Why make a big issue of a little tissue?

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

“Rediscover innocence” read the advertisement that was being circulated on social media recently, promoting “virginity repair/hymenorrhaphy”. This got us thinking whether Sri Lanka, indeed, has an obsession with virginity.

The idea of virginity essentially refers to a state of sexual inexperience of both a man and a woman, but historically, it’s been associated primarily with women. Women were expected to be soft, young, and desirable, thereby expected to remain eternally “virginal”, and this thinking has been firmly anchored in religion and further reinforced by a variety of social forces.

Societal norms, gender norms, and even pop culture sometimes suggest that female virginity is a sacred thing – examples of virginal protagonists who are naive and able to gift their long maintained “purity” to the male hero who will in return protect them and uphold their honour are abundant.

In order to place some tangibility on the concept of virginity culturally, the existence of an intact hymen has been adopted as an indicator to confirm female virginity. The loss of it will be upon penile-vaginal penetration which perforates the hymen. It’s interesting to note that there is no complimentary cultural indicator of male virginity.

This belief of an intact hymen equals virginity is probably what is tied to the most recent cosmetic fad that’s gaining speed when it comes to instilling impossible standards on women – virginity reconstruction surgery also known as hymenorrhaphy.

This procedure is readily available in Sri Lanka.

While the procedure may sound sketchy to some and almost unbelievable, it has, for the most part, established itself as an accepted practice.

While a hymen repair has no direct medical benefit and the reason one would opt for such a procedure is often cultural, there are other reasons it may be sought, such as for psychological healing – a victim of rape or sexual abuse, of whom it’s likely that their hymen has torn. As a way to heal both physically and psychologically, some women may opt for such a procedure to return to a time before the abuse.

The procedure is even covered under the NHS in the UK, and under a right to information request, some details have been revealed in regards to the frequency of such procedures being done courtesy of the NHS – data revealed that at least 109 women have undergone the procedure in NHS hospitals between 2007 and 2017, but the real number is believed to exceed that. The half-hour procedure would otherwise cost at least £ 1,000.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Department of Health spokesman insisted that hymen repair operations take place on the NHS only to ensure a patient’s physical or psychological health:“The NHS does not fund hymen repair operations for cultural reasons. All operations on the NHS are on the basis of clinical need.”

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 seeking it out. Many reportedly do it to offer as a gift to their partner and others do it to “revitalise” their sex life.

An issue of sexual and gender inequalities
Speaking about the particular phenomenon of popular culture reinforcing these ideals, Advocata Institute Manager Research Communications Anuki Premachandra provided: “I think this is absolutely garbage and women should not be tolerant of this sort of oppression. But at a more analytical level, I also think that advertising, offering, and claiming that x many women have taken this sort of surgery is actually adding to efforts to normalise the norm that a woman is defined by her virginity – a narrative the patriarchy has very generously woven for us. The more we shame women for living their lives, the more we add to these ugly norms that continue to oppress us.”

We spoke to Bakamoono.lk Editor Sharanya Sekaram – an outspoken feminist – regarding gender issues attached to this latter idea that women have adopted; she said: “This idea of virginity is deeply flawed and deeply patriarchal because it’s tied to only something a woman can have. It shames women’s sexualities and their bodies. It really comes down to comprehensive sexual education and respect. We often get asked “how do I know if my partner is virgin?” Ask your partner, and trust their answer. And you really should not treat sex as something you give. It’s not a gift that women bestow on someone. It’s something women receive as well; there’s pleasure. We don’t talk about that and that’s deeply concerning for me.”
There’s also the fact that this association of virginity loss with a penetrative vaginal sexual act is problematic because it makes heterosexual sex the standard by which we understand virginity. Speaking about this fact particularly, Sharanya stated: “It’s about defining what having sex for the first time actually is. In that case, does oral sex count? Does anal sex count? Is it only penetrative vaginal-penal sex? What about what is known as thigh sex? What about hand jobs? So how do all of that work into our idea of what sex is?”

Counselling psychologist Nivendra Uduman echoed Sharanya’s thoughts: “Virginity is a socially constructed idea that should not govern how women are seen. It is also an extremely sexist idea often used to humiliate, and dehumanize women. The idea that virginity reconstruction surgery is being offered in Sri Lanka makes me sad because we are reinforcing harmful cultural and social norms by doing so.”

The United Nations in 2018 called “virginity testing” a human rights violation with no scientific basis, in a statement issued during the World Congress of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) in Rio de Janeiro. The statement explained that the practice has “no scientific or clinical basis” and “there is no examination that can prove that a girl or woman has had sex”, as the “appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual intercourse or are sexually active or not”. In 2010, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura sent six female students to Kalubowila Hospital to have their virginity tested. In the absence of any medical procedure to accurately determine virginity, given the different types and/or locations of the hymen, the doctors sent them back un-tested. (Bakamoono.lk)

Consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist MBBS, MS, and MRCOG Dhammika Jayasuriya confirmed the above findings, providing: “Being a gynaecologist, I myself can say that there is no legitimate test for virginity. I’ve had experiences where the hymen has remained intact even after giving birth to a 3.5-kilo baby. It is absolutely nonsensical to base this on whether the hymen is intact or not as some are even born without it, and there are various types of hymen; for example, those that are elastic, which can accommodate instances where it would otherwise be subjected to a tear. If not for obvious signs, there is no medical test for virginity without knowing the sexual history of an individual.”

Jayasuriya went on and said: “Commenting on a personal capacity, considering my personal beliefs as a Buddhist, if you are placing so much value on the intactness of a hymen or the past activities of an individual, then you are devaluing the human qualities of the person in question. I believe that what truly matters is a person’s character and who they have become, as opposed to whom they were and what they have done.” Finally, quite aptly, he added: “Don’t make a big issue of a little tissue.”

Finally, hymenoplasty, it would appear, is a troubling response to an issue so deeply rooted in sexual and gender inequalities. Considering the concept of virginity and how countries around the world – even those that are otherwise considered to be progressive – are still hung up on the archaic views of yore to this day, Subha Wijesiriwardena of the women and media collective provided: “It is absurd that we have not moved past these archaic notions of what constitutes a ‘proper’ woman, as a society. ‘Virginity’ is not a biological trait but a sexist, socially and culturally constructed idea which is used to control women’s sexuality. You cannot ‘reconstruct’ virginity ‘surgically’, therefore. It is bad enough that many people, including women, still unfortunately subscribe to these ideas; many women still have to live by them in numerous contexts. It is even worse to see businesses in this day and age profiteering from these harmful and dangerous socio-cultural ideas and practices.”