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Knowing cultural view of virginity, Chinese women try surgical restoration

By Keith B. Richburg in beijing
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A06

China has long been known as the land of fakes -- Rolexes, DVDs, handbags and designer clothes.

Add a new one to the list: fake virgins.

A growing number of Chinese women -- mostly in their 20s and about to get married -- are opting for a surgical procedure called "hymen restoration," which returns the hymen to its condition before it was ruptured, which typically occurs during first sexual contact but can also happen while playing sports or doing other strenuous activities.

Even as China has flung open its doors to the West and modernized, a deeply conservative and chauvinistic attitude persists. Many men, including white-collar professionals, say they want to marry a virgin. And increasingly liberated Chinese women have found a way to oblige them.

"We can fix it so everything is perfect, so the men can believe they are marrying virgins," said Zhou Hong, a physician and director of gynecology at the Beijing Wuzhou Women's Hospital. "We don't advertise it; we don't publicize it."

Zhou, 44, said most of her patients are sexually active young women who are about to marry and have told their future husbands they are virgins. She said a smaller number want to forget a bad relationship and "start over," and a few have been victims of rape.

Zhou is one of many Chinese doctors performing the procedure, which is also done in other countries. She said she restores as many as 20 hymens a month, and the number is increasing. For as little as 5,000 renminbi, or about $737, for a 20-to-30-minute procedure, Zhou is giving women a second chance at having a first time.

Does she worry that she is encouraging people to start their marriages with a lie? "It's just a white lie," Zhou said. And she blames men for having unrealistic expectations.

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"I don't agree with this value" placed on virginity, Zhou said. "It's unfair to the women. The men are not virgins. But we can't change this male-privileged society."

The surgery, known as hymenoplasty, has been around for years, although it is considered rare and is illegal in some countries. It is performed primarily in Muslim countries, where the traditionalists place a high value on a woman's virginity. It also has become common in France among French Muslims, usually for young women about to enter a traditional marriage. There are no statistics available in China on how often the surgery is performed. But sociologists and other experts, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest it has gained in popularity.

For women who do not want to have surgery, a cheaper, faster path to "revirgination" is available in most sex novelty shops: a Chinese-made artificial hymen that purports to create a physical sensation for the man and emit fake blood when ruptured.

A 25-year-old woman from Guiyang recently bought several online, intending to resell them to young women in her circle. Some of her friends, she said, were worried that their boyfriends might leave if the truth about their virginity was known.

"It's really worthless for couples to break up over this small issue," said the woman, who asked not to be quoted by name.

Some sociologists and others have criticized the virginity obsession as emblematic of a male-dominated society in which women are viewed as sex objects. And they are equally critical of women undergoing potentially dangerous or painful medical procedures to conform.

"I think it is really stupid for women to do this kind of surgery and buying fake hymens," said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the country's preeminent sexologist. "It's self-deception."

The virginity topic has surfaced in recent newspaper columns and Internet debates. Several men posting comments on a popular Web site blamed women for what they called modern women's materialism when seeking a mate.

"Women demand men have houses and cars, why can't men demand women be virgins?" asked one man on the Tianya site. "So, greedy women, remember, you have to protect your hymens, because those are big dowries for you to exchange for money."

Some men who were interviewed agreed about the importance of finding a virgin. "I really care about virginity," said Xia Yang, product manager for a technology company. "If you go to buy a cellphone, of course you'd want to buy a new cellphone. Who would spend the same amount of money to buy an old cellphone that's been used for two years?"

The virginity debate also underscores a contradiction in modern China: As the nation becomes more freewheeling, there remains a deeply conservative core.

"Since the reforms began 30 years ago, sexual relations in China are actually quite chaotic," said Chen Lan, a novelist and social commentator. "One-night stands, extramarital affairs, prostitution. . . . All this means Chinese women have more frequent sexual activity, and at a younger and younger age. And this makes men feel women's bodies are not as clean as before. In these circumstances, men care even more about a woman's virginity."

Zhou, the gynecologist, is unruffled by the controversy.

She said that she hears from satisfied clients after they are married, women who text-message her to say that the wedding night was a success.

"That's the happiest thing for us," she said.

Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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