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Throughout the fall, some of the more sensationalist media outlets to the south have been reporting on the entrepreneurial progress of one Natalie Dylan. It seems Ms. Dylan, a California co-ed, is partnering with a brothel, the Moonlight Bunny Ranch in Nevada, to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder. The proceeds will be used to cover the costs of Ms. Dylan's higher education: She wants to go to graduate school to become a marriage and family therapist.

With bids topping $3-million (U.S.), she may never need to work again after putting in her one shift at the ranch.

This situation raises so many issues of contemporary concern that it is almost paralyzing to consider where to begin. It may help us to understand how and why Western society has come to this if we take a look at the history of virginity that underlies Ms. Dylan's astonishing act of self-sacrifice ... or self-mutilation, depending on one's perspective.

One of the values shared by traditional cultures around the world, past and present, is the privileging and protection of female virginity.

This increases a bride's value on the marriage market, not so much because she has an intact hymen, but because her husband-to-be can be sure he is not marrying a woman pregnant with another man's child.

Over time, societies have come to fetishize virginity. The annals of history are replete with cases of men raping girls as young as 7 or 8 to ensure the victim was a highly prized virgin.

In ancient Rome, the well-being of the state rested on the purity of a group of priestesses known as the vestal virgins. These women were accorded extraordinary status, respect and influence, along with freedom from male control. However, if a priestess lost her virginity, it threatened the security of the whole society.

Consequently, vestal virgins who lost their virginity were condemned to death.

Within Christianity, a virgin was also held in high regard. Among the early Christians, facing persecution and torment, the lives of the virgins were particularly inspiring. These girls and women went to heroic lengths to maintain their chastity as a sign of their faith and commitment. During the violent persecutions by the Emperor Diocletian, Saint Lucy refused to marry in order to preserve her virginity. This so outraged her tormentors that they consigned her to a brothel (from which fate she was ultimately saved, virginity intact).

This link between brothels and the taking of virginity resonates with Ms. Dylan's choice of locale.

Virginity no longer carries with it the sacred power of the vestal virgins. Nor, in an era of DNA testing, is virginity necessary to deduce paternity.

What is troubling about this new twist to the issue of defloration, and Ms. Dylan's commodification of her hymen, is what it reveals about contemporary sexual values.

The auction is based upon the notion that there is some intrinsic value in a physically intact hymen, and more importantly, that there is some value in rupturing it.

And that is what is most disturbing: There are still people who cling to old-fashioned views about deflowering a virgin.

There are still men who are sufficiently intrigued or turned on by the idea of the bloody rough and tumble sometimes associated with breaking a hymen that they would pay millions of dollars for the experience. Ms. Dylan reinforced this subtext of violence when she admitted that she hoped the man who won the auction would be gentle.

So we might want to ask just what the motive is for this auction. To defile the sacred? To go where no man's gone before? Or is there a whiff of misogynistic violence behind the act of rupturing Ms. Dylan's hymen?

Is this a more subtle form of sexual violence, in this case orchestrated by the victim herself?

Jacqueline Murray is professor of history at the University of Guelph.

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