When the rapper T.I. spoke about taking his daughter for an annual “virginity test,” I was not the only person who was outraged. New York State Assemblywoman Michaelle C. Solages was also mad when she heard this news and decided to propose a bill to ban the practice in New York. The bill states that this procedure would be considered “an act of professional misconduct.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) states, “Virginity testing, also referred to as hymen, ‘two-finger’ or per vaginal examination, is an inspection of the female genitalia meant to determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse.” When it is performed, doctors use their fingers to assess the elasticity of the vaginal walls or inspect the hymen. WHO has spoken out about the procedure, saying that it is not a scientifically valid assessment of whether someone has or has not had sexual intercourse, that it can cause short- and long-term negative effects on a person’s mental and physical health, and that it is a violation of the person’s human rights.
The procedure is based on common misconceptions about the hymen. Hymens are not plastic wrap covering the vagina. The hymen, also known as the vaginal corona, is a folded mucous tissue, and has different shapes and colors depending on the person and the thickness of the tissue. It is generally elastic and stretchy, and very rarely covers the entire vaginal opening. Some people are born without hymens. Trying to figure out whether someone has had penetrative sex by looking at their hymen is not effective because the hymen can be worn away through physical activity and everyday life, stretch during penetrative sex, or might have never been there in the first place.
Virginity testing has been associated with negative effects on people’s mental and physical health and is a violation of people’s human rights. It is a violation of one’s physical integrity, autonomy, and privacy and can cause trauma and worsen body-image. Since men are held to a different standard when it comes to sexual “purity,” it is also a discriminatory practice that maintains traditional stereotypes about women’s bodies and sexualities.
Senator Roxanne J. Persaud, who sponsored the companion bill in the State Senate to ban the procedure, told the New York Times, “The invasive procedure of a virginity examination violates the sanctity and purity of a female… Whether a child or adult, this breaches not only moral grounds, but also the privacy entitled to a female and their doctor.”
While it is important that legislators act to prevent this harmful procedure from taking place, language around the sanctity and purity of females reinforces ideas about women’s virginity. Virginity is not a medical term, it’s a socially constructed idea based in hetero- and cis-normative principles about what sex means. Sex can mean many things aside from a penis entering a vagina. Having penetrative sex, or any other type of sex, does not make women more or less pure. As Anna Knöfel Magnusson of the RSFU writes: You are the only person who can decide [whether or not you are a virgin]. Different people have different ideas about which sexual acts constitute a ‘loss of virginity.’ Some people restrict it to vaginal intercourse, while others count other activities as well.” We are all human and sexuality, to whatever degree we experience and practice it, is a normal thing. We should do away with virginity testing as the sham it is. And while we’re at it, let’s dispel this idea that virginity is a physical state of purity, or that it exists at all.
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