‘Virginity testing’, which refers to the medical or non-medical practice that is expected to determine the existence of the ‘hymen’, has been covered by a wide variety of media outlets in the last few months of 2020. We have read about how this “medieval practice” should be banned in the UK and France, and has been banned in Pakistan for rape survivors. These practices are highly controversial not only because they threaten the autonomy of women’s bodies, but also because they are based on a subjective definition of virginity, and on unscientific approaches to looking for it. This is true for both contemporary medical ‘virginity tests’ and its non-medical alternatives.
The experience of ‘virginity testing’ is imbued with shame for women being forced to go through it. However, as problematic and ungrounded virginity testing is, it is not the only means through which women are made feel shame around their sexual history and identity. Women feel shame for having had sex before marriage if it falls outside of society’s norms. To undo this shame, they attempt to regain their ‘technical’, detectable virginity through re-virginisation practices (hymenoplasty, or a non-medical alternative method), yet they feel shame for doing so as well. They feel shame as they enter the clinic or the hospital, or when they are ordering an ‘artificial hymen’ on the phone or online. They feel shame while they are feeling pain over their ‘new hymen’. They feel shame for having to re-write their sexual history. They feel shame because they are expected and urged to feel it.
The shame women are expected to feel with regards to their sexuality and virginity is not contained in a particular time or space. This emotion; accompanied with fear, anxiety, and loneliness, among others, extends and stretches through multiple temporalities and spatialities. It roams through the woman’s home, workplace, clinic, and her body; it roams through her past, present, future. It renders some spaces inaccessible, it renders some futures unimaginable. Re-virginisation re-arranges the possibilities of how time and space are and can be experienced by a woman as the shame she is expected to feel is regurgitated at every step of the way.
Where hymenoplasty exists, virginity testing continues to exist as well, as without the medical diagnosis of a ‘ruptured hymen’ via virginity testing, hymenoplasty cannot take place. In my research on re-virginisation practices, I discovered that doctors stay away from admitting that they do carry out virginity testing, even if it is for the purposes of hymenoplasty. This denial prevents doctors from self-shaming. Nevertheless, doctors who conduct hymenoplasty still find themselves in the midst of shaming. They are condemned openly by their colleagues for helping women ‘deceive’ their future partners, and for turning the medical profession into a form of trade.
In a curious entanglement between medical spaces, times, and virginity, there is a contrast between how women and doctors experience shame. While shame stretches through time and space for women, it tends to have a sharp yet only immediate impact on doctors. This laser beam impact does not create a ripple effect for doctors like it does for women going through re-virginisation. It is contained in a moment, in a single space, and is under the authority of doctors themselves, whilst women are pushed to live under the authority of shame. The hierarchy between doctors and patients is deepened through the way they are allowed or urged to feel their emotions.
Banning virginity testing will not be complete while hymenoplasty continues to exist. This is not to suggest an end to hymenoplasty or re-virginisation. As long as women are made feel shame around their sexual history, they will be urged to find methods, be it medical or not, be it lawful or not, which will attempt to alleviate this shame, or change its shape. It is also important to remember that virginity testing and hymenoplasty are just two forms of policing over women’s bodies. It is easy to Orientalise these practices and label them as traditional or backward. However, shame roams through ‘Western’ conceptualisations of virginity and sexuality too; through virginity pledges, the stigma of being a ‘virgin’ past the accepted age in a society, or the stigma of having more partners than ‘acceptable’ (Carpenter 2005). Therefore, what we should be aiming for is an undefinition of virginity, and a redefinition of women’s sexuality across times and spaces.
In my research article “Pain as performance: re-virginisation in Turkey” published in BMJ: Medical Humanities, I unpack the role pain plays in the process of undergoing hymenoplasty, and how its performance is temporospatially and intersubjectively determined.
Carpenter, Laura M. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. New York; London: NYU Press, 2005.