A recent investigation by Vice World found that hundreds of women are being denied healthcare on the basis of virginity. Is it time to re-evaluate the place that virginity holds in our society?
Vice World carried out an investigation and found that women in the UK are being denied transvaginal ultrasounds on the grounds of them being “virgins”. Following the investigation, over 200 women contacted Vice to say that they had similar experiences, mainly from the UK and other western countries like Germany and Australia. Although British ultrasound guidelines state that virginity should have no impact on medical scans, this social construct is still influencing western society.
The exclusion of medical diagnostic tools on the basis of virginity has important implications.
A transvaginal ultrasound is an internal examination that goes a few inches into the vaginal canal. It is used to check for a multitude of abnormalities, including pelvic pain, vaginal bleeding and to check for cysts. It is used to aid diagnosis of reproductive cancer, cysts, fibroids and conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). So, the transvaginal scan is highly important in the diagnosis of a variety of conditions, some of which can be serious, life-threatening and debilitating, particularly if not diagnosed and treated early enough. Women being prevented from seeking out the necessary scans to make their diagnosis more straightforward means they are being denied potentially life-saving healthcare.
Moreover, preventing women from taking scans based on this idea is heteronormative. It directly affects women who do not have heterosexual or penetrative sex, and therefore may be regarded as not having lost their virginity based on this definition. As a result, they may not be able to receive the proper diagnostic tools, delaying their treatment.
This also perpetuates the stigma surrounding the concept of virginity. One woman told Vice that she was denied the transvaginal scan as her doctor told her that if she underwent the scan “she would no longer be a virgin” due to the penetration of the device. This view of virginity is confusing and outdated. It separates the idea of sex from virginity, instead defining female virginity in relation to the hymen, a thin piece of tissue around the vaginal opening. Women used to be tested for virginity by feeling for an intact hymen, and in some parts of the world, including the United States, this is still legal. Testing for virginity has been outlawed in the UK, and official government guidance on the topic defines it as a form of “violence against women,” that can often signal a precursor to abuse and forced marriage. Testing for virginity was used to control and police women, to test their worthiness and purity. Despite the government acknowledging this, and banning the tests, the Vice investigation makes clear that emphasis on virginity continues to harm women in the UK. It is extremely concerning that medical professionals in the UK continue to regard virginity in a similar way today.
Despite archaic concepts of virginity still playing a role in the medical field, The concept of virginity has broadened considerably from what it was. While, traditionally, the concept of female virginity was linked to the hymen, the scope of sex and our knowledge of sexual diversity is far more broad than what it was previously. What exactly counts for “losing your virginity” depends on who you ask, and personal ideas of what virginity means – or if it’s even relevant at all.
Especially for non-heterosexual people, the traditional approach to virginity simply does not work anymore, and therefore has no role in modern healthcare procedures.
It’s also interesting to think about why virginity holds so much importance in our world to begin with. While, initially, chastity was valued, particularly due to the influence of religion, is the entire concept of virginity obsolete in a contemporary context? For many people, during adolescence, the term is associated with consternation and shame. We’re told that the circumstances you “lose your virginity” in should be well thought out, and young people often worry about losing their virginity “too early” or “too late” in life. We’re encouraged to think of virginity as important to our social standing and sense of self, even when we’ve long moved past its original definition.
Perceived societal pressure of being the only friend left dubbed as the dreaded “virgin” means that many will have sex before they are comfortable to do so, in order to shake the label. Simultaneously, losing your virginity too early, especially in certain cultures, contexts, and religious backgrounds, can be a source of shame. The label “virgin” creates the false idea that some sort of spectacular change will come about by having sex and losing the label. This increases the pressure surrounding virginity and having sex before one is ready to do so. Even the language used around virginity is problematic. The notion of “losing your virginity” implies loss of something, suggesting a loss of purity, when in reality, sex is just an experience like any other, and choosing to have sex doesn’t say anything about your character. It’s time to rethink how we view virginity, especially now, when it’s been revealed that women are losing their access to healthcare because of it. A social construct should not decide how women are treated, and it certainly should not decide whether or not they receive the healthcare they need.