Exposed: UK clinics still offering to ‘restore virginity’ before marriage

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The Guardian
By Hannah Summers

Undercover reporters for ITV documentary find procedure widely available in London

Dozens of clinics, private hospitals and pharmacies are offering controversial hymen repair surgery, an undercover investigation has revealed, as the government moves closer to banning the harmful practice. It has already pledged to outlaw virginity tests – an intrusive and unscientific examination to assess whether the hymen is intact.

But some private clinics are still promising to “restore virginity” through a procedure known as hymenoplasty, where scar tissue in the vagina is used to reconstruct a hymen. Health professionals and campaigners have condemned both practices as a form of violence against women and girls.

On Wednesday Edward Argar, the health minister, reiterated the government’s pledge to ban the tests, adding: “We are seeking a four-nation-wide agreement to ban virginity testing.” He signalled that hymenoplasty will be criminalised at the earliest opportunity pending the findings of an expert panel commissioned to examine the clinical and ethical aspects of the procedure.

The shadow health minister Alex Norris told a Commons committee the panel was “already strongly of one voice” in support of legislation.

Aneeta Prem, who runs the charity Freedom, told an ITV documentary due to air on Monday that the number of women and girls seeking its help because they are coming under pressure to have virginity tests had risen by 40% since lockdown.

Typically they are made to have the tests by relatives wishing to present them as virgins who will bleed when they have sex on their wedding night – even though studies have shown such bleeding is not routine. Prem said: “Grooms’ families are becoming more demanding and saying, ‘I know someone who has had a certificate, I want proof that this girl is a virgin.’”

One woman she supported, named Beyza,* told how her parents took her for a virginity test at a pharmacy. In desperation, she admitted to her mother she had had sex. Hymenoplasty was carried out there and then in a back room.

She said: “It felt more shameful than not being a virgin. Why are you allowing this man I don’t know to touch me? It’s morally wrong, it needs to stop. And the fact they are making money out of it is disgusting.”

A reporter from ITV’s Exposure went to Edgware Road in central London, where they had been told it was easy to get a virginity test. Posing as a woman soon to be married, and who was unhappy her mother-in-law was demanding a virginity check, the reporter visited nine pharmacies. Five offered to do the test or link them with someone who could. Some also offered a certificate of “proof”.

A second reporter went undercover as the woman’s domineering mother. She visited one pharmacy alone to arrange the test and told the pharmacist her “daughter” was unhappy about it. Despite this, the manager accepted payment without asking why the patient wasn’t present and whether she consented. The pharmacy later told the programme it has never advertised or endorsed virginity testing.

The World Health Organization is clear the appearance of the hymen is not a reliable indicator of intercourse and says virginity testing is a violation of human rights.

Naz was in her early 20s when she failed a virginity test requested by the groom’s family. Her parents took her for a hymenoplasty against her will, where a doctor sedated her. “They put me to sleep… Because I was very aggressive, I was kicking them.”

Despite the surgery she did not bleed on her wedding night. Her father later became violent and tried to stab her, telling her she had brought shame on the family. “It has damaged my life completely,” she said.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says there is no clinical benefit to hymenoplasty or any other procedure that seeks to reconstruct the hymen. It has called for such procedures to be banned.

Diana Nammi, executive director of IKWRO-Women’s Rights Organisation, told the Observer: “Doctors are exploiting women’s fears and charging huge fees for this harmful practice, which often fails to make the woman bleed, placing her at extreme risk of ‘honour’-based abuse or even ‘honour’ killing. That is why we need a robust law banning hymenoplasty.”

Exposure found 20 doctors currently offering hymen repair surgery in more than 30 clinics and private hospitals – including in London, Manchester and Norwich – with prices ranging from £2,000 to £3,000.

Undercover reporters also posed as a woman due to get married and her aunt, who wanted proof she was a virgin, to inquire about both procedures at clinics in London.

They covertly filmed one doctor, Gary Horn, apparently saying he would be prepared to flout the law if a ban were brought in. Their footage shows him saying: “Then we have to lie. We have to say we are doing something else.” He then suggests: “Removal of a cyst.”

There is no suggestion that Horn has broken any law. His representatives told the Observer: “As a respected consultant surgeon in the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery, Dr Horn has conducted a limited number of hymen related operations. However, he is not aware of, nor does he provide any documents suggestive of a certification process that the hymen remains intact either before or after that operation – he has never done so and would never do so.

“Dr Horn has an unblemished professional reputation and is an upstanding member of the medical profession who acts lawfully, ethically, and in the best interests of his patients at all times.

At no time did Dr Horn say that he would perform an illegal procedure on a patient and he never would do so. Dr Horn did not understand he was being asked if he would conduct an illegal procedure, but rather understood he was being asked a not uncommon question from a patient seeking to maintain their medical confidentiality, about what to tell family members and friends asking why they were having surgery. Our client does not act unlawfully or dishonestly and would never consider doing so.”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities

Britain’s ‘Virginity’ Clinics Uncovered is on ITV at 10.45pm on Monday.