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Our Societal Obsession With Virginity
TI recently reminded us ‘virginity testing’ is still a thing, it’s time t0 change that
American rapper and Netflix presenter, TI, has demonstrated that it’s possible to live an outwardly modern life while still maintaining the attitudes of a medieval prison guard.
In an interview with the podcast Ladies Like Us, he said of his daughter, ‘We have yearly trips to the gynaecologist to check her hymen. Yes, I go with her … I will say, as of her 18th birthday, her hymen is still intact’.
How the hosts prevented themselves from either vomiting or punching TI in the face, we will never know, as the episode has now been removed.
These comments are a reminder that societal obsession with female virginity is clinging on by its fingertips in the face of all scientific evidence.
In June 2011, after intervention by Amnesty International, the Egyptian military pledged to end ‘virginity testing’ on detainees. Political activists had been detained, beaten, strip-searched and forced into brutal ‘virginity tests’ to – ironically – prove they hadn’t been raped in detention.
In 2018, the World Health Organisation released a joint statement with the United Nations to bring an end to ‘virginity testing’. The statement emphasises that hymen examination can be ‘painful, humiliating and traumatic’ for the women and girls involved, and that it ‘cannot prove’ whether someone is, or has been, sexually active. There is therefore no such thing as a ‘virginity test’ (hence the quotation marks), and it is a ‘violation of the human rights of girls and women’.
A hymen examination involves the visual inspection and digital penetration of the vagina by another person. Two key factors separating it from sex, in intimacy terms, are the agency and pleasure of the woman concerned. So, some people are willing to instigate unnecessary vaginal penetration when it’s uncomfortable and non-consensual, but if a woman were to enjoy consensual sex, then that would be abhorrent?
We have proper legal words to describe unwanted genital intrusion, of course, which makes it all the more staggering when someone with a caregiver role instigates such interference. Perhaps a parent might see this process, misguidedly, as a form of protection. But this physical violation is really the opposite of protection, except in its most proprietary sense.
Talking of protecting one’s property… Sex Power Money, by Sara Pascoe, explores the historical issue of virginity testing in relation to paternity certainty. She explains that hundreds of years ago, when paying a dowry for a wife or contributing to the upkeep of a child, the only way for a man to be sure that he was investing in his own bloodline was if the mother had been a virgin before conception. (Of course, nowadays, we have such radical innovations as DNA testing and… trust.)
Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, authors of The Medieval Vagina, describe how failing a hymen examination could cause a woman’s engagement – an important financial transaction – to collapse, and bring about public shame and condemnation. Yet the unfortunate absence of a hymen could be the result of physical work, injury, or simply being one of the 0.1% born without one.
We’ve all heard the stories of bloodied sheets being proudly paraded around the village after a wedding night, haven’t we? So important was the marital destruction of the hymen, women who feared a lack of ‘virginal evidence’ could sneak a bit of poultry blood into bed to guarantee the bloody stain and protect themselves from the wrath of others.
In less-invasive but equally weird medieval methods, girls were sometimes given a large quantity of diuretic fluid to drink, making them desperate to urinate. Physicians believed that only a virgin would be able to hold her liquid, presumably imagining the hymen to be some kind of bottle lid (and urine to exit the vagina, which is also incorrect). This idea became extended so far that women were even tested for virginity by having to hold a sieve of water in their hands, with the aim of not spilling a drop (check out the 1579 painting of Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, holding a golden sieve).
Harris and Caskey-Sigety write that such is the value of virginity, there was even a method of virginity restoration as far back as the Middle Ages, 1500 years ago. “She must live for six years on bread and water and in the seventh year, she shall be joined to the alter; and them we say her crown can be restored and she may don a white robe and be pronounced a virgin”.
A somewhat speedier method for ‘virginity restoration’ is in place today, as – appallingly – the absence of a hymen can still be a life or death matter. Regency International Clinic in London offers hymenoplasty using dissolvable stitches, stating that this surgery can prevent ‘female deaths due to questioning of virginity’ in ‘some cultures’. And thanks to cultural obsession with sexual propriety, it goes beyond that: CostmeticGyn in San Antonio says they can treat ‘women who want to give their partner a unique gift’, fetishising and capitalising on the social construct of female virginity.
There’s something that inextricably links the idea of protection with that little film of skin, whether it’s an ignorant father who perceives annual hymen exams to provide paternalistic protection; partners considering the presence of a hymen as paternity certainty protection; or medieval and modern women recreating their hymens with chicken’s blood or surgery to protect their own safety.
The only ‘virginity test’ worth doing, then, is to assess whether the hymen is still socially relevant or controversial in the future. When it stops mattering to people, that’s when we’ll pass the test.