Inez Manu-Sione is a guest on SBS's Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE, which looks at virginity.
The topic of virginity and the ceremony I undertook is very sacred and private in Tongan culture - often only shared with the women in the immediate family. Culturally it is deemed a taboo and rarely, if ever, talked about.
I migrated to Australia when I was one but I grew up knowing about the value of virginity in my Tongan culture. My mother told me of a ceremony that would take place on my wedding day, which involves giving over the bed sheet from the consummation of our marriage with blood on it. The sheets are then shown to my mother and aunties before being given to the husband’s family as proof of the woman’s virginity. She told me that in the authentic cultural practice, an aunty is often waiting outside the married couples room for the sheet.
That was essentially the extent of my sex education at home – “it’s not done until marriage”. Being taught this at a very young age puzzled me slightly but I thought nothing of it until in my early 20s when I was at university, living away from home.
My best friends were all from different cultures and had strong beliefs in the ‘try before you buy’ mandate when it came to sex. As I journeyed through my university years witnessing the results of ‘try before you buy’, from abortion to major depression due to failed relationships and unfaithfulness, I found myself holding on even tighter to my Tongan cultural beliefs regarding the value of virginity and waiting until marriage.
I got married in Australia at age 30 to a Samoan man. While he is Pacific Islander, Samoan cultural beliefs are quite different. There is certainly no virginity ceremony where the wedding sheet is given to the family.
I remember the day my father raised this issue with me in the lead up to the wedding. We were sitting at the dining table going through wedding plans and he said, “Inez, you know what the cultural tradition is around your wedding night?” I started crying and told my dad that it was totally barbaric and an invasion of my privacy – a statement which my Tongan father would have perceived as stemming from my western upbringing which endorsed such beliefs as ‘privacy’.
While I had grown up knowing and upholding this value all my life, the feeling of having to go through with the ceremony was so nerve racking and invasive: What if I don’t bleed? Did the culture ever consider that not everyone bleeds? How barbaric! I’d waited 30 years for this and on my wedding night, something which is suppose to be very private between my husband and was going to become a moment of stress and anxiety around one question, “what if I don’t bleed”?
I ultimately wanted to carry through with the whole sheet ceremony because of the value it had for my parents. In particular, I wanted to honour my Mum because it's almost a disgrace on her if the process isn't completed.
When I asked my fiancé whether he would be happy to go through with the ceremony he was quite shocked. It didn’t take much to change his mind as he was honoured that I had made that choice to keep myself until marriage and felt that this was the least he could do (although he made it clear that it made him feel very awkward).
It's so confronting to have to go through that whole process and yet I’m glad I did. I've graduated from law, become a lawyer and a teacher, but I've never seen my parents, especially my Dad, so proud.
I know personally that I will never expect my daughter to go through this ceremony. While I will teach both my son and daughter the value of virginity and what it means both in a cultural and religious context, I will also give them understanding and education around sex and healthy relationships. At the end of the day it will be their choice, but there will definitely be no sheet ceremony on their wedding night unless it is something that they choose themselves.
Inez Manu-Sione is a guest on SBS's Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE, which looks at virginity: who’s holding onto it, who can’t wait to get rid of it, and who’s trying to hide the fact that they do (or don’t) have it any more.