On Hymens, Strength, and Nationalism
A few years ago, I was invited to give a talk at a reputedly radical university during that institution’s “Mexican Week,” an event celebrating the inauguration of a new Mexican ambassador to Canada (the country in which I work and teach). I was invited to speak on a topic of my choice treating women’s history in Mexico. Since I was in the midst of writing the first chapter of a book that I have recently published, I seized on the opportunity to present this material in a talk I entitled “The Evolution of Virginity in Mexico, 1772 to 1885.” Imagine my surprise when I received the following response to my proposal from the scholar who had invited me to speak: “I’ve spoken to the other members of the committee and incredibly, they find the title (not the subject) a little too strong for the conference. Is there a way that we can get away with a softer title?” My host proposed “Changes in attitudes toward women in Mexico, 1772 to 1885.”
So much about this response surprised me. On the one hand, I confess to having felt a little flattered. As I told my contact, I had never been censored before, so it was exciting to experience it for the first time. But I also had a hard time understanding why I was being censored. (I had not, after all, proposed a talk entitled “The History of Mexican Whores.”) The celebration of virgins has an august history in Mexico. The Viceroyalty of New Spain’s ecclesiastical hierarchy undertook various campaigns to promote the popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an incarnation of the Virgin of Immaculate Conception, beginning in the late seventeenth-century; by the end of the following century, Guadalupe had become an iconic symbol of patriotism in Mexico. Was it disturbing to merely hint at the physical fact of sexual penetration by uttering the word “virgin”? Or was it off-putting to acknowledge that virginity is not immutable but, like other aspects of female biology, has a changing history? Finally, I wondered, what was “strong” about virginity? And why should a seemingly feminist organization want to ensure that women’s history remained “soft”?
The Mexican Hymen
I accepted the idea of changing the title of my talk, while maintaining its contents as planned – a discussion of virginity’s changing importance to the Mexican nation over time. My presentation focused on the discussion of a bizarre 1885 medical text I had come across in my research, a work by Francisco de Asís Flores y Troncoso, pharmacy professor at the Mexican School of Medicine entitled El hímen en México, a work contributing to the blossoming late nineteenth-century field of “hymenology studies.”1 When the day arrived, I set out to explain to a crowded room of incredulous listeners how in his study, Flores had produced a tract he hoped would be used in legal contexts when plaintiffs or defendants needed to demonstrate the likelihood of rape or deflowerment. He thought his formula might be useful in instances when brides wanted to refute charges of prior sexual experiences or when reluctant grooms were fighting breach of marriage lawsuits.
Flores aimed to create a classification system for the Mexican hymen in order to catalog its physical attributes and, in particular, to generate a formula by which to measure the force of the resistance characteristic of various forms of the hymen. Examining the bodies of 181 subjects (apparently cadavers) to which he had access in Mexico City’s School of Medicine, Flores experimented with the different degrees by which distinctively shaped hymens might resist penetration whether by “the penis (in ravishment or rape), the finger, the mouth of a bottle, a plug, etc. (in lesbian lovemaking).”2 The formula he eventually generated posited that Tm = P × t, where Tm represented mechanical force, P the sum of all forces and t the time involved “to overcome the resistance of the labial hymen.”3
Audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats as I explained the formula. I resisted the urge to display on the overhead screen a massive projection of one of the decidedly “strong” illustrations that Flores included in his tract, the “hímen herradura” (horseshoe-shaped hymen) pictured here. (My passing reference to the similarities I saw between Flores’s preoccupations and Republican Congressman Todd Akin’s notorious 2012 observation that “in a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,”4 drew only frosty bafflement from my audience, which I was again at a loss to interpret.)
Flores was particularly proud of having detected the herradura hymen because he claimed that hymens in this shape were found more frequently in women in Mexico than in those of any other nation. The herradura hymen, according to Flores’s calculations, was less resistant to penetrating forces than either the “labial” or “anular” varieties, but (happily?) stronger than the “semilunar” hymen with which it had been previously confused.
Flores’s text, jarring and ridiculous as it seems to current readers, was a celebrated work in its own time. Late colonial Mexicans had celebrated a virgin as a symbol of creole patriotism. One century later, Mexicans championed virginity in a new guise. Flores’s work, along with a host of materials dealing with public sanitation, policing, incarceration, and health, was among those chosen to represent Mexico’s national scientific achievements in the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Flores’s quest for the identification of particularly Mexican features of women’s reproductive anatomy was reflective of his era. As historian Laura Cházaro argues, several of the most respected obstetricians of the period, including Flores’s mentor, Juan María Rodríguez, located an array of distinctive physiological attributes typical of Mexican women, including pathologically narrowed pelvises, shorter perinea, and vulvas that were differently oriented from those of women from other nations.5 Both Cházaro and Verena Radkau argue that Mexican obstetricians sought to create the notion of Mexican women’s problematic reproductive anatomy in the late nineteenth century to demonstrate the need for their own professional interventions at childbirth.6
Francisco Flores’s text also suggests another change in late nineteenth-century perceptions of women’s bodies in Mexico: a desire to render women’s bodies more legible. Until this period, Mexican medical authorities judged that there were few biological signs that reliably demonstrated whether or not women were technically virgins and whether or not they were pregnant. French physicians François Mauriceau and Jean-Luis Baudelocque, whose works circulated in Mexico in the eighteenth century, asserted, for instance that the presence (or absence) of the hymen was not demonstrative of virginity, for, according to Baudelocque, “the hymen can exist even after a woman has undergone the approaches of a man, and even when she is pregnant; and this membrane can be destroyed by causes that have no bearing on the achievement of this moral virtue that lone merits the name of virginity.”7
By the time of his text’s publication one century later, however, Flores sought to shift the apprehension of virginity from the moral to the material plane. The field of hymenology claimed to make it possible to measure individual (and national) hymens’ likelihood of resisting penetration. Flores remarked in the preface of his work that his work mattered because “civilized nations all scrutinize [virginity’s] maintenance.”8 Flores’s era marked the onset of a dramatic expansion of both obstetrical and public scrutiny of women’s sexual and reproductive practices. In the decade in which he published his tract, denunciations for the crimes of abortion and infanticide in small communities in Mexico rose dramatically. Family members, employers, and neighbours began paying attention to the sexual lives of women in their midst on a scale that they had not done in earlier decades — or centuries — in Mexico. This scrutiny, notwithstanding the Mexican Week organizers’ preference for avoiding the public discussion of such “strong” topics, has only intensified with time.
- Francisco A. Flores, El hímen en México (México: Oficina Tip. De la Secretaría de Fomento, 1885). Return to text.
- Ibid., 55. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Lori Moore, “Rep. Todd Akin: The Statement and the Reaction,” New York Times (August 20, 2012). Return to text.
- Laura Cházaro, “Mexican Women’s Pelves and Obstetrical Procedures: Interventions with Forceps in late 19th-Century Medicine,” trans. Paul Kersey. Feminist Review 70 (2005), 100-115. Return to text.
- Verena Radkau, “Los médicos (se)crean una imagen: Mujeres y médicos en la prensa Mexicana del siglo XIX,” in Género, familia y mentalidades en América Latina, ed. Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru (San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1997), 127-159. Return to text.
- Jean-Luis Baudelocque, Principes sur l’art des accouchements par demandes et réponses en faveur des élèves sages-femmes (Paris: Germer Baillière), 59, emphasis in the original. Return to text.
- Flores, El hímen en México, 20. Return to text.
Nora Jaffary is Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905 and False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico.