Project Update #19: Research on ‘Virginity for Sale’
February 15, 2019
Part of: World Bank & Sexual Violence Research Initiative Project: ‘Combating Sexual Violence in Kyrgyzstan through Innovative Education and Information Technology (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)’
By: Dr Elena Molchanova, Rizvana Orozalieva, and Jasmine Joldoshova
As part of the project, we have begun various research components seeking to address key sites of sexual violence in Kyrgyzstan. In doing this, we aim to look not simply at sexual violence as an act in isolation, but address the wider set of actions and practices that both lead to sexual violence and which sexual violence is predicated upon. In this update, we will outline the project ‘Virginity for Sale’. The team has just begun working on this project, and this update will provide an overview of the project, giving the core sets or problematics being addressed and a brief methodological statement. Future updates will provide further insights from the research.
For good or ill, people across the world, even in Western countries, care about women’s sexual status and behavior. Such concern throughout can be seen throughout most of history and has entailed different kind of disputes and debates, while the lives of the women were accompanied by physical, psychological, sexual, and gender violence. Almost to the last, world religions state that virginity and being chaste are something to be retained for both genders; however, these religious instructions do not seem to influence rigid culture and social beliefs. Virginity is still seen to be synonymous with women, conditioning all aspects of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ or virtuous behavior.
The topic of virginity largely comprises in itself a large set of perspectives and categories, and relates to other topics such as: culture, gender, society, and religion. The richness of relations and associations with virginity demonstrate the powerful influence this supposed ideology of virginity has on the people of diverse cultures and traditions. In this research project, titled “Virginity for sale,” we aim to comprehend the value that has been putt on virginity, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, and to see what cost this value has for women and girls. We do not see or construct the hymen only as a commodity that can be bought, but recognize the value placed upon the object, and seek to understand the significant consequences this valuation plays on women’s lives and the lives of women. Virginity as a commodity has a long history, however, in Kyrgyzstan, it is a topic that is not able to be discussed critically. On the other side virginity – as a ‘death’, virginity as a ‘shame’, virginity as part of ‘self-worth’ – is a discourse that takes place throughout the country, and it is a discourse that is, in fact, gaining popularity. Therefore, our first research question to address the issue of virginity is: what is the cost of virginity in Kyrgyzstan? What are both the tangible prices and the price that women pay from psychological perspective. For example, Kyrgyzstan has retained a historic tradition of wedding night-virginity testing. In order to pass the test, the bride has to come out of the room with a red bloodstain on bed sheet, proving that she has just lost her virginity. Failure of this virginity test might end up in humiliation, physical and psychological violence – and possibly even a divorce. According to custom, if a girl turns out to be “not a virgin,” the groom’s parents are entitled to refuse the bride’s parents to pay the bridewealth (or dowry). One local media respondent stated that: “It seems like virginity is not a woman’s private affair, but a family commodity”. This sentiment allows us to view virginity as a supposed-object that has a “cost” and, from this, the ‘cost’ is levied primarily on the women, which can have an impact on psychological way. Besides the stories of humiliation regarding virginity loss, recently Kyrgyz media ahs also showed a few cases where women disclosed that their virginity was sold. While such explicit cases may be rare, they provide important insights into the relation that virginity has to issues of sexual violence. The auctioning off of virginity is tied into market relations. Here we quote from an Instagram account:
“I am a girl of 30 years old. Recently sold virginity for $5,000. Yes, yes in 30 years! I decided to take this step because I really needed money. I will not write why since it’s a long story. I am not tormented by advice and I do not regret about anything. Although I regret about one thing, I had to sell it at age of 18 for a more favorable amount. And all because our guys do not appreciate us. Do not know how to care…” (Babskii blog, 2018, August 30).
This quote is one example of the ways that virginity is being marketed and commoditized. This process is one in which the women themselves are, as noted in the quote, not in control of the process and are therefore being drawn into a system of the sale of sexual violence.
From all of been described above, it is obvious that virginity is an essential component of sexual, social, and economic life in Kyrgyzstan; with the retention of virginity being a requirement and an insterstice for social and market forces to interject. In the 21st Century, the hymenoplasty has assisted women in “restoring” their virginity, and, in this fashion, providing a way of recouping value that was seen to be lost. On the basis of this, our second research question is: Why do Kyrgyz women go through hymenoplasty, what are the main motives that drives them to undergo this surgery?
Our theoretical framework works from theories on social representation, originally coined by Serge Moscovici in 1961. This theory refers to a
“system of values, ideas and practices with a twofold function; first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orient themselves in their material and social world and to master it; and secondly to enable communication to take place among the members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history” (Moscovici 1973: xiii).
Our research will build on the literature and theorizing from this vantage point, integrating recent empirical work to bolster this theoretical scholarship. Further, we will look at context specific literature that addresses the particular sets of overlapping issues that are at stake when discussing virginity in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, and how this relates to issues of culture and religion.
Methodologically, the research design consists of two main parts. The first of these is media analysis research. Through conducting media analysis research, we will collect data on existing mediums such as Instagram, Facebook, and local media platforms, where people post their stories about this, most often anonymously. The goal of collecting and analyzing data from these sources – including a woman’s blog on Instagram – is get to know how much does virginity ‘cost’ in Kyrgyzstan and what value the hymen represents in society. This data will be analyzed using Discourse Analysis, which will assist in understanding both the surface coding of the issue as well as underlying factors, affects, and symbolism. This media analysis will be complicated by semi-structured interviews. The team will interview gynecologists from the Alliance of Reproductive Health, seeking to gain insights into the motives that drive woman to undergo the hymenoplasty procedure. Since the selling virginity or undergoing of hymenoplasty is considered to be shameful in Kyrgyz culture, it is important to explore not only the women’s perspective but that of gynecologists. Doctors can be the valuable source of information regarding not only the motives that drive woman to undergo hymenoplasty surgery, but provide insights into the social production of value and image around virginity in Kyrgyzstan. These interviews will be analyzed through Thematic Analysis, aiming to tie together the insights with the previous media analysis.
The team has begun work on this research project, and has already obtained IRB approval to begin primary research. Moving forward, we will share updates on how the research is going, as well as to share initial insights from the analysis.
Babskii blog [ @babskii_blog ]. (2018, August 30). I am a girl of 30 years old. Recently sold virginity for $ 5,000 [Instagram photo]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/BnGzsjHgNGd8BXeh-0aKXMhHGlXi3M_Low4hg80/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=1erohi24fuw46
Moscovici, S. (1973) ‘Foreword’, pp. Xiii in C. Herzlich: Health and Illness. A Social Psychological Analysis. London: Academic Press.