Monday, November 19, 2007

The hymen as honest signal

A recent set of comments on an evolutionary psychology [sociobiology] discussion list:

JB: In monogamous species, the threat to the male (from the female) is cuckoldry, and the counter-threat to the female (from the male) is abandonment. The presence of the hymen is a clear signal to the male that the female is not promiscuous (or at least hasn't been so far), that she is prepared to make sacrifices for this particular male, and so on -- all of which seem to serve the purpose of diminishing the above threat and counter-threat. As a rule of thumb, anything that happens to serve a biological purpose well should be considered as an adaptation for that very purpose.

RB: In Japan some women pay to have their hymens repaired after sex.

EO: Iris claims that you and she believe that human females have no hymen pain at first intercourse. No doubt for some cases this is true, however I know that losing a hymen can be extremely painful and that anticipation of this pain can exercise a powerful inhibitory effect against first intercourse. I remember well being in the next room to my buddy and his girlfriend as he tried repeatedly all night to overcome her fear and pain. She wanted to do it but was nearly hysterical with fear and was yelling and crying with pain much of the night from his repeated attempts. I didn't get a wink of sleep all night because of the racket. This girl had been putting off her boyfriend for a year or two for this reason, so having a hymen was definitely delaying the age of first intercourse for her.

SM: Yes, virginity in a female mate is obviously prized by a male. 1. She can't be already pregnant by another male. 2. She can't have in her genital tract sperm from another male to compete with his. 3. She is likely not to already have a mate or even a suitor, and therefore won't be 'mate guarded'. 4. She is at the very start of her reproductive life and not far short of the peak of her fertility, so any sex that may lead to a pair bond could lead to a lot of sex and reproduction in the future. It takes a determined ignorance of EP [evolutionary psychology] to not see the value of virginity.

Julian: Thank you, J and S, for amplifying my original suggestion, which I now think may have real merit. I have yet to check Daniel Rancour-Laferriere's useful book on such topics, which may cover this issue. To add to R's comment, Greek girls in Australia are reported to get hymen reconstructions for cultural reasons and the same is true in the Muslim world by all accounts. E's experience reflects my own. I used to read my sister's girls' magazines, and one of the commonest letters to the editor asked if tampons would affect a girl's hymen. Clearly modern women are still concerned about such issues.

Thank you to J-e for her recent long posting, a quotation which tends to confirm my understanding of the facts. The human hymen has acquired great cultural significance as a marker of virginity. When asked what it was for, many pious folk would have said that it is God's way of showing that a young woman is pure (a view I have some sympathy with); more scientific folk would have referred vaguely to hygienic advantages. But, from an evolutionary psychology perspective, I think it is quite fruitful to see it as a form of honest signalling and its existence as contributing to successful pair bonding.



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