In order to rationalize the “natural order” that allowed the female body to conserve its pure, virginal state until nuptial consumption, ancient culture and medicine constructed the idea of a sealed womb. In the process of nuptial consummation, the woman’s vaginal canal was thought to widen, which was evidenced by the deepening of the girl’s voice, as her throat was thought to symmetrically widen upon her first sexual experience. Similarly, Soranos details the violent breaking of internal vaginal folds and their supporting uterine vessels upon a woman’s first sexual experience, which permanently changes the female body to be more open. Echoes of this “sealed womb” notion can be seen in the contemporary understanding of the “hymen,” or the internal vaginal membrane that partially or fully covers a virgin’s uterus; wedding veils can also be thought as symbolic projections of the hymen, which protects the bride from external dangers in her vulnerable passage between her father’s and husband’s care. As with today’s cultural obsession with “popping her cherry,” Soranos and even writers of Deuteronomy believed that heavy blood flow was to be expected with a virgin’s first experience with sexual intercourse, as the aggressive phallic force of the penis destroyed the protective tissue around or on top of the womb. This actually led to an ancient Jewish and early Christian tradition of checking the nuptial sheets after consummation, with large blood stains validating the virginity of the bride and therefore the legitimacy of the marriage. Hesiod’s myth, in which Pandora opens her own metaphoric womb-jar without phallic help, serves as a cultural cautionary tale against women that elect to change their own anatomy, as they will create evil and disorder in the world.
The social construction of virginity, while at the center of primary cultural rituals, is surely problematic for many of its followers. Firstly, in connecting nuptials to sex, our cultures define the main objective of marriage to be defloration and eventual procreation; using language, such as “gametes,” only further associates conception with marriage, as if to invalidate any nuptial union that cannot create or does not desire children. Continuing, the sacrificial nature of wedding rituals objectifies women by reducing them to lamb-like entities that shuffle between the masculine protection of their father and their husband. Similarly, wedding attire equates purity to beauty, as if to associate shame and dirtiness with female promiscuity. As Rosenberg states, while much of the cultural and medical constructions of virginity tell young women how to understand their body, these constructions more importantly inform men how best to perform their masculinity. To be a “correct man” who followed the medical and cultural ideas of Mediterranean Antiquity was to be so sexually aggressive that you would make your newlywed wife violently bleed upon her first sexual experience.
Sex does not have to be marital, nor does it have to be painful. What sexpectations made by writers and physicians over two millennia ago do you still hold on to in your body image, marriage plans, or biology textbooks?