India, the land of Kamasutra, is also the land of regressive notions and hypocrisy, it seems. A woman’s honour (and that of her family’s), is placed solely upon a thin layer of skin around the opening of her vagina, that is, upon her hymen, which is unwisely dubbed to be her ‘virginity’. In this progressive India, a woman’s virginity may not be used to enhance her CV (thank the heavens, ladies), but is surely seen as a requirement for her marriage biodata.
When it comes to marriages, especially arranged marriages, a woman’s sexual history tends to hold a lot of importance in the matter; the question of her virginity can even be a deal breaker. A woman’s virginity is associated with her character in India. A woman who has had sex before marriage is often deemed as characterless, disgraced and unworthy of respect. It is the same notion that prompts the act of rape as a means of revenge against a woman, taking after the idea that stripping her of her chastity will ruin her for life as she will have no honour left.
What Is Virginity Actually?
But, let’s take a breather and first try to understand what virginity really is. Nothing. Yes, that’s right, virginity is nothing. It doesn’t really exist. Virginity does not find its roots in any medical or biological concepts. It’s simply a heteronormative social construct developed to control the female sexuality.
Of course, this isn’t to say that virginity isn’t real or that it doesn’t affect people. Because it does. Like any other social construct, virginity too affects people’s lives. But it shouldn’t. There is no real definition of virginity except for the one given in the dictionary: the state of never having had sexual intercourse.
Women are shamed for losing their virginity before marriage but men aren’t, in fact, it’s a cause for celebration
Now, even if we go by this definition of virginity, then what exactly is this sexual intercourse that we associate with virginity? How far can you go to still be a virgin or to not be one anymore? Does oral sex count? Phone sex? Digital sex? Penetration with a sex toy? What about the people who indulge in sexual acts on a regular basis but it just isn’t penetrative sex? Does it mean they never loose their virginity?
Different people define sex differently. When we refer to virginity, it usually means penetrative sex. The concept of virginity is not very inclusive of all sexualities. Therefore, the only definition we do have of virginity also fails in its purpose. (And if you’re going to cite this as the reason why alternate sexualities aren’t real or shouldn’t exist, please don’t. We here live in a real world while you, apparently, in your disillusioned one.)
Pre-Marital Sex And The Underlying Sexism
Even if we keep aside the facts mentioned above for a moment, virginity still continues to be a highly sexist notion, even in its heteronormative context. Virginity, as a concept, was created to control female sexuality. Yes, in today’s time, virginity as a concept also exists for men, but it nearly doesn’t have the same social implications for them as it does for women.
Women are shamed for losing their virginity before marriage but men aren’t, in fact, it’s a cause for celebration. Girls and boys are brought up with this sexist notion since childhood. A girl is supposed to hold on to her virginity till her marriage for her husband to take but the virginity of boys is not put under such strict vigilance. In some middle-class and upper middle-class families, the family doesn’t mind what the boy does as long as it’s done away from prying eyes, behind closed doors. And in some other more open-minded families, fathers themselves encourage their sons to gain sexual experience so the boy can finally become a man. (Yes, because amongst everything else, it’s losing his virginity that will make him a man.) Ever heard a girl being encouraged for the same?
Women are brought up with the idea that their virginity is the best gift they can give to their husbands
And that is the society’s sexual double standard: shaming women for having pre-marital sex while rewarding men for the same.
Virginity finds its roots in the commodification of women. Women were, and still are, considered a man’s property. In a marriage, a woman is basically transferred from her father to her husband. Yeah, those traditions of Kanyadaan and father walking his daughter down the aisle, they basically treat the bride as an object that is being passed on from one man to the other. The father literally gives away his daughter.
In this regard, a woman’s virginity becomes the most important thing about her. It becomes the sign of her ‘purity’. Women are brought up with the idea that their virginity is the best gift they can give to their husbands. And men harbour this sense of entitlement, almost as if it’s their birthright, to receive a virgin bride. However, their own sexual escapades remain of no concern.
The emphasis on the notion that women shouldn’t indulge in pre-marital sex only serves to feed the male ego. In a video by YTV Network on Why Do Indian Men Want a Virgin Bride?, a young man, who has had sex several times (his own words), expresses his thoughts saying, ‘Agar virgin biwi hogi toh banda tension free hoga na ki mere alawa kisi aur ne nhi khaya isse.’ (If the bride is a virgin, the guy will be free of the worry that someone else has also slept with his wife.)
First, the word that young man used in the context of a woman — ‘khaya’ (meaning ate), itself shows how a woman in his mind is an object and not a person. Because people aren’t food for someone to eat. Second, why does a need to worry about the wife’s past sexual partners exists at all?
Simply to satisfy the husband’s male ego, that’s why.
Only the husband should be able to lay claim on his wife. Only the husband should be able to conquer his wife. This mentality basically treats women as a man’s possession and a husband, by taking his wife’s virginity, marks his territory on her. Does anyone else feel perplexed about this need of men to mark their territory as animals do, or is it just me?
Society’s idea of a woman being an ideal life partner for the oh-so-sacred bond of marriage (as we Indians like to believe) basically relies on something as trivial as her virginity. A notion men get a free pass from quite conveniently seeing as there is, alas, no test, no oath to prove their virginity. So, why not put the whole burden of being righteous on the women alone?
The “Hymen” Myth
And from the society’s this extreme obsession with a woman’s virginity comes the question of how exactly the society brands women as a virgin or a non-virgin. What is the proof of a woman’s virginity for the society? Her hymen.The hymen is a thin membrane that surrounds or partially covers the external vaginal opening. It is located just outside of the vagina or right inside of it, with an opening that differs in size and shape for different women. As opposed to what is popularly believed, the hymen doesn’t fully cover the vaginal opening.
If the hymen fully covered the vaginal opening, how would women be able to menstruate? In fact, when the hymen does fully cover the vaginal opening, it usually requires a surgical treatment as it obstructs the flow of menstrual blood and causes constant abdominal pain.
So, it’s absolutely irrational to assume the hymen to be the proof of a woman’s virginity. It is a bizarre, factually incorrect and hyped notion that a woman’s hymen breaks when she has penetrative sex for the first time. When a woman has penetrative sex for the first time, her hymen merely stretches, it doesn’t break.
Also, penetrative sex isn’t the only way a hymen can stretch (or break, in layman’s term). There are several other ways that can lead to the stretching of the hymen, like using tampons or menstrual cups, playing sports, horse riding, cycling, an injury in the vaginal area, masturbating by inserting fingers or sex toys in the vagina and some women may even be born without a hymen. Hence, limiting the understanding of a woman’s virginity to the condition of her hymen is absolutely wrong.
Several Indian communities have a tradition where the bride is given a white towel or white bedsheets on the night of her wedding and in the morning, this white piece of cloth is inspected to decide whether the bride was a virgin or not. If the bride’s blood is seen on the cloth, it becomes a cause for celebration as the bride was indeed pure.
Such fixation over women’s virginity puts a significant amount of pressure on girls to ‘not break their hymen’ while still being a virgin, that is, while still not having had penetrative sex. Young girls are in fact stopped from playing sports, ride bicycles or use tampons or menstrual cups simply to preserve their ‘virginity‘. Because, god forbid, they fail this fool-proof hymen test on the night of their wedding, such shame it will be!
This same fear stops women from not only having penetrative sex with someone they want to do it with but also stops them from gaining sexual pleasure through masturbation. Women are afraid of taking away their virginity by themselves (What?) or the reaction of their future husband if she didn’t bleed on their wedding bed. Still think virginity as a concept doesn’t control women’s sexuality? Think again.
Not to forget, this whole requirement for a woman to bleed in her wedding bed is more violent than we acknowledge it to be. Why does it take the wife’s blood for a husband to believe her when she says she is a virgin. Shouldn’t the most basic requirement for a marriage be trust, instead of the bride’s virginity?
The Atrocity That Is Hymenoplasty
Hymenoplasty or Hymenorrhaphy is a hymen reconstruction surgery which temporarily restores a woman’s hymen through a surgical process.
An increasing number of women are undergoing this hymen reconstruction surgery in India to keep intact the notion of the ‘blushing, untouched bride‘ for their husbands-to-be. ‘There has been an increase of 20-30 percent in these surgeries every year. The majority of women who come for this surgery are in the age group 20 and 30′, said Anup Bhir, cosmetologist at the Apollo Hospital.
‘The reason cited by many women who come for hymenoplasty surgery is premarital sex. However, sex is not the only reason why the hymen can break. Sports activities, rigorous physical exercise and dance can also result in the tear’, said Biraj Nathani, a senior plastic surgeon at Max Health Care hospital at Saket.
Thanks to our society’s highly conservative mindset, women feel such an immense pressure that they are ready to even undergo such an outrageous surgical process. And for what? For the satisfaction of her husband’s male ego and the society’s oppressive notions pertaining to women and their sexuality.
Women have rigorously been fed the idea that the ‘intactness‘ of their hymen plays an extremely important role in their married life
Most women who undergo this surgery believe that it will help them lead a happy married life. Women have rigorously been fed the idea that the ‘intactness‘ of their hymen plays an extremely important role in their married life. This ‘re-virgination‘ surgery appeals to them more in comparison to what humiliation they might face otherwise.
Sociologist Gaurang Jani holds the medical professionals responsible for not educating people in order to profit from such a gender-biased surgery. He said, ‘If hymenoplasty becomes a trend, it will provide our patriarchal set-up with a more conducive environment to retain old mindsets. Only the doctors will prosper’.
This trend of hymenoplasty is worrisome, to say the least. The women who have had pre-marital sex, whom one might go as far to call progressive, still haven’t been able to let go of the society’s despotic notions. They have internalised this misogyny so much that having done something for the pleasure of their own body creates a guilt and shame in them and they feel the pressing need to correct it, by whatever means possible.
While women work hard to progress forward in every field, regressive notions like virginity continue to push them backwards. They are made to feel ashamed for exploring their sexuality and they fail to realise that it is their body and it should only be their choice what to do with it, not the society’s or their parents’ or their husband’s.
The patriarchy enforces virginity as a way to commodify sexuality and reinforce sexist attitudes in the society. By controlling women’s sexuality, patriarchy is able to maintain a firm hold over the society. The concept of virginity is extremely problematic not only owing to its sexist attitude towards women but also because of its non-inclusivity of alternative sexualities. With this hyped up notion of virginity, it disparages the existence and experiences of people who exhibit alternative sexualities.
Featured Image Credit: @fromjordyn via Instagram