In Europe and America, women are generally no longer subject to humiliating and painful rituals to ensure that our hymens remain intact until our wedding night : no inspections of the bedsheets for blood after the wedding night to confirm we were still virgins on that important occasion, no forced gynecological exams to confirm or dispel suspicions that we have lost our virginity before we ought (a practice that has been known to occur in Saudi Arabia), and no sewing up of our private parts for the purpose of protecting the hymen (a widespread sub-Saharan practice known as infibulation).
Nonetheless, our own society is apparently not immune from the notion that the hymen is something to be prized -- even though it is just a membrane that serves absolutely no purpose other than to make first intercourse a painful experience for many women, an anatomical peculiarity our species shares only with pigs. Apparently -- brace yourself for this -- women in the Middle East, Latin America, and now the United States, are paying for surgery to reconstruct the hymen!* "It's the ultimate gift for the man who has everything," says Ms. Yarborough, 40 years old, a medical assistant from San Antonio [who paid $5,000 for the surgery on the occasion of her 17th wedding anniversary].
Oddly enough, after discovering this bizarre story yesterday, I found myself reading about another hymeneal surgical procedure-- the hymenotomy. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, a hymenotomy is a surgical incision of the hymen which gynecologists began performing in the '30s and '40s to prevent hemorrhage, pain, and infection on the honeymoon. While this sounds awfully progressive in that it focuses on ensuring a positive sexual experience for the woman, alas no:
Because doctors in the interwar years did not want to make premarital sex too easy, young women who came asking for the special surgery were likely to be interrogated about their marriage plans and the identity of the future husband. And some physicians wanted assurance that the bridegroom had given his approval since "an occasional man might want to convince himself that his bride is a virgin" [according to a gynecology textbook of the era]. As late as 1939, gynecologists were advised to obtain the permission of the groom, since it was still assumed that he had a custodial right to the membrane.
While it may seem to many of us that the concept of male ownership of women's bodies is long extinct, it was certainly alive and well within living memory (my own grandmother who is still alive and well was married in 1936) and perhaps still lurks not far below the consciousness of many modern-day Americans like Ms. Yarborough.