science of us

‘Virginity Testing’ Is a Dangerous Sham

Gynecologist chair.
Photo: Paul Campbell/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a recent interview on the podcast Ladies Like Us, rapper T.I. was asked if he has broached the topic of sex with his two daughters. In response, he declared that he had not only had “the conversation” with his 18-year-old daughter, Deyjah, but that they “have yearly trips to the gynecologist to check her hymen.”

“Yes,” he said. “I go with her.”

What T.I. is referring to is known as a “virginity test” — a gynecological procedure intended to determine whether a woman has had vaginal intercourse — and it’s not as uncommon as you might think. The procedure involves a medical professional inserting their fingers or a speculum into a woman’s vagina to inspect her hymen, a thin piece of tissue at the opening. The assumption is that if the hymen is intact, the woman is still  a virgin; if it’s torn, she’s not. Across the world, women are subjected to these tests to determine everything from whether they can go to school or get married. Historically, they’ve been used to justify the torture — or in some cases, murder — of women who are deemed impure.

The procedure, which is based on dubious science, is not medically necessary, and can be psychologically damaging. Over the past few years, medical professionals worldwide have started to speak out against it, and last fall, the United Nations and the World Health Organization demanded a global ban on the practice. “Given that these procedures are unnecessary and potentially harmful, it is unethical for doctors or other health providers to undertake them,” the U.N. said in a statement.

And yet, the tests still aren’t obsolete — even in the United States. For an investigation into virginity testing, Marie Claire and the Fuller Project interviewed dozens of women and medical professionals, and discovered that the procedure is still being carried out across the country, often in religious communities where parents ask doctors to perform the procedure to determine whether or not a woman is eligible for marriage. Furthermore, the investigation found that the U.S. has no laws banning the procedure, nor guidelines from major medical associations “to help physicians and nurses navigate the ethical and legal minefield that is virginity testing.”

In addition to being unethical and harmful, the tests are also based on flawed science: The state of a woman’s hymen isn’t a definitive indicator of whether or not she’s had intercourse. As Planned Parenthood notes on its website, some people are born with hymens that are naturally open, or it often tears or wears away as women age.

“The misconceptions that these tests have anything to do with virginity are unfortunately widespread, and our society continues to spread these myths as if they were based on scientific facts,” Brittany McBride, the senior program manager of Sexuality Education at Advocates for Youth, told the Cut. “This misconception that virginity can be tested is truly archaic and sexist and shames people with vulvas. Virginity is a concept that is completely personal and private — it is not a benchmark one is able to meet or not meet.”

Unsurprisingly, the tests can take a steep psychological toll: In a 2017 report from the National Institutes of Health, women who were subjected to them described them as painful and dehumanizing; one sexual-assault victim who was forced to undergo the procedure went so far as to equate it with “torture.”

In 2015, Laurence B. McCullough, an adjunct professor of ethics in obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, urged medical professionals to lead the effort to ban virginity testing, calling the policy “incompatible with professional obstetric and gynecological ethics.” As journalist Sophia Jones writes in Marie Claire, “When doctors legitimize virginity by conducting fake tests for it, they arguably uphold one of the oldest lies used to control women: that whether or not a woman has had sexual intercourse determines worth.”

‘Virginity Testing’ Is a Dangerous Sham