Hymens are trending thanks to a podcast appearance by rapper T.I., where he discussed attending his daughter’s annual gynecological visit and asking her doctor to confirm her virginity. As EJ Dickson writes for Rolling Stone, the anecdote “seemed almost lab-engineered to piss off people on the internet,” but is far less shocking than it should be. So-called virginity exams remain a fairly common practice worldwide, and they represent a gross violation of privacy, a gross misunderstanding of human anatomy, and a grossly misguided attempt to keep teens safe and healthy. Here’s what you need to know.
Global authorities are against the practice of virginity testing
“In a global call to eliminate violence against women and girls everywhere, this medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end,” The World Health Organization (WHO) stated in 2018. Along with the United Nations (UN), the WHO recently took a stand against gynecological exams conducted with the purpose of determining whether a woman had participated in penetrative vaginal intercourse. The agencies broadly condemned the practice, which is known to be common in at least 20 countries, as a form of gender discrimination, a medically unnecessary test that could prove physically or emotionally traumatic for the patient, and a diagnostic with “no scientific merit.” The UN has also concluded that virginity testing is a form of sexual violence.
According to research by the WHO and UN, virginity testing can lead to loss of self-esteem, a dysfunctional future sex life, feelings of self-disgust, anxiety and depression, fear of death or violence due to the implied or explicit threat of punishment in the result of a “failed” test, isolation, suicide, and educational, marital, and employment discrimination. In countries where virginity exams are performed in large groups and/or unhygienic environments, bleeding, infection, and even STIs are possible consequences.
A physical exam can’t divulge a person’s sexual history
These tests would not be ethical or healthy even if they worked, but they don’t—which makes them even worse. A person who’s avoiding sex to prevent stigmatization, punishment, or violence can still “fail” a virginity exam, potentially leading to life-threatening consequences.
Virginity tests usually involve the examination of the hymen—a thin membrane often present in some form at the opening of the vagina—or the “two-finger test,” where digits are inserted to evaluate how tight the vaginal wall is. Neither of these tests are reliable. The scientific consensus is that no aspect of vaginal anatomy can definitively determine sexual history, because the natural physiology of both hymens and vaginal walls can differ widely and change as the result of countless non-sexual acts. Nonetheless, a recent study that talked to medical professionals in Iran—who are often approached by families demanding virginity testing—reported that unsupported results are commonly spread among communities.
Virginity tests perpetuate dangerous myths about human anatomy and sexual experience
Why does it matter that virginity tests don’t work? The concept of a virginity exam relies on several dangerous myths about how bodies—and sex—work. And these misconceptions are harmful even for individuals who aren’t subjected to the violating procedure.
The idea of testing virginity rests on the assumption that the hymen is “intact” until it’s “broken.” While it’s common knowledge at this point that the delicate hymenal membrane can “break” due to nonsexual activities (horseback riding is a classic example), fewer people realize that many hymens don’t *break* at all. The medical literature now shows that hymens vary widely from person to person even before any physical trauma to the membrane. Some cover the vaginal opening almost completely (or, in rare cases, entirely) while others are barely there crescents. Hymens can even have two nostril-like vaginal holes, almost-invisible perforations, or vary significantly in thickness. Penetration will cause tearing in some cases, but it can also cause the membrane to merely stretch (or fail to disturb it at all).
As OB/GYN Jen Gunter explained on a recent episode of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week,” it’s becoming increasingly clear that hymens didn’t evolve to have anything to do with virginity.
But the myth that a hymen is a barrier that exists to be broken during penetrative sex isn’t just untrue: It’s harmful. A person’s first experience with penetrative vaginal intercourse shouldn’t be bloody or painful. While discomfort is unavoidable for some, especially with certain medical conditions, most people who have a painful first time are simply suffering from a lack of lubrication and an inexperienced partner. Expecting hymens to “break” sets young women up for unpleasant, or even traumatic, first-time sexual experiences.
Pressuring offspring to remain “virginal” can have serious negative consequences
Research compiled by the WHO and other organizations shows that subjecting young people to virginity testing can massively backfire. In households and communities where teens are expected to abstain from sex, sexual education is generally poor or non-existent. As a result, many teens in these situations defer to oral and anal sex and forego protection due to a lack of understanding of the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Several studies note that a focus on vaginal virginity can actually encourage the spread of STIs. Research also suggests that people who pledge to abstain from sex and then break that commitment are less likely to use contraception than those who never pledged in the first place. An emphasis on purity can also have lifelong negative impacts on one’s sense of worth, sexual health, and relationship choices.
What parents can actually do to protect their children from unsafe sex
Daniel Summers, a writer and pediatrician in Maine, emphasized how much harm a medical professional can do by agreeing to conduct such an exam. “This communicates to the young woman that her body is not her own to control, and that she may have unnecessary and invasive exams at the whim of someone else,” he tells PopSci. Even if a child provides consent, he adds, the coercive presence of the parent can’t be ignored. “No provider should agree to perform this exam, any more than they should order an X-ray for no good reason.”
But some parents may have the best of intentions in trying to monitor a teen’s sexual activity. In this case, Summers says, allowing privacy and autonomy is still key. “For parents who want to be protective and proactive, I encourage them to communicate to their children than they want them to feel free to ask and discuss anything, as uncomfortable as that may feel,” he explains. “I also encourage them, when children are reaching an age when they may choose to be sexually active, to give them information about risks that come with sex and the different means of lowering those risks.” In his own practice, Summers has started to make a portion of all pediatric check-ups confidential starting in early adolescence. “[I] assure parents that I am having age-appropriate conversations about healthy choices,” he says, but he also makes it clear the private time is non-negotiable.
What to do if you’re a teen trying to take control of your sexual health
If the doctor your parents take you to see is not respecting your autonomy, look for a specialist in adolescent health in your area. You may be able to find a clinic focused on providing you with the support you need to make your own healthy choices. Your school nurse may be able to assist you as well. If you’re avoiding vaginal intercourse in favor of other sexual activities, make sure you’re using protection to prevent STIs.