Virginity taboo: Is it time to denote the symbolic value of a term “virgin”?

In the opening paragraph of his essay „Virginity Taboo“, Sigmund Freud states that „Few details of the sexual life of primitive peoples are so alien to our feelings as their estimate of virginity, the state in a woman of being untouched.“[1] This first sentence already brings us a lot of contexts what does Freud, or better yet the time he is living/ writing this text conceive as virginity. As we can see, virginity is a physical category rather than mental, and as the author states, it is a specific „state“ for females of human species. Already here we can notice the fallacies in the idea of virginity but also it is obvious that this is a great and interesting topic for someone as Sigmund Freud because the distinction manages simultaneously to showcase the distribution of power between the sexes, the prohibition that shifts and restricts the way human animals act/react on a mental stage. 

As Freud shows further on, this „primitive“ behaviours, imposed virginity (in this context imposed means either way imposed by oneself or someone else) is social as well as the religious custom of certain cultures, and it all comes from a simple-minded fear followed by reluctant abuse of gender privilege as he states: „Whoever is the first to satisfy a virgin’s desire for love, long and laboriously held in check, and who in doing so overcomes the resistances which have been built up in her through the influences of her milieu and education, that is the man she will take into a lasting relationship, the possibility of which will never again be open to any other man.“[2]

The question of woman’s purity, already here is connected to lack of man’s self-reliance, confidence, his fear of underperforming which roots can, of course, be found in already coined and well used Freud’s terms. But before he analyses this more deeply, he prescribes the expression ‘sexual bondage’ chosen by von Krafft Ebbing to describe this phenomenon. And here is where things get rather interesting. As Freud writes: „This state of bondage is, accordingly, far more frequent and more intense in women than in men, though it is true it occurs in the latter more often nowadays than it did in ancient times.“[3]

Noticing the disbalance between the sexes and lack of rationality that should have come with the passing of times, Freud analyses how did the society come to this taboo in a first place, and he comes to another interesting observation, in primitive societies. As he showcases from the works of others (Ernest Crawley, Max Bartels, Hermann Heinrich Ploss) primitive societies had put a certain value on virginity in a rather ceremonial religious sense. He gives examples of Australian tribes where the artificial rupture of the hymen in infancy/ puberty happens combined with a ceremonial act of intercourse. He also gives an example of the Masai (in Equatorial Africa) where defloration is performed by the father of the bride, with Eskimo tribes where it is performed by a priest, while in the Philippines there were men whose profession was to deflower brides.

Three explanations of virginity taboo

Freud furthermore asserts that there are various factors which can be used to explain taboo of virginity and in this work, he focuses on giving three explanations which bring relevant insight for his later, central part of the essay. 

He starts his explanation from a point of when a virgin is deflowered. Coming from a common prejudice, that he even calls the “rule”, that blood will be shed, Freud gives the first attempt of explanation. As he states primitive races consider blood as the seat of life so the horror of blood among them brings defloration as a taboo. This is connected with the prohibition against murder, the protection against “the primal thirst for blood”, and it is not only the defloration that is taboo here but he states the taboo of virginity is connected with the taboo of menstruation, which is almost universally maintained even up to today. He states that in his book Totem and Taboo he explained the menstruating girl as a taboo because she is, as he states “the property of this ancestral spirit.” [4]For this first attempt of explanation Freud is aware of the lackyness of argument because the primitive people on the other side had blood ceremonies as circumcision, as well as sacrifice. 

In his second explanation, which is once again unconcerned with sexuality, he suggests: „that primitive man is prey to a perpetual lurking apprehensiveness, just as in the psychoanalytic theory of the neuroses we claim to be the case with people suffering from anxiety neurosis. This apprehensiveness will appear most strongly on all occasions which differ in any way from the usual, which involve something new or unexpected, something not understood or uncanny.“[5]

What Freud is suggesting here is that the virginity consensus and mindset has arisen from the contact with the unknown that is still somehow familiar, a new light on already known situation (uncanny). As he further explains, that is how later religions and traditions have built ceremonies/ practices that followed up the act of the first, marital, intercourse. Some of these traditions are still lasting, and with a quick search, I was able to find that in rural places in Kosovo there are still ceremonies after the first marital night, where the white sheet with its „red stain“ gets hung out on the washing line for all to see.

Freud’s third explanation follows Crawley’s taught as he explains it: “Woman is not only taboo in particular situations arising from her sexual life such as menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and lying-in; apart from these situations, intercourse with women is subject to such solemn and numerous restrictions that we have every reason to doubt the reputed sexual freedom of savages.“[6]

This makes a rather great claim for Freud and his psychoanalytical studies as well as a great place to start objecting and building some kind of feminist theory. The woman is getting oppressed by a shear inner fear of a man, of his primitive, ancestral superstitions, the need to explain the world by building the fictional enemy, the other. Any act of a woman, when she is positioned in this mindset of otherness, is a treat to the man and his power, even today.

Even with #metoo movement and 5050 by 2020 woman are still being seen as a threat, their fight for equality is often interpreted as claiming the power, taking the privilege and oppressing man while all they are doing are taking away the privilege and posing the threat to the inequality. This inequality was built upon the ages because of the differences in anatomical structure, because of the oppression towards them that has its core in Crowley’s statement that menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth things that are basic parts of human nature are being seen as unnatural, foreign, simply taboo. Virginity actually might be the most insane taboo of them all because it is completely built upon a faulty and incomplete knowledge of female anatomy.

Crawley’s taught is something that Freud further on analyses and gives his thoughts about and it is the central piece that just might, up to a certain point, try to give the explanation why was in 1918, as well as why is today in 2020, female virginity something we are still considering in terms of “bleeding after first vaginal penetration” as well as why is it taboo.

Women’s hostility/ Men’s fear

As Freud focuses his writing on „what men are entitled to fear“ / „women’s hostility“ he reviews several possible explanations why women may develop hostility toward their first lover and those are the frigidity of the first sexual experience, the lack of excitement in lawful sex, a fixation of the libido, and “penis envy”.

He comes to his first point, frigidity by next statement: „We consider it to be the normal reaction for a woman after intercourse to embrace the man, pressing him to her at the climax of satisfaction, and we see this as an expression of her gratitude and a token of lasting bondage. But we know it is by no means the rule that the first occasion of intercourse should lead to this behaviour; very frequently it means only disappointment for the woman, who remains cold and unsatisfied, and it usually requires quite a long time and frequent repetition of the sexual act before she too begins to find satisfaction in it.“[7]

Freud attributes this initial frigidity by describing a certain concern about the pain which defloration causes a virgin, but he also attributes frigidity to the narcissistic injury suffered by a woman due to the “destruction of an organ” as well as to „removal of her sexual value“. By today’s standards, we see this is troublesome, as we are aware that there is no destruction of an organ as he describes it, and that the sexual value is a rather manipulative tool, which once again comes from primitive man perspective and fear of underperforming. 

In his second point of „woman hostility“ Freud talks about the lack of excitement in lawful sex. Freud explains it in the sense that when something is prohibited, it becomes more desirable. But when the marriage occurs, the prohibition gets removed, by Freud the woman loses excitement because intercourse has become lawful.  

Here, for a transition for his third point, he awakes his ideas of the castration complex, in a certain sense. For Freud castration complex is: The castration complex is explained by the primacy of the penis in both sexes, and there is already a hint of its narcissistic significance: ‘… already in childhood, the penis is the leading erotogenic zone and the chief auto-erotic object; and the boy’s estimate of its value is logically reflected in his inability to imagine a person like himself who is without this essential constituent’[8]

In this sense castration complex within a female perspective as Freud reads it is the absence of a penis, experienced as a wrong suffered, which female tries to deny, to compensate for it or to remedy it. Freud further in his essay about virginity taboo talks about woman’s early sexual wish toward a father figure on whom she has fixated libido and because of this, the first person that has intercourse with a woman can never fulfil the position on the first person within her fantasies.

The first act of intercourse activates in a woman other impulses of long-standing as well as those already described, and these are in complete opposition to her womanly role and function. We have learnt from the analysis of many neurotic women that they go through an early age in which they envy their brothers their sign of masculinity and feel at a disadvantage and humiliated because of the lack of it ( actually because of its diminished size) in themselves. We include this ‘envy for the penis’ in the ‘castration complex’. If we understand ‘masculine’ as including the idea of wishing to be masculine, then the designation ‘masculine protest’ fits this behaviour.[9]

During what Freud describes in this writing as a case of penis envy, girls often are open of their behaviour, they try to urinate standing upright like their brothers to prove the equality which they claim. Freud draws a parallel between this and the case where the woman shows uncontrolled aggression after intercourse towards her husband, whom she loves. 

Simpler and a bit better explanation of penis envy states that: Penis envy originates in the discovery of the anatomical distinction between the sexes: the little girl feels deprived concerning the boy and wishes to possess a penis as he does (castration complex). Subsequently, in the course of the Oedipal phase, this penis envy takes on two secondary forms: first, the wish to acquire a penis within oneself (principally in the shape of the desire to have a child) and, secondly, the wish to enjoy the penis in coitus.[10]

All in all, Freud justifies men’s unconscious fear of deflowering a woman and even that he presented in-depth arguments on the taboo of virginity, he does not provide a global conclusion for his perspective. Towards the end of the article, he rather takes some examples from literary pieces that provide examples of virginity as a taboo. 


The piece of essay that encapsulates the best Freud’s point on virginity taboo would be: “We may say, then, in conclusion, that defloration has not only the one, civilized consequence of binding the woman lastingly to the man; it also unleashes an archaic reaction of hostility towards him, which can assume pathological forms that are frequently enough expressed in the appearance of inhibitions in the erotic side of married life, and to which we may ascribe the fact that second marriages so often turn out better than first. The taboo of virginity, which seems so strange to us, the horror with which, among primitive peoples, the husband avoids the act of defloration, are fully justified by this hostile reaction.“ [11]

Freud within his analysis does give several good points that might have truly brought value to the feminist discussion of the time, but in the final part of his essay, he manages to escape from any deeper responsible debate/ original thought. 

Even from the psychoanalyst perspective, it is rather hard to see the deeper value of implication risen above. Yes, once again Freud takes another societal issue and manages to apply his theory to it, but in this case, even he is in great doubt about his statements, because of the multiplicity of variables, as this is a general talk about the topic.

I find it quite interesting, from today’s perspective to see how Freud simply misses that issue of the taboo lies within the power positioning within society and relies on preset rules. „The cure“ in this case doesn’t necessarily stand in accepting the normative, and applying the basic ideas in a healing process, but rather in changing the paradigm, denoting the symbolic value of a term „virginity“ and constructing the new normal with openly speaking and seeing virginity simply for what it is, the act of sexual intercourse between two persons, where at least one has no previous experience nor knowledge about the coitus.

  [1] Strachey, J. (1957). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI (1910): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, London; p. 193

[2] Ibid p.193

[3] Ibid p.194

[4] Ibid p.197

[5] Ibid p.197

[6] Ibid p.198

[7] Ibid p.201

[8] Laplanche, J., Pontalis, J.B. (1973). The Language of The Language of Psycho-Analysis. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, London; p. 56

[9] Strachey, J. (1957). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI (1910): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, London; p.202

[10] Laplanche, J., Pontalis, J.B. (1973). The Language of The Language of Psycho-Analysis. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, London; p. 302-303

[11] Strachey, J. (1957). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI (1910): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, London; p.208

Ljubljana, 1.7.2020.