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

Gerold Firl (
22 Nov 1995 12:48:38 -0800

In article <48c2ie$> (Stephanie G. Folse) writes:

>In article <>,
>Gerold Firl <> wrote:

>At the moment, I cannot recall any hunter-gatherer societies that place
>emphasis on female (or male) virginity.

Me neither, though that doesn't mean much; I'm not that familaiar with those
aspects of H-G cultures.

>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...

OK, if we follow the line of reasoning which looks to male and female
strategies for maximizing biological fitness, and consider the hymen as an
analog of the seal on a jar of jam, the utility in terms of a paternity
guarantee seems very limited.

>>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?

Given that horticulture is only about 10,000 years old, it seems very
unlikely that the hymen could have evolved outside the H-G mileau. However,
if we accept the suggestion that current H-G cultures do not place a great
emphasis on virginity, then we have a bit of a puzzle ... here is a thought
about variations in the cultural significance accorded to virginity over
time and between cultures: the advent of a sedentary, high-density
lifestyle makes it *easier* for a man to monitor the activities of his
wife/wives; they do not tend to roam as far afield as women in H-G
cultures, and there are more people around to observe them and possibly
inform him of what they do, and with whom. It thus becomes *possible* for a
man to have some confidence in his paternity, and his control of female
reproductive options can be (statistically) maintained over her entire

In an H-G culture, where women are engaged in more independant activity
foraging away from camp, paternity becomes less certain; it could be argued
that this actually places a *greater* significance upon virginity than what
is found in more settled economies. If a man can infer a statistical
confidence that at least a woman's *first* child is his, then he will have
a greater stake in supporting her and that child. Hence, we get a more
cohesive society and a positive selection pressure for a physiological
guarantee of virginity.

Speculative, but plausible.

It still leaves the question of why we do not see an emphasis on virginity
in current H-G cultures; if it was important enough in the past to lead to
the evolution of the hymen, why is it no longer seen? Are there
counter-pressures which have selected against a culturally-significant
place for virginity among H-G peoples? An interesting question.

>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?

That would be interesting; I haven't heard of any. My expectation is that
if modern h-g peoples did *not* feature the hymen as part of their
equipment, it would be widely known, but perhaps I'm over-estimating the
investigative zeal of anthropologists and missionaries... %^)

>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.

Yes - it would be good to have some actual data on this. Anyone? Is there a
missionary in the house? %^)

>>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.

Let's start with the simplest explanation, and assume that they like it.
There are, of course, degrees of genital mutilation, ranging from the
largely symbolic nick, which may cause no functional damage at all, to
full-blown infibulation, which makes sex and childbirth a real hazard to
health and life. From your description, it sounds like the maasai practice
tends toward the benign end of the spectrum.

>>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 suspect that there is a variation in paternal confidence which varies
with the extent of the mutilation. societies which practice infibulation
probably also have high paternal confidence; of course, that comes with a
price. Societies which use a less drastic operation will obtain a lesser
degree of insurance that the legal father and biological father are the
same person; there are costs and benefits either way. A high degree of
confidence in paternity produces men who are more interested in their
childrens welfare, which is beneficial to society. If, however, that
confidence is obtained at the cost of mothers who have been mutilated in
such a cruel way, the payment is generally deemed too high. My impression
is that not many societies support drastic genital mutilation for women.
The costs are seen as outweighing the benefits.

>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.


One further point: I think the "purpose" (meaning, the reason the custom
exists) of female circumcision really is to increase confidence in
paternity. It doesn't have to work 100%; a 10% increase can be significant.
We see how evolution works with small variations in fitness, and magnifies
them over time into huge changes; culture evolves, too. And while cultures
seem to automatically establish markers to differentiate themselves from
the neighbors, we also seem compelled to borrow and imitate - especially
from those who are successful. Some customs are borrowed with little or no
understanding of what or why is being borrowed, e.g. cargo cults.
Circumcision may be an example, sometimes.

I think it's important to understand where such customs come from, and why
they persist. someday, we may be able to use such knowledge to modify our
cultures to everybodies benefit.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf