US rapper and actor TI recently made comments about his 18-year-old daughter on the Ladies Like Us podcast, which have, quite rightfully, garnered a great deal of criticism. When asked about his kids’ sex education, he declared that he takes his daughter to the gynecologist for annual hymen checks to determine whether she is still a virgin.
Not only is the act of checking someone’s hymen unnecessary, humiliating, and potentially harmful, it doesn’t even indicate whether they have had sex, despite popular belief.
The hymen is a thin piece of membranous tissue that partially covers the opening of the vagina. In most people, it is half-moon-shaped, but its shape and size can vary from person to person. It’s a long-held belief that all female virgins have an intact hymen and that the only way that it can be “broken” is through sex. FYI, it doesn't “break”, it just stretches, which might cause a tear, but not everyone experiences this.
Some girls are born with open hymens, some are born without a hymen, while others naturally stretch their hymens through activities other than sex, like gymnastics, rigorous exercise, and horseback riding. Using tampons or menstrual cups or medical examinations by a gynecologist can also affect the tissue.
Therefore, examining a girl’s hymen, either by touching it or looking at it, gives zero indication of her sexual activity. Regardless of this fact, girls and women around the world are subjected to so-called “virginity tests”, which are often used to check a woman is a virgin before she marries. Certain countries, such as Afghanistan, even use the procedure in an attempt to verify allegations of rape, with it often being carried out by a police officer, leading to further physical and psychological harm.
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations (UN) condemn virginity testing due to the fact it cannot determine virginity and can inflict both psychological and physical trauma. In countries where pre-marital sex has severe consequences, women who supposedly aren’t virgins can be publicly shamed, beaten, and even imprisoned. The practice has even led to suicides and the murder of girls by their families.
In addition to examining the hymen, virginity tests can involve assessing bleeding after sex. For example, in some parts of Sri Lanka, relatives will check a newly wedded couple’s sheets to check the bride has bled. However, this is not an accurate way to determine virginity. Some women do experience a small amount of bleeding the first time they have sex as their hymen stretches or tears, but many do not. The hymen might already be stretched or it might stretch without bleeding. The idea that bleeding signifies virginity is a total myth.
What’s more, virginity is merely a social construct, as sex can mean different things to different people. Traditionally, patriarchal societies have viewed it as heterosexual intercourse where the penis enters the vagina. But what about homosexual couples? What about oral sex? Sex can be defined in so many ways that what it means to have sex for the first time can’t possibly have a single, universal definition.
The practice of checking a woman’s hymen has no scientific basis, cannot determine whether someone has had sex, and can inflict a great deal of suffering. Various UN agencies and the WHO are therefore calling for it to be banned.
“The practice is a violation of the victim’s human rights and is associated with both immediate and long-term consequences that are detrimental to her physical, psychological and social well-being,” writes the WHO. “The harmful practice of virginity testing is a social, cultural and political issue, and its elimination will require a comprehensive societal response supported by the public health community and health professionals.”