In Western culture, virginity these days means a lot less than it once did, particularly for women. Until not to long ago, sexual chastity was supposed to be the central concern of every woman until she started having kids (in marriage, of course). Female virgins have held a lot of power in Western cultural history, from the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome to the Virgin Mary and modern-day nuns, and girls were supposed to "hold onto" their virginity until they could lose it to a legal husband. Men, however, often weren't subject to the same idea, and that tends to show up in disparities between the experiences of male and female historical figures losing their virginities.
While the "purity myth," as Jessica Valenti called it in her book by the same name in 2009, continues to have strength in American society and elsewhere, modern focuses on the loss of virginity tend to look at how it works psychologically, and what value people invest in it as young people. The cultural trappings of virginity in the time of Catherine the Great, Napoleon, or even Edvard Munch were freighted with different feelings, from concern to desperation; but it's always been a momentous moment, no matter how famous the person who feels it.
Here are seven of some of the more notable ways historical figures reportedly lost their virginities.
Julius Caesar's Alleged Fling With A King
The head of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar, earned himself some enemies while he climbed to power, which means that we can't be entirely sure whether the story of his loss of virginity is truth or gossip. The Roman historian Suetonius noted that a young teenage Caesar was thought to have lost his virginity through a dalliance with King Nicomedes of Bithynia, a Roman province in what would later be Turkey. Suetonius reported that young Caesar "dawdled so long at the court of Nicomedes that he was suspected of improper relations with the king," and the rumors dogged him throughout his professional life; everybody from colleagues to Cicero apparently teased him about it. Whether it's true or not remains totally unclear.
Lady Frances Howard's Virginity Test
One of the most famous losses of virginity in history, well, wasn't. Lady Frances Howard had been married to the 3rd Earl Of Sussex when they were both teens, and they weren't permitted to consummate the marriage until they were older; but Lady Frances sought a divorce in 1609, years after adulthood, alleging that she remained a virgin and that the Earl was unable to do the deed. The case became a kind of he-said-she-said, with the Earl asserting that Frances (who was having an affair) harangued him so much that he couldn't perform for her.
Most famously, though, Frances was given a "virginity test" by ten old women and two midwives, who determined that she was still a virgin (presumably because her hymen was intact). Scandalmongers, though, insisted that Frances had been substituted for somebody else under a veil "for modesty." It took King James I's intervention to grant the divorce.
Catherine The Great's Pinch-Hitter
In time, rumors of Catherine the Great's sexual appetite would be one of the most ridiculously overworked bits of her legacy; but the loss of her own virginity was all a bit haphazard. At the age of 15, she was engaged to Peter, the son of the current Russian Empress — but Peter showed a complete lack of interest in consummating it, a fact that Catherine bemoaned in her letters and that many other people in the court were aware about. She was teased for her virginity for years after her marriage, and attempted a lot to try and lose it, including imprisoning herself and her husband in the same part of the palace together.
Eventually, however, other courtiers seem to have intervened; Catherine wrote in her memoirs that they heavily suggested she take a lover in order to give the royal family an heir. She obeyed, and her first affair (and lost virginity) was with the dashing Serge Saltikov, of whom she wrote that he was "handsome as the dawn." Saltikov was probably the father of her first child, a boy.
Napoleon's Prostitute In A Palace
The most famous Frenchman who ever lived, Napoleon's romantic history has mostly focused on his time with Josephine, the Empress, and their passionate, doomed relationship; but his entrance into the sexual world in 1787 was, according to him, a bit less salubrious. As a lieutenant in the French army at the age of 18, he recorded, he decided to seek out some fun in Paris's Palais Royale, these days a collection of fashionable boutiques. In Napoleon's youth, though, it was a good place to track down some less exclusive entertainment.
He apparently questioned a prostitute about her own life history and how she lost her virginity, and once she'd got the drift of the conversation, she recommended that they go back to her brothel and enjoy a good old-fashioned deflowering. A historian notes that it seems he was only "successful" with the fourth prostitute he tried.
Edvard Munch's Adultery In A Forest
The painter of "The Scream" left an unusually detailed account of his lost virginity, under pseudonyms. The pseudonyms were necessary because his fling, in 1885, was with a married woman: Milly Thaulow, the wife of the army doctor Carl Thaulow. His details of the affair between "Brandt" and "Fru Heidberg" are explicit and full of his romantic angst (as you'd expect, because he was pretty young at the time): he loses his virginity in a forest, then is possessed with massive guilt. "He had committed adultery," he worried in his record; "all of a sudden it was all so ugly." Fortunately, he got over the infatuation and Carl never punched his head in.
Maya Angelou's Recalcitrant Body
One of the most brilliant figures in American letters, Maya Angelou's clarity about her own life and experiences is a crucial part of her legacy. And in her "Letter To My Daughter," published in 2008, Angelou revealed the prosaic truth of her own lost virginity:
"A boy who lived up the street from me had been asking me to be intimate with him. I had refused for months. He was not my boyfriend. We were not even dating. It was during that time that I noticed my body’s betrayal. My voice became deep and husky, and my naked image in the mirror gave no intimations that it would ever become feminine and curvy. I was already six feet tall and had no breasts. I thought maybe if I had sex my recalcitrant body would grow up and behave as it was supposed to behave. That morning the boy had telephoned and I told him yes. He gave me an address and said he would meet me there at 8:00 o’clock. I said yes. A friend had lent him his apartment. From the moment I saw him at the door I knew I had made the wrong choice. There were no endearments spoken, no warm caresses shared. He showed me to a bedroom, where we both undressed. The fumbling engagement lasted fifteen minutes, and I had my clothes on and was at the front door. I don’t remember if we said goodbye. I do remember walking down the street, wondering was that all there was and how much I wanted a long soaking bath. I did get the bath and that was not all there was. Nine months later, I had a beautiful baby boy."
JFK's Rumored Adventure In Harlem
The problem with growing up to be the President of the United States is that all your friends from school will remember your misadventures. In the case of JFK, one of the most notable was the removal of his virginity, which was apparently (at least according to his friends) lost to a white prostitute in Harlem as part of a group jaunt with a friend in 1934. He was 17, and he and his friend Lem Billings had reportedly made a pact to lose their V-cards to the same prostitute, though it doesn't seem as if this was necessarily the end result. Later in the year, he was confined to hospital and wrote to Billings about how much he was missing sex, so clearly he'd got the knack of it quickly.