2. 9. 2021

English Version | Like a virgin

by Sara Andrade


That's not touched for the very first time. "Virginity recovery" surgery apparently promises a "fresh start" in sexual intercourse. Only in this “like a virgin”, the keyword is the “like.” It looks like it, but not really.


This story of "Once upon a time there was a hymen" is one where you can also say "That will be a hymen again", so to speak. Because this new beginnings' thing has many real and metaphorical applications, and female anatomy is no exception. And we are talking about female anatomy and not sexual relations because hymenoplasty, when referred to only as “virginity recovery surgery”, is based on two false assumptions: that a broken hymen means that a woman is no longer a virgin; and that its reconstruction would mean she never had sex. Spoiler alert: the hymen can break even before there is sexual penetration—whether by intense physical activity (cycling, horseback riding, etc.) or even by inserting a tampon; and there's no surgery that erases your sexual experiences — at least, no more than that ice cream bucket to drown your sorrows after a break-up. Like any wrinkle or wound that means life experiences, your first times continues to exist, no matter how much you use Botox or end up healing. Which doesn't mean this isn't a valid surgery. But before we go into the motivations that lead some women to want to offer their vaginas a fresh start, it is interesting to explain what this hymenoplasty intervention, or hymen reconstruction surgery, is after all, which seems a more reliable description of the purpose of the intervention. “This surgery aims to reconstruct the anatomy and morphology of the hymen in adult or young women”, explains Dr. Zeferino Biscaia Fraga, a specialist in Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery. “The hymen is an elastic fibro-mucosal membrane, with one or more holes, which is implanted in the transition from the vulva to the vagina, and is found in several species of mammals. Its anatomy and morphology are well known, while its physiology, that is, its function and meaning, is not. From a medical point of view, the most plausible is to constitute a protective barrier against gynecological infections. Contact with urine, faeces, debris, dust, sand and other potentially infectious agents will be protected during infancy and childhood. It is noteworthy that human beings have long created social, cultural, ethnic and religious benchmarks regarding the meaning of the integrity and loss (tear) of the hymen, which are not consistent with science.”

In other words, we tend, as a society, to associate the hymen with a woman's virginity, when this meaning is too reductive and fallacious — because not all ruptures of the hymen are the result of a first sexual relationship; just as not all sexual activities tear the hymen. The concept of virginity is a social concept and has little correspondence with the rupture of the hymen, in medical terms. Still, some of the motivations that guide the choice of this type of intervention are linked to religious, cultural and social beliefs. For example, since the presence of an intact hymen is still important in many cultures, a woman may want this indication of “purity” to manifest itself on her wedding night; even if not for cultural reasons, there are many already sexually active women who prefer to offer their partner a “virginal” experience; and there are also those who simply want to forget the past, because they gave in to peer pressure and lost their virginity too soon — psychologically, this is a form of “revirginization” (although in practice, the “devirginization” actually happened). Biscaia Fraga confirms that some of the women who seek him out for this type of surgery have these type of arguments in mind: “The clinical cases that have come to us are framed in a very peculiar sociocultural, ethnic, religious and geographic context, almost always impregnated with a strong drama, and rarely patent futility", explains the surgeon, anonymously pointing out some cases as examples: "A young lady (30 to 40 years old) alone in the appointment, urging the utmost secrecy, coming from and residing in a small town in the interior, whose courtship lasted half a dozen years and was abruptly interrupted. She falls in love with an older man to whom, for reasons of strong social and religious pressure, she wants to demonstrate her 'honor', 'virginity' and 'purity' on her wedding day. The consultation is carried out with the patient 'in tears'”, reinforces the specialist.

There are (many) more examples. Another case includes a “young girl from 16 to 20 years old accompanied by her mother, possessive and protective, who announces her daughter's wedding, with a fixed date, who must be, and prove, to be 'righteous' on that day. This imperative character coated with accentuated 'stress' for the young patient happens in specific ethnic groups, in immigrants from countries/nations of governments with a strong monotheistic religious establishment.” Biscaia Fraga stresses that it is “difficult to describe the level expressed verbally as a case of 'life or death'; in the most recent past, that is, in the last 15 years, more concretely.” She also remembers cases of patients aged 40 to 50 years who wanted to "offer their virginity on her husband's birthday" and still others who intended to rebuild the hymen "to offer it to the new boyfriend", confirming this aspect of associating the hymen with the purity of a woman. Meaning, many do it not for themselves, but for what others, their social peers, will think, assume, etc. But the reasons for undergoing a hymenoplasty go beyond religious, cultural and social, and even aesthetic pressures. There are those who do it for the sake of control - see the case of sexual assault, where restoration can have beneficial effects, above all psychological more than physical. Increased sexual pleasure is another aspect listed as motif by some clinics: after being a mother, the vaginal muscles can weaken and some flaccidity can occur with age — hymenoplasty helps to strengthen these muscles. There are also medical reasons that can guide the performance of the surgery, because not all hymens are the same: “In the presence of an imperforate hymen (a hymen without any hole, with a closed and intact membrane) it is imperative to proceed with a hymenoplasty (central opening), in order to allow the drainage of secretions and menstrual flow (a rare clinical situation)”, says the surgeon. That is, in the case of imperforate hymen (in which case the entire vaginal opening is covered by the hymen and which is normally discovered at the entrance of puberty, since menstruation is blocked), and situations very close to this clinical case, the intervention gains a medical argument.


And what does the intervention consist of, specifically? "The 'virginity recovery' or morphological hymenoplasty consists of the surgical act of rebuilding the membrane through the mucosa of the vulvo-vaginal wall, making it possible to achieve a higher degree of closure than the original due to the good plasticity and elasticity of the locoregional tissues" , explains the specialist about this procedure for reconstructing the vaginal membrane, noting that "it is mandatory to respect the anatomy considered normal." The procedure is relatively simple, with no complicated post-operative period, though the assessment of each situation can be the key point before proceeding with the surgery. Dr. Zeferino Biscaia Fraga does not shy away from assuming that he didn't go forward with all the cases that came to his hands: “It is technically possible to reconstruct the morphology and anatomy of the hymen, and this act should or should not be performed after a lot of evaluation. consideration of each clinical case, given that the decision should be dependent on whether or not it is contributing to the physical, psychological, social and global improvement of the patient", he remarks, adding that "according to this principle and without other judgments of value, I have already reconstructed and have refused cases because it always means surgery and anesthesia with all its inherent risks, although it is performed without hospitalization”. The physician's position touches the spot — it's not the G-spot, but it is the point of motivation and consequent post-operative well-being. It is necessary to analyze whether the arguments are valid and whether the patient's life, whether physical or psychological, will improve with the intervention. The health professional is not only the performer, he or she has a crucial role in educating and explaining the procedure, the purposes and the real return to the patient's daily life and future.

Even because, with greater or lesser manifestation, any surgical intervention has potential side effects, however minor they may be. A testimony given to the India Times in 2017 reported that, because of a meeting arranged by the parents, a reader, Swati Srivastava (not her real name), considered the surgery because the chemistry with a date to qho she'd become engaged had been such that, amidst two conservative families, it seemed to him a more viable option than coming clean with the guy, Aditya (fictitious name), about her past with a fair amount of sexual experiences. Long story short: on their wedding night, when the topic came up and Swati kept up the facade, she discovered that her now husband had a sexual past not only filled but bold (very bold), even feeling Aditya wouldn't have cared about her list of past partners and would have even liked to know that his now wife was more experienced in the area. Swati had also added, in the account, that she had “bled” [it is important to emphasize that this does not always happen] and that she was “not particularly proud of having done it in a hotel bed.” Moral of the story: it is worth pondering the reasons for having this surgery. If it is for you and for physical and psychological reasons that will make you have a fuller life, the arguments will always be valid. Giving in to external pressures without considering your will will hardly add value and will only make you undergo an unnecessary surgery (and an unwanted emptiness of your bank account, since, according to Biscaia Fraga, a surgery of this kind can cost between €1,800 and €3,500 - the price includes the surgical and anesthetic teams and block).

A few nuances have to be taken into account: rebuilding the hymen doesn't clean up whatever has happened — your sexual experiences don't go away, your virginity doesn't come back. Virginity is something we have up to a certain point and, under the right conditions, we decide not to have — unfortunately, this is not a linear statement, and there are thousands of women around the world who ceased to be virgins by force, against their will, and that cannot be ignored. But maybe if we stop seeing virginity (female and male) as a taboo subject, we will be able to talk about it more freely and with less shame. When it occurs at the right time, and with our consent, and by our decision, virginity is no longer “taken from us”, it is no longer “lost”, and becomes just something passed over in favor of new experiences and sensations. If we can accept all this, we may not need to try to get it back at any cost. Even because the idea that physical reconstruction, whether of the hymen, scars or wrinkles, erases the loss of virginity, corrects that alleged defect, disguises our age, is just an illusion if we do not understand that the past can never be erased. It can, yes, be fixed and resolved: a hymenoplasty can help in starting over. But let it be a fresh start for the right reasons, rather than a utopia of starting from scratch. Specially because all your experiences (sexual or not) made you what you are today, they were lessons that, if learned in the best way, made you better. And this is cause for celebration, not a sense of guilt that can be covered with a sieve. Or with an elastic fibro-mucosal membrane.

Translated from the original on the New Beginnings issue of Vogue Portugal, from september 2021.