Really? Artificial Hymen Kits!
When I was growing up, my friends and I believed we would all "pop our cherry" the first time we had intercourse. We didn't know much about our own anatomy, let alone what a hymen really was, we had simply been taught to expect blood on the sheets the first time we had penis-in-vagina sex as a sign of the end of our innocence. The breaking of the hymen seemed like one of many inevitable steps toward adulthood and we really didn't give it much more thought.
We had no idea that in reality, we were buying into a societal myth that stemmed from misogyny and patriarchy, one that was actively causing harm to countless girls and women who were expected to maintain their so-called virginity.
The hymen, which is a very thin and useless layer of fleshy tissue that covers a portion of the opening to the vagina, varies greatly from person to person, according to Ohio-based OB-GYN Tara Scott. Some women are born with less tissue while others have more, and some people have stretchier hymens which can prevent tearing from being noticeable. Some women are even naturally born without one at all.
"Contrary to popular belief, the hymen doesn't really break so much as it stretches over time and from various activities," said Baltimore-based writer and mental health advocate Jillian Amodio, who is in the process of releasing a sex education book for youth. "Hymens can 'break' or stretch for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with sexual activity, such as using tampons, self-exploration of your body, sports, injuries, etcetera."
In other words, the idea of virginity and its association with the breaking of the hymen is entirely socially constructed, Scott explained. More often than not, this idea is used as an excuse to shame girls and women.
Artificial hymen kits—yes, they're real
The myth of "losing" your virginity remains so embedded in our culture that there are actual procedures and products being sold with the promise of restoring or recreating the hymen. The intention is to provide the illusion of virginity, further perpetuating the harmful notion that for women, sex—or any kind of rigorous activity that causes the hymen to tear, for that matter—is something for which they should be ashamed.
Though it may come as a surprise to some people, kits promising to artificially restore "a woman's purity" by providing the illusion of a newly broken hymen are widely available in the United States. These kits typically include some type of dissolvable membrane or capsule filled with red food dye to be inserted inside the vagina before intercourse, promising to release blood-like colors on the penis and bedsheets once perforated. The kits also include vaginal tightening creams or gels.
These products are marketed to people being forced to prove their virginal status to appease cultural, societal or religious beliefs, as well as women using them recreationally in an effort to give off a "virginal" appeal for the sake of being sexy, erotic or romantic.
"According to many cultures, virginity signifies sexual purity and represents the woman's honor and her family," reads the website of Hymen Shop, an international seller of artificial hymens that told United Kingdom newspaper the Guardian it ships the most kits to California and North Carolina. To quote the website, "At Hymen Shop, we strive to protect a woman's respect and purity with our range of artificial hymen repair products."
Though these kits aren't medically invasive and won't likely cause physical harm to anyone who purchases them, Amodio said their very existence helps to sustain the harmful myth of the "virginal hymen."
"I personally feel like these types of products perpetuate the stigma that in order to be pure, sought after, worthy or sexually desirable, a biological female should have an intact hymen and that the 'proof' of someone being a virgin is through sex causing her to bleed," she said. "This is simply archaic nonsense."
Virginity testing and hymenoplasty
Companies selling artificial hymen kits may be profiting off a harmful, misogynistic myth, but so, too, is the medical community. Many doctors in the United States willingly perform virginity tests upon request.
"These exams have no medical basis as it is impossible to tell if a woman has had sex just by looking at her vagina," Amodio said. "These exams are invasive and demoralizing to women."
However nonsensical, these tests are also sometimes used as a way to (inaccurately) determine whether a sexual assault has taken place. Many women are also coerced by family members into taking these tests before marriage, and a 2017 systematic review published in Reproductive Health found the test does not accurately or reliably predict virginity status but could cause physical, psychological and social harms to the examinee.
Hymen repair surgery, a controversial procedure known as hymenoplasty, is also chillingly common. Scott said it involves tightly sewing together the tissue and muscles around the pelvic opening. She has performed hymenectomy (the opposite of hymenoplasty), which is a medically necessary procedure when tissue is not completely reabsorbed so there is no hole or a very small hole called an imperforate hymen. The procedure allows patients to use tampons and have intercourse. Scott said she has never performed hymenoplasty because it serves no medical purpose.
But some American doctors do perform hymenoplasty. A 2017 survey published in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics found 3.5 percent of doctors had performed virginity testing upon request, while 1 percent had performed hymenoplasty in the previous year.
The World Health Organization states virginity testing is a violation of human rights, and both virginity testing and hymenoplasty are widely considered forms of violence against women and girls. In fact, the U.K. is moving to ban both practices following years of outcry from experts and advocates. Yet these procedures remain entirely legal in the United States and Canada.
It's time to end the myth once and for all
There is an undeniable ethical dilemma around hymen products and procedures, as they sometimes protect women from honor-based violence. One study of ethical issues in hymenoplasty found some physicians in Iran continue to perform the procedure out of a moral obligation to protect the welfare of women seeking it, even if they are personally conflicted about the surgery.
But these products and procedures, especially when used recreationally, also cause harm by perpetuating and normalizing a myth that is intended to keep women fearful and subservient.
"The only person who needs to have any knowledge of or say in a woman's sexuality, sexual activity or sexual preferences is the woman herself," Amodio said. "Purity is a myth. Sex is not dirty, wrong or immoral. Virginity really means nothing at all."