Virgin Land: Young Women and Sexual Citizenship in the Contemporary United States

Jaimalene Justine Hough, Purdue University


Second-wave feminist scholars Gerda Lerner, Mary Douglas, and Fatima Mernissi argued that the concept of virginity is a necessary precondition for the existence of the patriarchal nation-state. Each of these scholars encouraged other feminists to further investigate this connection. Recent work on shifting norms of sexual citizenship in the United States, a growing body of work on the history of purity culture, and girls’ experiences in the U.S. each analyze this connection but these literatures often do not speak to each other. My work puts these bodies of literature in conversation with each other. I analyze the rhetoric of virginity in medical, legal, and popular culture documents during the World War II era (1940-1945) and the early War on Terror (2001-2008). This juxtaposition allows the consistencies in the use of virginity discourses in the creation and maintenance of patriarchal state power at home and abroad to become more visible. I use close reading of film, television, and WWII propaganda posters as well as rhetorical analysis of medical journals, surgeon general statements, and legislation from both eras along with abstinence-only curricula. I use a Gramscian concept of hegemony to understand why and how virginity evolves in different communities and different eras. Chapter one lays out the theoretical foundation of the argument by showing how the rhetoric of virginity fits into a Gramscian definition of common sense which maintains the hegemony of the patriarchal state while also defining how I will use the terms “virginity” and “patriarchy” throughout the rest of the manuscript. Chapter two looks at the medical rhetoric surrounding virginity in surgeon general statements, medical journals, position statements from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and information provided by the Centers for Disease Control. Chapter three builds on chapter two’s analysis of how medical communities define virginity to show how these medical definitions impact legislation regulating female sexuality. Chapter three uses sources ranging from laws against prostitution, restricted access to reproductive health services, and guidelines for federally funded sex education curricula. Chapter four uses close readings of anti-venereal disease propaganda posters in the WWII era as well as film and television aimed at adolescents in the early War on Terror to show how the medico-legal discourses of the previous two chapters emerge into popular culture. Finally, chapter five synthesizes the previous four chapters and suggests ways for activists and educators to implement better sex education and sexually transmitted infection prevention by replacing the concept of virginity with the more fluid concept of sexual debut. I show that virginity is a necessary precondition for the existence of the patriarchal nation-state and that replacing the concept of virginity with sexual debut creates a more equitable basis for understanding adult sexuality. Further, understanding the connections between virginity and patriarchal power allows for the imagining of alternative, and even queer, formulations of power and community.




Vostral, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American studies|Womens studies|History|Public health|Public Health Education|Sexuality|Gender studies|Sociology

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