Friday, December 23, 2005

The Controversial Virgin Territory

"It's the ultimate gift for the man who has everything." This is what Ms. Yarborough, a 40 year old medical assistant felt about her recent 17th anniversary gift - a surgery to reattach her hymen, making her appear a virgin again - to her husband. This controversial medical procedure, hymenoplasty, originally intended to protect females in the Middle East and Latin America, is gaining popularity in the U.S. for cosmetic reasons. “Last year, 9.2 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the U.S., 24% more than in 2000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.” The booming popularity of this procedure seems to reflect a wider trend of cosmetic surgery’s increased visibility and society’s increased acceptance of it. Visibility is achieved by various means-hymenoplasty adverts can be seen in magazines, local newspapers, online, and even on billboards. Troy Robbin Hailparn, an obstetrician and gynecologist, advertises vaginal cosmetic surgery on 23 billboards around San Antonio. EdwardJacobson, a Greenwich, Conn., OB-GYN, offers international patients vaginal-makeover “packages” that include airfare, limousine travel and hotel accommodation. "Revirgination" can cost over $5,000, but at Ridgewood Health and Beauty Center, a spa and cosmetic-surgery center in the New York City borough of Queens it costs as little as $1,800. The center's owner, Cuban-born Esmeralda Vanegas, has given away hymenoplasties on a Spanish-language radio station. Ms. Vanegas isn't a doctor and doesn't perform the procedure, but rather leases space to five plastic surgeons.

However, not everyone is excited by such prospects. Many religious groups that value abstinence until marriage say hymen repair is a deception. Devout Roman Catholics consider sex before marriage sinful and equate female virginity with near divinity. Hymen replacement is "misleading and misguided," says Kathleen Raviele, a gynecologist and vice president of the Catholic Medical Association in Needham, Mass. "The best thing is to remain chaste until marriage and then have that genuine experience on your wedding night."

For many Muslims, sexual purity, especially for women, is a way of maintaining the family’s sanctity. But Islamic law also prohibits lying and frivolous cosmetic surgery, says Uzma Mazhar, a St. Louis psychotherapist known for her Web site,, which provides Islamic perspectives on Western issues. "What people forget is that Islam teaches us to be honest and fair,"Ms. Mazhar says. "A family should think about this before they present a woman as a virgin when she's not."

Other criticisms of hymenoplasty include questions of the procedures legitimacy and safety. The ethics committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, concerned about the marketing of revirgination, has not taken a formal position on the matter, but has expressed concern over the lack of information in the medical literature regarding the procedure, a fact that may mean performers of the procedure are improperly trained. Marco Pelosi II, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Bayonne, N.J. had this to say about hymenoplasty: "no one used to talk about it, but that's changing," "Really, it's not like a heart transplant-it’s a very simple procedure."On the contrary, Thomas G. Stovall, a recent president of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons, says "hymen repair is a totally bogus procedure." In general, he says, surgery marketed to improve one's sex life rarely works. As for hymen replacement, "most importantly, it doesn't make you a virgin again."

Despite this fact, women are enticed by the ability to tighten their vaginal walls and even redesign the look of their private parts; participating women often indicate that such measures were meant to boost their own confidence levels or please their partners. A 51-year-old patient-a Manhattan attorney and mother of three-had her hymen reattached her hymen and her vaginal walls tightened in 2003. "I thought it would add that extra sparkle to our marriage," says the woman. However, a 26-year-old Latin American woman who lives in New York's Queens who had a hymen repair in 2001 says it took almost two months for her to feel comfortable again. It took even longer for her to enjoy sex. Despite her discomfort, the married mother of two says she’s still glad she had the surgery. She says her husband wanted to experience intercourse with a virgin, explaining that "if a woman isn't a virgin when she gets married, a man can always put her down for that."

Such attitudes irk feminists, who say hymen repair is a manifestation of bigger social pressures that keep women subservient to men. "It comes with a whole set of norms of a macho culture," says Silvana Paternostro, Colombian-born author of "In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture." Some feminists liken hymenoplasty to female genital mutilation, a procedure that often forces women to endure genitalia alterations that Western women now pay for.

Read more: “U.S. Women Seek A Second First Time Hymen Surgery Is on the Rise And Drawing Criticism", AMY CHOZICK, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL; December 15, 2005


Hayley Droppert said...

Hymen repair is a choice, although a shallow one, it is very personal. It is unfair to stereotype women seeking this operation as trying to please a man, because it could be for themselves or another woman. As long as the technology is available, men are ruling the country and surgeons are making money off of it, it will stay. Although the emotional insecurities necessary to desire this procedure are extreme, women have a right to all available technology. It would never be a personal choice of mine but as the longing for the perfect appearance elevates procedures like these will spring up everywhere.

Sue Trinidad said...

I'm not sure I agree with the statement that "women have a right to all available technology," for a couple reasons. First, in positing a positive right to "technology," one is tacitly implying a duty on the part of others to provide it, whether in terms of personal involvement (eg, surgeons must provide this procedure) or in broader terms (somebody--potentially somebody other than the person getting the benefit--has to pay for it).

Also, I tend to think of arguments that advocate for "rights" like these--where the proposed right is a half-a-loaf fix for much larger, harder problems--as giving away too much, too soon. If, for example, the reason we want women to have the right to hymen reattachment is to make them more attractive to men, doesn't this make us complicit in the very sexism we want to oppose? Likewise, if we want people to have the right to die because, because we worry that too many people die in pain, wouldn't our energies be better used to address the pain control problem? We ought not fall on our swords so easily, I think.

Kay Marie said...

I am someone who has been considering the vaginal tightening procedure for quite some time. I have even received information from this doctor and spoke with one of her office staff. What's holding me back is (obviously) the cost and the decision to tell the person who I'd like to accompany me on the trip why I'm getting the surgery. (There is a recovery period and I don't want to be alone.)

Some people may have real physical problems and a need for this surgery. Feeling sexually confident is of great pride to a woman and has more to do with her than her male or female partner. I've seen documentaries on women with mastectomies who lost sexual interest and confidence based on how THEY felt sexually, even when they had supportive sex and life partners.

I have been in a three year relationship. My male partner hurt me so bad with comments about my "loose" vagina. I've had other relationships since then. The same thing comes up - except the others have been more polite. I get pleasure from having sex. I can get just as much enjoyment from a man with a small penis just the same as a large one. But, my male partners have trouble reaching orgasm with me. The men are in their 30's and aren't old enough to have "problems" yet.

My ob/gyn told me the men I deal with are the ones with the problem, not me. He told me that my dimensions are normal. If I did have a female problem, he stated that he would bring it to my attention as a doctor. He doesn't give credibility to doctors like Matlock or Hailparn. But, I do.

I've been told that I am a reasonably attractive woman who's funny and kind. Men ask me all the time why I don't have a boyfriend or they want to check my left hand for a tan-line because they don't believe I'm not married. I don't date and I refuse to get involved because I feel so inadequate. I can't have any man make dispariging remarks about this part of my body anymore. Yes, I could stand to drop a few pounds. But, I don't care how much I weigh; this is just something I can't get over. The issue has caused me a tremendous amount of mental pain. And, more women need to be supportive of us if we choose vaginal tightening surgery. The hymen surgery is cultural and women have their reasons. I don't understand the need for this procedure in my culture, but if women want it and if they're doing it for themselves - fine. We all need more support and understanding.