June 7th, 2016
The idea of virginity is firmly anchored in religion and influenced by a variety of social forces that have led to its circulation across cultures for centuries. It popularly refers to a state of sexual inexperience, but has historically been primarily associated with women.
Specifically, an intact hymen (named after the Greek god of marriage) has been used as an indicator of female virginity. And the loss of virginity has been associated with sexual intercourse (defined here as penile-vaginal penetration), which perforates the hymen, leading to bleeding. There’s no complementary cultural indicator of male virginity.
Hymens and virginity
Contrary to popular belief, the hymen doesn’t completely cover the vaginal opening. If it did, women wouldn’t be able to menstruate. The hymenal tissue wears away with time and the opening widens as a result of exercise or tampon use. Hymens come in different shapes and sizes – some women are even born without one. Human hymens have no clear biological purpose.
The association of virginity loss with a penetrative vaginal sexual act is problematic because it makes heterosexual sex the standard by which we understand virginity. But virginity and hymens continue to be a matter of life and death for women in cultures where a high value is placed on the former. In religions such as Islam, Hinduism and various sects of Christianity and Judaism, premarital sex is often forbidden.
Bleeding during the first marital intercourse becomes “proof” of virginity. And some cultural rituals involve a bride showing her blood-stained bed sheets to her husband’s family. Between 40% and 50% of women don’t bleed upon having sex for the first time. But this doesn’t alter the weight attached to the hymen in some cultures.
Time to re-virginise?
Women who are not virgins often have to engage in an elaborate deception in order to ensure nuptial bleeding because a lack of blood can lead to the annulment of a marriage or, in the worst cases, honour killings. If there’s any suspicion that a woman is not a virgin, she might be even be forced to have her virginity confirmed by a gynaecologist.
Understandably, many women are terrified of their wedding night. They may perform virginity by hiding a small vial of animal blood in their wedding dress to spread on the bed sheets. Other women purchase a fake hymen to insert right before intercourse. In more extreme cases, women “re-virginise” by undergoing hymenoplasty, a procedure in which the hymen is surgically repaired.
Despite limited statistics, doctors in United Kingdom suggest that the number of women asking for a hymenoplasty is increasing. Women there are paying up to ₤4000 and enduring a recovery period of several weeks in order to have their hymens restored for just one night. The situation is most likely similar in Australia.
But there’s a lack of data about the effectiveness of the procedure and its complication rates given the secretive nature of the surgery. And it’s not just women from conservative cultural backgrounds who are “re-virginising”. Affluent women are also doing it as a “gift” to their male partners, as a means of re-energising their sex lives.
The search for youth
Hymenoplasty, then, is also a response to the stigma surrounding ageing for women. The restoration of the hymen is often coupled with vaginal tightening so women can look and feel “younger”. Sadly, not only are women expected to be eternally “girlish” – they are also expected to be eternally “virginal”. Clearly, we should be deeply concerned with the cultural obsession with virginity.
Women are risking their lives and their health in order to be “virginal” (primarily for men). This leads to a sexual double standard in which women are solely responsible for maintaining some kind of “purity”. Women are taught from a very early age that their virginity is precious, that chastity is important and that premarital sex is shameful. Ironically, we fail to recognise that the emphasis on female virginity (in Australia, at least) sits against a backdrop of much more insidious forms of sexualisation during girlhood (such as padded bras for seven-year-olds).
In spite of what culture tells us, virginity as such doesn’t exist. We can’t see it or touch it. It doesn’t give us any physical or evolutionary advantages. Virginity is a psychological state and hymenoplasty is a troubling response to an issue so deeply rooted in sexual and gender inequalities.
van Moorst, B., van Lunsen, R., van Dijken, D., & Salvatore, C. (2012). Backgrounds of women applying for hymen reconstruction, the effects of counselling on myths and misunderstandings about virginity, and the results of hymen reconstruction The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, 17 (2), 93-105 DOI: 10.3109/13625187.2011.649866
O’Connor M (2008). Reconstructing the hymen: mutilation or restoration? Journal of law and medicine, 16 (1), 161-75 PMID: 18807803
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