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The 'Surgical Re-Virgin': Setting the Odometer Back to Zero

Retrofitting women to make them sexually attractive and "marriageable" is more than a Hollywood fad. It's life or death for many.
 
 
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BOSTON -- I remember when a subgroup of the abstinence-only movement first came up with an escape clause called secondary virginity. The idea was that just because you had sex once didn't mean you had to do it again. This prompted a cynical question from a young lawyer in my family: "Does that mean you can renew your virginity again and again? Or is it three strikes and you're out?"

Well, now we are having a secondary argument over secondary virginity. This time the subject isn't spiritual revival but surgical re-virgin. The furor comes from Europe where there's a trend among women -- mostly immigrants and mostly Muslims -- to have their hymens restored for the marriage market.

This began with a recent case that has France in an uproar even by French standards. A Muslim groom who discovered on his wedding night that his wife was not what she claimed to be -- a virgin -- sued for and won an annulment. He claimed a breach of contract on the grounds that virginity was an "essential quality" of the woman he chose to marry.

This ruling outraged a country that bans headscarves in schools and has immigrants sign a pledge that describes France as a secular country where men and women are equal. It was described by a cabinet minister as a "fatwa against emancipated women" and identified by others as something that would pressure more women into hymenoplasty.

Now, why precisely one woman found guilty of fraud would drive other women into deeper fraud I'm not sure. But gynecologists in Paris report women coming to them for certificates of virginity, and medical tourist packages take women to places such as Tunisia where the surgery is cheaper. There is even a new Italian movie about an immigrant returning to Casablanca to "have her odometer brought back to zero."

All this is happening despite the fact -- Biology 101 -- that the presence or absence of a hymen may be unrelated to sexual experience. Indeed, one surgeon gives patients a vial of blood to pour on the sheets just in case.

This has led to a controversy not just over sex and equality but the ethics of surgery that's designed to retrofit a woman to a rigid culture. On one side, the French gynecological organization condemned the practice as a "submission to the intolerance of the past." On the other side, a doctor who performs the surgery said, "My patients don't have a choice if they want to find serenity -- and husbands." And some of the patients describe it flat-out as a matter of life and death, acknowledging that they are in real danger from their families if their 'dishonor' is discovered.

Now, before we dismiss this whole restoration project as Europe vs. fundamentalism, remember that American doctors are also offering to repair hymens in website ads promising privacy and like-a-virgin results -- thank you, Madonna.

Bioethicist Alta Charo squirms over the idea of hymen repair but then says we ought to "put it in the larger context of how far women will go to make themselves marriageable and sexually attractive." Just what will secular, modern women do to fit their own cultural stereotypes -- breast implant, anyone? What will they do to stay employable -- face-lift, anyone?

But there's something in the tale of fear, fraud and France that resonates with the darker side of the abstinence-only education movement here.

Government-promoted virginity lessons are not simply an attempt to protect our daughters -- and, oh yeah, sure, sons -- from a culture that sells sex like Pop-Tarts. Nor are they just about helping them delay and think twice about hooking up. They too are based on fear and control.

And consider the father-daughter Purity Balls dotting the country. At these deeply creepy events, fathers promise "to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity." How far is that protection from the protection racket where fathers oversee their female property until it's passed on -- intact or else -- to a husband?

All in all, the flip side of purity lectures is the conviction that sex -- and the girls who have it -- is dirty. On either side of the Atlantic, doctors in the "like a virgin" business are not only accomplices of private deceptions, they are accomplices to those who keep the reins of sexuality out of women's own hands.

Where, I wonder, is the Internet ad for repairing a whole culture?

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Ellen Goodman is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.