tale the Welsh King, Math, must keep his feet in the lap of a virgin whenever he is not in battle. And he was always losing virgins because the job was dull. After losing one young maiden Arianrhod’s brother volunteered her for the job.

Arianrhod was not thrilled with the nomination, but she knew she would easily pass the virginity test which entailed stepping over Math’s magic rod. A stiff rod indicated a virgin, a limp rod indicted she was not. When Arianrhod jumped over the rod two children jumped from her womb.

But Arianrhod declared herself a virgin because she was a woman who owned herself.

Virgin: a woman who owns herself

A virgin just bore two children?

I checked the footnote, which explained that at this time and place in Wales “virgin” simply signified a woman who took ownership of herself. She was autonomous, complete and holding status in her own right — not bound to any man. And she could certainly have sex if she wanted to.

By that count Arianrhod was most definitely a virgin.

I did a bit more research and discovered Marilyn Frye’s Willful Virgin which explains that the word originally had nothing to do with a penis penetrating a vagina. Instead, “virgin” had once designated a free woman who was not bound to or possessed by a man. Rather, she was a woman who was both sexually and socially her own person.

Virgo vs virgo intacta

Rattray Taylor’s Sex In History similarly explains that,

The term “virgin” did not mean to the Classical world what it means to us. The Romans distinguished between virgo, an unmarried woman, and virgo intacta, a women who had never known a man; and the Greeks likewise. To them, a virgin was a woman who had kept her own personal autonomy, instead of submitting herself to the narrow, caged life of marriage… It was the married woman who had sold her independence, who had lost her virginity.

So as it turns out, virgins once had plenty of sex, if they wanted to.

Beyond that, there is no clear medical definition of virginity even today. Some young religious people have oral or anal sex to keep their virginity oaths. Does that mean that gays and lesbians are forever virgins?

Virginity: not what you thought it was.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 23, 2017, in sex and sexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Hello! I just want to thank you for sharing this awesome information. In general, the word virgin has many different other words linked to it. It can either be a good or bad thing, but most of the time, it is linked to sex. This article, however, changes the meaning of it which I absolutely love. I always joke around to my friends about how I’m still a virgin (although I lost it to my ex boyfriend) but now I can tell them that, technically, a virgin is a woman who takes ownership over her body and sexuality. Which means, in one sense, I am still a virgin. In all seriousness, I love this article. I love how it reveals that a person being virgin does not have anything to do with sex. It is all about a woman, and her ownership of her body, her sexuality, and her choices. I love about how it talks about a woman being able to own all that is she is because I truly think that that’s what all women should try to do. Loving yourself is not easy, especially in a patriarchal world where words like slut and whore are tossed around, but the more women own their body, the more power we hold. I think we should definitely change the term for virgin back to this one.

  2. Wow! This blog is awesome. I really like this one.
    “Virgin: a woman who owns herself”, this sentence is fantastic.
    And “virgin simply signedified a woman who took ownership of herself. She was autonomous, complete and holding status in her own right – not bound to any man. And she could certainly have sex if she wanted to.” I also very like.
    Have to say that through this blog, gave me a very good new understanding of the word virgin.
    The concept of an independent woman who has full sovereignty over her is a virgin. The concept of virginity is much better than a woman who has not had any substantive behavior.
    Thank you for sending this blog, I learned a new knowledge!

  3. I found this refreshing and interesting to read! This was brought up in one of our earlier sessions and since then I have pondered on the million dollar question and came to the conclusion that being a virgin simply meant that you haven’t experienced penetration from a male organ.

    Coming from a heavily religious Samoan family – my grandfather being the founding father of Samoan Assembly of God in all of Samoa – it was a huge deal to be considered a virgin before any of my aunts and even my own mother were to enter marriage. The thing that sucks is that with that mindset, my grandmother was highly disappointed when my cousins and older sister had a baby out of wedlock. She felt that they weren’t deserving of having to wear a white dress. Sure she was there for the ceremony but you could clearly see how displeased she was not only with the ceremony but also with the whole concept overall.

    It’ll take a lot to try and convince my family of otherwise but it’s good to know that history has got my back in knowing that being a virgin simply means that I am the boss of my own body^^

  4. This struggle by people to classify virginity has been a long and on-going argument for quite sometime now. I can see how the argument itself can get heated and why it still has not been resolved. People have their own opinions, as they always do when it comes to defining things that limit their freedom. Young people of religious faiths have anal and oral sex and call themselves virgins so long as they don’t have vaginal and penile intercourse. Following that logic, one might surmise that gay and lesbian lovers are always virgins since they can’t have that kind of intercourse. Is that fair to say? Certainly it is not. If you spoke to gay and lesbian couples, I am sure they would consider their sexual activity together as legitimate and they would not call one another virgins. Perhaps in the days of old, this would have been a benefit to them, as lesbian women could claim that they owned themselves whilst still having all the fun they wanted to have in the bedroom. In this day and age however, I think it would frankly just be insulting and insinuating to assume that gays and lesbians are virgins and will always stay so unless they had a heterosexual sexual encounter.

  5. I actually found this article quite intriguing. I never thought of virgins being a woman who owns yourself. Growing up I’ve always known of virgins as people who have not had sexual relations. I personally really do like the definition of virgins that was withheld throughout this posting. A woman who owns herself and does not have to depend on any man is in fact a virgin. I find this super powerful in terms of a woman withholding herself. Even though a virgin today is known as a person who has not had sexual orientation I believe that people that have had any kind of sexual intercourse Is in fact no longer a virgin. I don’t think it matters what hole or what way you interact sexual intercourse is sexual intercourse one way or another. Lesbians, gays and everyone else that has oral and anal sex I no longer virgins.

  6. This is a very interesting article. I never think that this woman virgin or not. For me, it doesn’t meter she has someone before me or not, but this article made me think of this word. And if this mistake has occurred from the antiquity and it has reached our days that mean we have a problem. This should then change most of the religions. Because of the wrong translation suffered so many women. I also read that not all woman are born as virgins physically. And in this case, if such a woman is born in a Muslim country, she will not be able to marry. I believe that the translation of the word “virgin” is not right today. I think “virgin” is the word of freedom and it does not matter whether a person has sex or not. This does not make him a bad or a good person.

  7. I actually prefer this older definition/ version of the word virgin. The idea of an autonomous woman sounds good to me. Despite the fact women were expected to marry and bear children for their men, a woman who chooses to live her life the way she sees fit is somewhat of an idol. However, I can argue against the modern day definition of virginity as people who have oral sex and anal maintain their virginity which I think may not be a valid argument. We say a virgin is one who has never had sex but we define oral and anal as different kinds of sex that are penetrative. So with that, they cannot still maintain to be virgins.
    Also, lesbians and gay men also aren’t virgins because they also have penetrative sex. The modern day definition is a very hetero-normative way of looking at things. Just because it isn’t a penis and vagina combination does not make it less of a sex act.

  8. Spot on. An old professor of mine said once that through the centuries, religions grew like onions, adding a layer with each conquest, and to a lesser extent, migration. Little of the religion of the conquered was thrown out, and the pantheons grew.

    Over all, however, I consider Christianity a neoZoroastrian religion. Much was borrowed from the Persians after Cyrus the Great captured Babylonia and freed the Jews. Many stayed there for many decades. It was a fascinating study.

  9. Wow, I’m totally reframing this.

  10. theburningheart

    Yes, the definition of ‘Virgin’ has changed with time, in today World people understand virginity as chastity, or never had sex, because tied to the religious ideas, about purity, and sex as sinful, if not sanctioned by a Sacrament, meanwhile in antiquity was related to the idea, or I should say Archetype of Mother Earth, women seeing as the land who fertilized by the seed bore fruit, and from that to be a landlord, or owner of the land, and the institution of marriage, well it just followed naturally, therefore and independent woman was considered a Virgin soil as long as she remained barren, or not having a husband, regardless is she had sex, or not.

    On the light side, a friend of mine when asked by his now wife, who confessed to him not to be a virgin anymore, and surprised at his answer of who cares? She questioned him:

    ‘Do you mean, that you do not mind for me, not to be a virgin anymore?

    He answered her: ‘Darling I do not want you, to put you on an altar and light votive candles, and pray to you! 🙂

    I guess in today more a secular age, religious virginity values, are being put into the dustbin of history.
    Besides what sort of moral hypocrisy, it’s to reject a woman on the basis of not being a virgin?
    When compassion, and the forgiveness of sins, are the cornerstone to a religious life?

    There should be signs, saying: Women, be aware from a man who wants a virgin, stay away from him!

  11. This discussion pops up from time to time, most often in connection with the Virgin Mary, since the idea that Mary never had sex with husband is an odd one… unless you argue that the local divinity was claimed his rights under Droit du Seigneur (unless you get into metaphysics and spirituality, but that’s even more absurd).

    Our modern idea of ‘virgin’ is not how it was originally meant, i.e., a virgin being merely a young woman. But the Welsh version – sexually independent – is interesting, and seems to be quite widespread. You’ve got me curious… 🙂

    • I was so surprised when I was reading that Celtic myth and went to the footnotes in hopes of exclamation: a woman insisting she is a virgin even after she bears two children! Found a lot of interesting stuff! I’ll be curious if you find more on the topic.

  12. What a fine, informative commentary on the nature of feminine freedom.

    Thank you. You’ve inspired me this morning. I must add this aspect–perhaps the myth, itself–to my current work on a novel focusing on a small colony of intersexuals who possess no sense of jealousy, possessiveness or envy. Sexuality is shared freely among the members as well as used as a means to dampen the suspicions and aggressive tendencies of a xenophobic religious society beyond the compound.

  13. “The term “virgin” did not mean to the Classical world what it means to us.”

    This must be nonsense since virgin is an English word, and then we are told what it meant to the Romans and Greeks.

    “and the Greeks likewise”

    • Hmmmm, Who should we believe? You or the researchers?

      PS: yeah Virgin’s English, it comes from the Latin “Virgo.” And once was, a virgin just meant a woman who was free. But she could have sex if she liked.

      • Interesting. This line of debate reminds that so much has changed in translations (as well as the changing of meanings in English over the centuries).

        Concerning the debate over the “virgin” birth of Jesus,” compliments of the Greeks, there was a profound mistranslation (or a purposeful deception). When the old Hebrew word “almah,” which means “young woman,” was translated to Greek, the word “parthenos” was used, which means “virgin.” Whether or not it was an honest mistake in interpretation or a deliberate deception to make Jesus’ birth a miracle–well, one has to follow one’s logic, or not. In either case, the translation was wrong.

        It is certainly a significant error, for it places in serious doubt a major cornerstone in the foundation of Christian theology. It is quite likely that Miriam bat Joachim (Mary) was indeed a young woman when she conceived, but the prophesy said nothing about her being a virgin.

        Ancient Hebrew scholars, such as Isaiah, are said to have been meticulous in specificity. If so, then had Isaiah intended to prophesize the miracle of a virgin birth, he would have used the word, “Bethulah,” which meant, “virgin.”

        Since that controversy arose, some dictionaries have been changed to suggest that Almah could also mean “virgin.” Many apologists now point to that changed definition as evidence of the virgin birth, hence, divine.

      • Christianity overlaps with many mythical traditions that have gods born of virgins, resurrection, triple goddess virgin births, and Madonna and Child images. Some people look at mythology terms of underlying meanings instead of a literal meaning.

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