Like a virgin

30 06 2010

Did you know…that the hymen is named after Hymenaios, who was the Greek god of weddings and marriages?

And do you know what thousands of young women in Sri Lanka are anxious about?
It’s virginity.

A young woman once wrote to me saying “I am a 19 year old girl. I’m getting married in three months to a boy that my parents have found for me. I am bit nervous about the marriage and the customs. Can you tell me how I can know about virginity?”

Working with young people, I get asked a lot of strange questions but this one was tough to answer, not least because this is something I so rarely think about! I was saddened to learn that even in this day and age women are expected to ‘prove’ their virginity. This involves having intercourse on a white sheet, (or on the man’s new white sarong, worn at the wedding). The sheets are later examined by the bride’s in-laws and the bloodstains will decide her fate. If the sheets are clean, there is a problem.

The very idea freaked me out, but more than that I was intensely disturbed that in the 21st century this sort of thing still happens. So I wrote to her saying that as far as I knew virginity refers to whether a person has ever had sexual intercourse. If they have not, they are virgins. The only real way one can know if a person is a virgin is if they tell you. Of course some people associate virginity with the breaking of the hymen in a woman.

People also believe that all women are born with a hymen. (The fact is that about 0.03% of women are born without a hymen.). And as the hymen has perforation anyway, it technically doesn’t need to be broken.

But besides all this scientific information about the hymen and virginity, I told her the real problem was how the concept of virginity is often used as a means of controlling women’s sexuality. People holding power over women’s lives including parents, older relatives and community leaders, often control how a woman proves if she is a virgin and how important this is in her life as well. This is dangerous because virginity is then equated with morality and virtue. People who have never had sex before marriage are not necessarily better, cleaner or more virtuous human beings than those who have. Virginity has always been used to  judge and control women and this cannot be just or right.

This was the real message I wanted to give her but I wondered how, even if she received it, she would deal with the inevitability of her wedding night blues?

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