Re: Male Virginity and Circumcision (was: Re: Origin of circumcision)

Stephanie G. Folse (
15 Nov 1995 06:49:50 GMT

In article <>,
Gerold Firl <> wrote:
>In article <47rvpv$> (Stephanie G. Folse) writes:
>>Perhaps because these cultures don't place such a big emphasis on the
>>states of virginity and non-virginity that Western cultures do.
>I was wondering about this statement, on a couple of counts. First, your
>use of "western"; don't many non-western cultures, such as chinese,

You're right -- I was thinking "complex" cultures, and I typed
"Western". Sorry. But I still find virginity to be valued differently
among cultures with different subsistence strategies. I've forgotten what
the paragraph was that I was responding to, though, so I'm not going to offer
an explanation as to why I brought the subject up.

>also value virginity? And in some patrilocal tribes, brides move even
>before menarche, which seems suspiciously akin to an attempt to ensure
>virginity. It appears to me that virginity (for females!) is important
>in a wide range of cultures, though I'm not sure if any of the
>hunter-gatherers place much importance on it. The pygmies certainly

At the moment, I cannot recall any hunter-gatherer societies that place
emphasis on female (or male) virginity. It seems to become more
important as cultures adopt herding and horticulture and as male
dominance becomes more of a factor. This seems to go along with the
current theory of female and male sexual strategies being different --
i.e., male strategy is to impregnate as many women as possible to ensure
his genes get passed into the next generation, while the woman's strategy
is to try to get one man as her primary caretaker to help her raise her
child, while trying to solicit men on the side to supplement the care she
gets as well as to remain "back-ups" in the case of death or abandonment
on the part of the father.

As the male role increased in importance in society and males gained more
power over females, they had the power to control a woman's virginity in
order to ensure paternity.

Am I making sense here? Just speculating on the run...

>If, however, we accept the hypothesis that the hymen evolved
>specifically and uniquely in the human lineage (it is not found in
>other primates) then that seems like strong evidence that virginity was
>important in our hunter-gatherer past.

Possibly. Is it possible, though, that the tendency for this membrane to
occur was actively selected for once human society reached a level of
complexity that gives the ability to control women that much? Have there
been any studies that compare the frequency of the hymen occurring in
hunter-gatherer populations (that have been h-g for as long as we can
tell) and other populations?

I know ten thousand years isn't that long a time for a physical trait to
be heavily modified, but if we say that virginity was important to an
extent in the past, then it is possible that the resulting tendency was
heavily selected for in groups that controlled women's fertility heavily?

And we have to consider the question of exactly when it began to occur --
perhaps it was a trait that evolved for some reason in an extinct common
ancestor for some unrelated reason that simply hasn't been fully bred out
of the human line due to a (first) relatively minor emphasis on virginity
and then later more of an emphasis?

It's sort of irking me at the moment that I can't think of any
hunter/gatherer groups that place much of an emphasis on virginity.

>>Frankly, I think this is a major reason why circumcision is common in
>>Western society today. If I was sitting in one of my anthro classes
>>right now, I'd say somthing about it also serving to socialize the child
>>and re-socialize his parents into the Western scientific/technological
>>culture. But I'm not, so I won't.
>Hmm. Probably just as well ... a psychoanalytic treatment of infant
>circumcision, in my opinion, would argue less for a scientific/
>technological inculcation than for a work-oriented anti-pleasure

Comes straight from my Intro to Anthro professor, back in 1988. Robbie
Davis-Floyd, who published _Birth as an American Rite of Passage_,
wherein she argued that modern American birth rituals serve to socialize
the infant and its parents into the scientific/technological culture.
I'm not sure she mentioned circumcision (I didn't finish the book), but
it would fit right in with her hypothesis. God knows, we got told about
it enough in class :). Seems to me that rites of passage and their
purposes and results are very anthropological in nature. Involving a
specific individual, psychological. Involving a culture, anthropological.

>training. Cutting an infants foreskin (note the lack of anesthetic)
>seems like an introduction to a culture where enjoyment is subordinated
>to achievement, and where successful individuals become inured to

Perhaps. Or perhaps the lack of anaesthetic says something about the
cultural perceival of an infant as not fully human yet.

>>Remain uninterested in sex? Try telling that one to the Masaai women who
>>remain quite interested in sex after their clitoridectomies. As Cecil
>>Adams puts it, clitoridectomy affects your ability to have an orgasm in
>>the same way that chopping off your feet affects your ability to polka,
>>but it doesn't destroy your pleasure and delight in all other aspects of
>>sex. Caresses and kisses feel just as good after as before. This is
>>another example of Western ethnocentrism, I think -- the belief that
>>orgasm is the only thing that is attractive about sex.
>Caresses and kisses may actually feel *better* after clitoridectomies
>and infibulation, especially in comparison to intercourse, which can be
>very painful and injurious. I don't call it a "western bias" to believe
>that genital mutilation causes a decrease in sexual pleasure; that's
>pretty basic physiology.

It was not the decrease in sexual pleasure I was arguing against. I was
very clear that there *is* a major effect on sexual pleasure. It
was the emphasis placed on the orgasm and the belief that achieval of
an orgasm is the primary reason for sex that I was calling Western bias.

>Are masaai women interested in sex because they enjoy the physical
>sensations, or because of other connotations, such as pregnancy and

They claim it's because they like it. Take that to mean what you will.

>childbirth? If the latter, then we see a straighforward material
>"benefit" to genital mutilation: it increases the degree of confidance
>which men have in the paternity of their children. This has all kinds
>of repercussions on the social structure of the society and the family,
>which could, in some sense, "justify" the suffering of the individuals.

But it does not decrease the amount of extramarital sexual activity Maasai
women engage in compared to societies that do not practice genital
mutilation. Maasai society has very few prohibitions on extramarital
liaisons and has a high degree of extramarital sexual behavior. It is
easy to draw the conclusion that the presence of female genital
mutilation in this society does not provide males with much of a
guarantee of paternity.

I do not dispute that societies that do this claim they do it because
they think it controls paternity. But it obviously doesn't do that great
a job. I would venture to guess that there may be another force behind
the practice that perpetuates it. I have no guesses as to what that may
be, because I haven't done the research necessary to find out. Maybe it
has more to do with reinforcing the relative status of males and females
within the community. I don't know. But it's an interesting question to
look at.

Stephanie Folse

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