Concepts of virginity and female purity were long used as means of preserving oligarchy and noble wealth. In medieval Europe they came from the highest classes of lords and kings, men who would pass on their unearned privileges to their eldest sons and did not want to actually confer those honors on another man’s bastard. Elaborate social and legal codes were designed around controlling female behavior to ensure paternity of offspring. Today I want to look at how that played out in Western Europe (particularly the nations which colonized North America) over the centuries, and how that influences 21st century American laws and customs.
First to remember is that these laws were written by and for men in power, to preserve that power for future wealthy men. They were not written for barkeeps or shepherds or peasant laborers. Male primogeniture was the primary rule of succession. The first born son of the king inherited his crown; daughters were often excluded outright and younger sons were spare heirs should something happen to their big brother. The same was true of lords, who ruled over smaller mini kingdoms within their realm.
A titled man’s bastard, his child conceived out of wedlock, could not inherit his title or estate but he might provide for them in some way. This meant that male promiscuity posed little threat to the rules of inheritance, designed to keep certain male lines elevated above others. However, if a noble woman got pregnant by a man not her husband, potentially this secret bastard could inherit, maybe even the crown. If any common man could graft his bastard onto the royal family tree, then royal blood didn’t mean very much.
The first condoms, made from the intestines of livestock, were expensive and rare. Vikings used these hundreds of years before their southern neighbors, possibly to prevent female soldiers falling pregnant during war. In France, England, and Spain, only very wealthy men could easily access them, and even the wealthy, titled women they slept with generally lacked the social power to require condom usage, if they even knew such contraceptive methods existed. Condoms allowed a wealthy man sleeping around to prevent having a bastard child.
Women, whether high borne or servants, did not have the same access to contraception. While a man “sowing his oats” was somewhat accepted, a woman who had sex outside of marriage (consensual or otherwise) was considered damaged property. Any children she bore, ever, would have questions around their parentage and a woman not a virgin by her wedding was frequently presumed to be unfaithful after it. This might mean her children never inherited, and could not provide for her.