By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/28/2008 8:45:59 AM ET 2008-02-28T13:45:59

Victoria Watts, a 23-year-old single mother of two small children who lives in Canton, Ohio, lost her virginity at 16 with her high school boyfriend.

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She was the granddaughter of a Pentecostalist pastor and the daughter of an assistant pastor, and she believed sex outside marriage was wrong. “I felt really bad from a religious standpoint,” she recalls of the experience. “My thoughts were really clouded because I was so emotionally bonded with my boyfriend. That overshadowed my religious world.”

Though the relationship lasted for seven years and produced two beautiful children, a part of Watts always felt guilty. She wished she could step back in time and recapture her lost virginity. Thinking of how “I could have ruined one of greatest fulfillments of my life,” the first time having sex with a husband, she wanted to “have that opportunity again. I know my [future] husband deserves a whole person.” 

So Watts engaged in a lot of prayer and thought, and now declares herself a virgin once again. “The most important thing was to realize what my values were and what I want in the future and the bigger goals in my life," she says. "That’s why I can call myself a renewed virgin.” 

Across the country, "revirginization" appears to be gaining steam. Spiritual efforts to reclaim virginity emerged back in the early 1990s and now, prompted by abstinence-only school courses taught to thousands of girls nationwide, and by religious teachers, there are reports of more and more young women like Watts attempting a sexual do-over. Other women are opting for a more radical route to reclaim their virginity: surgical replacement of the hymen, the small membrane that stretches from the walls of the vagina and that typically breaks when a woman first has intercourse — or for many other reasons, from tampon use to vigorous exercise.

In the last few years, say doctors who perform the surgery, a steady stream of patients, many motivated by the conflict between mores in this country versus their country of birth, or the country of their parents' birth, are interested. "The rate of inquiries is increasing," says Dr. Denise Baker, a Bradenton, Fla., surgeon who performs the procedure on about 100 women a year.

Re-wrapping the gift
But is it really possible to reclaim your virginity? If it is, what does it mean to be a virgin in the first place? And what does it mean to “lose” one’s virginity?

Religiously motivated women like Watts believe it's very possible to become a born-again virgin — if you believe it is so and pledge abstinence until marriage.

"Have you already unwrapped the priceless gift of virginity and given it away?" asks the Web site for the Pregnancy Resource Center of Northeast Ohio, where Watts began working part-time after she reclaimed her virginity. "Do you now feel like 'second-hand goods' and no longer worthy to be cherished? Do you ever wish you could re-wrap it and give it only to your future husband or wife? Guess what...? You can decide today to commit to abstinence, wrapping a brand-new gift of virginity to present to your husband or wife on your wedding night."

The fact that some women believe they are able to recapture a kind of sexually virginal state underlines the idea that virginity is not nearly the black-and-white issue most of us think, that it has come to be as much a concept as a fact.

Laura M. Carpenter, author of the 2005 book "Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences," and an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., says the meaning of virginity has been a muddle for a long time.

“The first time we are aware of that muddling, the first explicit mention or discussion of what people called ‘technical virginity’ that I have found is in 1920s,” she says. “It referred to people who were doing ‘everything but sex,’ and what was defined as losing your virginity for most people was having vaginal intercourse.”

No sex after kids
But the idea of a recreated virginity is actually much older. During the early Middle Ages, Christians were taught that while sex in marriage was not a sin, it was not as holy a state as complete abstinence from sex. (This is still the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II declared that believing parents should “devote special attention and care to education in virginity or celibacy as the supreme form of that self-giving that constitutes the very meaning of human sexuality.”)

In response, some Christians adopted a form of “chaste marriage,” often after having had sex and producing children, by agreeing between themselves to forsake any future sexual union, thus becoming spiritual virgins.

Today, according to the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence, an abstinence-only school sex education program, renewed virginity is easy: “DECIDE TO CHANGE.”

"Next, you’ve got to stop doing things that turn each other on. Set limits on physical contact. Talk to your date about situations that make it difficult to resist sex…”

If the idea of virginity as a state of mind sounds like the language of actors coming out rehab, it’s no coincidence, says Carpenter.

“In America there is the idea of the remade person,” she explains. “We are all in an endless state of becoming. You can remake yourself. That has been deeply ingrained in the culture for a long time. So why not virginity? Why not sexuality?”

Of course, there is also a double edge to that sword. “To some people, remakability is precisely what cheapens the thing in first place," Carpenter says. "Virginity is not special if you can be a virgin again.”

Many of Dr. Red Alinsod’s patients are not looking for a new state of mind, they want a new hymen. They come to his clinic in Laguna Beach, Calif., and pay $5,000 because their honor, and sometimes their lives, depend on it.

“Right now is the start of my busy time,” he says, “because in spring, or during summer vacation, the women go overseas and get married and they have to be all repaired by the time of their arranged weddings in the lands of their birth.”

Alinsod’s typical patient may have been born and raised in the United States, but with significant family in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, the Middle East. Without evidence a new bride is a virgin, she risks being rejected, or, worse, the victim of an “honor killing.”

“These women are very scared,” Alinsod says. “The majority do fear for their lives. So this is a life-saving procedure in the majority of women I deal with. They are afraid they will be killed by the youngest member of their family, or the youngest member of the groom’s family,” because young men are often given light jail sentences for the murders.

There are other, less extreme reasons for the surgery. Baker, the Florida surgeon, who, like Alinsod, has made uro-genital cosmetic surgery a specialty, says one patient gave her virginity to her husband in the Asian country in which they lived and then came to the United States to study medicine, staying for several years. Though she remained faithful to her husband, when it came time for her to return to her country, she felt as if their lives were about to begin again. She wished she could be revirginized, too.

Once in awhile, Baker says, she’ll get a patient who just wants to give a present to her husband. “One patient of mine gave it to her husband as an anniversary gift," says Baker. "She was not a virgin when they got married so we re-attached her hymen to reproduce that experience.”  

Like Baker, Alinsod reports seeing about 100 patients for the procedure each year. The surgery itself is not overly complicated. It takes about an hour and involves stretching flaps — the remnants of the hymen — from the vaginal walls and securing them with sutures to form something resembling a drum head with a hole in the middle. 

Like a virgin?
But whether this can literally make somebody a virgin depends upon one’s point of view. When Carpenter did a study about what she called “secondary virginity,” she found wide disagreement not only about the plausibility of secondary virginity, but also about whether “virginity loss should be understood as a physiological or an emotional-experiential phenomenon.” Interestingly, of the 61 women and men interviewed, “three-fourths of men adamantly declared secondary virginity to be impossible, compared to about one-fourth of women,” though men sometimes declare that they are born-again virgins, too.

While we may not agree on what virginity means, or even how we lost it and if we can get it back, it does have meaning, Carpenter insists. “If virginity did not mean anything, we would not have movies like 'American Pie.' It does matter. The content or the definitions may change, but the need or desire to mark the transition to being a sexual adult persists.”

And we do have at least some baseline definition of sex. “We are not so flexible that we say masturbation or sex toys count,” Carpenter says. Her research has found that almost everybody agrees that sex involves genitals and another person.

Everything else is just detail.

Brian Alexander is the author of the new book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."

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