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Virginity - a psychological and spiritual re-reading for contemporary women.

I introduce the concept of virginity in my discussion of the tale of the Handless Maiden.

This tale contains many motifs, which are very worthwhile pursuing and examining through the lens of Jungian psychology and philosophy, but the one that I believe to be central to both the tale, and women's psychological health today, is virginity. Below you will find the tale itself: even if you are already familiar with it, a re-reading always brings new insights. Remember that when we enter a fairy tale we are in an imaginal world, where the language is symbol and metaphor. That is, nothing is to be taken literally. In fact, the only reading of a fairy tale that would be misleading is a literal one.

When the handless maiden/young queen goes into the cottage in the forest, she is accompanied by a virgin. So we are introduced to the symbol of virginity. I imagine this virginity to be an interior achievement, as are the other motifs in the tale. I am using italics to alert us to a new usage of the word, rather than the notions of a physical virginity, which has been a cultural ideal, arguably for the benefit of a culture organised around the power of men, or the patriarchy. Luce Irigaray, the French philosopher and psychoanalyst, takes up various ideas that are mainstays of patriarchal culture, and reframes them in a way that makes us think differently, and eventually act differently. The resulting discussion is as interesting to men as it is to women, which will become clear as I proceed.

The English Jungian analyst Esther Harding proposed virginity in the 1930s. Harding’s concern was the individuation of women, and she believed that a woman needed to achieve virginity, by being one-in-herself. She made a clear distinction between the psychology of ‘married women’, to whom libidinal life flows from the other, and the virgin. She describes ‘married women’ as oriented to the other, living their lives around their relationship, whether they are married or not. A virgin, on the other hand, is a woman who, whether in relationship or not, retains her own sovereignty. It is a psychological and spiritual state, not a matter of sexuality. A woman who is actually married might have a virginal attitude, and likewise a woman who is single can be ‘married’ to the patriarchy. It is important that this discussion of virginity is not confused with being sexually active.

Harding analysed various goddesses of antiquity in an attempt to discover the archetypal basis for a virginal feminine. She says this about the virgin goddess:

"She is virgin, even while being goddess of love. She is essentially one-in-herself ... She bears her divinity in her own right…The woman who is virgin, one-in-herself, does what she does – not because of a desire to please, not to be liked, not to be approved, even by herself; but because what she does is true" (M. E. Harding, 1990, p. 125)1.

Luce Irigaray emphasizes virginity as a metaphor of integrity, as a mental or even spiritual state. “When I speak of a spiritual virginity, I allude to the capacity of gathering, keeping and transforming an energy of one’s own” (Irigaray, 2008a, p. 105)2 . She ascribes to women a state of ‘becoming virgin’. She writes:

"There is no doubt we are born virgins. But we also have to become virgins, to relieve our bodies and souls from cultural and familial fetters. For me, becoming virgin is synonymous with women’s spirituality" (Irigaray, 1993b, p. 117)3.

It is clear that neither Luce Irigaray nor Esther Harding are extolling the value of an intact hymen, (being born a virgin) but rather an intact psyche (becoming virgin). Being virgin, that is, not being available for commodification, is what Harding referred to as ‘one-in-herself’. It is not only relations between men and women but ethical relations among women, which are dependent upon a virginal attitude.

The need for a type of relationship between women and men, not predicated upon commodification, not dependent upon that which “flows from man to woman” was outlined by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the early 1900s, in Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke, Kappus, & Mitchell, 1987, pp. 76-78)4. Rilke claims that, in a future time, women “will only in passing be imitators of male behaviour and misbehaviour”. Rilke finds any imitation a “ridiculous disguise” and a “deforming influence”. He feels it is necessary for women to strip “off the conventions of mere femaleness” and the position that “will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male” and be “something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit”5 . This sense of a woman being something in herself, having her own sovereignty, demonstrates the virgin status proposed by Harding and Luce Irigaray. Expressed from a masculine point of view, Rilke realized that he as a man cannot have free and ethical relations with a woman, unless she is free herself.

The love relationship that would result from this transformation of women would no longer be dependent upon the libidinal flow from man to woman, but that which exists between them. If we are in any doubt, Rilke emphasizes the solitude and the separate identity of each partner, which allows for “the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” Luce Irigaray’s comments also evoke encircled solitude, where each partner maintains their own subjectivity, their own individuation: “It is not something which we must exchange, but perhaps a dwelling, a place to remain, a circle to inhabit, a limit in which to rest”(Luce Irigaray, 2001b, p. 116)6. Virginity is thus essential for all women, and is not predicated upon relations with men. What might the notion of virginity say to women who identify as lesbian, or who have no relations with men? It is the whole culture to which both men and women are ‘wed’ that is the problem, not individual men, marriage per se, or relations with men.

What might be some of the difficulties in achieving virginity? Luce Irigaray is concerned that women and girls are inclined to be relational and therefore ‘give themselves away’ too easily, psychologically and otherwise. Possibly stemming from the ‘fusional bliss’ that is ‘characteristic of the mother-daughter’ relationship, it must be overcome in order for a woman to gain full subjectivity. This is the virgin psyche - the thinking and feeling through for oneself - without inclusion in or exclusion from parent, family, culture, or even groups of other women.

It is notable that in the tale, the maiden’s seven years of virginal seclusion (Jung would say separatio), culminate in a coniunctio. This suggests that women need to know autonomy as a prerequisite of individuation. Of course this is also true for men, although achieved in a very different way: the king’s seven years are spent in searching in the world, suggesting that a man’s psychology is developed through his engagement in the world. Or, we can say that the virginal self, for men and women, is achieved through solitude and seclusion from the culture, and on the other hand we need to learn how to negotiate the world before a coniunctio is possible. This is really a summary of Jung’s ideas on individiuation.



Harding, M. E. (1990). Woman's Mysteries, Ancient and Modern. Boston, Shambhala. p. 125.

2. Irigaray, L. (2008). Conversations. London, Continuum. p. 105.

3. Irigaray, L. (1993). Sexes and Genealogies. New York, Columbia University Press. p. 117

4. Rilke, Kappus, & Mitchell. (1987). Letters to a Young Poet. New York, Vintage Books. pp. 76-78.

5. ibid. p 78.

6. Irigaray, L. (2001). To be Two. New York, Routledge. p. 116

© Kaye Gersch 2013. You are welcome to quote from or use sections of this writing, as long as you attribute it to Dr. Kaye Gersch PhD, and, where relevant, provide a link to my website.

Many goddesses of antiquity were "virgin goddesses", who at the same time were goddesses of love.

Mary Esther Harding (1888–1971) was a British-American Jungian analyst who was the first significant Jungian psychoanalyst in the United States. She wrote several very important books featuring the psychology of women, including Women's Mysteries Ancient and Modern. Boston, Shambhala

Rainer Marie Rilke wrote in 1905, in Letters to a Young Poet, that women need to throw off the “ridiculous disguise” and a “deforming influence” of conventional femininity.

Luce Irigaray, feminist pilospher and psychoanalyst who proposed the state of psychological virginity for women.

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