In November, rapper T.I. received widespread criticism after he told the hosts of podcast Ladies Like Us that he’s been taking his 18-year-old daughter to annually get her hymen checked by a gynecologist because he falsely believes it’s a marker of her virginity. Now, New York is moving to ban these so-called “virginity tests,” which have been long denounced by doctors as unsubstantiated by science and a violation of human rights.
State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make hymen examinations for the purpose of virginity testing illegal. If passed, any such tests completed in a medical setting will constitute medical malpractice and result in the practitioner losing their license. If a virginity test is done in a non-medical environment, it will constitute sexual abuse in the first degree, which is a felony in the state of New York.
The law comes directly in response to T.I.’s inflammatory comments endorsing the procedure, according to reporting from The New York Times. “It made me angry, and I was just very upset,” Assemblywoman Michaelle C. Solages, who introduced the bill, told The Times. “To use your platform to say that you did this is just misogynistic, and it sets the women’s movement back.”
She has also invited T.I. to come to Albany to help support the legislation. Thus far, T.I. has apologized to his daughter for publicly discussing her sexual health, but he hasn’t backed down on his stance about his decision to subject her to the bogus and invasive examination.
Why “virginity tests” don’t work—and are morally wrong.
There is no known test that can tell you whether a person with a vagina has had sex.
Most so-called “virginity tests” involve examining the hymen, a stretchy membrane of tissue around the entrance of the vagina that some people are born with, for disruptions or tears. According to Columbia University, the hymen is there solely to help protect the vagina from germs and dirt in infancy. Some people with vaginas are born without a hymen at all, and the hymen easily tears from exercising, using tampons, riding bikes, and other normal daily activities. Although it can tear from sex, hymens are so diverse in appearance and typically heal so quickly that it can sometimes look unaffected whether or not the person who owns it has had vaginally penetrative sex. A 2004 study found half of sexually active teens have a totally non-disrupted, intact hymen.
The World Health Organization and United Nations have both called for a ban on virginity tests, both because of its medical illegitimacy and because of its ethical issues.
“The examination has no scientific merit or clinical indication,” a joint statement from the organizations reads. “The appearance of a hymen is not a reliable indication of intercourse, and there is no known examination that can prove a history of vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, 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.”
The entire concept of trying to test for “virginity” removes agency from the patient in question. A person who has had vaginal sex knows that they have engaged in vaginal sex, so there would be no reason for them to have that information confirmed by a doctor. A virginity test, then, benefits only people other than the patient. It’s a tool for allowing other people to demand private information from the patient and to exert control over that person’s sexual behavior.
“These tests typically adversely affect people with hymens, and people with a penis are not subjected to the same invasive, coercive, and potentially shaming action,” Lexx Brown-James, Ph.D., LMFT, a certified sex educator and therapist who agrees that such tests should be banned, tells O.school. “Ethically, virginity testing reinforces falsehoods around the value of the person being tested without expressed consent, this violates bodily autonomy and can easily be traumatic.”
WHO reports that past research has documented extremely negative effects from undergoing virginity testing, including “intense anxiety, panic, depression, guilt, feelings of self-disgust, loss of self-esteem, worsened self-respect and body image, a dysfunctional sex life, isolation from family and society, and fear of death.”
Taking a firm stance on bodily autonomy.
Some experts have argued that creating a law about virginity tests may inadvertently legitimize them. But as the T.I. debacle shows, virginity testing is already alive and thriving—and apparently getting a boost from celebrities who don’t know better.
Virginity tests have been documented in at least 25 countries around the world, according to WHO, and they’re continuing to emerge in new countries with no prior history of the practice. According to a 2016 survey, one in 10 OB-GYNs in the U.S. had been asked for virginity testing in the past 12 months; roughly 4 percent of doctors performed the test. In some countries, girls and women are sometimes jailed for “failing” virginity tests.
The New York law would be the first in the country to ban virginity testing. Per reporting from Vox, the bill already has bipartisan support and a companion bill in the state senate introduced by New York State Senator Roxanne Persuad. Solages is also calling on federal lawmakers to pass a similar bill on the national level, which she believes may also set an important example for other countries to follow.
“We need to send a message to the world saying that this practice of virginity exams is unnecessary and that it should be deemed unacceptable,” Solages told Vox.
Dr. Brown-James adds that it’s totally within a parent’s right to be concerned about their children’s sexual health, and there are many healthy ways to help your kids make the best decisions about their sex lives without trying to exert physical and psychological control over their bodies through a gynecological exam.
“In my practice, I always encourage the youth to be transparent with their parent/caregiver and often help caregivers create spaces where these conversations can take place,” Dr. Brown-James says. “Young folks will have to navigate medical doctors and others who want access to their bodies for their entire lives. By allowing them to practice with your backup establishing boundaries, maintaining privacy, and deciding when to be vulnerable, caregivers help them hone lifelong skills.”
At the end of the day, banning virginity testing is about protecting people’s bodily autonomy.
“We don't live in medieval times,” Solages told The Hill. “Women are not property. They are human beings.”