During a summer I spent in Seoul, I dated a Korean National and got the scoop on a popular procedure on the plastic surgeon's menu -- loosely translated "the Pretty Girl Operation." A euphemism, I was to learn, for getting sewn back up. Or to put it more technically, the hymenoplasty, whereby the tissues of the hymen are surgically reconnected to restore virginity.
My then-boyfriend, who enjoyed observing my you've-got-to-be-kidding-me facial contortions, would regale me further with anecdotes of newlyweds returning hastily from their honeymoon on Cheju Island and breaking up after the bride failed to bleed on the bed sheets. She had apparently overlooked the purchase of fake blood capsules that brides would stow away in their suitcase to mimic the obligatory stain of innocence, he speculated.
Having grown up in the States, a healthy red-blooded American, albeit Korean-American girl, I deemed these ploys of chastity's proof to be not only anachronistic, but slightly outlandish, like some scene from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Far from being judgmental, I was fascinated. Unexpectedly titillated, as though I were looking through a keyhole at something I shouldn't be seeing. And that something, I was to conclude years later, was a part of me -- and the secrecy of my own sexual life. Secrecy not in the admission of fact, but in the feelings it aroused. Feelings that could only be described as deep shame.
Was this another example of taking the Korean out of Korea, but not the Korea out of the Korean? In essence, yes, as all the women who'd come before me, and the mother who'd raised me, had been steeped in Confucian ethics, which decreed virginity before marriage.
And yet, according to my boyfriend/personal social guide, premarital sex was common in Korea. Not surprising, considering the ubiquity of yugwon, or love motels around Seoul, and more recently DVD rooms, where young couples can "relax" in a private room, with a DVD and a cozy sofa.
The difference between premarital sex in the east and west was in the admission. In the face that you showed in public. Lying about whether you were a virgin was the standard way you dealt with the double-bind of satisfying desires and the resultant guilt and shame instilled by a repressive Confucian ethos. An MO, which -- as anything hidden does -- only produces greater shame.
The climate is rapidly changing, however. Though the hidebound Confucian tradition still holds sway over sexual behavior, or at least the attitudes towards such, Koo Sung-Ae, the Director of Purun Ausung (the Sex Advice Office) offers a new definition of purity:
"Previously, purity was the idea of an intact hymen," she says. "The word purity should have the meaning of being pure-hearted, not preserving chastity. Purity is keeping faith between lovers. Keeping purity of mind is more important than losing virginal purity. If you understand why you want to have sex and know clearly who your sexual partner will be and when to have sex, losing your virginity should never be a problem."
In light of this evolution, I went to do my own research on the topic of virginity to understand what it originally meant -- and how it came to possess such life-and-death import. What I found was that the word "virgin" was rife with contradiction and complexity -- before it became bowdlerized to the simple and straightforward meaning of vaginal intactness and inexperience.
According to Esther Harding in her book Women's Mysteries, the virgin goddess "does not reserve herself for the chosen man who must repay her by his devotion, nor is her instinct used to gain for herself the security of husband, home and family. She remains virgin, even while being the goddess of love. She is essentially one in herself. Her divine power does not depend on her relation to a husband-god, and thus her actions are not dependent on the need to conciliate such a one or accord with his qualities and attitudes. For she bears her divinity in her own right."
So the virgin's intact quality referred originally not to an unbroken hymen, but to an inner integrity. The mythic virgin followed no one, neither husband nor the collective at large, but only a directive exclusive to the laws of her own nature. The virgin is, in essence, whole-in-herself.
Thus it is ironic, or rather erroneous, to put this original definition in the context of a sexual relationship, whereby wholeness of the inner integrity becomes translated as the wholeness of a part of the vagina. A displacement, a synecdochic sleight of hand, which has effectively and for centuries controlled women's sexuality through the mechanism of shame.
This doesn't hold true just for Korea and neo-Confucian ethics. Shame is universal; it is human. For the Judeo-Christians, it makes its debut early in the Bible, at the beginning of the world, when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden apple.
Shame is woven into the fabric of our consciousness -- and into the fibers of our flesh. The only recourse towards a proper social evolution is a re-examination of the concept. A dispassionate inquiry into the propaganda of shame. And the politics of purity.
Koo Sung-Ae was on the right path, as her redefinition transfers purity from body to mind. But to me, the definition of virginity inheres more deeply at the interface of mind and body-- in the soul. A resolution that does not sacrifice the body for the mind and vice versa, but weds them so they are in synch.
All things considered, I've concluded that virginity is a combination of self-knowledge and the courage to follow that inner truth -- apart from the inherited mores of culture, tradition and family. In essence, I see virginity as an unwavering loyalty to one's soul.
It is this state of "purity" that must be attained before the self can be given away. And this giving away, or "loss of virginity" in our colloquial parlance, has to do with translating the conviction of what must be done, what gifts and talents must be given to the world, into the reality of earthly form.
In this way, one's virginity is truly lost or sacrificed -- as any idea or inner pattern manifested in reality will never retain the intactness of virginity. Instead, its maiden perfection will die, its hymen torn, as the idea is born into creation, graced with all the inherent grit and blood of the physical world.
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