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"I will cut myself and smear blood on the sheet": Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance

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Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVirgin Envy
Subtitle of host publicationThe Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen
EditorsJonathan Allan, Adriana Spahr, Cristina Santos
PublisherUniversity of Regina Press
Pages17-44
StatePublished - 2016

Abstract

The virginity test as a practise stretching back to at least the Middle Ages has, in recent western popular discourse, been firmly connected with cultures in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Its appearance, then, in the western-authored sheikh romance is not entirely surprising. This chapter explores the representation of the virginity test in English Orientalist romances from two distinct historical moments: the late Middle Ages and the twenty-first century. This cross-period approach takes a long view of the virginity test, considering how current romance ideologies contrast with those of medieval romance. It antagonises exactly what is at stake in persistent reference to the virginity test in romance literature, focusing on their articulations of certainty and uncertainty, loss and possession. Through close readings of six popular sheikh romances featuring virgin heroines published by the genre’s biggest publisher, Harlequin Mills & Boon – Lynne Graham’s The Arabian Mistress (2001), Lucy Monroe’s The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride (2004), Penny Jordan’s Possessed by the Sheikh (2005), Sarah Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride (2006), Lynne Graham’s The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife (2007) and Chantelle Shaw’s At the Sheikh’s Bidding (2008) – alongside two popular English medieval romances – Bevis of Hampton (c.1300) and Floris and Blancheflur (c.1250) – the chapter considers how the test is positioned in each text and what this reveals about the importance of virginity. To put the testing in context, I first offer a brief overview of virginity testing in European culture. Next, I examine the role virginity plays in these romances, outlining their narrative importance. I then move to a focus on the test itself, indicating how testing for virginity is, in these romances, inherently unstable. In the two medieval romances, virginity test can be manipulated, highlighting the unreliability of the test to prove virginity. In sheikh romance, the ultimate virginity test for heroines is penetrative sex with the hero. Therefore, the moment at which the sheikh realises the heroine is a virgin is precisely the moment she ceases to be a virgin; any proof of virginity identified by penetration during a sex act can only be retrospective. Encoded in the very basis of the sex act as virginity test, then, is a fundamental ambiguity; as Kelly argues, ‘in the end, all tests for verifying virginity are inherently flawed’ (2000, 18). Yet while these retrospective, liminal tests might not be reliable as clear indicators of virginity, they do indicate what is at stake in the ‘loss’ of female virginity; ultimately, testing for virginity functions to secure male ownership of women as part of the romance genre’s celebration of a heteronormative gender system within which virginity is valued.

Research areas

  • Virginity, Gender, Sexuality, Orientalism, Heterosexuality, ROMANCE, fiction, popular culture

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