Well well well . . . It was only a matter of time!
Last summer, I blogged about a case in France in which a young engineer had divorced his new wife because she was not a virgin on their wedding night. How did he find out? She failed to bleed properly from her vagina when they consumated their marriage on that auspicious night.
The case brought up all kinds of issues dealing with religion, sexual and reproductive freedom, and gender roles—particularly within some Muslim communities in which virginity is a prequisite for women’s marriageability. The case also brought up the issue of hymen reconstruction surgery, a procedure that restores the hymen and essentially gives women their virginity back, thereby allowing them a degree of sexual freedom without the risk of being stigmatized as unworthy of marriage.
A Chinese company, it seems, went one step further. Bypassing the surgical option, Gigimo offers an “artificial hymen,” designed to be inserted into the vagina prior to intercourse. According to the Huffington Post, the product “leaks a blood-like substance when . . . broken.” On Gigimo’s Web site, the artificial hymen is described as easy to use, non-toxic, painless, and hypo-allergenic—although a 2008 piece in Salon called attention to potential side effects.
At first blush, the artificial hymen might seem like a win-win situation for everyone. Husbands would be able to present a bloody sheet to their guests on the night of the wedding; women would be able to enjoy premarital sexual freedom without having to worry about a wedding-night divorce; and families would be assured that they had chosen good spouses for their children (IBN Live reported back in 2008 that Muslim women in Britain were already using the product to “fake their virginity”). Alas! Nothing is ever so rosy in the world of sex and marriage. Although having been around for a while, the artificial hymen is now making international headlines because conservative Egyptian lawmakers are seeking to ban its importation and sale in their country.
This case can be seen as an illustration of the ongoing tensions between tradition vs. modernity, men vs. women, religion vs. secularity, and the impact of science and technology on them all. Take, for instance, the role of culture: culture creates a need—in this case for virgin wives—which demands that women’s hymens be intact on their wedding nights. On the other hand, how does culture address those women who choose to exercise the right to decide when, with whom, and under what circumstances to have sex? Similar questions could be raised about the relationship between religiously mandated women’s roles and the expectations of—to say nothing of the demands on—modern women. In other words, how do traditional sexual and reproductive values play out in a modern society in which women may find them outdated and overly restrictive?
This line of argument, however, misses the point. The sad reality is that many, many women in Egypt and elsewhere do not have much—if any—say about when, where, how, and with whom they lose their virginity. This latter group has to answer twice: the first time for the actual loss of their virginity; the second time when they get married. Whether in the form of a reconstructed hymen or an artificial one, technology could have been a saving grace that spared these women the stigma of having lost their virginity before marriage and thus being rendered unfit to marry. In other words, the artificial hymen—while not restoring to these women the dignity they may have lost along with their virginity—might have given them a chance to leave the past behind (assuming, of course, they had any say in whom they married).
But alas! There are too many ifs and if-onlys when it comes to questions of sex and what women do with their bodies. Besides, the artificial hymen would have, at best, been of use to only the minority of women who could afford its $30 price tag. If the ban goes into effect, however, even they will have to do without its salvation. Instead, they will have no choice but to live with the consequences of decisions they made ages ago or—even worse—spend the rest of their lives having to answer for events over which they may have had no control.