By JENNY BROCKIE, HOST OF SBS INSIGHT
“Have the hymens arrived yet?”
You hear some strange questions in the Insight office but a daily check on hymen arrival was a whole new level of weird.
We’d ordered 13 boxes of artificial hymens from China for this week’s show on virginity. None of us had a clue what a fake hymen looked like, or how one worked, and we suspected our audience didn’t know either.
Establishing a woman’s virginity before marriage is a serious business in some cultures and religions. During our research it quickly became clear that all roads led to the hymen – a small piece of skin inside the vagina that’s broken during sexual penetration.
An intact hymen can be a crucial measure of virginity, despite the fact that the hymen can be broken without having sex. The stakes are often high – family honour, dowries, social acceptance – so some women will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure there’s blood on the sheets on their wedding night, as proof of virginity.
Dr Les Blackstock is a cosmetic surgeon in Sydney who reconstructs hymens for some of these women. He also operates on rape victims. Dr Blackstock says he’s done 15 hymen reconstructions so far this year, and his patients come from all backgrounds and religions. Some want to disguise that they’ve had sex, others say they just want a ‘clean slate’ with a new partner.
Dr Blackstock is proud of his work. “I know that my hymens have passed inspection in Australia and overseas and not been detected” he tells me, in what sounds like an unusual form of border control.
And there are inspections. Dr Wafa Samen is a gynecologist from western Sydney who gives out letters to women, in English and Arabic, certifying their hymens are intact.
She says she doesn’t get many requests, but the certificates can help quell rumours a woman has had sex before marriage.
And what if Dr Wafa discovers one of Dr Blackstock’s reconstructed hymens? “I give a certificate that the hymen is there.”
When it comes to rules around virginity, there are different standards for men.
No surprises there, but how could you tell anyway?
Before they had sex together, teenager Nathan told his new girlfriend Bek that he wasn’t a virgin. Bek didn’t mind, she wasn’t a virgin either. After they’d had sex, Nathan fessed up: Bek was actually the first girl he’d slept with. Nathan says he agonised over telling Bek the truth (“I was so scared”). But he needn’t have worried. Bek says it made her feel really special. So special, she wished she’d been a virgin for Nathan too.
Rose, on the other hand, hired a male escort to ‘get rid of’ her virginity when she was 22. She was in a sexual relationship with a woman at the time, but felt she hadn’t lost her virginity because she hadn’t had sex with a man. So she paid the money to get the deed done.
And then there’s Inez, who grew up in Australia and has a Tongan background. Just before she married her husband Bruce, Inez’s parents asked her to do something she’d been dreading.
In Tonga, proof of virginity involves presenting the blood stained sheet to your parents and parents in law after the wedding night.
Inez, who was a virgin when she married Bruce, told her father she thought the idea was barbaric.
Bruce was all for respecting culture, but hoped there might be another option. His Samoan family had no such ritual.
As it turned out, Inez and Bruce did go ahead with the ceremony (though the sheet never made it to Bruce’s parents). Inez says it was a way of honouring her mum, and she’s glad now that she did it.
And what if there hadn’t been any blood? Inez laughs. “I really don’t know.“
Which brings us back to the artificial hymens. They did finally arrive in the Insight office the day our show was recorded, wrapped in foil in their little wooden boxes. It turns out they’re small, dissolvable pieces of plastic containing red food dye. $30 for a box of two – why you need two, I’m not entirely sure.
I suspect there are much cheaper DIY solutions around.
If you hear of any, let me know.
Jenny Brockie is the presenter of Insight. You can find her on twitter here.
This Insight program episode on Virginity airs Tuesday at 8.30 on SBS One.