The Virgin Cleansing Myth
One of the worst epidemics in the modern times to take on truly global proportions has been AIDS. AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is caused by infection with HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus. At the end of 2009 there were around 30.8 million adults and 2.5 million children were living with HIV, According to estimates from the UNAIDS Global Report 2010, the region to bear the biggest brunt of the epidemic is Sub-Saharan Africa which even though containing only 10% of the world's population, is home to 68% of all people living with HIV. One of the most tragic fallouts of the epidemic has been horrifying notions like virgin cleaning, borne out of desperation and ignorance.
What does it mean?
virgin cleansing myth refers to the mistaken notion that if a man infected with HIV, AIDS, or other sexually transmitted diseases has sex with a virgin girl, he will be cured of his disease. According to traditional healers and other proponents of this myth the blood produced by deflowering a virgin will cleanse the virus from the infected person's blood.
According to historian Hanne Blank, the origin of the myth can be traced back to Christian legends of virgin martyrs whose purity served as a form of protection in battling demons. Psychologist Mike Earl-Taylor indicates the myth was first reported in 16th century Europe but actually gained prominence in 19th century Victorian England where having sex with a virgin was touted as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea among other sexually transmitted diseases. In South Africa, the earliest recorded incidence of virgin cleansing myth dates back to the end of the Second World War when returning soldiers triggered an epidemic of venereal disease in the Eastern Cape1. Given the immense scale of the AIDS epidemic in Africa in late twentieth century, it was only a matter of time that the supposed beneficial effects of having sex with a virgin should have been thought to extend to men with AIDS or HIV.
How does the myth function?
In an in-depth study titled On the virgin cleansing myth: gendered bodies, AIDS and ethnomedicine2 anthropologist Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala places the virgin cleansing myth in the context of prevalent notions and shared knowledge of Zulu-speaking people and further relates it to ethno-pathological processes, women’s bodies and notions of illness and illness management in the community. As a form of non-ritual pollution, the state of being ‘dirty’ is a central concept of disease among the Zulu. When one says that one has ‘dirty’ kidneys or a ‘dirty’ womb, it means that the person has an illness in relation to these organs. In this culture, the therapeutic process to ‘cure’ the specific illness takes the form of certain steps to ‘cleanse’ that organ of the ‘dirt’. Thus laxatives and enema preparations are used primarily for the cleansing of ‘dirt’ believed to be affecting organs in the abdominal region while Diuretics are used primarily for urinary complaints. Managing illness by taking steps to eliminate the ‘dirt’ associated with the ‘dirty’ organ, can be viewed as a first-line defence against illness and a routine part of most all traditional approaches to therapy. According to local folk models of the human body, any ‘dirt’ responsible.
For causing illness symptoms in a particular body part, has the ability to ‘mix with the blood’ if not cleansed early on when the symptoms first appear. When this bodily ‘dirt’ mixes with blood the result is said to be more generalized illness symptoms than those associated with specific organs or regions of the body.
But then how is this ‘dirt’ thought to exist in the form of HIV infection cleansed by sex with a virgin? Leclerc-Madlala further explains how in traditional Zulu culture, both men and women hold similar views that reflect a symbiotic relationship between women and bodily ‘dirt’. The vagina and womb are supposed to be the two places where ‘dirt’ can ‘hide’, ‘stick’ and ‘grow’ and the disease carrying capabilities are thought to be higher in wet and loose bodies of sexually experienced females as opposed to dry and tight bodies of virgins. In this context a dry vagina negates the fears conjured up by associations of female wetness with ‘dirt’ related to illnesses of all kinds that may have descended from other parts of the body. The belief that sexual intercourse with a virgin can ‘cure’ a man of HIV/AIDS is embedded in metaphoric associations of sexually active women with ‘wet/dirty’ vaginas. According to the virgin cleansing myth, a man can ‘cleanse’ his blood of HIV/AIDS through intercourse with a virgin, but the girl herself would not be infected in the process. In this way Leclerc-Madlala shows how the broad category of prevention-treatment-cure is encompassed in virgin cleansing therapy, whereby sexual intercourse with a virgin is also thought to provide a type of vaccination against the threat of future HIV infection.
Impact of the myth
While the virgin cleansing myth may be rooted in traditional medicinal concepts and ignorance of facts of HIV, the effects of this practice have been far more horrifying. Leclerc-Madlala has recognized the myth as a potential factor in infant rape in South Africa. Another country where the myth is extremely prevalent is Zimbabwe, and here it is perpetuated by traditional healers advising HIV-positive men to cure their disease by having sex with virgin girls3. In fact according to UNICEF estimates, hundreds of young girls have been raped as a fallout of the virgin cleansing myth.
However not everyone is convinced that the high rates of child rape in parts of Africa is a direct cause of virgin cleansing myth. Critics4 point out that the 1% seroconversion rate in the child rape series in Cape Town, mostly in the absence of antiretroviral therapy, would also suggest that this is not an important cause of rape. If it had been, given the extensive injuries common in child rape, a higher rate of seroconversion would be expected. The critics believe that the direction of much of this violence at women and girls might be explained by sex inequalities, a culture of male sexual entitlement, and the climate of relative impunity for rape. According to them Infant and child rape will be prevented only if these issues can be ameliorated. Community definitions of rape need to be reframed so that all acts of coercive sex are viewed as rape, irrespective of the circumstances, and develop an environment in which men are deterred from rape through threat of punishment.
The virgin myth is also thought to be linked to rape in individuals with disabilities. This stems from another misconception that disabled individuals are not sexually active. According to this notion individuals who are "blind, deaf, physically impaired, intellectually disabled, or who have mental-health disabilities" are raped under the erroneous presumption that individuals with disabilities are sexually inactive and therefore virgins. This concept has been explored by Nora Ellen Groce and Reshma Trasi in their work titled Rape of individuals with disability: AIDS and the folk belief of virgin cleansing5.
Many times, the issue of virgin cleansing myth gets bogged down in numbers and statistics of child rapes and their causes. Ultimately the question is not whether or not the virgin myth is leading to increased rapes of children. What really should be a matter of concern is that the same iteration of psychosocial denial that informs public discourse on AIDS in Africa has also seemed to affect public discourses on the virgin myth. It has only been with the increasing media attention given to especially horrific cases of child rape in the past year and the interest shown by overseas press in the issue of rape in African countries, that the virgin myth has got the kind of scrutiny it deserves.
- Science in Africa - HIV/AIDS, the stats, the virgin cure and infant rape
- On The Virgin Cleansing Myth: Gendered Bodies, AIDS and Ethnomedicine: African Journal of AIDS Research 2002, 1: 87-95
- CNN.com living - Child rape survivor saves 'virgin myth' victims
- The virgin cleansing myth: cases of child rape are not exotic. Jewkes R, Martin L, Penn-Kekana L; Lancet. 2002 Feb 23; 359(9307):711.
- Rape of individuals with disability: AIDS and the folk belief of virgin cleansing. T Nora Ellen Groce and Reshma Trasi, The Lancet, Volume 363, Issue 9422, Pages 1663 - 1664, 22 May 2004