Virginity clinics: Encouraging misogyny or saving lives?
Campaigners in the UK are calling for a ban on hymen repairs after it was revealed that there has been a rise in the number of women seeking out the procedure. However, some surgeons are hitting back, claiming that the operation could potentially save lives.
Hymenoplasty, also known as hymen reconstruction surgery, is a non-invasive procedure that promises women a brand new, unbroken hymen. It can be performed under general anaesthetic and takes up to thirty minutes.
The documentary found 20 doctors currently offering hymen repair surgery in more than 30 clinics and private hospitals – including London, Manchester and Norwich – with prices ranging from £2,000 to £3,000.
"Motivations behind why women opt for the surgery varies, but it is usually due to cultural and religious pressures that women in south Asian and Muslim communities face to remain virgins until their wedding night"
According to figures, over 100 women underwent the procedure between 2007 and 2017 through the NHS, but the real number is believed to be much higher.
Aneeta Prem, who runs the charity Freedom, told the documentary makers that the number of women and girls seeking help because they are coming under pressure to have virginity tests had risen by 40 percent since lockdown.
Chief executive, Sam Smethers, from the Fawcett Society, has called for the UK government to ban what she describes as a “horrendous practice”. Speaking about the procedure she said: “It reinforces a culture of abuse, is a form of violence against women and girls and we need to confront it.”
Following increasing pressure, the UK government have pledged to criminalise the practice of hymenoplasty and ban virginity clinics. However, though well-intentioned, there is a danger that a ban could put women’s lives at risk.
Cosmetic surgeon Dr Walter*, whose name has been changed for protection, offers the procedure in her Germany-based clinic and is adamant that the procedure could save the lives of many women, most of who are Muslim.
“I feel bad for these women. They're feeling so much pressure from their male family members, and they're afraid to be rejected – or even worse, become victims of serious physical violence and even murder," she says.
Motivations behind why women opt for the surgery varies, but it is usually due to cultural and religious pressures that women in south Asian and Muslim communities face to remain virgins until their wedding night. And with honour killings and forced marriages quietly on the rise, some worry that a total ban on hymen repairs could have devastating effects on vulnerable women.
"Doctors are faced with a dilemma,” says Walter. “They don't want women to undergo unnecessary procedures, or to perpetuate myths and women-hating behaviour. On the other hand, they're aware that this operation could save the women from serious consequences."
However, activists argue that by allowing women to undergo a virginity repair, surgeons are allowing antiquated views and traditions to prevail.
An inaccurate indicator of virginity
“The concept of an ‘intact’ hymen is a myth and not an accurate predictor of a woman’s virginity,” explains Dr Larisa Corda, a leading fertility and female health expert.
“That's because hymens, much like vulvas, vary in shape, size, thickness and elasticity. It should not be used as any sort of reliable indicator of sexual activity because it varies from woman to woman and can be stretched or torn by several other activities. The true purpose of the hymen remains an enigma as it doesn't have a specific function.”
"The cultural and psychological pressure of being made to feel that you need to have an intact hymen to prove virginity can be devastating"
As well as not having a specific function, the hymen can break in a number of ways before a woman even has intercourse, making this outdated virginity test null and void.
Dr Corda explains: “There are multiple ways that the hymen can stretch or tear as a result of various non-sexual behaviours, by tampon or menstrual cup use, pelvic examinations with a speculum, regular physical activity and activities such as gymnastics, horseback riding or dancing. In addition to this, some hymens are very stretchy and can move aside during sexual penetration, therefore never breaking.”
Statistics and studies also indicate that not all women will bleed on their first time. A survey by Pro Famillia (2013) found that approximately half the women studied bleed the first time they had intercourse.
Save our women, not our hymens
Although a ban on hymen repair surgeries would send out a strong message against female sexual oppression, it can also leave women more vulnerable and desperate to take drastic measures against concealing their sexual pasts. There is a danger that honour killings could spike and more black market operations could replace NHS approved procedures.
Experts believe that the first step is to educate those who still believe that an intact hymen is an accurate indicator of virginity.
“The cultural and psychological pressure of being made to feel that you need to have an intact hymen to prove virginity can be devastating,” says Dr Corda.
“Therefore it’s really important to educate about this and the fact that an intact hymen is not any sort of proof that the woman has not had sexual intercourse. Women’s bodies should never be subjected to this sort of objectification and judgement.”
Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London.
Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman