The Toronto Star Life Story  

August 15, 2000   by - S. AZAM

What's behind retro virginity?

``When a Pakistani woman who was raped needs a stitch to put her life back together, should I turn her away?''

Toronto plastic surgeon Robert Stubbs is talking about hymen-plasty, surgery that can make a woman appear to be a virgin again by sewing together the mucous membranes in her vagina. Stubbs is among a handful of doctors in Toronto who offer this service.

Hymen reconstruction is requested most by Middle Eastern Muslim women, Stubbs says.

``They come here to study and adapt to our ways, but after university their family has arranged a marriage for them back home and the groom's parents insist on a gynecological exam (to ensure the woman is a virgin),'' Stubbs says.

Although there are no definite numbers as to how many women in Toronto are having the procedure done, in Canada plastic surgeons have been performing this type of surgery for more than 10 years.

Reconstructing a hymen takes about 30 minutes and costs about $2,000. Since most of the women requesting the surgery have the procedure done in order to appear to be virgins before marriage, Stubbs recommends undergoing surgery weeks prior to the wedding, to ensure that there is a greater chance of tearing and bleeding. Hymen-plasty may not have the desired effect if the surgery is done months or years in advance of the wedding night because of the thinning and elasticity of the membranes.

The pressure to be a virgin bride is not felt by women from traditional Muslim families alone. In New York City, the majority of clients who visit the Plastic Surgery Centre, which offers ``plastic surgery and reconstructive gynecology,'' are Latin American women.

In an article in a recent issue of Marie Claire magazine, ``Sandra'' talks about having her hymen reconstructed. She says she knows her fiancé would never have proposed if he had known the truth and that he was too good a catch - successful, handsome and also from Latin America - to risk losing.

``It's a lie out of love,'' says Esmeralda Vanegas, owner of the three New York centres. ``Unfortunately, the men in our culture make us do these things. They are machistas. They do whatever they want out on the streets and then they want a virgin at the altar.''

In The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton's novel about old New York society's traditions and expectations, Newland Archer is engaged to marry one of society's favourite daughters. He feels oppressed by the creation of his betrothed's ``factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.''

Archer questions why his soon-to-be wife must be seen as coming to the marriage as a blank page, and why women cannot be allowed the same freedom of experience as men.

For a novel written in the 1920s, Archer's views are progressive compared to the views some men and women express today. ``Once a Syrian girl enters puberty she is a real potential menace to men who are perceived as weak and incapable of resisting `finta' (seductiveness),'' Zahra Rim, a teacher in Damascus, writes in WIN, an online newsletter geared to women's issues. ``Childhood relationships with neighbourhood boys and male friends are usually terminated. Riding bicycles, playing outside, dancing, and even going to co-ed pools are prohibited for they are considered forms of sexual expression.''

That virginity, honour and purity continue to be inextricably bound in many cultures is troubling because it requires an ignorance about sex that can be detrimental to a girl's health.

Some cultures fear the more a young woman knows about her body or her sexual feelings, the more likely she is to act on her desires. Unfortunately, it also means that girls and women have limited access to information that could protect them from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.

It also means myths abound about the type of woman who is marriageable material and those who are best kept as mistresses.

The desire to pretend that you have never had sex seems almost more peculiar than the in-laws or grooms who insist on it and require proof. The price of snagging a husband is terribly high if you have to disown your history to do it.

Reducing a woman to the intactness of her hymen also suggests that the men who insist on marrying virgins want to be with women who can never show them up sexually, make them feel less experienced, or inadequate in any way.

The irony behind hymen reconstructive surgery is that bleeding when you lose your virginity is a myth. Not all women bleed and not all hymens break. Some just stretch and others do tear a little, but that can happen during any kind of physical activity including bike riding. There is also a thinning of membranes that occurs as women age.

Becoming a ``virgin'' again to fulfill the expectations of tradition or culture seems like the beginning of a life built on lies and denial. The consequence of having to deny your past must also have some kind of impact on your self-worth.

And, if a woman is willing to conceal parts of her history from the outset, to what lengths will she be driven to maintain the appearance of a trouble-free marriage?

In cultures that demand women remain virgins until marriage, women and girls must always be thinking about other people's perceptions of their behaviour and image - when they could be preoccupied with more satisfying endeavours.

Back to PSURG Home Page