In a world of extreme makeovers where human bodies are now fashioned to order, this may be the ultimate plastic surgery. It is for women only. It is veiled in secrecy. And it fixes a tiny part of the anatomy rarely mentioned in polite company.
You may know it by a variety of slang terms. Technically, it's the hymen, a thin membrane that partially covers the opening of the vagina. A girl who has never had sexual intercourse is supposed to have her hymen intact.
Now, a new surgical technique is giving girls with a past a new future.
"The hymen's a delicate membrane that separates girls from women," said Dr. Robert Stubbs, who runs the Cosmetic Surgicentre in Toronto, where, in a simple, half-hour operation, he turns sexually experienced women into surgical virgins.
The surgery is called hymen restoration — a relatively simple procedure that stitches back together what a moment of passion might have shattered.
‘Queen of Virginity’
In New York City, the operation has created a new class of royalty: "They call me the Queen of the Virginity, " says Cuban-born Esmeralda Venegas, who runs the Ridgewood Health and Beauty Center in Queens.
Here, board-certified plastic surgeons repair the thin membrane, either by stitching the frayed ends together or by adding a patch of tissue from the vaginal walls. Either way, it's a procedure that's a lot easier and less dangerous than the usual nips and tucks women come here for.
But the psychic pain associated with the decision to undergo the surgery is immense. We met one young woman, a 17-year-old we'll call Rosalita, who — forced by centuries of tradition — traveled incognito to Venegas' clinic.
"I heard when I was young that all the girls that get married, they bled for the first time," Rosalita said.
For Rosalita, the idea that brides should bleed on their wedding night was very important.
"Yeah, that's important, because they know that you are a virgin," she said.
But Rosalita is not a virgin. She's come to the clinic to regain what she lost during a recent vacation — a moment of lust, she says, not love.
Rosalita is from the Dominican Republic and lives in New Jersey with her mother. She doesn't have a boyfriend right now, but believes she'll never get married without at least the illusion of virginity.
Catering to a Culture of Machismo
She's not alone. Venegas says several hundred scared young women from many cultures — Latinas, Mideasterners, Chinese, Koreans — have paid her $2,500 each to have their hymens restored. Sure, it's a business, she says, but what's behind the practice makes Venegas angry.
"It's about machismo, 100 percent," she said.
In fact, the hymen is not a reliable marker of virginity. In many girls, it is torn or destroyed during active sports. But that hasn't tarnished its allure. And even if it's fake, Stubbs is willing to go along with the ruse.
When asked whether he believed that by restoring a woman's hymen he was restoring her virginity, Stubbs said: "Well, what is virginity? Virginity is not well defined."
But, in fact, a woman who's had sexual relations is not a virgin, and by restoring the hymen Stubbs and other surgeons are allowing patients to be deceptive.
"Yes. Oh, I agree. I mean, I'm not saying it's not deceptive," he said. "But there are little white lies and big lies."