What does “virginity” really mean? The definition has changed greatly from the origination of the word.
Virgo in Greek Mythology
“Virgin” originated from the Greek and Latin word “virgo,” or maiden. It was used often in Greek mythology to classify several goddesses, such as Artemis (also known as Diana) and Hestia.
Artemis is the Greek virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt; she protects women in labor, small children and wild animals. Hestia is the Greek virgin goddess of the hearth. She never takes part in the struggle between men and gods.
Virginity and virgin were once terms of power, strength and independence, used to describe the goddesses who were immune to the temptations of Dionysus, Greek god of seduction and wine.
In medieval times, virginity became a sexual term for a heterosexual woman who had not been penetrated by a penis. Virginity was classified as a gift from the Christian God only to be released by a husband.
It was expected for a woman to remain chaste (a virgin) until marriage; a woman broke her family’s honor and was often punished if she was not chaste. Tests of chastity, both medical and mystical, were used on women to verify their status.
One such test was checking for a hymen, the thin flap of skin located just inside most women’s vaginas at birth. If the hymen was still intact, the woman was said to be “virgin.” This test had been developed or adopted by various cultures.
In the past few decades, the term “virgin” has become confusing as people try to label persons of both genders, transgendered persons and all sexual orientations.
The old concept of checking for a woman’s hymen to determine virginity is being thrown out as more is understood about the hymen. Not all women are born with hymens. Even when born with a fully intact hymen, the membrane is so thin that it often breaks with normal physical activity, such as running, gymnastics or horseback riding.
Today it’s assumed that “virgin” means not having been penetrated sexually. But “de-virginizing” penetration is still unclear – does it mean penetration by a penis, finger, tongue or experience alone?
Even more confusing is how society judges a virgin. Sometimes the name is used condescendingly, sometimes in high regard and sometimes simply stated as a fact.
So there you have it — the history and confusion of the word “virgin.” Because society is still confused, it’s up to you to develop a personal interpretation.
Many would like to regain the association of the word “virgin” with power, extending to all persons. However you decide to personalize the term, don’t force your interpretation on others. If you or your potential partner discuss virginity versus non-virginity, make sure you’re clear on your definitions.
Last Reviewed: October 2019