In the northern states, male virginity prior to marriage was considered the ideal state, the hallmark of a gentleman. In the more overtly patriarchal South, where masculine identity was bound up with principles of strength and dominance, it was considered a deficiency. To repress sexual desire was to go against nature and would lead to that most undesirable condition, effeminacy. Furthermore, unpractised husbands were thought likely to fail in satisfying their brides, and thereby their duty as men, on the wedding night.
The brides themselves, of course, were expected to be virgins. This created a dilemma for the men, who had to derive their pre-marital experience from somewhere. The result was a binary system of stereotypes played out along predictable Madonna-whore lines. Women with whom one slept were “the dirty little sluts” to which Shreve refers. Their sexuality was seen less as an element of their own identities and more as a function of the man’s: by using them as an outlet for his own ‘animal’ urges, he was able to justify a paradigm which construed them as ‘base’ and which, by dint of contrast, further elevated the class of woman towards which his marital ambitions tended.