January 30, 2010
The Canberra Times & The National Times

Virgin on absurd, Tony

Virginity is not a “gift”. To suggest it is, as Tony Abbott has, is absurdly childish. It’s also ridiculously romantic. None of which would matter if the discussion stopped there. But it doesn’t.

Instead, the Leader of the Opposition has raised the very ugly specter of female virtue as a tradable, marketable, sellable commodity.  By telling his daughters their virginity is “the greatest gift that you can give someone” and “the ultimate gift”, he’s unwittingly reduced their myriad talents, strengths and capacity to love to mere crumbs, compared to the single act of deflowering.

Abbott’s logic suggests a female’s most precious and important asset- above all else – is her sex. And that asset is most highly prized when it’s presented new and unused.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, we never talk about female virginity in terms of an exchange. There is no expectation of a ‘gift’ in return. In fact quite the opposite. Young men the world over are encouraged, and indeed expected, to be sexually experienced by the time they take a bride. What use is her precious “gift” if he doesn’t know what to do with it? Or how to handle it?

I have no doubt Tony Abbott’s comment about the advice he’d give his daughters is laden with fatherly love. And I suspect that like many parents who worry about their children’s sexual experimentation, Abbott wishes he could somehow protect his daughters from the emotional blows that come with young and awkward sex.  What father wouldn’t? But by playing the virtue card, suggesting a girl’s virginity is the ultimate “gift” she can give her husband, Abbott has ripped open a raw wound.

Virginity gets way too much attention and very little discussion. Consequently we’ve allowed a misapprehension about female sexuality and virtue to go unchallenged for way too long. Ironically, it is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that initially helped put virginity back on the agenda.

Muslim writer and former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali was one of the first to bring this issue to our attention with her book “The Caged Virgin”. She argues that for many Muslims, “morality expresses itself through an obsession with virginity” and a “mastery over the sexuality of women”.  Family and male honour – be it a father, husband or brother – rests with the virtue of their women, and the virginity of their brides. The shame brought about by the loss of female virginity is irreparable, if intercourse has occurred outside marriage. Sexual assault and rape is no defence. When a young woman’s virtue is shot, so too is her future.

Hirsi Ali argues that a powerful and effective way of preserving a girl’s virginity within radical Islam is by keeping women “under house arrest”, severely restricting their freedom of movement. Another, she argues, is the practice of keeping men and women separated at all times, unless they are family.

But like most young men and women around the world, Muslim lovers will find ways around such restrictions. Which also means some Mulsim women have been forced to devise painful and dangerous ways to feign virginity on their wedding night, just to satisfy their families’ obsession .  Hirsi Ali has described a hideous practice of young women forcing “foreign objects into their genitals to accomplish opportune bleeding on the night in question.”

I recently witnessed the despair and angst of a Muslim mother whose teenage daughter had failed to stain the bridal sheets on her wedding night.  It was an arranged marriage, in which the girl’s “goodness” and virtue had been guaranteed by her parents. Nevertheless, the groom’s family was waiting for proof. The whole enterprise could have come crashing down in a hail of accusation and fury, if it wasn’t for a blood smear on the third day. The phone calls, texts and emails of celebration that followed were jubilant. The relief was immense. And the bloody delay was explained as shyness.

Islam is by no means the only religion to obsess over female virginity. Christians, Jews and Hindus have also shared a similar fixation. Although one could argue that they do so without the same level of social cost and human deprivation.

That said, Tony Abbott’s faith – Christianity – has perhaps outdone all religions when it comes to confusing sex with sin, and layering it with guilt. Here virginity is so integral to virtue that the three most important figures in the Christian story – Jesus, Mary and Joseph –apparently remain virgins throughout their life. Illogical and nonsensical as that is, the insistence on the state of virginity as a marker of purity, integrity and worthiness still sends a powerful message to the eagerly faithful.  Tony Abbot has bought it. I just hope his daughters see beyond it.

Virginity is not the sum of a woman’s virtue. Nor is it her greatest “gift”. It’s a private and transient thing. Its passing rarely brings a young woman pleasure. In fact, it’s more likely to bring her pain. To trade it, sell it, or “gift” wrap it – is to commodity it. To suggest a woman “gives” her virginity to someone is to suggest sexual subordination and submission. That’s a hell of a gift.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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