Last week at The Atlantic, Abigail Rine described a backlash by some evangelical Christians against equating a woman's worth to her sexual purity, and against the common use of the "damaged goods" metaphor by abstinence advocates to describe a woman who loses her virginity outside of marriage.
Despite the poignant and compelling points made by some of these young women in the article, I'd argue that the case they're making is not new. A century and a half ago, the late-Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy questioned the connection between virginity and virtue in a way that's still fresh and relevant to today's discussion. Hardy challenged a number of his society's failings. In particular, he attacked the hypocritical sexual double standard that came to characterize Victorian morality and which unflinchingly equated a woman's moral character with her virgin status.
The first such challenge appears in a wicked little poem Hardy wrote in 1866 (not published until decades later) called "The Ruined Maid," which satirizes his society's deeming a woman who lost her virginity before marriage as "ruined" (the Victorians' version of "damaged goods"). The poem is a dialogue between two rustic girls who meet up after the long absence of one of the girls. The first girl hardly recognizes her friend, Amelia, who is now dressed in finery and putting on airs:
"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?" —
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.
The jealous friend continues to admire Amelia's improved state and finally laments,
"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"
To which Amelia proudly replies in the closing lines of the poem,
"My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.
Hardy's point is that in a culture that commodifies virginity as his did, the market value of virginity depends on the price it can fetch. In the case of the rustic girl who will never marry out of her class, her virginity will fetch far less than what Amelia gets in being "ruined." More broadly, the poem satirizes the valuation of virginity apart from a holistic view of the person who possesses it. Thus a person is not "ruined" by the loss of virginity per se, but by the society that views her as such as a result. This idea forms the central theme in Hardy's later masterpiece, Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Tess, a classically Aristotelian tragedy in novel form, tells the story of a naïve, innocent girl whose love and life are lost after she is seduced/raped (Hardy makes it less than clear, which is part of the point) and faces life in a state deemed by society—and her true love—as "ruined."
Hardy subtitled the novel, "a pure woman faithfully presented"—and therein arose the great controversy that surrounded the novel.
Considered scandalous for its frank treatment of sexuality as well as its empathetic treatment of a fallen woman, the novel underwent a long publication history marked by various deletions and revisions in order to accommodate the prevailing tastes. Even so, critics deemed the novel "unpleasant" and "full of faults and falsities." (The Atlantic Monthly, however, called it "Hardy's best novel yet.") Essentially,in choosing the word "pure" to describe such a heroine—pregnant and unmarried—and writing in England in 1891, Hardy was calling into question not merely the definition of the word "pure" but also the value system underpinning the Victorian age.