Women in Australia are undergoing surgery to restore their hymen, while others are asking doctors to certify their hymen is still intact. Two doctors who provide these services to women in Australia, join this week’s Insight program on virginity, which looks at how we define virginity, who’s holding onto it, who can’t wait to get rid of it, and who’s trying to hide the fact that they do (or don’t) have it any more.
Cosmetic surgeon Dr Les Blackstock is proud of his reconstructed hymens. Les told the Insight program he performs between 40 and 50 hymen restorations in Australia each year. He says women are requesting them because they have had pre-marital sex, they are victims of rape, or they “want to achieve a sense of a clean slate”.
He also said it’s impossible to tell if a hymen has been surgically restored, particularly if it’s one of his. “I know that my hymens have passed inspection in Australia and overseas and not been detected.”
Dr Wafa Samen, a Sydney-based gynaecologist, who issues doctor’s certificates in English and in Arabic certifying that a hymen is intact, doesn’t agree. Wafa told Insight that in some cases you can tell when a hymen has been reconstructed.
Every few months Wafa is asked to certify the hymen “intact status” for a bride who needs to prove her virginity to her future husband and in-laws. Wafa also receives requests for certificates from brides who didn’t bleed as expected on their wedding nights, and young women who are worried they may have damaged their hymen while doing other physical activities.
One of the problems with the hymen “intact status” exam, is it will only tell you whether the hymen is intact or broken. What it won’t tell you is how the hymen was perforated.
Les Blackstock says it’s impossible to tell how a hymen was broken. He told the Insight program “There are 12 varieties of hymen and three are most common. It would be like saying the eardrum could be perforated by coming down in a plane or by putting an ear-bud in, and being able to tell the difference.”
But for a small number of women, the “intact status” of the hymen is completely moot.
Rosa Roberts had to have her hymen surgically removed because it wasn’t perforating during sex. “It would stretch painfully and then snap back into place,” Rosa explains. “So for me it was several years of painful sexual intercourse. I had sex a number of times and I could have been pregnant with [an intact] hymen.”
In some cultures women are required to prove their virginity after the wedding night with a blood stained sheet.
The day after Inez Manu-Sione’s wedding night, she presented the bed sheet to her extended family so they could all inspect it for blood. Although she grew up in Australia, Inez is Tongan and the bed sheet ceremony is a part of her family’s cultural tradition.
But according to a figure quoted on the Insight program, only about half of women bleed when the hymen is broken. So what would Inez have done if she was one of those women who didn’t experience bleeding on her wedding night?
So if the common definition of losing your virginity is penetration of the hymen by the penis, does this mean gays and lesbians who haven’t slept with a member of the opposite sex, are still virgins?
Rose Russo certainly thought so. Rose, who identifies as bi-sexual, had been having sex with other women since she was a teenager but still felt like she was a virgin as she hadn’t slept with a man. At 22, with the support of her long-term girlfriend, Rose hired a male sex worker. “Interesting, expensive, not really worth it” is how she describes the experience.
Tim Neal is gay and his first time was with another man. He told the Insight program that in the minds of young gay men, “We have two different virginities. We’re a bit greedy I suppose because we have a penetrative virginity, but then another one that is for everything else, which is about our coming out like the first time you fool around with another man.”
Many believe our society’s attitudes to sex have changed. But how much can they have really changed when our definition of virginity remains basically the same as it’s been for centuries?
Historian Hanne Blank has written a book about virginity in mostly western culture. Hanne says “the value that is put on virginity is so old that we don’t actually have documents to tell us how that formed or when that formed.”
“The going theory that I believe has the most weight is that pre-marital virginity for a woman makes it easy to tell the paternity of her first child, at least.”
But if that’s true, why do we continue to put a price on virginity in predominantly secular societies like ours? With DNA testing now widely available to establish paternity, should it really matter if your bride is still a virgin on your wedding night?
It seems to me there’s a lot more to it than Insight has been able to cover in a one hour program. So share your thoughts about virginity on Twitter with @JenBrockie and many of the guests on the virginity program using the hash tags #insightsbs and #likeavirgin
The Insight program on virginity will air in Australia at 8:30pm on Tuesday, 25th June 2013 on SBS One.
Insight is hosted by Gold Walkley Award-winning journalist Jenny Brockie and airs every Tuesday night at 8.30pm on SBS ONE. The discussion continues online each week at sbs.com.au/insight, and on Twitter #insightSBS