If virginity is a social construct, why are so many women covertly undergoing surgery to ‘restore’ it?
Aishwarya Bhat could tell that something was wrong. A frenzied commotion had broken out, dampening the festivities surrounding her relative’s wedding. Bhat was only a child then – too young to fathom the chaos around her. Still, she remembers the raised voices, agitated deliberations, and the copious shedding of tears that all culminated in a late-night visit to the doctor. It was only when Bhat first got her period around the age of 14 – a sign that she was now approaching the marriageable age – that she learned the details of what had transpired, and the ritual that lay at the heart of it.
To pass the “bedsheet test,” a bride must bleed, explained the elderly women who had gathered around 14-year-old Bhat. The bedsheet would be inspected for bloodstains after the marriage had been consummated – evidence that the woman’s hymen was intact and she had been a virgin until that point. Only after the khap panchayat attained this visible proof of her virginity would the final marriage custom — the bidaai ceremony — take place. It was a trial all women in their community had to undergo to prove their virginity. Bhat would be no exception. The reason, as her mother told her, was simple: “[M]y mother, grandmother have also done it. They saved their family’s honor. Now it’s your job to do that.” The women didn’t need to warn Bhat of the fate that befell those who failed.
Something had gone disastrously wrong the night of the wedding, leaving Bhat’s relative with a torn vagina, and her in-laws with a gnawing uncertainty about the bride’s virginity. Was the blood on the bedsheet the result of a “broken” hymen, or an injury? At 3 am, she was rushed to the doctor for a confirmation. The next morning – just hours after the bride received stitches and the doctor’s verdict in her favor – an elderly woman from the community arrived to conduct a two-finger virginity test.
For Bhat’s family, the incident had become a cautionary tale. And so Bhat grew up shadowed by restrictions, barred from physical activity like dancing or cycling, and even from taking up a job until she was safely married, all in an effort to protect her hymen. Her family was anxious to ward off any possible uncertainty that could lead to a two-finger virginity test.
The two-finger test is now illegal in India, but informal virginity tests persist. They are rooted in a fervent belief that all women bleed when they have penetrative sex for the first time – even though an estimated 40-50% of women don’t. The membrane can tear due to everyday activities and some women are born without a hymen. Still, an intact hymen continues to be considered an indicator of virginity, which is itself a social construct aimed at curtailing female sexuality.
Today, in the age of hookup culture, the concept of virginity may seem like a relic of the past. And yet a surgery often billed as a ‘revirgination’ procedure has become popular in recent years.
This is the hymenoplasty surgery – an invasive procedure that reconstructs the hymen, or creates the membrane from scratch using vaginal tissue. The demand for this surgery has been steadily rising in India, doctors say. It’s anecdotal evidence, but then, almost everything to do with the hymenoplasty is. The procedure occupies medicine’s gray area – little-studied, elective, and, sometimes, questionably promoted.
There is wide medical consensus that hymenoplasty does not provide any medical benefit to the patient. The procedure results in a new hymen, so that it may ‘break’ again and cause bleeding. But the surgery doesn’t guarantee this. “There’s like a 30-50% chance that you might bleed despite getting the procedure done,” says Dr. Garima Srivastav, a gynecologist based in Delhi. In other words, there is a 50-70% likelihood that a person may not bleed after the procedure. (Most clinics, however, advertise a success rate of around 98% on their websites).
From doctors to researchers, many consider hymenoplasty to be a matter of choice. “There is no medical indication for this procedure. Despite that, I do it because her future depends on this membrane,” says Dr. Srivastav.
Because for many women, adds Dr. Tanaya Narendra, “a hymen is a matter of life and death.”
But as it happens, hymenoplasty isn’t really about the hymen at all.
One would assume that women undergoing the hymenoplasty would be the protagonists of this story. But protagonists have a name, a face, a voice. The women who are looking to re/construct their hymens, however, are silent. They exist as a collection of anecdotes, approaching corporeality only through doctors’ recollections.
Some admit to having undergone the procedure, but are unwilling to speak about it, leaving only doctors’ impressions of them to fill the vacuum left by their absent voices. Those who have previously spoken to the media request a change of name. Their insistence on as much anonymity as possible is what unites these women and is the one thing we know for certain about them. Many attempt to withhold any details that could be used to identify them, even adopting false names when approaching doctors. They come alone, except on rare occasions when a current or past partner can be found in the waiting room with them.
Many women are out-of-station patients, coming from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities and towns in India. They travel great distances, crossing state borders to get their hymens re/constructed, far from the roving eyes of their families, neighbors, and even local doctors. These women want expert professionals who can re/construct their hymens seamlessly, and they can’t take the risk of hushed whispers finding their way back home, of failed engagements or marriages, judgment or outright violence.
“One month before marriage season, of course the girl is more scared about it, so they are more ready for it.”
Others come from urban areas and metropolitan cities, places one wouldn’t expect to find the myth of virginity still alive.
They seem to have the financial resources – whether they earn, save, or acquire the amount by other means is unknown – and the agency to step out of their homes alone without raising too many questions. Many are highly-educated, working professionals; some even hold coveted positions of doctors, nurses, and engineers.
They are the “elite,” Dr. Srivastav says. A.*, for instance, was a gynecologist herself. Still, the fear that her future partner would be able to tell that she is not a virgin propelled her through the gates of Dr. Srivastav’s clinic in Pitampura, Delhi.
A date for A.’s wedding had been fixed. Her fiance was a doctor, too. A. was panic-stricken, unsure how conservative her new partner or his family would be. A. knew she would never tell her family or the man she was about to marry about the one she had dated during her student years in Delhi. However, the fear that her husband’s medical expertise would lay bare the details of her past weighed heavy on her mind. “She came over and said ‘I want to get this done because I have a real fear that if he picks up that I am not a virgin, it will ruin my life back [home],’” Dr. Srivastav says.
Most of the women opting for hymenoplasty are between the ages of 22 and 30, doctors say. Many are nervous, looking to erase their sexual past before marriage and gain acceptance from new family members. They fear being ‘found out’ on their wedding night and the repercussions of not staining the bedsheet with their blood. A few months before their wedding, this distress heightens and is strong enough to drive many who had been unsure about the surgery until that point into the operating theater.
More women start arriving at Dr. Srivastav’s clinic for the surgery in September and October, and again from January to March during the wedding season. The number of patients dips to a low mid-year when fewer marriages take place. “One month before marriage season, of course the girl is more scared about it, so they are more ready for it,” says Dr. Shobhit Gupta, a plastic surgeon in Delhi.
Throughout the rest of the year, two to three women looking to regain their virginity make their way to Dr. Srivastav’s clinic every week. It totals up to 12–15 surgeries a month. The number does not seem large until you compare it to more commonly known surgeries. “Doctors working in private hospitals don’t have as many Caesarian operations as I do hymenoplasty surgeries every week,” she adds.
The women can’t afford to trust anyone, including their doctors, who are bound by the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality. Just like the surgery erases all evidence of their sexual past, the women try to wipe away all traces of having undergone it. Those who reach out to cosmetic surgeon Dr. B.* for a consultation communicate only through encrypted messages on WhatsApp or SMS. At the desk, many give false names. His hospital in Gujarat always asks for identification, but the women are reluctant to provide it. “Sir, please don’t ask for Aadhaar card,” they ask, according to Dr. B.
Around 900 kilometers away, women also adopt aliases before entering Dr. Deepti Asthana’s consultation room in Gurugram. They only reveal their real names when Dr. Asthana insists on seeing identity proof before conducting the procedure.
These women come in for the surgery with a bundle of notes tucked safely in their bags or stuffed in wallets bursting at the seams. They are adamant to pay in cash – there should be no paper trail. The cost to ‘revirginize’ oneself is high – ranging between Rs. 20,000 and 50,000. The technique and type of anesthesia patients opt for can further increase the cost.
Of course, not all women getting a hymenoplasty fit this general description. Some are taken to clinics by their family, as in the case of the woman who was brought to Dr. B by her parents in the hopes that a surgery could erase the distress of sexual assault. They belonged to a conservative community, Dr. B. says, and the parents wanted him to conduct a hymenoplasty surgery since their daughter “‘had a bad experience.’”
Some women choose a hymenoplasty themselves, to regain control over their bodies and heal from the trauma of sexual abuse, according to most available research on this surgery.
Then, there are the women who are entering their 40s and have been married for a while. Virginity is no longer demanded of them, but they wish to recreate it nonetheless. For them, it’s a ‘gift’ for their partners – one often given on milestone anniversaries. Women have come to Dr. B. hoping to surprise their husbands with their reconstructed virginity. (Those who wish to not only repair the hymen but also recreate youthfulness undergo additional surgeries such as vaginoplasty, which tightens vaginal walls. Hymenoplasty thus often comes clubbed with other cosmetic surgeries, packaged together as “vaginal rejuvenation.”) The website of a popular clinic in India doesn’t go so far as to call the hymenoplasty a gift but claims that women think this will add “thrill” and lead to a memorable experience.
Ultimately, whatever be their motivations, the threads that bind these women together are their need for discretion, bordering on secrecy, and the desire to bleed the next time they have sex. But whether the surgery was successful in ensuring bleeding is a mystery to the doctors, just as the women themselves are. There are no follow-up visits for these patients, and it’s part of the reason why so little is known about the procedure. A more comprehensive picture of the surgery is only possible with complete records that document which technique was used, whether the patient was satisfied with the procedure, and if bleeding did in fact occur. But most of these questions remain unanswered – once the women step out of the clinic’s doors, they disappear without a trace.
A’s wedding was in December, last year, but Dr. Srivastav hasn’t heard from her.
“They never come back.”
For the women, the hymenoplasty is about erasure.
The hymenoplasty claims to ‘restore’ virginity – a concept that has been kept alive by society’s beliefs but doesn’t actually exist. “[T]here are so many doctors that advertise ‘revirgination’ procedures, which in the exact sense is not true. Because just having a hymen does not mean you are a virgin…,” Dr. Srivastav says. Marketing interests, then, may sideline medical information that could inform regulation. For how does one regulate a myth?
Where marketing interests are involved, the hymenoplasty comes down to something arguably older than the obsession with virginity: money.
A simple Google search for ‘hymenoplasty’ floods one’s screen with sponsored ads and websites of private clinics where women can “safely” undergo this “30 minutes procedure.” They offer free consultations and usually boast of happy clients, certified professionals, complete privacy, and no side effects.
Blogs of private clinics outline the benefits and risks of the surgery. Some surgeons openly denounce the concept of virginity tests as well, while still offering hymenoplasty. Meanwhile, others use clickbait headlines that imply correlations between intact hymens and women’s appearance, their self-esteem, and even relationship success, while promoting aesthetic standards that cater to the male gaze. The marketing language performs doublespeak: simultaneously leaning into the moral-cultural notions of ‘purity’ and ‘integrity’ attached to a woman’s virginity, and also promising benefits that are more in line with the ideal of a modern, confident woman by alluding to surgery as an empowered choice. “Restore your purity,” reads one ad. Another Indian clinic’s website says, “…the revival of a hymen is of paramount importance as this would give them the feeling of a novel relationship.” It then acknowledges that a hymen may ‘break’ due to a number of reasons, but quickly adds: “After all who doesn’t want an intact hymen before the first intercourse!”
“[I]f you sew it up fully in the hopes that you will make her bleed, that menstrual blood also gets stuck inside.”
Social media has a large role to play in creating awareness and driving demand, says Dr. Gupta. Ads, posters, and blogs promoting hymenoplasty flood Facebook, Twitter, and even subreddits. A Reddit post even called it a “Miracle cure… to recover your virginity or revive the dignity of the hymen.”
Marketing lingo has come to determine many of the terms for elective genital procedures and has even infiltrated the language used by some doctors and clinics, creating ambiguity and complicating regulation. A key example is the term ‘superhymenoplasty,’ a procedure that supposedly ensures more bleeding. While some papers document this technique of creating a “superhymen,” the term is “very commercial; it is not a medical term,” Dr. Srivastav says.
Even among doctors, there are different ideas about what superhymenoplasty entails. Dr. Asthana says it involves inserting a fake blood capsule into the vagina during the procedure.
Meanwhile, Dr. B. describes it as leaving a very small vaginal opening, where “only your little finger goes inside, so there will be more pain and discomfort on first relations, and more bleeding.”
Ambiguous language also paves the way for suggesting other procedures that aren’t medically necessary. “Whenever a patient comes for hymenoplasty, we always ask them after examination, ‘If you want to correct the shape and everything, we can do [it] together,’” Dr. B. says.
The promotion of these related surgeries has been widely criticized, with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) taking notice of the “ethical issues associated with the marketing” of these cosmetic procedures back in 2007. (There is some debate in the medical community on whether hymenoplasty is a cosmetic or reconstructive procedure.) Here, the language of choice – that of imbuing women with agency and “control over their future” – is often employed by surgeons and advertisements alike. “Interestingly, the medical institution here becomes an unlikely ally. Doctors appropriate the (feminist) language of ‘choice’ (of the intending woman) to justify their reasons for performing such procedures,” says Dr. Tannistha Samanta, an associate professor of sociology at FLAME University.
Talking about “vaginal rejuvenation” (which sometimes includes hymenoplasty), authors of a 2017 paper wrote, “These multiple terms reflect the problematic commercial/marketing interests potentially associated with this surgery, to the point that several medical organizations called for an urgent need for a standardized nomenclature, with the elimination of all non-medical terms.” However, statements like these are more suggestions than regulation.
Last year, the UK announced a ban on hymenoplasty and virginity testing, describing them as “forms of violence” that are “part of the cycle of so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse.” The expert panel’s paper noted that the procedure not only “reinforces misbeliefs about the hymen” but permitting this surgery could “normalise dishonesty,” exposing women to further risk of abuse if their deception comes to light. The surgery is also banned in some Middle Eastern countries.
Websites of several clinics and medical blogs list sexual assault as one of the primary reasons women opt for this procedure. Some portray it as a solution to “empower” survivors and a way for them to heal from the distress “of being robbed of her virginity.” Notably, however, a paper by the UK’s expert panel on hymenoplasty concludes “there is no evidence that hymenoplasty supports physical, emotional, or psychological recovery from rape or other forms of sexual violence.” Citing advice by The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and Institute of Psychosexual Medicine (IPM), the paper added that the surgery may instead cause flashbacks to the sexual violence, causing further psychological damage.
In India, there is no law regulating hymenoplasty, says Dr. Srivastav. The surgery, promoted as “100% safe” by many clinics, bears minimal risk when done by an experienced practitioner. The absence of proper regulation, however, creates a space for inexperienced practitioners to emerge to cater to the growing demand. This poses several risks for women, Dr. Srivastav explains, from an overdose of local anesthesia to infections, bleeding, and injury during surgery. “Sometimes, they stitch up the whole hymen…,” she says. “[I]f you sew it up fully in the hopes that you will make her bleed, that menstrual blood also gets stuck inside,” causing pain and serious complications.
Ultimately, “the industry is flourishing because there is a market for it,” says Dr. Jagriti Gangopadhyay, an assistant professor of sociology at Manipal Centre for Humanities. “There’s a target audience. The market cannot really function until the target audience is there and they know that a certain amount of money making and profit will happen.”
To reconcile themselves to the performance of these surgeries, surgeons often use terms such as “medical duty” and “patient rights,” Dr. Samanta wrote in her paper on hymenoplasty. However, these same clinics offer special packages and discounts to women, “before wedding season commences in October every year,” she wrote.
“While being fully aware of the fact that such medical procedures [involving] suturing back the hymen perpetuate the obsession about women’s virginity and patriarchal control, the doctors do not hesitate to use the market logic of demand-supply to explain their ideological positions,” she says.
But in an environment where this obsession dictates the future of many young women, it’s not so black and white for doctors either.
“It’s part of my profession,” says Dr. Asthana, talking about hymenoplasty. She is a doctor, and if the patient wants a service, she will give them that service. When society’s mindset changes, only then will the prevalence of this surgery decrease, she adds. “At the end of the day, everybody wants a virgin female.”
It makes sense then that as more women queue up to recreate the illusion of virginity, there has been a parallel increase in the number of surgeons and clinics offering these services. The “scope” is high as there are “so many patients for this,” says Dr. Asthana, who received her certification in cosmetic gynecology around 8 years ago. It is also telling that procedures like the hymenoplasty are rarely performed in government hospitals.
Dr. Srivastav stresses that doctors are not the ones creating the demand. “The demand is already there in the society, we are just telling you that… we are capable of doing this, of meeting your demand in our clinic. So I dont think it’s the fault of the doctors over here because we aren’t going to people’s houses and saying come to us and get hymenoplasty done.”
The prevalence of this surgery is fraught with controversy, raising a moral conundrum for all involved, but particularly for doctors. For a profession that is guided by the principle of “do no harm,” refusing to offer this procedure could then either be understood as a form of advocacy or a form of harm. Taking a stand against this procedure, while knowing that the hymenoplasty could secure a woman’s social wellbeing or even save her life, could be seen as flouting their vocational principles. On the other hand, would the decision to conduct a surgery that has undeniable ties to the myth of virginity be reinforcing the same misconceptions that create a need for such a procedure in the first place?
With the hymenoplasty, doctors are operating in the realm of no right answers.
The way the medical community finds its way out of this morass is to institute counseling as a best practice. At Dr. Srivastav’s clinic, counseling is the very first step, aimed at dispeling the myths linking a woman’s virtue to her hymen, explaining the fallacy of virginity tests, clarifying potential post-surgery complications, and allaying any fears and anxieties. While many doctors may be doing their bit in correcting misconceptions, whether virginity is a myth might seem irrelevant to women compared to the weight of societal expectations placed upon them and their hymens.
Those who wish to proceed must sign a detailed document that they have understood the risks and have a realistic impression of the surgery’s success.
“Because there is no law regarding this in our country, it is totally upon the wisdom of the doctor whatever they choose to decide,” she adds. Whether it boosts the patient’s confidence, helps with her marital life, or secures her future, there are many reasons why a doctor may decide to conduct the surgery. “At the end of the day, you should be able to sleep well at night and be able to justify your ethics to yourself,” Dr. Srivastav says.
This “wisdom,” however, differs from person to person, she adds.
After the surgery is complete, Dr. B says he warns his patients – there will be pain during sex. And when there isn’t, he recommends that they act like there is. “At least they should show discomfort.”
“Because there is no law regarding this in our country, it is totally upon the wisdom of the doctor whatever they choose to decide.”
Stories of pain and blood – that go hand-in-hand with what is popularly considered virginity – stem from a heteronormative idea of what sex is, explains Karishma Swarup, a sexuality educator. Many doctors are influenced by this idea as much as anybody else.
Medicine has a long and troubled history of perpetuating social and cultural anxieties, says Dr. Samanta. An infamous example comes from an old chapter in a Forensic Medicine and Toxicology textbook, which defined “virginity” and “defloration” and devoted a whole section to describing the ‘Signs of Virginity.’ According to Mid-Day, questions in university exams included “How will you ascertain whether a person is a virgin?”, “What are various signs of virginity?”, and “What is a false and true virgin?” The answer to the last one could be found in a table that laid out the differences between the two in detail.
In 2018, Dr. Indrajit Khandekar, a professor at Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sewagram, campaigned for the removal of this unscientific content. “No medical text book offered scientific support to these claims, and none specify any test for ascertaining male virginity,” he said at the time. In 2022, the National Medical Council approved the updation of the MBBS curriculum to remove this content. Since then, medical students have been taught that the two-finger virginity test is “unscientific, inhumane and discriminatory.”
“[T]hat’s the kind of environment we learn medicine in – super misogynistic,” says Dr. Narendra.
Mimicking virginity is an ancient practice employed by women to protect themselves from adverse consequences, noted a 2012 study on hymenoplasty patients in the Netherlands. In certain cultures, “how to use deception in case of a lack of blood loss” assumes a form of intergenerational knowledge, passed down by elderly women of the community to younger women about to face the eye of the storm. It is a secret instruction. The study lists a few tactics: hiding a sac of animal blood, pricking yourself with a needle during intercourse, using herbs that make the vagina raw and dry a few days before marriage. At times, women save the bedsheets they had marked on their wedding nights, passing them on to the younger generation like a blood-stained heirloom.
Even hymenoplasty has a long history, with midwives using membrane material from goats and other animals to “disguise a broken hymen,” June Reinisch, a psychologist whose research has focused on sexual and psychosexual development, told The Wall Street Journal in 2005. But in a modern world, with women migrating away from their homes or communities, they are “cut off” from this knowledge.
Apart from doctors, there are influencers stepping in as custodians of this knowledge today. They offer solutions to questions women find easier to ask strangers online, rather than their own family members.
The myth that underpins hymenoplasty has also fueled alternatives – products that offer a less-expensive and faster method of re/creating virginity. They appeal to women who don’t want to, or can’t undergo an expensive, invasive procedure. When C.*, a YouTuber, suggests hymenoplasty to those who “want to revive their hymen,” the women in her DM’s refuse. They want an “easy way out,” she says, referring to the sense of urgency that is driving these women.
“With our products, we don’t reinforce the problem in these patriarchal societies, we just make it easier to solve.”
This alternative comes in the form of an artificial hymen – capsules filled with a synthetic substance that must be inserted into the vagina approximately two hours before intercourse. During sex, the capsule sheath dissolves or breaks and the ingredients mix with vaginal secretions, running out as natural blood would – creating the appearance of a ‘torn’ hymen.
C.’s channel has a promotional video on this product. Her collaborator – who seems to be a supplier in India – remains unnamed, but he sends products, ranging from vaginal tightening gels to breast enhancement creams, to C. for promotion. The vaginal tightening product came with a suggestion: If you are recommending this to someone, how about you tell them about this blood capsule as well?
The virginity pills arrived at C.’s house wrapped in a black packet devoid of any clues that could alert someone to its contents. The company offers discreet packaging and anonymous deliveries. These are the artificial hymen capsules by VirginiaCare. There are two capsules within: One for practice, the other for the wedding night, C. explains. The capsules, which claim to be halal-compliant, are made of self-dissolving cellulose while the blood powder is composed of natural ingredients “so that it reliably imitates human blood.”
These products are usually advertised as an alternative to surgery. They seem to come in variations: Fresh blood effect, for immediate confirmation, and dry blood effect for confirmation after a few hours or even days.
Like the providers of hymenoplasty, the makers of these products claim to be helping women solve the problem of proving virginity. Unlike doctors and surgeons, however, they’re not guided by the professional principle of “do no harm.” In an email exchange, the company’s co-founder says the idea for the product was born when they came to hear about women having to prove their virginity in many countries. He uses language that resembles the marketing for hymenoplasty, evoking a similar sentiment of agency for product-users. There seem to be several websites for this Germany-based company, all with different URLs, making it difficult to establish its legitimacy. One of these also offers a fake virginity certificate for sale, which women can order stamped with their name and in any language of their choice.
The co-founder says VirginiaCare’s annual turnover stands at 750,000 USD, and the company receives most of its orders from India and Pakistan. They send around 10,000 pieces a year to India, he says. There is no way to confirm this claim.
There’s no way to confirm the company’s claims of safety, either; these products are less studied than the hymenoplasty and there is little scientific research on their possible risks. “It might be just dyes [in these products] … any sort of colorant can irritate the vagina, cause allergic reactions [and] rashes but it’s difficult to say because we simply don’t know what is in it,” says Dr. Narendra.
In 2019, one Twitter user flagged the sale of these products on Amazon. Growing public awareness of their existence led to massive outrage, forcing Amazon India to remove these products from their listings. All Food and Drug Licence Holders’ Foundation (AFDLH) had also reportedly filed a complaint against the sale of such pills with the FDA and Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI). “We have come to know that they are not evaluated or approved by the FDA or any other health regulatory bodies. We strongly feel that these products are dangerous for younger and newly-married women who will use them…,” Abhay Pandey, president of AFDLH, told The Asian Age in 2019.
Still, they continue to be available on online pharmacies and can be directly ordered from company websites as well, at a price that lies somewhere in the vicinity of Rs. 3000–5000.
Just as the hymenoplasty can be paired with additional procedures to re/create aspects associated with virginity or even enhance genital appearance, the artificial hymen capsules can be used with vaginal tightening products. However, some of these over-the-counter tightening creams use alum, which tightens the vagina by creating scar tissue, says Dr. Narendra. This means “you are injuring your vagina, and the vagina is a very sensitive environment,” she explains. With overuse, a vagina could become “medically too tight” and the opening too small for penetration, she adds.
“All of these ‘products’ are essentially feeding the patriarchal control of disciplining a woman’s sexual self.”
Vaginal tightening products cater to the misconception that vaginas become loose post penetrative sex. However, a ‘tight vagina’ is a dangerous idea, says Swarup. “[W]hen we choose to reinforce these ideas that tightness is something that’s valuable… that can be preserved and purchased, it is deeply problematic,” she says. Tightness can manifest as pain, vaginismus, or a host of other issues that make it impossible for women to experience pleasure. “All of these ‘products’ are essentially feeding the patriarchal control of disciplining a woman’s sexual self,” says Dr. Samanta.
However, VirginiaCare’s co-founder disagrees. “We see our product as an emergency aid, if our products didn’t exist the problem wouldn’t be any less,” he writes in an email. “Unfortunately, the problem faced by young women cannot be solved with education and tolerance. With our products, we don’t reinforce the problem in these patriarchal societies, we just make it easier to solve.”
These products may be a solution to a persistent problem for many women – where a few drops of blood create the illusion of virginity and can save their marriage, ward off societal judgment, and help them protect their privacy. It’s an alternative to hymenoplasty, but whether these products, or the surgery itself, are good options is up for debate.
The women who reach out to C. for advice return to tell her that they used both the vaginal tightening cream and artificial hymen capsule together. “It has saved our marriage,” they told her. They emerge in her Instagram DM’s using anonymous accounts to thank her, before disappearing forever.
It’s difficult to talk about hymenoplasty without noting the resounding silence where men’s voices should be. They might be missing from the story, and yet they are present everywhere – as shadows. When a family is instructing a young woman on maintaining ‘honor,’ a community is demanding proof of an intact hymen, or a woman is consulting a doctor on how to regain virginity – the men are there, lurking in the background and making their presence known by implication. The myth of virginity, and the desire to recreate the illusion of it, can then be traced back to the group that benefits most from it.
On the other hand, many men are acutely aware of their role. Last year, a couple walked into Abhilasha Hospital in Prayagraj, seeking a hymenoplasty surgery. The two knew that with caste dynamics at play, marriage was not an option for them. Their relationship came with an expiration date as her family had already arranged her wedding to a man of their choice. “The boyfriend was very worried that she’s going to get bashed up if they find out she’s not a virgin… The family background that she comes from, she could get killed for this,” recounts Dr. Narendra. “I just want her to be safe,” her partner had said, while offering to pay for the procedure. In this instance, the man offering to pay may not be the one benefiting from the virginity myth – but he’s as much a part of the story as anyone else, as the one who inadvertently felt responsible for his partner’s safety.
Men, in the story of hymenoplasty, are an institution as much as they are individuals. And an institution, of course, includes other representatives – family members, community elders, and even other women. But patriarchy, the prevailing social structure, favors men’s interests above all else. It attaches moral-cultural values to the hymen, transforming it from a thin membrane with no known biological function to a receptacle of ‘honor’ and ‘purity’. And it establishes punishment as an acceptable response for women transgressing the norms of virginity. In doing so, it creates an environment of fear and judgment, in which many women feel compelled to re/create the membrane.
Without men – in their systemic form – the surgery wouldn’t exist. The hymenoplasty thus reflects an effort to maintain control.
What people try to hide, block, or disguise often reveals their most deep-rooted insecurities. This holds true not only for individuals, but for society as a whole. At its crux, then, the story of the hymenoplasty is one about fear. For all involved, it’s the fear of being found out, being rejected, of aging, of the consequences of sexual assault, of ethics, and finally, of agency.
The hymenoplasty becomes a way to resolve these myriad anxieties around being judged, shunned, or even harmed for not being a virgin – but it doesn’t resolve the conflict at the heart of it.
Only one path does, really. In 2018, Aishwarya Bhat married activist Vivek Tamaichikar. The couple made headlines when they chose to challenge the concept of virginity entirely. They rejected the ‘bedsheet test’ ritual prevalent in their community. A few months before their marriage, Tamaichikar had also founded a WhatsApp campaign to bring like-minded youth from their community together under the name of “Stop The V Ritual.”
Their wedding invitation card included an appeal to guests to join their fight against the virginity test. Bhat was in a “dilemma” at first, Tamaichikar says. She had expected to undergo this test, as every woman before her. “Every girl child is groomed in this way only in our community, so how can she be an exception to it?” In a society that insists on keeping the myth of virginity alive, fighting it leads to a fallout. “[W]e are boycotted since then,” he says.
“[T]hings like virginity and access to marriage can be so deeply and intricately linked with access to money, access to livelihood and access to freedom.”
If fear occupies the liminal space between safety and danger, the hymenoplasty lies in a moral gray area, swinging between arguments of individual choice and compulsion. The procedure embodies these contradictions – it’s where a regressive myth meets advancements in science and where women’s autonomy meets attempts to dominate it.
Depending on how one views it, the procedure becomes a means for women to regain their agency over their own bodies and exercise their autonomy. Some argue that women who take recourse to hymenoplasty make a “pragmatic choice” and are launching a resistance against the system that imposes restrictions on their sexuality and freedom. Authors of an Iran-based study wrote that by manipulating the “medicalization of virginity,” women resist being classified under the categories of ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’ – as the deviant woman who has premarital sex and a woman who retains her integrity by remaining a virgin.
Women’s individual choice and ability to take action are enmeshed in a social structure that doesn’t allow for open conversation. “[T]hings like virginity and access to marriage can be so deeply and intricately linked with access to money, access to livelihood and access to freedom,” says Swarup, before adding, “…I’m not going to judge someone for something they feel compelled to do because of the environment around them.”
Amid all these conflicting motivations and gray areas, it becomes difficult to extricate motivations of choice from those born of fear. Attempts at addressing the underlying myth of virginity, too, becomes a tightrope act. Any action to rid society of ideologies that oppress vulnerable groups must not inadvertently end up punishing them, says Dr. Narendra. The ground reality is important to consider. “It’s essential that we focus on education instead of shaming and we focus on awareness instead of punishing because there are very far reaching consequences of not being able to prove your virginity.” She does not endorse these practices or interventions herself, but understands the predicament women face.
The hymen, as Dr. Narendra said, is a matter of life and death. The hymenoplasty bridges the two, lying somewhere in between.
*names changed to protect anonymity
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.