Oh boy, a Thought Post! These are the posts where I talk a bit too much to call it a “Discussion Post”, but a bit too little to call it a “101”. It’s just a bunch of thoughts, and then you can leapfrog off of it.
Female virginity is different from male virginity, because there is a clear physical line. A woman has a hymen, that can only be broken once. Like the ribbon at a store grand opening. A man is like the scissors that cut the ribbon, use them once or use them twenty times, there is no discernible physical difference.
There are grey lines even with that physical absolute. A hymen can break for reasons beyond sex, a fall or exercise or all kinds of other things. And a hymen can also be repaired. In countries where physical virginity is a big deal, to the point of doctor’s providing certificates of proof, a woman might go in for a hymen repair in order to magically replace her physical virginity.
And then there is rape. Which breaks a woman’s hymen, but does not allow her to experience sexual intimacy. Like a horseback riding accident, she has the physical change but not the mental change.
There are orgasms also, which are physical and mental. A woman may experience sexual intimacy many times, the physical act of a penis entering her vagina, without experiencing an orgasm. Or a woman may experience an orgasm without intercourse, in response to a different physical stimuli provided by a partner or on her own.
Which of these is truly losing your virginity? It can’t be the mere breaking of the hymen, because that is not always indicative of a sexual act. And it can’t be orgasms, because those aren’t necessarily directly related to sexual intimacy. And then you land in the vast empty space of “sexual intimacy”. A penis entering a vagina with the woman’s agreement and moderate pleasure. Or, two people causing orgasms in each short of a penis entering a vagina. Or, two people experiencing enormous physical closeness and love without intercourse, or orgasms.
Indian film lives in that empty space. That’s what the privileging of “First Love” is in the films. In Kabhi Kabhi, Waheeda Rahman had sex and got pregnant by her lost love. Raakhee and Amitabh never had sex, but they had a deep emotional intimacy. 20 years later when all these secrets come out, they are seen as roughly equal. Raakhee’s sexless romance with Amitabh is something that “cheated” her husband of a pure bride, just as Waheeda’s sexful affair “cheated” her husband.
Perhaps it is part of privileging the male sexual drive and experience? Raakhee’s relationship with Amitabh would have allowed him to fantasize about her and use her as a trigger for his sexual satisfaction. Thus she was “spoiled” for Shashi who thought of her as his unique sexual possession. In the same way the SMS scandals of unaware young woman being photographed changing “spoil” them because they are used by men for sexual pleasure, although the woman gets no pleasure or even awareness of the encounter.
In the Ramayana, Lakshman the “good” man declares that he cannot even look at Sita, certainly could never desire her, because she “belongs” to his brother. But Raavan, the “bad” man, dares to desire a married woman. None of this has any effect on Sita, neither man touches her, and she is not attracted to either man. But the male reaction to her is seen as making her more or less pure. If a woman “belongs” to one man in particular, that means no other man can even desire her in their thoughts. Conversely then, if a woman is desired by a man in his thoughts, she is soiled and does not fully “belong” to her proper husband.
“First Love” means giving permission to a man to desire you, to think of you sexually. And that is almost as bad as giving him your virginity, perhaps it could be considered as giving him your virginity. In the movies that wrestle with this fully the “good” husband respects the primacy of place of the “First Love”. Not for his wife, but for the other man. The other man was there first, they share her. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, when Ajay learns that Aish was in love with someone else before marriage, he determines he has no right to touch her and must “return” her to her real love. Partly because it is what Aish wants, but also because she does not “belong” to him, but to the other man. In Jeet, when Salman learns the truth months after the marriage, his response is gratitude towards Sunny for “giving” Karisma to him. One of the biggest mistakes of Mouna Ragam (I think) is that Ratnam falls back on this thinking, Revathy reveals that she does not want the marriage because she was in love before this, and suddenly her husband respects her wishes.
Arranged engagements add an interesting twist to this “woman gives her virginity with her heart” concept. In Jodha-Akbar, and in Pinjar (two very different films in every other way!), our heroine is engaged to a man she has met maybe once and never really spoken too. That engagement is broken, and she is married to someone else. But the first fiance is shown to linger as an issue. Although she never spoke with him, the idea of the engagement was in her head, the mental commitment to marrying this particular man, and that alone “soiled” her a bit for the second marriage. Both husbands struggle with worry that their wife would have preferred the other man, even after months of marriage when they know their wife far better than the other man ever did. It shows up even in modern films, in Dil Dhadakne Do Ridhima Sood was a modern Delhi girl whose semi-arranged engagement ended, and suddenly she was “spoiled” in the eyes of the world.
What this gets back to, I think, is the South Asian cultural idea that a woman has only one husband. There is one man who she is religiously tied too and he is her husband forever and ever. Even if the ceremony was done by proxy when they were children and he died before she ever met him, he is her husband and her God forever. It’s a one time loss of marriage virginity and it can happen in a very flexible way.
Going back to the Puranic texts, in the Mahabharata Kunti lost her virginity to the sun God before her marriage. But she did not “marry” him, she just lost her sexual virginity, totally different. She married Pandu who was impotent and never had sex with him. Instead, she had her 5 sons after marriage by other Gods (or, in less mystical interpretations, with wandering hermits who helped her get pregnant to ensure heirs to the throne). Pandu was both her husband, and the father of her 6 sons (including the secret first son from before marriage), because of the unbreakable one time only marriage rituals.
In an Indian film, a young man and woman who exchange “I love you”s have come close to that one time unbreakable marriage idea. Marriage is ideally both the one time a woman has that kind of emotional commitment to a man, and the physical loss of virginity. What the marriage love triangle films do is split that in half. It’s very rare for a heroine to lose her virginity before marriage, but very common for her to make an emotional commitment which she must break for her marriage, and her husband must NEVER FIND OUT, because it would weaken the meaning of her one time only religious commitment to him.
This is also why Indian parents, on and off screen, are obsessed with their children not having “love affairs”. Actual sex, that’s a second level concern, the first concern is merely exchanging Valentine’s cards, holding hands, anything that might indicate the sort of emotional connection is like marriage. That would soil her.
I actually like this disconnect. Because it is a disconnect, really. Losing your virginity and falling in love for the first time are totally different experiences, and equally important. In the best films, the ultimate message is empowering for women, that they can love multiple times and that’s okay, and that they can experience sexual pleasure without necessarily being in True Love with the man just yet. It’s a process. Jeet, that weird film of the 90s, really does a wonderful job showing this. Karisma is super super in love with Sunny, even makes vows to him similar to marriage vows. She breaks them and marries Salman and is sad. She spends time with Salman and gets to know him and be happy with him, but is still a little sad and missing Sunny. She has sex with Salman while in that headspace, and the sex is great. After months of sex and being together, she is totally in love with Salman and not Sunny. But the process of getting over Sunny and falling for Salman didn’t happen with the one sexual encounter. And she wasn’t miserable having sex with Salman because she was still in love with Sunny, she could enjoy the sex even without being completely in love.
Pinjar goes another way and removes the physical almost entirely. Urmila has mentally committed to her fiance without actually knowing him. She is forced into a marriage with Manoj Bajpai who forces sex on her post marriage until he realizes she hates it and stops. For the rest of the film, Urmila struggles with which man deserves her mental and emotional commitment. She had no physical connection ever with her fiance, she had an intense unpleasant physical connection with Manoj until he stopped and would never start again, but if those concerns are removed, which man does she want to give her one time forever emotional commitment? Urmila’s character becomes the rare female character who is not seen as a sex object by anyone, either man in the love triangle or herself, it is a question of relationships without sex and it is still important and painful and difficult for all involved.
And there are the rare films that separate out the physical from the mental part, make the woman lose her physical virginity before her mental virginity. Running Shaadi is most explicit about it, our heroine has sex with a boy she doesn’t care about just because it seems like the thing to do, and after that she suddenly feels overwhelming love and commitment to a different boy. She lost her physical virginity, but the emotional virginity is a much much bigger thing and both she and her chosen lover realize that. Band Baaja Baarat comes at it from a different direction, our hero and heroine have sex but it doesn’t bring them to that emotional connection. It is only much later that they reach full total emotional connection. In Befikre our hero and heroine have sex and even fall into a relationship, but they never had that deep emotional bond, that “first love” commitment. Only after stopping sex, becoming friends, dating other people, do they finally reach the point of one time only monogamous forever and ever emotional commitment. Less common in recent times but present in the older films were the sex worker love stories. The woman who lost her virginity already, but never made that emotional commitment, is still “unsoiled” in that way. Parveen Babi in Deewar, Zeenat Aman in Manoranjan, even Preity Zinta in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve got! A woman’s virginity is a big deal, but also hard to define. In Indian film/culture it seems to be split between her emotional virginity and physical virginity with both of them being important.