The Preoccupation with Women’s Virginity (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender)

(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for The Sunday Morning)

Last week, social media was aflame with expressions of horror and disbelief at a sponsored post that was found on Instagram feeds. Captioned “Rediscover innocence”, the post advertised a medical service being offered by the “London Anti-Aging Medical Clinic” called (in their words) virginity repair or hymenorrhaphy. They also state in the post that they have carried out over 300 procedures in Sri Lanka, offering “complete confidentiality and success”, and that the procedure would be carried out by an “experienced specialist surgeon”. From the account, another post could also be found advertising the same procedure, but with a different caption – “Fear of marriage? Restore your virginity and eliminate fears of marriage”.
London AntiAging Colombo Facebook

Hymenorrhaphy or hymen reconstruction surgery is the temporary surgical restoration of the hymen. The term comes from the Greek words hymen meaning “membrane”, and raphḗ meaning “suture”. It is also known as hymenoplasty. Such procedures are not generally regarded as part of mainstream gynaecology but are done by plastic surgeons. Many medical ethics experts frown upon the procedure and it has, in fact, been banned in several countries.

Virginity is the state of never having had sex: A virgin is a person (man or woman) who has never had sex. But “sex” is defined differently by different people. The concept is problematic in its implications on sexuality. As we know, most people consider losing one’s virginity to happen between a man with a penis and a woman with a vagina.

As Lauren Foster asked: “This heteronormativity presents a problem: Do we consider non-heteronormative individuals virgins for life if they never have sex in the ‘traditional’ way? Does non-heterosexual sex count as sex at all? What about anal sex, even between a heterosexual couple? Does that count as losing ‘virginity’ too?”

This limited definition of sex that is widely held then aligns virginity with the hymen – a thin fold (or folds) of mucous tissue located one-two centimetres inside the vagina. In Sri Lanka, and similar cultures, limiting virginity to the existence or non-existence of a hymen is biologically incorrect.

There are various types of hymens, in different shapes and forms, and in some instances, a girl may also be born without a hymen. If a girl is born with her hymen entirely covering her vaginal opening, she will require for it to be surgically removed to facilitate blood flow during menstruation.

Activities other than sex may also cause some hymens, depending on how they’re positioned, to rupture. This is also part of a natural, biological process. The amount of blood is also often negligible, and as it’s mixed in with other body fluids, is also rarely noticeable. Some hymens are still intact following delivery of a child. The biology of the hymen contradicts cultural perceptions of purity that involve white sheets on the marriage bed. These cultural expectations may also, in some instances, lead to sexual violence and exploitation.

Nothing New

This is not the first time I have come across advertisements offering services of this nature. In February 2018, on we wrote about a promoted sale on for a product called “Virginity Repair Solution”. Offering an alternative to hymen restoration surgery (known as hymenoplasty or hymen reconstruction surgery), the product being sold was “Joan Arc Red Hymen Restoration Kits”.

At the time, we did a Google search and were led to a Youtube video (still available for viewing) featuring Dr. K.L. Wickramarathna of London Antiaging Colombo, Sri Lanka, describing the surgery and subtly promoting it for young women who have concerns about their wedding night. This confirms our belief that this service and concept have been around for a while.

The idea of virginity as a concept has been challenged by feminist researchers as well as human rights defenders. Historically, virginity was tied predominantly to women. Through religious texts and societal perpetuation, the “virgin” was defined as a woman who had yet to have sex, as proven by her “unbroken” hymen. Women’s virginities were seen as a necessity in marriage, because women who weren’t “pure” were considered damaged goods.

Marrying a “virgin” woman would also ensure that any future offspring were truly yours, an important point in a time that placed such a heavy emphasis on inheritance. The argument is strong and clear – the idea of virginity is a socially constructed phenomenon that functions to police women’s bodies and make them feel guilty about sexual experiences, while the same culture rewards men for being sexually active and experienced.

This puts power in the hands of heterosexual men, subjugating and taking power away from heterosexual women. It also frames sex as something that is given and taken – a power struggle so to speak rather than as something pleasurable in which people should willingly and enthusiastically participate with consent and trust. Sky Jordan says: “When we have sex for the first time, we do not actually lose anything. It does not change our identity; it is not life-altering and it does not affect our worth. It is simply a new experience.”

The United Nations (UN) in 2018 called “virginity testing” a human rights violation, with no scientific basis. The statement, which was issued during the World Congress of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) in Rio de Janeiro, explained that the practice has “no scientific or clinical basis” and that “there is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex”, as the “appearance of a girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual intercourse or are sexually active or not”.

In addition, the UN agencies denounce virginity testing as a violation of the rights of girls and women, which can be detrimental to their physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. The examination can be “painful, humiliating, and traumatic” and reinforces stereotyped notions of female sexuality and gender inequality.

The construction of this ideal in our societies does not just hurt women, it’s destructive to men’s sexualities as well. Men are widely shamed for remaining “virgins”, as its loss is a sign of their masculinity and manhood.

Dr. Breanne Fahs, PhD in clinical psychology and women’s studies, said: “It (virginity) is a new thing that someone is doing, but we mark it as a loss. There’s hardly any other experience like it that we frame in that way. You can’t definitively say that virginity is useful or useless, but it definitely points to strong gender dynamics that we want to be careful about.”

The concept of virginity makes it hard to make our own decisions about sex. It attaches guilt and shame to sexuality, and makes it seem like a scary experience that transforms you into a completely different person. Virginity, of either a man or a woman, is a personal choice based on the beliefs and values of an individual, and above all, trust.