Last weekend, the BBC published a fascinating article on the popularity of surgery designed to "restore" virginity among Arab women. For many women, lying and saying they're virgins is not enough to please the patriarchal requirement that women come to marriage without any previous sexual experience. No, a woman has to physically demonstrate that she is a virgin by experiencing tearing and bleeding on her wedding night. This sadistic requirement leads some Arab women to pay thousands of dollars to modify their genitals so they experience more pain during sex. It's brutal. The big reason for it?
Arab writer and social commentator, Sana Al Khayat believes the whole issue has much to with the notion of "control".
"If she's a virgin, she doesn't have any way of comparing [her husband to other men]. If she's been with other men, then she has experience. Having experience makes women stronger.
In India, a prominent actress was finally cleared of more than 22 criminal charges filed against her for merely acknowledging that virginity is becoming less strictly enforced in India. The actress, Khushboo, said in a magazine interview that "no educated man would expect his [bride] to be a virgin."
These are hardly outlandish incidents that we can regard coolly from afar, as though our culture doesn't have its own bizarre virginity obsession. Despite the fact that the very notion of an "intact hymen" is a myth, the fetishizing of supposed physical proof of virginity persists even here in the United States. We still have federal funding for abstinence-only education, which emphasizes purity as the path to the greatest happiness and health. We still have young women auctioning off their virginity to the highest bidder, receiving bids of thousands and even millions of dollars. When I was researching this article, I did a Google search for "hymen." What came up was mostly porn.
This cultural emphasis on virginity hurts girls and women, placing undue emphasis on an existential state of "purity" rather than encouraging safe behavior. It's wrong that women and girls are treated as commodities of different values depending on their sexual experience. By continuing to prize virginity, Americans support a violent narrative about young women and sex, increasing the value of their sexual purity only to gain power by depriving them of it.
On Monday, activists will gather at Harvard for the "Rethinking Virginity" conference, designed to challenge not just the cultural imperative that being a virgin is better but the entire concept of virginity itself. They've got a difficult task ahead of them. But it's an important one. Instead of focusing on virginity, we should conceive of whether people are "sexually active," since people go through different phases of sexual activity throughout their lives. There's no permanent change that occurs to a woman's body or mind just because she's had intercourse -- "virginity" is simply not a state of being.
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