Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Pain as performance: re-virginisation in Turkey
  1. Hande Güzel
  1. Correspondence to Hande Güzel, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge, 16 Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1SB, UK; hg401{at}cam.ac.uk

Abstract

The literature on pain has so far been primarily interested in chronic pain, medically induced pain and pain as an unwanted experience. However, pain is a more complicated experience and the lines between pain and pleasure are blurred in different contexts. In this paper, these lines are explored within the context of re-virginisation in Turkey by taking to its centre the meanings attached to pain through women’s online and offline narratives. Re-virginisation refers to the process women undergo in order to reclaim their virginity due to the expectation that women should be virgins at the time of marriage and to the persistence of the myth that virginity can and should be proved via bleeding during or right after sexual intercourse.

Based on semi-structured in-depth interviews and phenomenological and post-structuralist discourse analysis of online data, I argue that pain in the process of re-virginisation (1) is desired and sought-after and (2) is a gendered and temporospatial performance. Within this performance, pain manifests itself as a functional experience as well, especially as a marker of having been operated on, of having had a successful operation, as a reminder of this operation, and finally as an experience around which a community can be formed. Although pain can be functional at most stages of re-virginisation, when, where, and how it can be performed is determined intersubjectively.

  • pain management
  • gender studies
  • surgery
  • performance
  • sociology
View Full Text

Statistics from Altmetric.com

‘I hope that one day all my pain will be over.’

- Online user, unsure about the success of her hymenoplasty

‘I don’t know what to do if they say that it [the sutures] did not stay in, and they probably will do. I am not thinking, I’m just praying. I’m trying to be patient. I hurt so bad in my heart that I don’t know how to explain it.’

- Online user, following hymenoplasty

Introduction

Re-virginisation is the process through which a woman reclaims her virginity. The need to re-virginise stems from the general expectation that a woman must be a virgin at the time of marriage in Turkey and from the assumption that all women bleed during their first penile-vaginal intercourse, although recent research supports the contrary.1 As a result, many women who have had premarital intercourse, either consensual or not, tend to seek re-virginisation to retain their existing social status vis-à-vis their friends and family. However, for many women seeking re-virginisation, what they share within their friendship circles is radically different from what they can communicate to their families within the realm of sexuality and virginity. In Turkey, while it is becoming an expectation that a woman engages in penetrative sex before marriage within friendship circles, the same cannot be said for the families, especially for women in middle and upper-middle classes. Gul Ozyegin refers to this dilemma as the ‘virginal façade’,2 within which women have two faces, one towards their families as the virgin girl, another towards their friends as the sexually active woman. This dilemma can be said to be one of the main sources through which re-virginisation erupts, as middle-class ’girls' are expected to return home as ’girls'i as they set out to attend university, where it is more common to have premarital sexual encounters.

There are two main processes of re-virginisation that women resort to. The first method, usually referred to as hymenoplasty or hymenorrhaphy, is the medical process through which a tissue is generated or the remnants of the existing hymen repaired for the woman to bleed during the next penile-vaginal intercourse. Many doctors argue that there are two kinds of hymenoplasty, which are distinguished by the complexity of the operation as well as the duration of virginity, meaning the possibility of bleeding they provide from the operation onwards. Hence, one operation is called temporary hymenoplasty, while the other one is called permanent hymenoplasty. The former operation is much simpler and needs to take place several days at most before the intercourse, while the latter needs to be carried at least one or 2 months before the intercourse. Despite the rigid line drawn between the two operations by most doctors, many women state that they end up having both operations as the doctors want to ‘make sure’ the woman bleeds as they visit the clinic for the last time a few days before the intercourse. This means that more often than not, permanent hymenoplasty is not expected to cause the woman to bleed, leading the doctors to perform yet a second operation. However, doctors insist on the distinction, as the permanent hymenoplasty requires more skill and is charged at a slightly higher price. The cost of the operation varies according to where it is conducted, and by whom, and thus ranges from £500 to £1000. The second most popular method of re-virginisation is the artificial hymen. Far from being a hymen, this product that is sold online consists of encapsulated fake blood that is inserted into the vagina several minutes or hours before the intercourse. As the capsule or membrane on the outside of the artificial hymen dissolves in the vagina via the heat of the body, the dye imitates bleeding during intercourse. An artificial hymen costs approximately £40–50.

This paper looks at the experience of pain in re-virginisation, and the meanings attached to it through women’s online and offline narratives. I argue that pain in the process of re-virginisation (1) is desired and sought-after and (2) is a gendered and temporospatial performance. Within this performance, pain manifests itself as a functional experience as well, especially as a marker of having been operated on, of having had a successful operation, as a reminder of this operation and finally as an experience around which a community can be formed. Although pain can be functional at most stages of re-virginisation, when, where and how it can be performed is determined intersubjectively.

Pain in the literature: from subjective to intersubjective meaning making

Since the 1990s, social scientists have focused on rescuing pain from being contained to the medical realm and have started to bring attention to the narratives of pain by those in pain, rather than by medical staff.3 This has made it possible to conceptualise pain not as an objective, but subjective experience, whose perception is not free from cultural and social construction.4–6 The subjective nature of pain has brought up discussions around the communication of pain. Elaine Scarry’s seminal work on pain has drawn attention to the difficulties in expressing pain and how the world of the one in pain can never be fully understood by the listener.7 Nevertheless, as has been noted by other researchers as well,8 pain can be communicated and the focus needs to be shifted from whether or not pain can be expressed to how it is expressed. This paper draws from the communication of pain by re-virginisers and thus calls for studying the myriad ways pain can be communicated as well as the consequences of communicating and not communicating the pain. This entails considering through which means pain is shared with others and which expressions are used to illustrate pain. For this reason, it is necessary to acknowledge that the experience of pain is always intersubjective.9 How much pain one feels and how much of this pain one is willing to express always depends on one’s interaction with other beings and, to this, it is possible to add things, such as medical devices. Gonzalez-Polledo calls for a ‘reimagining of pain through intersubjective, temporal and material and knowledge ecologies’, which she conceptualises as ‘painscapes’.10 This intersubjectivity and interrelationality of pain also calls for attention to be drawn to the medium through which pain is communicated, especially when it is done so through online platforms. Gonzalez-Polledo and Tarr refer to McNeill’s ‘networked narratives’11 to argue for ‘situating pain experience predominantly as a collective form’.12

The collective nature of the communication and experience of pain is relevant particularly in online support groups as well as in online forums such as in the case of re-virginisation. Through these media, women selectively share their experience and rely on fellow re-virginisersii to make sense of their pain. Here, it is possible to describe women seeking re-virginisation as ‘prosumers’,13 who both produce and consume the medical and non-medical experience of pain. This fine line between the roles of the expert and the patient14 is more blurred online than in other settings and the elusiveness also brings up questions such as whose pain is acceptable or respectable, with regard to gender as Bendelow and Williams have pointed out15 and with respect to the forming of an online subjectivity that is accepted by other ‘prosumers’. Only then is it possible to share one’s pain, share it to others and with others.

Despite the overarching acceptance that pain is something to be gotten rid of, many scholars make a distinction between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’.16 17 Within this categorisation, the latter usually refers to pain that hurts and is rather difficult to endure, whereas the former is necessary or is believed to have a function in the body. Pain that is necessary can be the result of bodily work such as exercising and dancing, as the pain in this case is the proof to oneself that the body has been put under the necessary stress to progress, although how this pain is interpreted by the one in pain and by its immediate community is not necessarily the same, which blurs the lines between good and bad pain.18 Bendelow and Williams refer to good pain as the ‘constructive use of pain’, where pain is ‘an ally’3 rather than the enemy. Other authors have also stressed that pain has a ‘signal function’4 and functions as a reminder.19 Although pain is referred to as good, constructive or creative as well as destructive or bad, this definition of pain is still based on a division between pain and pleasure. However, this dichotomy falls short of making sense of the experience of pain, especially when the focus is shifted from chronic to acute pain. As Bendelow suggests, ‘pain as an emotional experience, the obverse of pleasure, is in fact a much older conceptualisation than of pain as a purely physical sensation. The pain/pleasure dichotomy developed by Aristotle is constantly evoked and reinforced throughout the history of social thought’.20 However, as this article will illustrate as well, this dichotomy is constructed as a result of the overemphasis on chronic pain, and by overlooking the intersection between the two sensations. When the focus is shifted away from medically induced pain, the elusiveness of the lines between pain and pleasure can be seen even more clearly, as in the examples of physical exercise,18 sado-masochism21 and tattooing. Similarly, Amy Chandler addresses the elusiveness of the line between pain and pleasure by referring to self-injury and puts forth that ‘pleasure and pain became amorphous, fluid entities’ in her participants’ accounts.22 Re-virginisation will also allow us to see this fluidity as pain becomes the desired end, rather than having a signalling function, or being otherwise generative. Pain and pleasure intertwine in re-virginisation also through the pleasure of passing as a virgin and the pain that is involved in this process. Chandler refers to pain as the end rather than the means, as she argues that ‘pain in some cases appears to be framed as a primary aim of the practice of self-injury, rather than a (generally unwanted, if not always negative) side-effect’.22 Although pain is given a multiplicity of meanings by re-virginisers, ultimately, it is a sought-after experience. However, the relationship between pain and re-virginisation has been rarely touched on in the literature so far. The only link that has been drawn between the two has been the possibility of having a painful wedding night following hymenoplasty.23 24 Nevertheless, as this paper will illustrate, pain and re-virginisation intersect at many more points.

Methodology

Two qualitative methods were employed in this study. The first one is conducting semistructured in-depth interviews. For the purposes of this research, 53 people were interviewed, comprising gynaecologists, plastic surgeons, doctors’ assistants, artificial hymen vendors, women seeking re-virginisation and laypeople. Medical doctors have been selected from those who do and do not conduct hymenoplasty for medical, ethical, or personal reasons and an equal number of male and female doctors have been interviewed. Participants have been recruited through a variety of routes, including doctors’ and artificial hymen websites, personal contacts and snowballing. The interviews have been conducted through 2016 and 2017 and have been concentrated in the three biggest cities in Turkey, which are Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as these cities attract the most hymenoplasty patients as well as having the central offices and depots from where artificial hymens are shipped. All the interviews have been conducted by the author.

In addition to semistructured in-depth interviews, a systematic analysis has been conducted on online data on re-virginisation, based on phenomenology and post-structuralist discourse analysis principles. These data have been drawn from three different sources, which are doctors’ websites, artificial hymen websites and online forums. The forums have been more dominant both quantitatively and qualitatively in this analysis for several reasons. Online forums are the main means of communication among women seeking re-virginisation. As women rarely share their re-virginisation process with friends or family, their communication on the topic takes place mainly online. Once women become a member of a forum, they may start a thread or post on someone else’s thread using nicknames. This way, women ensure their anonymity, while at the same time exchanging experiences and suggestions on re-virginisation. Many women post daily during the heyday of their re-virginisation, that is, as they are researching the best operation, doctor, city to have the operation in as well as during their healing period and control appointment. Therefore, the online data make it possible to go beyond perceiving re-virginisation as a moment and to conceptualise it as a process instead. The emotional, mental and physical stages of re-virginisation create a long process which might take several years to be completed, if ever-as for some women, the process is never over as they state that they will always carry the burden of their secret, even after getting married. The selection of which threads to be studied has been based on re-virginisation being the central focus of the thread. Although the topic might come up in other threads as well, I have chosen to focus on the ones dedicated to one or more methods of re-virginisation. Through this decision, it has been possible to trace women’s experiences of and opinions on re-virginisation on almost a daily basis and give more weight to re-virginisers’ voice rather than laypeople’s. These data that have been analysed are publicly accessible without being a member of the forums and comprises approximately 7000 pages of online conversations between the years 2010 and 2017.

Pain, trust and the body

For the re-virginiser, pain is desired, as it is regarded as the marker of having had an operation. Due to not being able to share their re-virginisation process with friends or family, many women visit the gynaecologist or plastic surgeon on their own, which creates a feeling of insecurity. Added to this is the fact that the operated area cannot be seen by the naked eye and not having control over one’s own body under anaesthesia or sedation. Therefore, re-virginisers fear that they have not been operated on at all. Dr Önem,iii one of the most prominent gynaecologists known for hymenoplasty in Ankara, argues in our interview that there are many ‘charlatans’ in the field of hymenoplasty. She states,

Of course, it is uncustomary to call my colleagues that. They [the doctors] say they have done the permanent [hymenoplasty], she [the patient] comes [to me] for an examination, for the control [appointment]. She didn’t go to them [the doctor who operated her], because they didn’t accept her, they didn’t answer her calls after the operation. In other words, they didn’t stand by the patient. That’s one [issue]. You have to stand by the patient. Secondly, I look at it [the vagina], they haven’t done anything, it hasn’t even been touched. What is that? If you like, we can call this not charlatanry, but fraud.

These stories find their way to patients as well and, as a result, they look for a marker of having had the operation, which manifests itself in the form of pain. When women do not feel pain following the operation, they question whether they had the operation. One woman states, ‘today I’m feeling really well as if nothing has been done [to me]. So, I got scared, and I e-mailed my doctor, let’s see how they respond’. Similarly, another woman states, ‘I don’t get it. Pain, [a] burning [sensation], nothing happened. It’s as if the doctor said they sutured it [the hymen], but fooled me’. As Dr Önem has affirmed, women’s worries and fears are not unfounded and point to a problem of trust between the doctor and the patient. As a result, women prefer to trust their own bodies, rather than doctors’ statements pertaining to the operation. This is crucial in the way pain is conceptualised, as most scholars point at pain as a threat ‘to core identity’ and argue that ‘pain can disassemble self, leaving a state of panic, which by definition is uncontainable and requires social negotiation and social management’.25 On the contrary, lack of pain following hymenoplasty creates a state of panic that needs to be resolved, as for women, it might mean that they have not been operated on after all. Pain, then, has a control function for women to ensure that they have been operated on. Women’s trusting their own bodies rather than the doctors also demands attention, as it endangers the authority of doctors. However, women find it possible to trust their bodies only through the collective, rather than the individual. They read about other women’s experiences of pain following the operation and look for the same markers of having been operated on.

Re-virginisers perceive pain as the marker of having had an operation and of having had a successful operation. Success of re-virginisation operations is measured in two ways. The first one is the control appointment, which usually takes place 1 month after the operation. In this appointment, the doctor examines whether the new sutures have stayed in to form a tissue that will make it difficult for the penis to penetrate the woman’s vagina. This is possible only in permanent hymenoplasty, as the sutures in temporary hymenoplasty are not supposed to heal. The second one is bleeding following the intercourse. In the time period between the operation and the control appointment, women do not have any means to tell whether their operation has been successful. Therefore, they again rely on pain to determine this. Re-virginisers perceive lack of pain following the operation or a fast healing process as an unsuccessful operation. One woman states, ‘This feeling good and relaxed started to disturb me as well. I wonder, whether it [the sutures] stayed in? We won’t feel relief until the wedding day’, while another posits, ‘I’m going to call [the doctor] tomorrow. It [the sutures] is not opening up, but there is a relaxation, and there isn’t any stinging or pain left. I’m able to move more easily. I keep looking at it [the vagina], and I feel down. But I don’t understand anything either’. As these examples illustrate, women expect to have pain especially following the operation and see this as an indispensable part of successful re-virginisation.

The anticipation of pain after the operation also marks a successful operation for re-virginisers. Many women travel to bigger cities to have the operation, rather than seeing a doctor in their city for fear of running into an acquaintance at the clinic or the hospital or into the doctor after the operation outside the medical space. As many re-virginisers live with their parents, they schedule a day-trip to the city where they will have the operation. While it is important to not be in so much pain so that they cannot travel back, the anticipation of pain that might preclude travel is thought to signify a more successful operation. A woman seeking re-virginisation shares her thoughts on this as follows,

A friend has been operated on by Dr Ahmet, hers was very painful and it was really difficult after the operation as well. With [Dr] Ufuk, it is all so easy, he says you can even travel back by bus. That means there is a difference between the operations and I think the operation by Dr Ahmet is more serious and detailed.

Although many women decide not to be operated by gynaecologists like Dr Ahmet due to difficulties in travelling, doctors whose operation requires longer healing processes are acknowledged and appreciated. Nevertheless, the same cannot be said for pain during the operation. This pain is categorised as ‘bad pain’ by re-virginisers and doctors who ignore their patients’ pain during the operation are frowned on. The initial pain felt by the needle to anaesthetise the vagina or, in some cases, from the waist down is expected and accepted. This pain is the entry point to hymenoplasty. However, any pain after this is unacceptable. One woman who has experienced ‘too much pain’ narrates her experience as follows,

I had hymenoplasty several days ago, (…) but I wish I hadn’t. Is it possible for an operation to go this bad? I can’t tell you how much pain I was in, I cried so hard, I guess he did not anaesthetize that region of mine. Just like you, I had this happen to me when I was dreaming of getting married. (…) I was compelled to [have this] operation, but I wish I had been to a better doctor, I went [to him] because it is close to the city I live in, but I regret it. I guess my sutures did not stay in, everything was perfunctory, the doctor kept scolding me. I couldn’t ask a single question, and I paid a lot of money. Should I feel sorry for this incident happening to me, or for the way I was treated? The man chopped me up like a butcher.

This example illustrates the stark contrast between what is acceptable pain and what is not. Although pain during operation could also signify having had an operation, it is regarded as ‘bad pain’, while pain during healing is not. This distinction can be explained by the space in which the pain is felt. Within a medical setting, pain is still regarded as something that needs to be gotten rid of, that is a threat which creates panic,25 while outside this realm, pain is attributed a new meaning, that of having had a successful operation. This meaning making process is significant, as it takes place in the online platform only and hence becomes a collective meaning making process. Although women consult their doctors as well to make sense of the pain, they are usually told that pain might be expected following the operation and painkillers are the solution to them. The medical realm falls short of addressing the subjective nature of the pain, as a result of which women turn to their online communities to produce a new meaning and to look for meanings already produced that can explain their subjective experiences. Nevertheless, it is important to see who gets to share their pain experience, as there are more women who read the online posts than the ones who post. As Newhouse et al suggest, in online platforms, ‘if experiences are presented powerfully yet are not typical or are biased or inaccurate in some way, optimal decisions may be missed or trust broken. Vivid or partially extreme experiences may not be representative of the unremarkable majority, whose voice may be lost’.13

The subjective nature of pain makes it difficult for re-virginisers to make sense of their bodily sensations or lack thereof. On the one hand, there is no uniform experience of hymenoplasty and of healing afterwards. Therefore, it is expected that women have differing levels and/or experiences of pain in the process. However, as women are able to share their experiences online only, this gives them limited access to the realm of pain in re-virginisation. Therefore, they compare their lived experience to those of other women who post online, where they draw conclusions about the relationship between their pain, or lack thereof and their re-virginisation process. As feeling pain also becomes an experience that brings re-virginisers together, it can be expected that pain following hymenoplasty is the acceptable form of experiencing re-virginisation. This way of thinking denies the subjective nature of pain and expects that every woman will go through the process in the same way, despite different thresholds of pain and being different bodies. Therefore, the online communities are on the one hand generative in terms of meaning making, but are also questionable in which meanings they tend to make and which ones they disregard, although unintentionally.

The performance of pain

Re-virginisers are allowed and encouraged to share their pain and make it visible in their online communities. In fact, pain becomes an anchor for re-virginisers, around which they can form a community. This holds true for both the emotional and physical pain re-virginisation generates, although it is not possible to separate the two. Nevertheless, the performance of pain during the healing period is denied from re-virginisers in their private offline settings, especially in their workplaces and homes, as most of them are living with their families. As most re-virginisers do not share having had hymenoplasty with their coworkers or family members, they need to downplay their pain, while in the online communities, pain is overemphasised especially to brag about the difficulty experienced during penetration. As Sara Ahmed points out, ‘there is a connection between the over-representation of pain and its unrepresentability’.26 Having had premarital sexuality takes away from women the permission to perform their pain during the healing period, no matter at what level it is manifested or the performance needs to be masked as the pain coming from a different source. A woman who seeks re-virginisation shares her indecisiveness about having hymenoplasty for fear of performing her pain offline. As she addresses another user who has recently had hymenoplasty, she states, ‘a lot of time has passed, but you say that you still have stinging and burning. I fear a lot that if I cannot go back to my normal routine, people around me will detect [that I had surgery]. I am concerned.’ The pain in the healing period causes women’s bodily movements to change significantly. Many re-virginisers report difficulty walking and sitting down and those who work in the service sector where they need to work for long hours standing up suggest that re-virginisers take at least 2–3 days off following the operation because of their pain. Those women who have no choice but to perform their pain suggest the use of alternative explanations for this performance. One frequent alternative is pretending you have haemorrhoids, as one user claims following her hymenoplasty, ‘Everyone notices [the change in your movements]. I told them I had haemorrhoids, I had no other option’. Similarly, another woman who had the operation during wedding preparations talks about the difficulties she is experiencing as follows, ‘I’m in a hustle and bustle. We are shopping for furniture. Families are around, I spend time with them. I have great difficulty walking and sitting down. People notice. I told [them] I was on my period, but it really hurts. My movements are limited’. People ‘noticing’ their pain is one of the main problems re-virginisers face. While they try to make their pain unnoticeable offline, they make it visible by posting online. This is different from making people believe that they are in pain that is frequently discussed in the literature, as re-virginisers are by default devoid of the right to perform their pain due to the confidentiality of the operation. By not performing their pain, re-virginisers are performing the ‘virginal façade’.2 Selectively performing pain depending on temporal and spatial dimensions is how gender is performed by re-virginisers. Rather than being performative, this decision can be understood as ‘a strategy of survival within compulsory systems’, where ‘gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences’.27 As will be discussed below, women are encouraged to perform pain during the intercourse at the nuptial night, in stark opposition to pain during the healing period. The conditions of the performance of pain are intrinsically linked to the performance of gender, as which pain is allowed to be performed and where aredictated by norms around virginity.

Although women cannot perform pain during the healing process offline, they find it useful to feel pain as a reminder that they have had hymenoplasty. When re-virginisation is conceptualised as a process, rather than a moment, it is possible to see how the healing process seeps into the everyday life of the re-virginiser and how it becomes a determining factor in the success of the operation. Although almost all doctors initially guarantee that the woman will bleed as a result of the operation, soon after the operation takes place women find out that there are a variety of measures they need to take in order to bleed. These measures range from not taking shower for several days, to walking in smaller footsteps, from not swimming, riding a bike or a horse, to not lifting heavy weights. As women are expected to employ these ‘technologies of the self’28 on their bodies, they are made to bear the emotional burden of ensuring that the operation is successful, a burden that is delegated to the patient from the doctor. This burden is somewhat eased via pain functioning as a reminder for many women, as lack of pain might cause forgetting the measures one must take in order to heal in a way that will ensure bleeding later on. For instance, a user shares her experience as follows: ‘I got really scared on the first day. It is so painless that one forgets one had an operation. I dropped my earring, and abruptly leant over and picked it up, only to remember after I got up [that I had hymenoplasty]. I ran to the bathroom but there were no problems’. As the first week following the operation is assumed to be the most important period in terms of taking care of yourself, the pain felt during this week has been found to be helpful although hurtful for re-virginisers. However, feeling painful for a long time also erupts similar feelings in women. Another woman suggests, ‘Ladies, today is the fifteenth day [following the surgery]. Yesterday I felt a severe pain, today the [vaginal] discharge, which was over, started again and I bled one drop. I believe it [the sutures] did not stay in. I will call the doctor tomorrow and will get examined by a doctor who does this job [hymenoplasty]. I am very depressed, I’m re-living the pain and the stinging from 1 week ago’. As this quotation displays, the ideal duration of the pain is highly arbitrary, if it exists. However, as doctors have varying opinions on the matter and as dialogues among doctors on re-virginisation are limited if not absent, women turn to other re-virginisers on the online platforms and compare their own experiences to other women. Hence, if it is a more commonly shared experience to feel pain for a week and then to heal, women who fall outside this spectrum self-diagnose with an unsuccessful operation. On the one hand, being in a community of women with similar experiences is supportive, while on the other hand, it might be generating ungrounded fear and anxiety due to the subjective nature of pain and not everyone being able to share their experience. The offline silence regarding hymenoplasty is the main cause of this situation.

While the performance of pain is not allowed offline following the hymenoplasty operation, it is required during the first penetrative sexual intercourse after the operation. For most women, this refers to the nuptial night, while some prefer to have sex a few weeks or days before the wedding, as they find it very stressful to withstand wedding preparations with the risk of not bleeding during the intercourse. The pain during the intercourse is indispensable to passing as a virgin, as it is thought to signify virginity, alongside blood. Pain felt by the woman during intercourse is associated with a tight vagina, which is associated with limited or no sexual experience at all. On the other hand, ‘a slack vagina, then, is specifically associated with (negative) judgements about sexual promiscuity’.29 Therefore, pain is sought after during the intercourse, which is believed to be made possible by the vaginal tightening operations women usually have alongside hymenoplasty or via the regular use of vaginal tightening cream alongside the artificial hymen.

As tightness is thought to signify virginity, women perform pain during the first sexual intercourse following the operation and overemphasise this experience in their online community. One user states,

When that moment arrived that night, I dreaded having sex with my husband. It hurt, he had difficulty [penetrating me], but bleeding happened too and I relaxed. Because my husband had difficulty, and because it hurt, he did not doubt anything and everything got resolved smoothly. That day, a new page was turned for me.

Similarly, another user shares her postintercourse feedback as follows,

I slept with my husband last night. Let me describe it for those of you who are curious. We tried unbelievably hard to do it. It was really difficult, friends. We tried for about an hour and my husband used a lot of force to do it. But this could be because of my anatomy, because when I went to the doctor they told me it [my vagina] was too tight. In conclusion, I bled about 2 spoonfuls of blood and I cried because of the pain. I can’t quite sit now, it is painful.

On the one hand, women experience a significant amount of pain that limits their movement and causes them to cry. On the other hand, this physical pain brings about happiness, as they believe that they have been able to prove that they are virgins. Within the scope of re-virginisation, the hymen and the blood become ‘happy objects’.30 Ahmed defines happiness as ‘an orientation towards the objects we come into contact with. We move towards and away from objects through how we are affected by them’.30 Whether hymen and blood are ‘happy objects’ depends on when and how women come into contact with them. When this contact takes place within a premarital sexual relationship, women move away from them, whereas when the contact happens within marriage and following re-virginisation for re-virginisers, women move towards the hymen and blood, making them ‘happy objects’. Although being happy as a result of proving one’s virginity is socially determined, re-virginisers take back their right to be happy via re-virginisation. One user states, ‘I got hurt, but that was the point. An enormous burden was lifted from my shoulders’. Pain, therefore, is the means through which a woman sheds the weight of not being a virgin. In some cases, pain is valued so highly that it replaces bleeding. A woman who considered re-virginisation, but decided not to go through with it for fear of being uncomfortable during the intercourse, prefers to rely on pain to pass as a virgin, as she claims to have had one sexual encounter only. She puts forth her thoughts as follows: ‘My concern is not whether it bleeds. Won’t he say, ‘this girl was a virgin’, when he has difficulty [penetrating me]? Maybe I will bleed as well, you never know’. In this context, pain is desired even more than blood, as the feeling tightness gives to the man allegedly proves that the woman is a virgin. Here, the tactile sensation overrides vision, as lack of blood is not reprimanded by the user. On the contrary, some users contend that men enjoy seeing women in pain, as one woman suggests, ‘You should have [hymenoplasty], and I hope it will bleed. It [the operation] serves them right. All they think about is [sex], they like it when we are in pain.’ This gendered perspective on the experience of pain requires particular attention. On the one hand, it is expected that women endure pain so that men have a more pleasurable experience during sexual intercourse via increased contact between the penis and the vagina. On the other hand, re-virginisers always already endure pain as a result of hymenoplasty and due to the feelings of shame and guilt. Therefore, the emotional labour and the physical pain become burdens on women’s shoulders, or shall we say, vaginas, throughout the process of re-virginisation.

The expectance of women enduring the pain goes hand in hand with the belief that women have ‘a “natural” capacity to endure pain lacking in boys and men,15 and that women are ‘thought to be more able to cope with pain, as in the young man who reckoned that pain was something that women were attuned to in their everyday lives from puberty onwards whereas “all we do is shave” ’.20 Due to this view, it feels part of the everyday life routine to ask the woman to endure the pain and expect the man to take physical and/or emotional pleasure via this pain. A gynaecologist I interviewed stated that a woman with three kids had demanded vaginoplasty as his husband was not getting pleasure during sex due to the ‘looseness’ of her vagina. The doctor did operate on her and, during the operation, he decided to give her a surprise and reconstructed her hymen as well. He confessed that this was also to practice his hymenoplasty skills, as it was the early years of his practice. Although having two operations instead of one is sure to cause more pain for the woman, the doctor saw it as his right to modify the woman’s body without her consent. This has its roots in on the one hand the medical profession’s claiming ownership over women’s body, and on the other hand, the assumption that women can tolerate pain, especially those who have given birth.

Once a woman engages in intercourse following hymenoplasty and shares her experience of pain therein, she reaches a new stage in her re-virginisation process. At this point, she is no longer like her peers, but has become more of a mentor to those who still seek re-virginisation or to those who have had hymenoplasty or bought an artificial hymen, but have not yet had sexual intercourse. The pain experienced during the intercourse starts a new process for re-virginisers that involves moving on from re-virginisation. For this reason, many of the re-virginisers deactivate their profiles following the intercourse, either by providing a brief statement about the final result or by sending a private message to one of the members to be disseminated to all members. In this context, the final physical pain becomes the point which separates the re-virginised from those seeking re-virginisation. Pain, which brings re-virginisers together in the beginning of their process, marks the end of the same solidarity. However, some women decide to stay on the forum for a few more weeks to answer any questions their fellow re-virginisers might have. Here, pain does not end the solidarity, but moulds it in a way that creates a hierarchy between re-virginisers. Those who have felt the pain of the sexual intercourse rank higher among re-virginisers as a result of having gone further in the process of re-virginisation, for having endured more pain and for having created the right conditions for pain to be felt.

Conclusion

Pain as a subjective experience calls for exploration across multiple layers. The recent literature on pain has focused on narratives of pain, but has largely regarded pain as negative, as something to be gotten rid of. Nevertheless, it is not only the level of pain one feels that is subjective, but also the meaning attached to it. Therefore, pain becomes positive, generative or desired in different contexts, especially when acute pain is considered as well. Moreover, the approach to pain does and should move from subjective to intersubjective meaning making in order to incorporate interactions between humans as well as between humans and things into how pain is perceived and experienced. In the case of re-virginisation, it has been imperative to gauge the interaction between ‘prosumers’ themselves, between ‘prosumers’ and doctors, women and their vaginas and/or hymens, women and men as well as their communication with and through internet. Pain is being filtered through many lenses as it goes through these intersubjective interactions.

Pain has many functions, among which is remembering that one had an operation. However, pain can also be a feeling or an experience that is desired, as an inquiry into re-virginisation illustrates. This is beyond conceptualising pain as generative, which sees pain as a means towards generating another feeling, but locating it as the end, as the desired end. As one of the main signifiers of virginity, pain as a gendered experience is looked-for by both the man and the woman. Although re-virginisation may look like an outlier in terms of longing for pain, blurring the lines between pain and pleasure in researchers’ frameworks prior to doing their fieldwork can give us a fuller picture of the experience of pain.

By focusing mostly on chronic pain, the current literature on pain overlooks the performance of pain. Especially in workplaces, which pain is acceptable and can be performed demands attention. Just like re-virginisers’ having to hide their pain, women on their period are invited to do so as well. Further research into acute pain and its performance is sure to make important contributions to the field.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa, Rachell Sanchez-Rivera and Maria Kramer for providing feedback on previous versions of this paper. Many thanks also to Tanisha Jemma Rose Spratt for her help with the translation of data and to Gavin Stevenson for his valuable suggestion to frame pain as performance.

References

View Abstract

Footnotes

  • i In Turkish, there exists a stark division between girl [kız] and woman [kadın]. While the former word refers to a young female , it also means a female who is a virgin. Similarly, kadın refers to an adult female , which is also used to mean a non-virgin female. Especially within families, it is common to call an adult woman who has never gotten married ‘a girl’, as she is expected to be a virgin.

  • ii I use this term to refer to women who seek or have sought any method of re-virginisation.

  • iii Interviewees' names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

  • Contributors The planning, conduct and reporting of the work described in the article has been solely carried out by the author.

  • Funding This research was funded by Orient Institut Istanbul; Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge; and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval Cambridge Humanities and Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.