TW: sexism, sexual violence
Spoiler warning: Spoilers for all A Song of Ice and Fire books.
In the world of Westeros, whether someone is a maiden (virgin) or not can be a matter of national importance, as seen in Cersei’s plot to have Margaery arrested in A Feast for Crows:
‘We insist that His High Holiness allow our own maesters to examine my good-daughter, to determine if there is any shred of truth to these slanders. Grand Maester Pycelle, you shall accompany Septa Moelle back to Beloved Baelor’s Sept, and return to us with the truth about our Margaery’s maidenhead.’- Cersei Lannister, Cersei X, A Feast for Crows.
Here Cersei argues that to prove if Margaery has had sex or not, her vagina should be examined to see if her maidenhead (hymen) is “broken”. In a feudal world, without DNA-tests, it’s considered very for everyone involved to be certain that a queen has only had sex with the king, and that her children could only be his. This is something the excellent podcast Learned Hands lays out in their episode about laws surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality in Westeros. (2020) However, such virginity norms and virginity checks, are also a tool for patriarchal control, both in our world and the world of Westeros. In this essay I therefore want to discuss some instances where virginity norms and checks turn up in ASOIAF, as well as compare them to such occurrences in our world.
I should preface this by noting that I work within the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and have specifically worked with sexual education. When working with sexual education for teenagers and young adults, one topic I’ve covered is virginity (or sexual debut as I usually put it when teaching) and the myth that is the hymen. The word hymen comes from the Greek word for membrane, but to call it a membrane is incorrect and misleading (RFSU 2017). The hymen isn’t a brittle membrane that can be punctured, it really consists of multiple folds of mucous membrane, which is why some SRHR organisations have started calling it “the vagina corona” instead. Nevertheless, the idea persists that when someone with a vagina has sex for the first time, the hymen will break, and the person will bleed. But as RFSU (a Swedish SRHR organisation, that have been working with sexuality education since 1933) puts it:
The vast majority of women don’t bleed. No matter what their vaginal corona looks like, fewer than half of all women bleed when they penetrate their vagina for the first time. Of those who do bleed, few do so because the corona was tight; instead, there are other reasons. If you were not sexually aroused, but rather tense, nervous and too dry, minor ruptures may develop in vaginal corona and may bleed. But this has nothing to do with how many times you’ve had sex. (…) The various myths and the incorrect assumption that there is a covering membrane have given rise to expressions such as “breaking the hymen” and “deflowering”. These usually refer to a woman penetrating her vagina for the first time, either by herself or by having sex with a partner. What’s actually there, is the vaginal corona, consisting of elastic folds of mucous tissue, which can’t be ruptured by a penis or any other object inserted into the vagina. When the mucous tissue is stretched, minor ruptures sometimes develop and may smart a little. These soon heal, usually within 24 hours. (RFSU 2009, 11-13).
That’s to say, someone might bleed the first time they have penetrative sex, but that’s generally due to being insufficiently aroused and/or wet. And that might happen the 100th time someone has had sex, not just the first time. The hymen is not broken the first time you have sex. Furthermore, as RFSU also points out:
Looking at a man’s penis and a woman’s vagina, it’s equally impossible to tell whether that person has ever had sex. Neither a gynecologist nor a sex partner can tell whether you’ve had vaginal, oral, anal or manual sex. No-one else can detect whether you’ve had sex. (RFSU 2009, 17)
Let’s repeat that: No one can detect if you have had sex. Two things to note, however: 1: if someone has used sexual violence towards you, that violence can leave traces, and medical processionals can help in such cases. 2: the text I’m quoting is very cisnormative and assumes that everyone who has a vagina is a woman, and that every woman has a vagina. This is of course not the case, but I’m assuming the text has (unnecessarily) been “simplified” for educational purposes. However, since society generally assumes that women have vaginas, attempts at controlling women and women’s sexuality have usually included control of the vagina, uterus, etc. As researchers note, virginity norms and controls are definitely part of a patriarchal framework (Cinthio 2015).
Before returning to the world of Westeros, I want to expand a bit about why virginity norms and controls are so patriarchal. Virginity control/testing is described by researchers as follows:
During this examination a young woman is more or less forced to show her intimate parts of her body/genitals in front of the examiner, who ascertains whether the young woman has had vaginal intercourse by examining the vaginal opening. In a health care setting, it is often a physician who is responsible for the examination and for reporting his/her findings to the requester of the test. (…) The examination is based on the assumption that virginity can be verified, although researchers claim that that may not be possible because the hymen is elastic, and that the ‘ state of the hymen ’says very little about a young woman’s experience of vaginal intercourse. According to Pelin, virginity testing is framed by a double standard as men are not subjected to this type of judgment and the whole society supports the idea that young women must remain virginal until marriage in some contexts. (Christianson & Eriksson 2015, 182)
Researchers such as Christianson and Eriksson argue that such examinations can be seen as a form of gender-based control, specifically male control over female sexuality. Having interviewed midwives about their experiences of virginity controls, they note that midwives asked to participate in them are often torn between frustration about this oppressive and scientifically inaccurate procedure and wanting to help the girl they’re told to examine. Therefore, they might go through with the procedure so they can report that she is a virgin, if they fear that her family might punish her for not being a virgin, for instance. The roots of such behaviour and social norms around virginity go deep. As noted previously, a woman’s virginity has also been very important historically.
Throughout history, marriage in most societies has been a crucial factor in societal dynamics. Seen from a global perspective, self-chosen love as a condition and a fundament for marriage is a late-modern and still quite marginal phenomenon (for an in-depth discussion on this topic, see for instance Coontz 2005). Regarded as a family affair, marriage has been a collective matter more based on pragmatic concerns—social stability, politics, strategy, economy—than on the manifestation of two independent individuals’ mutual romantic feelings. Marriage has been a means to ends such as proliferation of the clan, power over assets, control over individuals, conflict resolution, and alliance building. In traditional patriarchal societies, where gender roles are clearly defined and very rigid, a man is valued primarily for his ability to guard, represent, and provide for his family members, and a woman not only for her reproductive and nurturing qualities but also for her virtue and chastity, which affect her reputation and are essential to her marriageability. The bride’s virginity may in fact be considered an actual, tangible asset for which a high price is paid, and whenever a conception can generate capital, there is an incentive to preserve it. (Cinthio 2015, 184)
This idea, that a woman’s chastity is central to her value, and must therefore be protected/controlled is very clear in ASOIAF.
Now, back to ASOIAF. In the books, we hear of “taking” someone’s maidenhead several times, as well as discussions about if a maidenhead is broken or intact. One such example is in A Storm of Swords when Qyburn mentions to Jaime that he had examined if Brienne was still a maiden, seemingly in order to ascertain that she’s still a maiden as this would impact her ransom (Jaime VI, A Storm of Swords). According to Qyburn “her maidenhead is still intact.” But, the most thorough discussion about the intactness of maidenheads comes in A Feast for Crows, when Cersei means to frame Margaery for treason. When Cersei recruits her Kettleback to seduce Margaery, she clarifies that he should take her maidenhead “assuming she has one still.” (Cersei IV, A Feast for Crows). Later she asks Taena Merryweather about Margaery’s wedding to Renly, and Taena notes that they claimed that the marriage was not consummated, and that no sheet (with potential blood) was shown afterwards. Cersei then thinks that:
A pity. Still, the absence of a bloody sheet meant little, by itself. Common peasant girls bled like pigs upon their wedding nights, she had heard, but that was less true of highborn maids like Margaery Tyrell. A lord’s daughter was more like to give her maidenhead to a horse than a husband, it was said, and Margaery had been riding since she was old enough to walk.
(Cersei VI, A Feast for Crows)
Cersei is of course half-right here. The absence of a bloody sheet does mean little (since not everyone bleads), but the part about giving her maidenhead to a horse is also incorrect. This is in fact a myth that RFSU directly address in the same text as I quoted earlier in this text: “Since the vaginal corona isn’t a brittle membrane, physical exercise doesn’t affect it. The vaginal corona is located 1–2 cm inside the vaginal opening – in other words, entirely within the vestibulum.” (RFSU 2009, 12). Nevertheless, this passage from Cersei VI confirms that Cersei in fact knows that looking at someone’s maidenhead would not prove if they had been sexually active. Even so, she continues with her plot, and in Cersei X we hear testimony from a septa who have examined Margaery who state that Margaery is not a maiden, and that:
‘I examined her myself, at the behest of His High Holiness. Her maidenhead is not intact. Septa Aglantine and Septa Melicent will say the same, as will Queen Margaery’s own septa, Nysterica, who has been confined to a penitent’s cell for her part in the queen’s shame. Lady Megga and Lady Elinor were examined as well. Both were found to have been broken.’
This testimony is then used as part of the case against Margaery and ensues her imprisonment. But, as both Cersei and someone aware of the actual physiological makeup of a vagina know, it’s not actually possible to tell if someone’s been sexually active by any such examination. Virginity testing is just a patriarchal way of controlling women and women’s sexuality. That Cersei would resort to such tactics is hardly surprising considering her internalised misogyny, and how she’s learnt the hard way how the patriarchy views powerful women.
So, in conclusion, the hymen is a myth, yet a myth very much alive in many people’s minds, a myth that is used for patriarchal control. It’s not possible to see if someone has been sexually active by examining their vagina, yet this is done both in fiction and in real life. It’s therefore very realistic that it would happen in ASOIAF too, but at least it’s (somewhat) pointed out to us how such ideas are problematic. Furthermore, it becomes clear in the story how norms around virginity are used to control women. After all, no one cares if a young lord sleeps around before marriage, but if a woman does it, she’s damaged goods (see the case of Lysa). One should also consider how someone generally is perceived as losing their virginity the first time they have penetrative penis-in-vagina sex, which of course excludes many forms of non-heteronormative sex. Virginity is in the end a social construct which serves to centre women’s value to that of wife and mother.
Christianson, Monica & Carola Eriksson. 2015. “Promoting women’s human rights: A qualitative analysis of midwives’ perceptions about virginity control and hymen ‘reconstruction’.” The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care, 20:3, 181-192.
Cinthio, Hanna. 2015. “‘‘You go home and tell that to my dad!’’ Conflicting Claims and Understandings on Hymen and Virginity.” Sexuality & Culture (2015) 19:172–189.
Learned Hands. 2020. ”Episode 6: ”Let’s Talk About Sex, Pt. I” Podbean, June 15, 2020. https://www.podbean.com/media/share/dir-5vfqq-930de5e?utm_campaign=w_share_ep&utm_medium=dlink&utm_source=w_share
Martin, George RR. 2005. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bentam books.
Martin, George RR. 2011. A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold. London: Harper Voyager.
RFSU. 2009. Vaginal corona Myths surrounding virginity – your questions answered. Available online: https://www.rfsu.se/globalassets/pdf/vaginal-corona-english.pdf
RFSU. 2017. “Vaginal corona,” RFSU. December 12, 2017. https://www.rfsu.se/om-rfsu/om-oss/in-english/national-work/sex-and-relations/the-vaginal-corona/
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