Virgin Territory: U.S. Women Seek A Second First Time
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For her 17th wedding anniversary, Jeanette Yarborough wanted to do something special for her husband. In addition to planning a hotel getaway for the weekend, Ms. Yarborough paid a surgeon $5,000 to reattach her hymen, making her appear to be a virgin again.
"It's the ultimate gift for the man who has everything," says Ms. Yarborough, 40 years old, a medical assistant from San Antonio.
Hymenoplasty, a controversial medical procedure known mostly for its prevalence in the Middle East and Latin America, is becoming popular in the U.S. Although there are no hard data, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons says vaginal surgery, including hymenoplasty, is one of the industry's fastest-growing segments. Gynecologists are marketing hymenoplasty in magazines, local newspapers and online. They report business is booming.
Restoring innocence this way has sparked criticism. Religious groups that value abstinence until marriage say hymen repair is a deception. Some feminists liken hymenoplasty to female genital mutilation. In addition, hymen repair, unlike other types of reconstructive surgery, isn't taught in medical residencies. Some medical associations worry that surgeons might be improperly trained.
"Revirgination" costs as little as $1,800 at Ridgewood Health and Beauty Center, a spa and cosmetic-surgery center in the New York City borough of Queens. To promote the procedure, the center's owner, Cuban-born Esmeralda Vanegas, has given away hymenoplasties on a Spanish-language radio station. She also promotes them in her eponymous magazine, Esmeralda.
Ms. Vanegas isn't a doctor and doesn't perform the procedure. Instead, she leases space to five plastic surgeons. Luis Palma, a doctor at Ridgewood, went to medical school in his native Argentina and was a resident at the Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass., among other places. Dr. Palma says he performs about five hymen repairs a month at Ridgewood, almost double the number of five years ago.
Ms. Vanegas says many of her patients risk disgracing their families if they're not virgins on their wedding night. Many are Latin American immigrants. "Losing your virginity is like losing a member of your family," Ms. Vanegas says. "We can make it seem like nothing ever happened."
Marco Pelosi II, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Bayonne, N.J., has been performing hymen repair since 1975 but started marketing the procedure only a year and a half ago. He now performs up to 10 repairs a month, compared with just two annually a decade ago.
"No one used to talk about it, but that's changing," Dr. Pelosi says. "Really, it's not like a heart transplant -- it's like a very simple procedure."
Dr. Pelosi says an increasing number of patients are trying to "improve their sex lives" by combining hymen repair with an operation to tighten their vaginas. He says one patient did it to surprise her husband on a second-honeymoon cruise. Another patient, a 51-year-old Manhattan attorney and mother of three, had him reattach her hymen and tighten her vaginal walls in 2003. "I thought it would add that extra sparkle to our marriage," says the woman.
Named after Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, the vaginal membrane has since primitive times been a marker of virginity, even though it can be ruptured by nonsexual activity, such as athletics. At one time, a bride's intact hymen was considered the only way to be certain about the paternity of any ensuing children. A small number of traditional cultures still require brides' hymens to be examined.
Hymen repair has just as long a history, says June Reinisch, director emeritus at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Bloomington, Ind. Ms. Reinisch says midwives used to disguise a broken hymen with a needle and thread, sometimes using membrane material from goats and other animals.
The modern version of hymenoplasty requires a local anesthetic and no hospitalization. A doctor uses dissolvable stitches to reconnect the skin membrane that once partially covered the opening to the vagina. Intercourse will tear the membrane causing pain and bleeding.
Recovery from surgery takes about six weeks. The risk of fever and infection is low, says V. Leroy Young, a St. Louis plastic surgeon who also heads the American Society of Plastic Surgeons' emerging-trends task force.
On the other hand, Dr. Young says, "it's a pretty expensive thing to do for one night."
Once reserved for problems such as injuries related to childbirth, vaginal surgery is now being used for cosmetic purposes, as well as to avoid social disgrace. Women can even redesign the look of their private parts. It's part of the overall boom in the plastic-surgery business. Last year, 9.2 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the U.S., 24% more than in 2000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Troy Robbin Hailparn, an obstetrician and gynecologist, advertises vaginal cosmetic surgery on 23 billboards around San Antonio. Edward Jacobson, a Greenwich, Conn., OB-GYN, offers vaginal-makeover packages for international patients that include airfare, limousine travel and hotel accommodation. Dr. Jacobson says he has advertised in Glamour, Harper's Bazaar and Allure magazines. Last year, David Matlock, an OB-GYN in Los Angeles, discussed his "Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation" practice on "Dr. 90210," a reality show on the E! cable network.
The ethics committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, concerned about the marketing of revirgination, sent a letter to several cosmetic gynecologists in June 2004 voicing its unease. The college, which hasn't taken a formal position on the matter, said it worried that doctors may not be able to fully inform their patients about the procedure because it doesn't appear in the medical literature.
Thomas G. Stovall, a recent president of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons, a top professional body, says "hymen repair is a totally bogus procedure." In general, he says, surgery marketed to improve one's sex life rarely works. As for hymen replacement, "most importantly, it doesn't make you a virgin again."
A 26-year-old Latin American woman who lives in New York's Queens had a hymen repair in 2001 and says it took almost two months for her to feel comfortable again. It took even longer for her to enjoy sex.
The married mother of two says she's glad she had the surgery nonetheless. She says her husband wanted to experience intercourse with a virgin. "If a woman isn't a virgin when she gets married, a man can always put her down for that," says the woman, who does part-time clerical work for Ms. Vanegas's Ridgewood clinic.
Such attitudes irk feminists, who say hymen repair is a manifestation of bigger social pressures that keep women subservient to men. "It comes with a whole set of norms of a macho culture," says Silvana Paternostro, Colombian-born author of "In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture."
Devout Roman Catholics prize virginity because sex before marriage is a sin. Hymen replacement is "misleading and misguided," says Kathleen Raviele, vice president of the Catholic Medical Association in Needham, Mass., and a gynecologist. "The best thing is to remain chaste until marriage and then have that genuine experience on your wedding night."
For many Muslims, sexual purity is a way of maintaining the sanctity of the family. But Islamic law also prohibits lying and frivolous cosmetic surgery, says Uzma Mazhar, a St. Louis psychotherapist known for her Web site, CrescentLife.com, which provides Islamic perspectives on Western issues.
"What people forget is that Islam teaches us to be honest and fair," Ms. Mazhar says. "A family should think about this before they present a woman as a virgin when she's not."
Ridgewood's Ms. Vanegas concedes her business is based on deception. But she says hymen repair is no different than other cosmetic procedures -- from waxing to Botox injections -- that women use to impress men.
"I'm a feminist," Ms. Vanegas says, "but there's a need for this and someone has to provide it."