June 20, 2003 -- 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."
That deception is acceptable, says Stubbs, for patients whose culture makes this surgery far more serious … perhaps a matter of life and death.
A young woman we'll call Fatima has gone to Stubbs' clinic. She says she doesn't like the thought of deceiving a future husband, but says she feels she must.
"I'm not going to feel comfortable to lie to him. But I guess I have to lie to protect the relationship," she said.
Fatima, 20 or so, is from the Middle East and came to the Toronto area with her family as a teenager. A Muslim, she says her family is not observant, but is very traditional. So every time she met with her ex-boyfriend she had to sneak out of the house and lie to her parents.
Her parents also don't know that she's come to Stubbs' clinic. "I could never ever tell them that, never. I would tell them anything, but not this," she said.
Fatima says if she is not a virgin when she gets married she would be humiliated — and maybe killed, perhaps even by her parents.
Fatima is talking about honor killing … a ghastly, ancient ritual in the Middle East. We traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to learn about the roots of the practice, and were told it rarely happens today, but is always a possibility in a culture where the virginity of a bride belongs to the whole family.
"For them, if she loses her virginity, that means she has disgraced the whole family," according to Iman Bibars, a woman who has long fought to raise the status of Egyptian women — especially poor women, for whom, Bibars says, "virginity is their most valuable possession."
But astoundingly, this precious item doesn't even belong to the women themselves.
"It is something that belongs to their father and their brother and their uncle that they have to keep in a safe place until the family approves of how they give it away," she said.
Put another way, "The honor of the family and of the men are in between the legs of the woman," Bibars said.
Equality — Except When It Comes to Sex
To illustrate just how ingrained this notion is in traditional Arabic cultures, consider this: In Arabic, the hymen is referred to colloquially as "wish al-bent," or "face of the girl." In other words, without it, you have no identity, you are no one.
Even very hip, well-off university students in Cairo hold this belief.
Students we spoke with agreed that is very important for women to remain virgins before marriage. They said that among their friends, girls don't have sex before they get married.
"It's the notion that women are a very pure thing, very pure creatures that, men shouldn't touch women out of anything but a sacred relationship that is marriage," one female student said.
The young men — who study and work with the women as equals — heartily agreed. They all expected that the women they marry will be virgins.
Yet they don't have to be virgin grooms, nor does any other man in this supposed equal society.
The male students acknowledged that there is equality in many aspects of their society — except in the area of virginity.
In fact, the female students said they thought it was unlikely that the men they marry will be virgins.
These students said they'd heard about hymen restoration for women, but don't really approve of it. One student said she'd live alone rather than live a lie.
But other female students said that if a woman who has had sex really wants to get married, she should go ahead and have the operation.
In Cairo, as in much of the Middle East, the operation is a secret, not only for the patients, but for the doctors as well. There is no law against hymen reconstruction, but it carries such a stigma that no physician 20/20 contacted there would either admit it was being done or even talk about it.
Nevertheless, Stubbs says he's received e-mails from doctors in Egypt and all around the world asking him to explain how to do the surgery. He is the acknowledged expert.
Some of these women have to be examined by a gynecologist before their wedding night, so the surgery has got to be convincing. But Stubbs says he thinks he can fool even a gynecologist.
And best of all, says Stubbs, he can fool the family on the wedding night, when the bride will, as required, bleed.
Caught Between Tradition and a New Reality
Back in New York, that's Rosalita's goal for the procedure.
Like all the women we talked to, she knows that a few sutures don't really make her a virgin again. And that simple surgery doesn't close the culture gap. But for a generation caught between the traditions of their past and the reality of their lives today, this little operation at least offers an alternative to dishonor, or even the possibility of death.
Fatima, who underwent the procedure at Stubbs' clinic, wants people in her culture to understand what she's going through and perhaps reconsider their long-held beliefs.
"I'm trying to give them a message; maybe they would try to change a bit — and forget about the old fashion and move on to more important things in life."