A hymen does not a virgin make
Aletta Jacobs (1854 – 1929) was the first Dutch woman to complete a university education. She had to jump through a number of hoops to get where she got. First she had to get permission to attend classes at a polytechnic. Next she had to get the state’s permission to attend med-school lectures at the university of Groningen, and finally she had to get state permission to take her exams.
After she had finished her education, she became an MD in Amsterdam, where she introduced the diaphragm for birth-control. Contrary to doctors of her time who apparently were prescription engines, she believed in informed patients. Part of getting people to know their own bodies was a well illustrated book she wrote, and that Project Gutenberg recently re-published, called De Vrouw, haar bouw en haar inwendige organen (The woman; her construction and her internal organs). She published it in 1999 so that women could get to know their own bodies better. She felt this was necessary; as she wrote in her introduction:
De schromelijke onbekendheid van velen, zelfs van ontwikkelden, met het kunstig samenstel van hun eigen lichaam heeft mij meermalen getroffen.
Vooral van vrouwen was ik dikwerf getuige van de gebrekkige kennis van het lichaam in het algemeen en van den bouw, de ligging en de verrichting harer geslachtsorganen in het bijzonder.
(I have noted on several occasions that even educated people sometimes don’t know how their own bodies work. Especially women know little about their bodies in general, and little about the way their reproductive organs work.)
As I am wont to do with such books I leafed through this one in the expectation that I would find a heavily self-censored work. I have seen sex-ed texts much younger that would basically boil down to “girls can sleep in, boys need to wake up early so that mother can change their sheets,” and illustrated anatomy books in which the areas that house our reproductive organs were pictured just as blank as central Africa on 19th century maps. But Jacobs, albeit sometimes a bit clinical in tone, did not shy away from discussing sex and reproduction candidly. Her style is looser than you might expect from a 19th-centurier, which makes the book readable even now.
These things alone would have been insufficient for me to spend time discussing this work here if it hadn’t been for a news item I caught on the radio a couple of weeks ago. A hospital in Utrecht had started handing out pills to young muslim women that would help them to simulate bleeding of the hymen on their wedding nights. Apparently there are young men that still believe* that a woman is property, and that an undamaged hymen is a fool proof indicator of virginity. Little do these men know that they themselves are the fools.
But the thing is, no matter how ignorant the argument, you start to make room for it in your mind. You figure that if even today young muslims still think the hymen is an indicator of virginity*, then perhaps our enlightened ideas about female sexuality are relatively new, and they just haven’t reached everybody yet.
Except of course that what we know about the hymen is not so new at all. Jacobs wrote in 1899:
Bij geslachtsgemeenschap of anders bij de eerste baring wordt het hymen vernietigd. Doch ook op andere wijze kan het verloren gaan, zoodat het gemis volstrekt niet aan eerstgenoemde oorzaak behoeft te worden toegeschreven, evenmin als de aanwezigheid een volstrekt bewijs is, dat geen geslachtsgemeenschap plaats greep.
(During sex or otherwise during the first time a woman gives birth the hymen is destroyed. It can however also be lost in other ways, so that a lack of hymen need not be attributed to sex, just like the presence of a hymen is not proof that a women has not had sex.)
*) There is a trap I fell into when I first wrote this, which is that I assumed that the need for such a pill indicates that this is how some young Dutch muslims think. Apparently though it is a tradition in some cultures that the man shows the bloody bed sheet of his wedding night to his parents. The bride may merely be thinking of helping her husband; if the sheet is blood stained, he won’t have to lie to his parents.