By Emma Foster
Virginity has no universal definition. Nor does it have a scientific definition. Instead, it is a social, cultural and religious construct. In respect to women, it makes them quantifiable by their supposed ‘purity’ and reduces them to mere sexual beings. And yet, women are often forced to undergo tests to determine their ‘virginity’ every year.
For those who have never heard of virginity testing, and many have not, it is used to determine if a girl or woman has had vaginal sex. This can be performed in one of two ways: either via an examination of the hymen or a two finger ‘inspection’ of female genitalia to assess the laxity of vaginal muscles. It is intrusive and degrading as well as physically and psychologically harmful for the patient, but perhaps most shockingly, it is based on false science.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Human Rights and UN Women’s ‘Systematic review on virginity testing’ in 2018 concluded that there is no examination which can allow someone to prove a history of vaginal intercourse. The same review branded this practice a human rights violation and yet in many countries, including the UK and the majority of the US, it is still legal for a doctor to carry out this examination upon request. This means that girls and women are being subjected to an intrusive testing procedure throughout the world, the results of which can be catastrophically damming for those who receive a ‘positive’ result.
One of the examinations used for virginity tests aims to assess the state of the female hymen which, according to myth, should still be intact if you have had vaginal sex. This has long been proved not only biologically inaccurate, but also a ludicrous way of determining virginity. Women vary massively and it is no different when it comes to their hymens.
Some hymen may not tear during vaginal intercourse, others may tear before ever having sex and some women may not even have one! Thus, there is no truth in the test. The falsity of these examinations was apparent long ago by a 1906 study involving testing sex workers which showed their hymens had not been torn, and therefore would be assumed to be virgins by the standards of the virginity tests. More recent studies have also been carried out on pregnant women, most of whom still had intact hymens.
Shockingly, in many countries, the same ‘virginity test’ is used on rape or sexual assault victims as a means to determine the truth of their accusation. It is obvious how this can be extremely traumatic, both for someone who has already been a victim of sexual assault, and by the detrimental impact a ‘negative’ result may have on a case. This may lead to a subsequent denial of justice based on inherently questionable testing, meaning victims will not be given closure.
In lots of cases, young women are subjected to these tests by their parents in an attempt to be sure of the sustained purity and innocence of their child. For some it may be used as a scare tactic, the threat meaning girls will not want to have sex out of fear the examination will reveal this. It must be noted this leads to higher rates of oral and/or anal sex in an attempt to preserve their ‘virginity’ which can be risky without use of proper protection, education about which is severely lacking in lots of countries, no least the US.
In other cases the test may be performed without telling the child, as a covert undermining of trust and a gross betrayal of the medical profession. There are stories of girls who have been raped and have then been terrified by the performance of these tests, and others of girls who only found out that the ‘two finger’ examination was not part of a usual gynaecological test once they had gone to college and talked to friends about it.
Critically, what needs to be considered is what may happen if a soon to be wife or young woman is subjected to the test and the doctor concludes that they have previously had vaginal intercourse. Sometimes these tests are used to retain honour and respect within a community, thus, if a woman is seen with a man before marriage and there is suspected sexual activity between them she will be tested. Women and girls can be ostracised, abused and, in very extreme cases, even murdered if it is believed they have had vaginal intercourse before marriage.
The Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation started a campaign in the UK to ban virginity testing calling primarily for education. Founder Halaleh Taheri made the crucial point that banning the practice of testing and repairing women’s hymens will do more harm than good if there isn’t proper education to support it.
These practices are prevalent because of society’s view of virginity and women; without these fundamental beliefs being changed, the practices of virginity testing and hymen repair will persist. Currently, they see it as a custom used by men, “who themselves do not practise abstinence, to intimidate, and control women’s bodies and their behaviour.” Crucially they state “this is not something that just goes on in other countries. This is very much a British problem.”
In the UK a bill is currently going through parliament to try and ban the practice of virginity testing. This comes over two years after the UN and WHO called for all countries to ban this practice back in 2018. It is not clear just how popular these tests are because they are often requested privately. However, as discovered by a 2020 Newsbeat investigation, there are at least 21 private clinics in the UK offering virginity tests and a Sunday Times investigation of the same year found 22 clinics offering “revirginisation” surgery to “repair” women’s hymens.
Along with virginity testing and hymen reparation surgery, the investigation highlighted the use of “fake hymen kits” to emulate the breaking of a hymen, a product commonly used for a wedding night. What this shows is that there is clearly a profound feeling of pressure for blood to be found on the sheets of newlyweds, even if it is a fake show of purity and innocence.
Those selling the kits claim their work is vital in maintaining the safety of women around the world; a product that is necessary as a direct result of society’s obsession with the virginity and purity of women. This need for blood seems almost ritualistic in a sense, not least archaic and misogynistic. These kits protect women from violence and abuse that may incur were they not to bleed on their wedding night following sex, whether they are a virgin or not. Until the myth is dispelled and society changes its obsession with virginity, these kits will provide a safety net for women.
In the US the practice came to the forefront in 2019 when rapper TI admitted on a podcast that he took his daughter for an annual test to check her hymen was still intact. This led to the states of California and New York passing bills to ban testing.
However, until more states follow suit, there is a need for education within communities as well as in the medical profession. A greater understanding of the mental and physical effects, both long term and short term, of receiving a virginity test, as well as the medical inaccuracy of them, is vital.
Ultimately, the practice of virginity testing is yet another way to exercise control over women and is essentially a form of gender discrimination. The fact that myths are still circulated in the medical profession shows how there is still a substantial void in knowledge about women’s health but also an unwillingness by some to alter this. There remains a gap between current scientific knowledge and the training of doctors.
Although predominantly a cultural issue, a large amount of power is in the hands of doctors to decline requests for these tests if they are educated of the inaccuracy, associated health risks and social effects.
Then, if the test is requested, they are able to educate others. Through education of medical professionals and community-based efforts to change traditional views of women, combined with governmental support through lawmaking, virginity testing can be tackled. This practice is not just simply sexist, it is a human rights violation. It is abusive. And it is legal here in the UK.
Illustration by Adeline Zhao