Saturday 31 August 2013

What the Greeks knew about Virginity Testing

Is our understanding of physiology going backwards? The head of the Education Agency in Prabumlih, South Sumatra, announced in mid-August that female senior high school students would in 2014 be subjected to compulsory virginity tests. 

Virginity tests are a physical impossibility. Some women, whales, elephants and chimps have a perceptible elastic membrane at the opening of the tube which connects their wombs to the outside world. Some do not. Whether any object has ever been inserted into this tube CANNOT be discerned by physical examination.

Although the daft proposal has been criticized by other Indonesians, and withdrawn, it is not an isolated phenomenon. Virginity tests have recently been documented by Human Rights Watch in many other places including Egypt, Afghanistan and India. 

How can this be? The ancient Greeks, however deplorably sexist, long ago knew that the only proof a woman had experienced penetrative sex with a man was when she produced a baby. One medical writer, Soranus (yes, that really is his name) mentions the hymen, but only to deny its existence. 

Being a virgin, parthenos, was a social status meaning that a woman was believed not to be having sex or to have been pregnant and was marriageable. This status could be faked, in which case you were a pseudoparthenos

Indonesians might just as well adopt the sort of virginity test we do hear about in Greek literature, in a novel by Achilles Tatius.[i] The heroine, Leucippe, is enclosed inside a cave of Pan. If the crowd hears the music of the syrinx (panpipes made of reeds) then she is a virgin. If they hear a scream and she vanishes, then she is not a virgin. Leucippe, a resourceful young woman, passes with flying colours.

The beauty of this test is the ease with which the right result can be furnished. It would not be hard to secrete a small set of panpipes in your flowing robes. I also appreciate the sexiness of the setting. Everyone in ancient myth knows that the place to go for an erotic encounter is a cave. Since Pan is the horniest of deities, if you were a virgin before you entered his cavern, you were unlikely to be one when you left it. And the reeds constituting Pan's pipes had once been the beautiful virgin Syrinx, who was transformed into this plant when pursued by the randy goat-god.
I propose that societies where virginity is an issue implement the Pan-cave test instead. It would be easier to administer and much more enjoyable. Both men and women could undergo it. They could play a tune on their own in a cave, or even flirt there with Pan. The examiners would be relieved of their task and get to listen to some music. The result would be just as reliable. What's not to like?

[i] Brilliantly introduced and translated by Helen Morales and Tim Whitmarsh in the Oxford World’s Classics series.

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