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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Recreational Virginity and the False Promise of Artificial Hymens

This Valentine’s Day, many couples will be displaying their affection with traditional gifts of the season: a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates, a romantic meal out. Others may be opting for much more extreme gestures—such as paying for “recreational” hymen surgery, or even artificial hymens—to gift partners with the “virgin experience.” But far from being a romantic gesture, the commercialization of the hymen is a troubling example of outdated ideas meeting business interests.

It’s hard to think of a part of the human body as simultaneously useless and troublesome as the hymen (even the humble appendix seems positively useful by comparison). Society’s obsession with this little piece of tissue, which has no known biological function, stems from widespread and false claims about its ability to reveal whether someone is a virgin. Virginity itself has no real medical or scientific meaning; it is a mere reflection of the higher value placed on penis-in-vagina sex than all other sexual encounters and experiences. Nevertheless, so compelling is the idea of the virginal hymen that an entire market has emerged to monitor, repair, and replicate it.

Hymen surgery and virginity testing have been available in the US for years. (After all, virginity testing hit international headlines in 2019 when the American rapper TI claimed that he took his daughter to an ob-gyn annually for examination of her hymen.) More recently, nonsurgical virginity products like artificial hymens and virginity creams have entered commercial platforms online. Advertisers promote these products for a surprising array of reasons, from “a last resort” to “gifts for partners.” The expanding scope of the market shows us just how far we have yet to come in dispelling dangerous myths about the hymen.

If you’re not sure what the hymen is or what it’s supposed to look like, you’re in good company. The hymen (and indeed, genital examination in general) receives relatively little attention in medical education, and studies have shown that even physicians are sometimes unable to identify it on examination. To make matters even more confusing, there is no one “standard” appearance of the hymen. Medical studies have demonstrated there is enormous variation in its size and shape and the appearance of an individual’s hymen can change over time.

Accordingly, the idea that the appearance of the hymen can prove the absence or presence of prior sexual intercourse is a myth. Hymens can tear for all sorts of reasons other than sex—and penetration does not produce any specific reliable changes in the hymen, as it can stretch to allow for vaginal intercourse without tearing. The idea that hymens bleed on first vaginal intercourse is also a widespread and harmful falsehood. The inspection of postcoital blood on the wedding night has been, and continues to be, in some communities, used as proof of a woman’s virginal status—but the reality is that the proportion of women who experience bleeding on first intercourse may be as low as one-third. The hymen contains so few blood vessels that it does not always bleed even when cut with a scalpel during surgery.

Society’s refusal to let go of these harmful myths about the hymen is matched only by the fervor with which we cling to the idea that virginity can be visibly “proven.” The benchmark to “prove” virginity—from the right neck circumference, to the right color of urine, to the right kind of hymen—may have changed across cultures and centuries, but the requirement to meet those benchmarks has remained constant. The need for women’s bodies to conform to the standard of the day is not just dangerous, it’s profitable. Enter the hymen market, an array of procedures and products advertised to recreate or simulate the “virginal hymen.”

Until very recently, surgery to repair the hymen, also known as hymenoplasty, was the undisputed cornerstone of the hymen market. Although there is no real consensus amongst practitioners regarding how hymenoplasty should be performed, the goal of this surgery is to create scar tissue at the entrance to the vagina, usually by stitching parts of the hymen or the vagina together. This surgery carries risks and does not necessarily guarantee postcoital bleeding; one study published in 2012 found that 17 out of 19 women who underwent hymenoplasty did not experience any postcoital bleeding after surgery.

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Many of the clinics that provide hymenoplasty also offer virginity testing, an examination of the genitalia that claims to determine the virginal (or otherwise) status of a woman. Virginity examinations have absolutely no scientific merit, are considered to be a human rights’ violation by the World Health Organization, and are known to put women at risk of psychological trauma and physical harm, including death.

English-language news outlets and medical journals frequently describe both hymenoplasty and virginity testing as procedures performed in “other” or “patriarchal” communities, with the assumption being that the Western world is free from such practices. The prevalence of this surgery does vary worldwide, but both hymenoplasty and virginity testing are more prevalent in the US than one might think. In one survey of practicing US ob-gyns, 3.5 percent reported that they had performed virginity testing on request, and 1 percent reported having performed hymenoplasty in the last year. There have even been reports of surgeons performing what is sometimes termed “recreational” hymenoplasty for American women.

Now, for those wanting to avoid the pain or expense of surgery, a number of nonsurgical virginity products have become available to purchase. Countless vaginal creams can be easily bought online with the promise of tightening the vagina and making its user feel “like a virgin.” These claims lack supporting evidence, and the treatments are largely unregulated. More concerningly, some products contained in virginity creams can irritate the genital skin and predispose women to infections by altering the normal pH balance of the vagina. Nevertheless, women continue to be sold products with dishonest claims that may pose undisclosed risks to their health.

And then there are the artificial hymens. Also known as disposable hymens (or, even more absurdly, as “man-made hymens”), these products are a relatively new addition to the hymen market, promising to give you “your virginity back in five minutes” without the need for surgery. Artificial hymens, which can cost up to £100 ($135 USD), come in a myriad of different forms, usually containing fake blood concealed within a capsule or dissolvable membrane. Intended for insertion in the vagina, manufacturers advertise that they produce blood on contact to simulate the properties of the mythological “virginal hymen.” They are often sold along with vaginal tightening creams as part of a virginity “kit.”

Some of the earliest public reports of artificial hymens revealed their presence on the Chinese market in the late 2000s, accompanied by advertising lauding this technological advancement: “the product of high-technology! Your unspeakable secret will be erased.” But as with hymenoplasty, their popularity is certainly not confined to Eastern countries. In 2019, The Guardian reported that one German company sold thousands of artificial hymen kits across the US every year. Another company stated that it sold most of its artificial hymens in North Carolina and California. These products are advertised for every conceivable purpose, from offering an option to women in desperate circumstances, to catering to fetishes, to enhancing intimate relationships. (“Make every night Valentine’s night,” suggests one company).

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The hymen market raises ethical questions that stem from the social importance of virginity. Historically, clinicians have defended medical involvement as a means of protecting women against violence if their virginal status is in question. As a medical professional dedicated to women’s health, I know it is of course impossible not to acknowledge the ethical dilemma that such a scenario raises.

Yet more often than not, the force driving performance of such surgery is not concern for women’s safety, but money. Hymenoplasty is a profitable business, and there are plenty of practices that want a piece of the pie. In 2012, I wrote a paper looking at how surgeries like hymenoplasty are advertised and found that surgery was promoted by UK and US providers to “improve the woman’s hidden aesthetics” and assure women that they could “keep your head high.” Myths make money and advertisers know it.

In recent years, it seems the tide is turning against hymenoplasty and virginity testing. Last August, the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists released a statement unequivocally opposing the practice of both hymenoplasty and virginity testing, emphasizing that they should not be considered a substitute for safeguarding the safety of women and could put them at further risk of violence. The UK government responded by committing to criminalize both practices, and just last month it included an amendment to the Health and Care Bill proposing to ban any surgery to repair the hymen in any circumstances, with or without consent.

While the medical community has been called out for its complicity in propagating dangerous perceptions of the “virginal hymen,” we need to put the spotlight on commercial platforms too. There is a vast market out there engaging in problematic advertising and selling a false construct of virginity to women that goes way beyond the premises of any clinic. The commercialization of the hymen serves to legitimize and propagate harmful misinformation, from which companies ultimately profit.

Little is known about the circumstances or experiences of women who are accessing artificial hymens and virginity creams. This is an underresearched area, and the voices of women affected are missing from the discourse. Undoubtedly, many women will be driven by the threat of physical harm should they fail to “perform” virginity when expected. But could these products—like hymen surgery—not put women at risk of violence if they are discovered or fail to work as advertised?

Ultimately, the phenomenon of recreating or simulating hymens for romantic or erotic reasons should also worry all women. The concept of the virginal hymen is never “recreational,” as has been claimed; it is violent. The very term “recreational” is problematic in its attempt to make palatable that which is patriarchal. Moreover, the scope of what is considered recreational is open-ended. What next—will virginity creams soon be considered a routine part of self-care?

While it’s welcome news that some leaders are finally clamping down on virginity testing and hymenoplasty, the wider market needs to be part of the debate. Awareness of these products is limited within the medical community. There has been virtually no discussion of the risks or ethics of virginity kits within medical literature, and their use has been conspicuously omitted in the recent public conversation about virginity, which still focuses on surgery. Any time I mention the use of artificial hymens or virginity creams to my medical colleagues, I am met with shock or disbelief. The medical community has a duty to question and challenge claims made by the hymen market—but we can’t do that if we don’t know what’s out there.

And we shouldn’t be shocked—this was always inevitable. What happens when an unstoppable social construct collides with an immovable patriarchal myth? The market adapts, evolves, and exploits. ​​


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