Content Warning: Contains discussion of sexual assault, discrimination and violence, based on sexuality, and mental health issues.
Virginity testing, intended as the pseudo-medical procedure through which female “virginity” is believed to be determined, has controversially gained notoriety in recent weeks after Atlanta-born rapper T.I. confessed to subjecting his 18-year-old daughter to hymen testing on Ladies Like Us, a podcast by Nazanin Mandi and Nadia Moham.
“We’ll go and sit down and the doctor comes and talks, and the doctor’s maintaining a high level of professionalism. He’s like, ‘You know, sir, I have to, in order to share information,’” shares the rapper. “I’m like, ‘Deyjah, they want you to sign this so we can share information. Is there anything you would not want me to know? See, Doc? Ain’t no problem.’” The rapper’s apparent dismissal of his daughter’s right to privacy, and his disregard for the scientific inaccuracy of the method, sparked outrage on the internet. However, in an effort to deter society’s tendency to regulate female bodies, we can explore the causes behind the misconceptions that perpetuate it, and the vast consequences suffered by women around the globe.
Virginity testing, which has the purpose of determining whether a woman has ever engaged in sexual intercourse, can be performed through two different methods. The first involves the inspection of the hymen, a mucosal tissue which partially covers the external opening of the vagina, and the second is known as the “two-finger test” which implies the insertion of two fingers in the vagina. Virginity testing has been condemned by international institutions, such as the World Health Organisation, as “medically unnecessary, and oftentimes painful, humiliating and traumatic”. Nonetheless, the procedure is still practiced worldwide. In fact, a 2017 article that considered statements by 288 American gynaecologists disclosed that 34% of them had performed a virginity test, and that 10% had been asked by a family member to execute it on a patient.
The physical and psychological implications of virginity testing are wide ranging, and have been shown to have the potential to heavily impact female health. In countries where virginity tests are performed in unsafe conditions, the contraction of infections is a definite possibility. According to the UN, both the practice itself and the knowledge of the result can have detrimental effects on mental health, leading women to develop dysfunctional sexual attitudes, depression, and anxiety.
One of the underlying convictions behind virginity testing is considered by many to be the sexualisation of women’s worth. The importance of preserving one’s virginity – instilled in women from a young age – whether it be for marriage or, in some countries, even to be considered for a job offer, reflects a view of female worth as correlated to her sexual desirability. But what does “virginity” mean?
As a concept that is often defined by what it is not, “virginity” has the potential to be applied arbitrarily. In a NY Times article, it was described as ephemeral, relative, and socially determined as to what we mean when we say “freedom”, which reflects the medical consensus. It is interesting to note that researchers, including Hanne Blank, indicate that there is in fact no evidence that virginity follows a biological imperative, or that it is of any advantage from an evolutionary point of view. An example that reflects the variety of ways with which virginity has been dealt with over time is presented by a “how-to” manual, dating back to the late 13th century. The author indicates that chaste women can be recognised thanks to their modest and fearful behaviour, featuring rigorously downcast eyes before men, or even by the colour of their urine – as that of “immoral” females would be muddy in shade.
Scientific research has asserted that it is impossible to prove with certainty whether a woman has previously engaged in sexual activities. This is because the anatomy of the vagina – and that of the hymen specifically – differs drastically from woman to woman, and can be also be altered by engaging in non-sexual activities, such as certain sports or through tampon usage. As Dr Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, illustrates, hymens come in all shapes and forms and may or may not cover the vaginal opening. As a consequence, some women may experience “virginity bleeding” during their first sexual experience, but others may not – making it an unreliable indicator of sexual history. By challenging the concept of “virginity bleeding”, and exposing the obvious confusion which surrounds female anatomy, we can observe that this misguided notion of virginity implies the possibility of normalising potentially traumatising sexual experiences. In fact, studies have shown that bleeding during the “loss of one’s virginity” is not as normal as tradition makes it up to be. Heavy bleeding can be, in some cases, due to insufficient lubrication, sexual inexperience, or forced penetration – showing the concept of virginity to be not only misleading but also harmful.
If “virginity” is a scientifically unsound notion, why does it still retain significance to the point of fundamentally affecting the lives of millions of women? In some cultures, virginity is correlated to a sense of “purity” which is indicative of a person’s – or of their entire family’s – honour, and valuable in direct correlation to the enticement it provokes in men. “Tradition” has projected onto women the expectation of “saving themselves” for marriage, when virginity would be gifted to the husband and, in ancient times, displayed to family and friends in the form of the blood-stained bed sheet. As a result, the loss of virginity prior to marriage – whether voluntary or not – can result, in some parts of the world, in a woman being ostracised or even killed.
Faith may constitute a reason for attributing importance to premarital abstinence. Premarital sex is forbidden in numerous religions and does not appear to overly discriminate between the sexes; whereas, in reality, the general discourse seems to be vastly more preoccupied with female, rather than male, virginity. The double standard herein implied is based on the perception of male sexual proficiency to be a masculine trait and, therefore, desirable. Sadly, as recent events have proven, this discrimination is still significant. The T.I. scandal suscitated further rancor when the rapper, after having admitted to subjecting his 18-year-old daughter to hymenal testing, indicated his awareness of his 15-year-old son’s active sex life.
Additional issues that have been raised by opposers of virginity testing are the jeopardising of female integrity and of the importance of one’s sovereignty over one’s own body, which are disregarded by the practice. As soon as a request for a test is advanced, the implications that a woman’s word is not trustworthy and that having sex before marriage is “wrong” are obvious. In case-specific instances of rape, where testing is often employed to determine the reliability of the victim’s statement, the practice may also lead to an additional experience of trauma through a procedure which essentially mimics sexual violence.
Central arguments which fuel the debate over virginity testing are concerned with the physical and psychological consequences of the procedure on women who have had to undergo it. Nonetheless, whilst these are proven to be harmful, it is easy to ignore the values which justify testing in the first place. The underlying sexualisation of women in society, from the traditional value of “purity” to their perceived untrustworthiness, all seem to justify the policing of women’s sexual behaviour. Therefore, it is important that we start questioning and debating the outdated and scientifically unreliable notions upon which society finds its moral compass, and not only condemning its result.