Hymens, Virtue, and General Dishonesty

This is a physical feature that exists in most females that has caused societal anxiety, fear, danger, even death. This totally harmless, and frankly useless characteristic holds so much power in Middle Eastern and the wider religious community, it’s shocking to believe the kind of influence a tiny membrane can wield. We’re talking about the hymen, and how it seems to actually have no specific physiological function or purpose, besides scaring a lot of women half to death.

In the Middle East, people are so obsessed with hymens and “purity” that families actually prevent girls from riding horses or bicycles, doing gymnastics, or  any other physically demanding activities. When these same little girls grow up, they are forbidden to use tampons because God forbid anything but a penis enter your vaginal canal. During menstruation, this of course leads to women being unable to swim, or wear certain clothes, or even do certain everyday activities because they’re wearing a diaper-like pad or fear leakage. This sort of gender discrimination against young girls because of a ludicrous demand that they produce a few drops of blood on their wedding night is dumbfounding.

Like most patriarchal constructs, the importance of the hymen is rooted in virginity being a commodity. As Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety explored in The Medieval Vagina, in the Middle Ages, virginity became a useful tool to establish paternity and the right of landownership and family wealth to legitimate heirs. The flip side of commoditizing such a thing, is that once a physical attribute like a thin tissue becomes valuable, people go to great lengths and create a gigantic fuss out of protecting it.

Thus, the importance and sanctity of the hymen came to be. The vaginal opening, much like a jar of olives, had a seal that can be inspected by a mid-wife to prove virgo intacta. Little attention is given to the particulars and exceptions, however. Such as the fact that each hymen is unique in it’s thickness, thinness, or shape. Or that some women are born without them, or that hymens can break quite innocuously by means of a number of physical activities, dependent on the thinness or thickness of each individual hymen. Hymens are like snowflakes or our fingerprints. There are no one fits all narrative.

This sort of anxiety and preoccupation with a woman’s virtue being placed on a pesky, unpredictable verification method has led to some interesting loopholes. In the Middle Ages, women would sneak a vial into their honeymoon bed, faking an intact hymen by staining the bed sheets with animal blood. On the kookier side of the spectrum, there were recipes to restore virginity by boiling herbal concoctions and washing a woman’s lady parts for 9 days. Nowadays, women pay plastic surgeons to literally install a new hymen to “revirginize” themselves, even as a gift to their husbands, to take their virginity all over again. Who said romance is dead?

In China, the market for artificial hymens is so huge, it’s spread all over Southeast Asia and the Middle East. “Joan of Arc Red” was invented in Japan by Dr. Shiro Hisaki in 1993 and has become one of the leading products for faking virginity. For $9.97, it promises to “simulate the loss of blood when losing your virginity” by using a “medical grade Red Dye Liquid on the translucent membrane which gives a very similar effect as real human blood.”

But why? Society has already moved past the medieval need to establish paternity, there are DNA tests for that. There is no massive preoccupation with the virtue and purity of men, and no handy “sealant” to test either. The societal pressure and burden of proof lies firmly on women, and often for reasons beyond their control, that proof does not even exist. It seems more reasonable to trust in someone’s virtue and honesty without a physical attribute to point to as evidence.

Cartoon source: http://www.lizadonnelly.com/cartoons

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