The hymen is a membrane that partially covers the vaginal opening and is thought be break during a woman’s first attempt at intercourse. An intact hymen is therefore presumed to indicate virginity. Given that it may be possible to physically detect whether a woman is sexually “pure” simply by noting the presence or absence of the hymen, many cultures have ascribed great social value to this small piece of tissue. In fact, in some African and Middle Eastern cultures, a woman may be considered unmarriageable if her hymen is not intact, even if it was broken innocently (e.g., through non-sexual activity or rape). Because there is such great social pressure for these women to demonstrate virginity on their wedding night, “revirginization” surgery has become an increasingly popular medical procedure in some parts of the world. So how does it work, and does it produce satisfactory outcomes?
Revirginization surgery is generally performed on an outpatient basis and typically involves suturing the remains of the original hymen or constructing a new hymen out of other vaginal tissue. In some cases, a gelatin capsule containing fake blood is inserted so that an artificial bleed is produced at her next intercourse. Inclusion of this capsule if often necessary because, in some cultures, the bride is actually expected to publically show a blood-stained sheet after her wedding night to confirm her loss of virginity.1
Very little research has examined revirginization surgery, probably because this procedure is typically illegal in the countries where women are most likely to want it. Thus, women often have to find an underground doctor or travel abroad for the surgery. I was only able to find one study that followed-up with patients who had undergone revirginization. All patients received surgery in the Netherlands and everyone the researchers tracked reported that the outcome was satisfactory and they did not regret it.2 Based upon these data, the surgery would appear to be successful in achieving its goal.
Some doctors believe revirginization surgery creates an ethical dilemma for them.3 For instance, is it appropriate for a doctor to help deceive a women’s husband, family, and community? Likewise, should a doctor perform a procedure on a patient if it would be illegal for her to get it in her home country? The counterargument to these points is that doctors may be doing more harm than good by not performing the procedure because it is possible that the woman may be physically harmed or killed if it is discovered her hymen is not intact (e.g., she may be subject to a “cleansing” or “honor” killing). Also, not all cases of revirginization pose an ethical dilemma because the hymen can be broken innocently.
On a side note, I’ve read about women in other cultures who have pursued revirginization for a variety of other reasons, most commonly because they wish to relive the experience of losing their virginity. Some women lost their virginity long ago to someone they regretted sleeping with, and thus wish to symbolically recreate their first time with someone they care more about.
Regardless of the reason for pursuing this surgery, revirginization does not carry any true medical benefits nor can it erase one’s sexual history; however, this procedure can serve important social and psychological functions for the women who undergo it.
1Roberts, H. (2006). Reconstructing virginity in Guatemala. The Lancet, 367, 1227-1228. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68522-X
2Logmans, A., Verhoeff, A., Raap, R. B., Creighton, F., & van Lent, M. (1998). Should doctors reconstruct the vaginal introitus of adolescent girls to mimic the virginal state? British Medical Journal, 316, 459-460.
3Cook, R. J., & Dickens, B. M. (2006). Hymen reconstruction: Ethical and legal issues. International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 107, 266-269. doi: 10.1016/j.ijgo.2009.07.032
Image Source: http://i286.photobucket.com/albums/ll108/shandeliha/virgin.jpg
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