Torn between a hymen and a hard place

Wedding approaching and your hymen's missing? Get thee to a plastic surgeon!

Published May 3, 2007 2:30PM (EDT)

Just as plastic surgeons have long exploited Western culture's twisted views of the female body, they're ramping up business for traditional Muslim women as well. Earlier this week we briefly mentioned Reuters' report on a practice known as "hymenoplasty" -- the sewing up of a woman's hymen to help her pass the various virginity tests some brides must suffer before traditional marriages. The procedure is hardly new: We noticed the 2005 Wall Street Journal trendspotter that made "revirgination" seem like just another happy surgical lark available to indulgent women.

But the Reuters story, which interviews young women in Paris who underwent the procedure in advance of their weddings, is more unsettling. Apparently the influx of millions of Muslim immigrants in Europe has made the practice increasingly popular. The surgery attracts young Arab women who are sent to Western countries to be educated but are expected to return to the family and abide by fundamentalist Muslim laws.

As a Parisian surgeon, who performs one to three hymenoplasties a week, told Reuters: "Many of my patients are caught between two worlds." They have had sex already but are expected to be virgins at marriage according to a custom that he called "cultural and traditional, with enormous family pressure."

Sheesh. You want to support these poor souls who are walking a razor-fine line between cultures -- and you know that many of these surgeries are probably prompted by fear of honor killings and other domestic nastiness -- but it's troubling to think that these young women, none of whom are practicing Muslims, are willing to undergo surgery to live up to some demented ideal of womanhood. Aside from the spurious notion that equates the presence of a hymen (often broken before reaching adulthood anyway via bicycle riding, tampons, etc.) with virginity, the fact that some doctors are getting rich off an untested, unorthodox procedure that sometimes makes sex painful and uncomfortable for women really triggers my gag reflex.

The National College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians of France (like many medical societies in other Western countries) has spoken out against the procedure, calling it "an attack on women's dignity" and asserting that it violates the separation of church and state if performed in state-run hospitals. In France the inane glorification of the hymen even lives on in the state's insurance policies: If your hymen gets broken from rape or trauma, the state will foot part of the bill.

Of course, lest we get too high on our horse (equestrian sport being another common hymen-ripping recreation) we should invoke our own recent cults of the virgin -- most notably thousands of Christian youth pledging to become "Reborn Virgins" and then pretending that they never took the oath. But for those girls who want hardcore virginity at all costs, may we recommend an impervious iron hymen.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Coupling Love And Sex