Virginity: how do we end the policing of women’s bodies?
Mary Stenson discusses the UK’s proposed banning of hymenoplasty and whether it will actually benefit all women.
TW: Mentions of rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse
Virginity is a concept that is so deeply ingrained in cultures across the world that we forget the dangerous implications it can have for women’s rights and safety. Women and girls across the world are still being subjected to invasive procedures to test and even ‘restore’ their virginity to stay within the lines of religious and cultural values. The procedures themselves may be abusive but are frequently taken in a desperate attempt to avoid further honour-based violence. The UK’s Minister for Care and Mental Health, Gilian Keegan, recently promised to criminalise hymenoplasty and virginity testing but could this measure actually put women in an even more vulnerable position?
Despite being utterly unscientific and often ineffective, hymenoplasty or hymen repair surgery remains available in the UK. Setting patients back up to £3000, the expensive surgery involves the reconstruction of the hymen, a part of female anatomy. The hymen’s intactness is believed by many to indicate whether or not a woman has had sex, despite the body part being susceptible to breakage from a variety of activities such as horse-riding, gymnastics and tampon use. In fact, some women are born without a hymen in the first place.
Knowledge of this doesn’t seem to stop people from obsessing over the hymen. Social media outrage was sparked when American rapper T.I. said in a podcast that he had his daughter’s hymen checked on a yearly basis during her teenage years to ensure she had not yet lost her virginity. Not only were his comments about her intimate medical history publicly disclosed without her consent, but the rapper even referred to the results of these tests as “my results”, making his controlling attitude abundantly clear. It was not about protecting his daughter, but asserting his authority over her.
the traditional definition of virginity […] implies that sexual experiences outside of penis-in-vagina intercourse are not ‘real’ sex
Due to an internalised fear of being ostracised or taken advantage of, women have suppressed their sexuality over time, resulting in an incorrect belief that men simply like sex more than women. Suggesting that women are less sexual further compounds the idea that a woman’s value links to her sexuality. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that the traditional definition of virginity reduces the definition of sex to the one act related to reproduction. It implies that sexual experiences outside of penis-in-vagina intercourse are not ‘real’ sex.
In some religious cultures, to not be a virgin (or not to be believed to be a virgin) can be dangerous. We all know that brides wearing white used to be a symbol of virginity but historically, it didn’t stop there. The tradition of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold supposedly indicated her ‘virginal’ reluctance to have sex. A white sheet would be placed on the marital bed and checked for blood after consummation on the wedding night. Such disregard for a woman’s dignity seems unthinkable today but virginity testing is still common practice in 20 countries, according to the World Health Organisation, with the results being used as a bargaining tool in arranged marriages.
having the hymen restored is the lesser of two evils for many women who risk honour-based violence from their spouses
In an interview by the BBC, an anonymous victim details how she was pressured by her parents to undergo hymenoplasty after being raped as a teenager in order to uphold her family’s honour. The reaction of her family to her traumatic ordeal is undoubtedly shocking but the reality is that having the hymen restored is the lesser of two evils for many women who risk honour-based violence from their spouses if they are believed to have engaged in pre-marital sex. Diana Nammi, executive director at Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, emphasises that half of the time hymenoplasty does not cause women to bleed after sex, meaning the procedure fails to even achieve its aims of preventing abuse.
To criminalise these procedures seems, at first glance, the most sensible option but there are concerns that this would put vulnerable women at greater risk. Similarly to abortion being made illegal, the procedures will still be in demand, illegal or otherwise. The result will mean unregulated and potentially dangerous surgeries being performed on women who are desperate to escape abuse. Dr Dheeraj Bhar, a cosmetic surgeon, said: “When you ban something like a medical procedure you drive patients underground. They will start to go to back alley doctors, or fly in doctors who fly from other countries to perform these procedures”.
So how do we put an end to this incessant monitoring of women’s bodies without further compromising their safety? Criminalising virginity-related procedures will act as an empowering tool to help women speak up and guard their sexual freedom. However, it is paramount that reporting is a straightforward process with definite consequences in order to avoid unlawful surgeries being carried out under the radar.
If any of these issues have affected you, you can get in touch with the following helplines:
Karma Nirvana- supports victims and survivors of honour-based abuse: 0800 5999 247
Refuge- 24 hour support for victims of domestic abuse: 0808 2000 247
Rape Crisis National Helpline for rape victims: 0808 802 9999