February 18 2021 | Written by Rhea Kumar
For this week’s blog, I intended on delving into the history of virginity, but as I began my research, the little red fruit seemed to deserve a stage of its own. Let’s face it, how did the cherry manage to embed itself into culture and withstand close to a thousand years of cultural shifts? People of the world, I present this week’s blog: A Brief Cultural History of the Cherry as a Sex Symbol.
Culturally speaking, we look to portraits from the Renaissance Era to understand the attitudes and visions of a bygone era. There are very few symbols and customs that have managed to withstand the test of time and that are still ruminated. We no longer punish people by serving them a diet of coarse barley bread, and we don’t view vegetables as a holy commodity consumed only by monks during times of abstinence.
However, there is one, tiny red exception to this: That of the cherry and its symbolic link to virginity.
The cherry and its association to virginity has been documented in the works of Renaissance painters including Leonardo Da Vinci and Quinten Massys long before the terms ‘popping a cherry’ became accepted in the 20th century lexicon.
Charles Cotton’s 1684 poem Erotopolis likened black cherries to a “garden plot of maiden hair,” which, in medieval talk, refers to pube hair. (Will you ever look at black cherries the same again?)
Thomas Campion’s 1617 poem, There is a Garden in Her Face likens the rosiness of a young girl’s face to her unpopped cherry. Campion holds a girl’s virginity in high regard and further interpreation suggests that he is saddened that his beloved virgin’s cherry isn’t ripe as yet and therefore her sex isn’t for the taking anytime soon. Sorry, Campion.
Pubic poetry aside, by the 19th century, the association between cherries and virginity emerged from the shadows and was no longer an artistic abstraction. In 1889, the first modern example of the cherry as reference to the hymen was documented in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Modern Day Cherry Poppin’ in Pop Culture
It’s safe to say that modern day references to cherries as sex symbols have evolved from artistic abstractions to crystal clear messages:
Christina Aguilera’s Candyman:
“I can’t wait ‘til I get home so you can tear the cherry out.”
Sorry to burst your bubble, but let’s get one thing clear: the ‘popping’ of one’s cherry or rather, the breaking of one’s hymen is not a true indication of one’s virginity. In fact, this debate extends far beyond medical research to the Christian understanding of virginity as well. More on that later.
In short: the Middle Age dudes got it wrong.
Sexual history has for too long relied on the hymen- a small tissue that serves no known biological function which occupies the external vaginal opening- as the measure of proof that one has had sexual intercourse.
In a 2019 study published in the Reproductive Health Journal, researchers urged clinicians not to rely on the hymen as a test of one’s previous history of sexual intercourse. This information is crucial in sexual assault cases where international standard has in most cases, relied on the measure of “intact hymen” versus “broken hymen” to base findings.
What the Saints Say
Medical recommendations aside, in The City of God, written in the 5th century A.D by St. Augustine in Hippo, he also agreed that the broken hymen is not indicative of one’s virginity being lost. This statement was based on a story of a virgin whose hymen had been broken during a medical examination.
Sorry folks, though we should appreciate the fact that the cherry has rolled through history and maintained its reputation as a sex symbol, we must acknowledge it for what it truly is: just a symbol.