What is a virgin?

In other words, what's the deal with hymens? Also: Can early brain damage cause immoral behavior?

By Robert Burton

Published October 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I have long wondered what the biological and/or evolutionary purpose of
the hymen is. For an organ (membrane, more like) with so much social
significance, its biological significance remains shrouded in mystery.
Salon did a piece on the curious question of nipples on male mammals a while back, and this only opened this question up again for me. What is this self-important little piece of a woman's body?

The hymen really is shrouded in mystery, as you say. I'll tell you what I know. The hymen is a thin membrane that partially covers the vaginal
opening and whose elasticity increases during adolescence. The most common medical abnormality is complete closure (imperforate hymen), which can result in various gynecological complications such as retained products of menstruation. Decrease in the size of the opening is often a cause of discomfort/pain with initial intercourse. This can be relieved via dilatation or a minor surgical procedure.

Hymens are complicated. Forensic specialists often find it difficult to determine whether a hymen is "intact" when they are examining sexual assault victims. Some say that a non-scarred hymen that will not admit a finger is considered "intact"; a hymenal opening accommodating two fingers or a vaginal speculum, with evidence of a deficit or scarring at the lower pole, indicates past sexual (or possibly, non-sexual) penetration. However, other authors note that the hymen is often a slack, thick, folded, stretchable tissue that may persist after digital or penile penetration. A wide range of anatomic variation is common and there are often minor irregularities that have been noted in studies of sexually abused girls. Because of the variation in what is considered "normal," a significant percentage of abused young girls have no definite abnormal findings.

My conclusion: Virginity is often a close call.

An intriguing side issue is the increasing incidence of cosmetic surgery to restore a tattered hymen. Apparently virginity's stock is rising. (Is this something like sending your genitals traveling backward in a time machine?) Given the confusion over normal, I think you're better off claiming innocent until proven guilty rather than submitting to a tissue-enhancement morality hoax.

And about the word itself: "Hymen" throbs with gender confusion. Hymen was either the son of Apollo and Urania (kissing cousin to Uranus) or, according to others, of Bacchus and Venus. He was the god of marriage and presided over nuptial ceremonies. How about the maidenhead being named after a male god as a tidy summary of the history of male domination?

As to its purpose, there is no one agreed-upon medical explanation. Some
believe that the hymen serves as a protective membrane against inadvertent infection in the prepubertal girl. But there is always a problem with attributing purpose to biology. It is true that most body parts have a
function, but this doesn't necessarily imply original purpose. So we continue to speculate. Think of the hymen as an embryological dead end.

I just read about a man in the 1800s who had an iron bar driven through his skull in an accident and it didn't damage his intellect but made him into a different person -- he became a bum instead of a hard-working guy. Can brain damage affect personality and does this help explain these kids who bring guns to school?

Robert Alton Harris picked up his victims at a fast-food restaurant, drove them to a secluded area where he killed them, and then sat down alongside his dead victims and ate a hamburger. Later, his attorneys pleaded diminished capacity secondary to brain damage, primarily from repeated abuse as a child.

In his book "Descartes' Error" Antonio Damasio, one of the world's leading behavioral neuroscientists, reports a case of "Elliott," a perfectly normal man in his 30s who undergoes successful surgery for a frontal lobe brain tumor. Afterward the man appears normal (no paralysis, speech disturbance, intellectual impairment) but his life unravels in a series of personal and economic disasters -- his marriages, jobs, relationships and business ventures all fail.

Though his standard neurological tests are normal (MRI, IQ and memory tests), something is obviously wrong. The dilemma arises: Is this a psychological response to a near-fatal experience, or is there a subtle abnormality in the neural circuitry as a result of the tumor and the surgery? Damasio, a very clever and insightful scientist, probes further, using psychological investigations. He eventually concludes that "Elliott" could "know" without "feeling." When shown gory photographs of accident victims, "Elliott" knows intellectually that he should feel distressed -- but he doesn't feel distressed. His heart rate doesn't change; he doesn't sweat or feel nauseated, though he knows that he should.

His intellect has been shorn of emotional input. He is disconnected from gut instincts and even ordinary revulsion at repulsive sights and thoughts. In a sense, he has been robotized. (Similar to the frontal lobotomy patients of the '50s, but with far less massive damage, therefore lacking in obvious concomitant neurological signs).

Now Damasio has extended his work to young children, with similar results. (Damasio and colleagues at the University of Iowa have recently examined two subjects who incurred prefrontal lesions before the age of 16 months. Both children appeared to make excellent recoveries, but as they grew older, they displayed behavioral problems even more severe than is typical for those with adult lesions: stealing, lying, verbal and physical abuse of other people, poor parenting of their illegitimate children, lack of remorse and failure to make plans for their own futures. There were no obvious environmental explanations for their behavior).

We all know classical sociopaths -- people who seem undisturbed by their adverse effect on others. We shake our heads, can't understand how friends can cheat, lie, steal, philander. What makes them tick? we ask, sensing that something is different, wrong, askew.

If Damasio is correct, abnormal frontal lobe circuitry may be a common theme. Watching O.J. Simpson plead his innocence, I was struck by his absolute calm alternating with indignation. Never did he seem aware of his crime, nor bothered by it. For me, the marvel of the trial was that the man could act so convincingly that you had to believe that he believed that he was innocent.

Could Damasio be providing the explanation?

"Elliott's" perpetually bad decisions are attributed by Damasio to inability to draw upon emotional resources to influence common logic involved in everyday actions. Unable to feel the difference between "good" and "bad," moral and immoral, or even the terror inherent in certain wrong decisions (like investing every cent in a penny stock or cheating on your wife in the front room when she's expected to be coming home with the Girl Scout troop), "Elliott's" thinking lacks emotional confirmation. His choices aren't weighed with emotional consequences.

If Damasio is right, men like Simpson (and perhaps Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic) would be good examples of people with faulty logic based on an absence of emotional input -- and inability to make decisions based on humanitarian principles.

An entire field of affective computing is now blossoming, based on the principle that truly effective decision making requires weighing of emotional consequences. To be good decision makers, computers must be taught to feel. (See Rosalind Picard's "Affective Computing".)

Of course, Damasio's observations still beg the question -- is circuitry physiologically abnormal because of biological factors such as early brain damage, or because of early childhood psychological trauma. In a way, this is splitting hairs. Sociopaths tend to breed sociopaths. Whether this is learned behavior, inherited, or because of physical abuse and nutritional neglect is unclear.

Which leads us back to a horrible philosophical consideration. Assume Damasio is on the right track, that there are people devoid of emotional input who then exhibit amoral behavior. What should be done with such people? Presently neurology is primitive; we know of no way to restore lost functions. Missing circuits cannot be replaced. How should we look upon the damaged?

And conversely, if someone is immoral or amoral, should we forgive/condone his behavior because moral behavior is beyond his ability?

Damasio's work is at the heart of free will, volition, and responsibility. Robert Alton Harris pleaded diminished capacity. If his attorney had cited Damasio's work, the jury might still be out.

Robert Burton

Robert Burton M.D. is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and the author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" and "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind." A former columnist for Salon, he has also been published in the New York Times, Aeon and Nautilus, and currently writes a column at the Cambridge Quarterly for Healthcare Ethics.

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