The Untold Story Behind Humanity’s Obsession With Virginity

Published July 21, 2016
Updated March 19, 2018

From ancient Greece to Britney Spears, this is story of how society came to value virginity -- and how the myth hurts women.

Why Are We Obsessed With Virginity

Wikimedia Commons

Virginity holds a sacred place in many societies across time and place. But just how did humanity come to value virgins — and is this valuation even valuable anymore? If so, at what cost?

Virginity in Ancient Greece and Rome

Diana And Her Nymphs Departing For The Hunt

Wikimedia CommonsDiana And Her Nymphs Departing For The Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens

While virginity today may conjure images of fragility, in many ancient civilizations, virginity signaled a woman’s independence and strength. Virgins were “free women,” not subject to the will of a man.

Far before the advent of Christianity, mythology contained the values of the day, and virgins played a central role in many of the stories. Parthenos, for instance — the Greek word for virgin — referred to the goddesses Athena and Artemis.

Athena was one of the most widely venerated goddesses in ancient Greece. Even the center of Greek civilization, Athens, was named in her honor. She represented wisdom, courage, and justice, and advised kings and warriors in battle. Athena never took a lover or married.

Dedication Of A New Vestal Virgin

Wikimedia Commons Dedication Of A New Vestal Virgin by Alessandro Marchesini

Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt, protected young girls and aided women in childbirth. Case in point: In one story, a man named Actaeon spies on Artemis while she bathes, and the goddess turns him into stag. He’s then eaten alive by his own hounds.

In later Roman society, Vestal Virgins were some of the empire’s most important citizens. These women were priestesses who kept the sacred fire in temple of Vesta — goddess of the hearth — continually burning, a symbolic gesture considered fundamental for the security of the Roman empire.

Vestal Virgins were allowed far more rights than regular female citizens. They could vote, own land, and if a criminal saw a Vestal priestess on the street, he was automatically pardoned.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.