Virginity — now that’s something we don’t often talk about. It is something that we, despite all of our cultural modernization, shroud with misconceptions and divided commentaries. And incredibly, many of us hold a deeply rooted and insatiable obsession over it.
Virginity is a hypocritical and strongly prejudiced taboo that we seem to place a paramount value upon, with no biological merit, especially amongst conservative and/or religious groups. Unsurprisingly, the stigma surrounding virginity is approached differently for men and women. This, of course, ties into what is known as the sexual double standard. From time immemorial, men are rewarded and glorified for having sex — furthering this imagery of machismo and toxic chauvinism. While women are shamed for doing the same — we even go so far as to claim that it signifies the loss of purity and chastity.
To put it simply, virginity is actually a made-up patriarchal construct designed to control women, their sexuality, and their reproduction. In worse case scenarios, some girls and women are being degraded, and even murdered, over societal concepts and egotistical views surrounding virginity! This, without question, also leads to deterioration of their mental health. And thus, it denies them their basic human rights!
35% of women worldwide suffer from gender-based violence — due to the prejudice arising from our often subconscious, yet taught, conceptions of virginity. Most of these violent infractions happen inside the walls of our own homes and communities. Some of these are explicit actions of harassment, while some are disguised as helicopter parenting to “protect” children (girls) from supposed sexual threats and abomination. However, the veracity of this is that virginity testing is already an indirect assault on a woman’s right to govern their own sexuality. If you’re reading this and thinking that virginity testing must be an archaic notion, you will be correct. However, if you think it’s not still a very much relevant issue nowadays — you are wrong! Virginity testing is happening everywhere and it crosses cultural, socioeconomic, religious and racial lines!
One of the proofs of this ongoing cultural travesty is the news that broke last Tuesday, when internationally well known American rapper, T.I., proudly declared in a podcast interview that he escorts his teen daughter to a gynecologist, every year, to “check her hymen” to make sure it’s “still intact.” Expectedly, the news proliferated like a wildfire; sparking appropriate backlash and criticisms, with many people, including me, expressing shock and revulsion. My shock was not just that a parent would even consider subjecting their daughter to this form of dare I say ‘abuse’ but that a medical provider felt compelled to go along with it.
If you thought the world couldn’t get any more problematic, when the interview shifted to his parenting dynamics, T.I., in an all too detailed manner, revealed that his daughter — who recently turned 18 and just began her first year of college — is still a virgin because he had her checked. Confidently, he discussed, in detail, the yearly routine of gynecologist visits, after her teen birthday parties, so that he could confirm the virginity of his daughter through hymen testing. Now, what in the world?!
With this flawed and may I say, traumatizing concept of parenting, this is right up there with some of the worst possible things that he could have done to his daughter. Instead of giving her the gift of liberty for reaching adulthood and equipping her with tools for autonomy over her body and teaching her the basics of consent, he actually participated, even engineered, her being stripped of basic rights and dignity by hyper-fixating on whether her virginity is still intact or not. Apart from this being overwhelmingly disturbing, it is extremely appalling that he put this information out, like it’s a brilliant parenting tactic (No!!!). When, in fact, this is harmful and even distasteful parenting.
A woman’s body, including your child’s, is her own — and no one else should have agency over it. Doing otherwise is a serious breach of privacy and respect. With such action, policing over your child’s sexuality can lead to serious emotional issues when she reaches adulthood. It is hard to imagine how much worse it could get for her, especially when the news blew up on the internet. At this point, I will not be surprised if his daughter was left feeling ashamed about her sexuality. Could you imagine what that has been like for HER?
Additionally, if one wants to argue that requesting this exam, as a parent, helps you discover if someone is abusing your child, you’re misinformed! If you have anxieties regarding her welfare, there are other ethical and decent ways to approach such a specific concern. Plus, if you need a hymenal exam for proof of abuse, you’re likely ignoring all the other signs, while leaving your child in the hands of an abuser.
It’s also important to note that this young lady has already reached adulthood; thus requiring her to sign a consent form in order to disclose her private medical information to her father. As a matter of fact, with patient confidentiality laws, in most states, the Ob-Gyn couldn’t share any information about these results after a patient turns 16 years old, because these results are not her father’s, unless there is permission. That is where the podcast interview highlighted another disturbing view of a parenting style that doesn’t give the young person any agency: T.I. essentially described leaving his daughter no choice but to give him ‘permission’ to her medical records when he described how he rhetorically and likely intimidatingly asked, “Is there anything that you don’t want me to know about?”, in front of the doctor! As a physician and woman, I cringed when I heard that statement; it borders on morally corrupt for a parent to convince their child to give up their agency in this manner.
Virginity testing does not protect the health of girls or women — if that is your goal. It definitely does not validate women’s purity and it has absolutely no scientific or clinical merit. A woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual encounters, or are sexually active or not. As a matter of fact, some women are not even born with a hymen! Think about that! Rather, the concept of virginity is a social and religious construct — one that conspires gender discrimination against girls and women around the globe. It also assumes sexuality only involves acts involving penetration of the vagina.
In a related note, this news which brought such swift outrage amongst most of us extends to the medical community — specifically, to the medical practitioner who agreed to perform this abhorrent and wholly invalidated and made up ‘test’. Both the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly denounced virginity testing worldwide and encouraged governments to ban and eliminate the use of virginity testing. These organizations, backed by human rights supporters, have argued and shown, quite convincingly, that the procedure violates a string of human rights.
Virginity testing is not only a moral detriment but the practice also breaches the core fundamental principles of medicine which are to respect a patient’s autonomy and to do no harm. These are core principles which every medical student is taught at the outset of medical training and then it is reinforced over and over again. I worry that the medical provider who entertained the request for testing must have completely forgotten the integrity that they have sworn to uphold in the medical community, and the world at large. A simple and firm ‘no’ would not have tainted their white coat and the legacy it holds. I know some may try to argue that if they don’t perform the requested virginity testing, the parent(s) will just find someone else who will or they will try to do it themselves. My response to medical practitioners who put forward that argument… start by standing your ground and saying, “no”! If this is something the parent then insists on doing themselves or seeking others who will, report them.
Here’s the truth: When doctors are requested to perform virginity testing, it is expected by default, that they should refuse because of the possible psychological harm for the patient. As mentioned earlier, the practice is highly denounced by human rights organizations for its inhumane repercussions. Not only that, even the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), sees no merit in this exam. Thus, it is our job to discourage parents from pursuing this testing as some form of misguided interest in their child’s sexual healthcare.
As a board-certified OB-Gyn, it is my job to protect my patients’ welfare and respect women’s autonomy. Ultimately, I need to make it clear that it is degrading for any medical practitioner to agree to this kind of examination, simply at the behest of a controlling parent. You are not only allowing yourself to be co-opted by fictitious notions but you are also doing harm… yes, you are becoming the one who is harming your patient and setting them up for years of anxiety, stress, unhealthy sexual interactions and even post-traumatic stress disorder!
Debunking Misconceptions About Hymen Myth
Going back to the 16th century, a Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius, examined the dead body of an 18-year-old Belgian noblewoman. The examination wasn’t just a typical autopsy, it was a study that would fuel controversies that even tore down monarchies — and later on, become a universal stigma of misconception. Vesalius was interested in her ‘hymen’.
After a series of assessments and studies, Vesalius wrote anatomical descriptions of the hymen in a book. However, in writing that a ‘piece of mucosal tissue’ is a ‘proof of virginity’, he blew everything out of proportion and set us up for this exercise in ridiculousness that continues today. The misconception has traversed across territories and was carried, unfortunately, by ‘medical practitioners’ from generation to generation.
After five centuries, despite all of our modern scientific advances and progress with our medical understanding of anatomy and biological development, the myth surrounding the ‘hymen’ remains pervasive, across the globe. T.I.’s case may have caused a significant uproar in our immediate spaces because of his high profile personality, but this “virginity” obsession has been long-standing and is occurring around the world. Everyday, at least one young woman is being harmed, as a result of this fallacious thinking!
In countries like Iraq, Indonesia, Egypt, South Africa, and Afghanistan, premarital sex for women is still considered a criminal offense which is tied directly to a woman’s virginity. The practice of virginity testing is even still promoted in specific cultural and especially religious groups. Beliefs that we need to ensure women are virgins before marriage, lead to a variety of unhealthy and even life threatening practices, with some women and families even resorting to unnecessary and baseless surgeries like hymen reconstruction! Before you get on your high horse thinking that this is only happening in some part of the world that you’ve never heard about — think again! It’s happening right here in the USA and other “first world” countries like Germany and the Netherlands. Moreover, it’s not something restricted to any one religious group, either. While many in the media focus on this practice in Muslim families, it is also occuring in Christian, HIndu and Non Religious groups and it all centers around women’s bodies! Talk about machismo.
To set the record straight, what is a ‘hymen examination’ or popularly known as the ‘virginity test’? And what are the things people get wrong about the ‘hymen’?
Hymen testing, referred to as a ‘two-finger examination, is an inspection of the vagina meant to determine whether a woman has had intercourse. The process goes to searching for the ‘hymen’ or to measure the vaginal wall’s elasticity, to demonstrate if it is penetrated. However, as I mentioned above, some women are born without a hymen. Plus, if someone was born with a hymen, the membrane can be displaced due to physical activities like sports, horse back riding, bicycling, playing at the playground or using a tampon. Lastly, “Hymen Testing” is not something that they teach you in medical or nursing school!!! Let me repeat, this is not something that is taught as part of the medical curriculum. So, if you care about your child’s virginity, why have someone/ anyone do this to them?
The hymen has no clinical indication for validating virginity. Moreover, the practice has been proven detrimental to patients’ physical, psychological and social well-being.
Here are some quick facts about girls and women’s hymen:
- Many people are born without a hymen – get over it!
- Not everyone has the same hymen – the Hymen varies in size, shape, thickness, elasticity, and in fact, again, some are born without it.
- The Hymen doesn’t usually cover the genitalia – Menstrual blood wouldn’t be possible if the hymen covered the vagina completely. There should be a place for the blood to leave the body.
- The Hymen doesn’t have an integral purpose – the Hymen doesn’t serve any physiological function; the same goes with your appendix and wisdom teeth.
- The Hymen, if someone has one or not, is their business – it is not the parents’, the religious leader’s or anyone else’s!
The concept of virginity paints a painful narrative that a woman’s body is an object that can be tainted. Really think about how sexist the concept of virginity is — it’s extremely disgusting and really propagates social problems. By applying the concepts of virginity to your own, or to your child’s sex life, you are reinforcing patriarchal prejudices against women’s worth.
I don’t stand for that, and I hope you don’t, too!
Imagine the stress and shame of believing that being “fresh and brand new” is more essential to your parents than being free, happy or healthy! Aren’t we inflicting invisible scars to the mind and body of our children when we perpetuate this belief and practice?
Let’s just say that while a parent’s intentions may be coming from a place of love and care, this is not the ideal and correct way to show that love and care. If you want your kids to approach sex and their own sexuality with maturity and integrity, talk to them about it and broaden your ideas. Also, be sure to let them know that their “physical purity” is not more important than learning to love themselves for who they are.
With this, let’s start considering our feelings on virginity and challenge our ideas about how sexuality is constructed. We can’t let patriarchy commodify our sexuality and hold prejudistic remarks about it. As rational human beings, we are more than just a cultural construct or trivial obligation!