Sealing the Female Body Before Marriage: Cultural Debates about Hymeneal Signs

This project asks how reflections on the female body part called the hymen or maidenhead in early modern English texts (produced from 1500-1700) can illuminate modern debates about the set of modern surgical practices called “hymenoplasty.” These surgeries, often advertised as a “restoration” or “recreation” of virginity, are being marketed around the world and have been brilliantly satirized by the Chinese novelist Yu Hua as a symptom of specular post-modern global economy. I seek to provide a broad historical context for thinking about the epistemological, social, and philological problems lurking in the modern concept of the “hymenoplasty”; I argue that such a context allows us to analyze currently under-acknowledged links between the ideologies driving the marketing of hymenoplasties (represented as clean and painless) and the ideologies that are so often denounced in the West as barbaric because they perpetuate those practices of (unanaesthetized) cutting and sewing of female genitalia that are categorized “FGM” (female genital mutilation) and associated especially with North African countries and their diasporic communities.

Project leader(s):
  • Margaret Ferguson (Department of English, University of California at Davis)

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