When discussing his 18-year-old daughter in an interview last week, rapper T.I. inadvertently reminded listeners about the profound dangers of virginity myths and non-comprehensive sex education — and how young women are especially harmed by both.
While a guest on podcast Ladies Like Us on November 6th, the conversation turned to parenting and giving the “sex talk.” In response, T.I. took it upon himself to launch into a detailed, invasive, and disturbing account about his daughter Deyjah Harris’s hymen:
"We have yearly trips to the gynecologist to check her hymen. Yes, I go with her,” the rapper stated — even adding that, immediately following Deyjah’s 16th birthday celebration, he "put a sticky note on [her bedroom] door: 'Gyno. Tomorrow. 9:30.'"
T.I. continued to describe how the appointments unfold. "We’ll go and sit down and the doctor comes and talks, and the doctor’s maintaining a high level of professionalism. He’s like, ‘You know, sir, I have to, in order to share information’ — I’m like, 'Deyjah, they want you to sign this so we can share information. Is there anything you would not want me to know? See, Doc? Ain't no problem.'" Even though T.I. acknowledged the doctor’s explanation for hymens breaking on their own — from “bike riding, athletics, horseback riding, and just other forms of athletic physical activity” — he still demands the test. “I say, ‘Look, Doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bike, she don’t play no sports. Just check the hymen, please, and give me back my results..."
Sex education advocates, medical professionals, reporters, and social media users were immediately horrified by his quotes. While T.I. hasn’t responded to the backlash, folks on the internet think that Deyjah has taken a stand against her father by liking tweets calling T.I. abusive and unfollowing her family on social media this weekend.
Though T.I.’s comments shocked many of us, the fact is that countless young women and people with vaginas are traumatized by so-called “virginity tests” and shamed by parents who teach them their worth depends on the condition of their hymens. To combat this pervasive misinformation, we asked sex educators why these “hymen checks” are medically inaccurate, emotionally damaging, and abusive — and what parents should do instead.
T.I.’s actions highlight the many problems in our current state of sex education.
Listening to a father casually discuss his teenage daughter’s worth based on her vaginal contents — in nationally broadcasted interview soundbites, no less — is deeply upsetting. Unfortunately, it’s also not surprising. Brittany McBride, Senior Program Manager for Sexuality Education at Advocates for Youth, tells O.school that it’s not shocking to hear a parent subscribing to harmful ideology about their child’s sexual health. “What’s really concerning is that there are a lot of other parents who view T.I.’s approach to communicating with his child as him being in the role of a ‘supportive parent,’ as opposed to what it actually is: controlling, misogynistic, archaic, and abusive,” McBride explains.
When American schools are not mandated to provide medically-based sex education to their students, even going so far as to teach curriculum comparing sexually active young women to chewed gum, parents, and adults are empowered to keep perpetuating these dangerous myths to their children. “Our society is in crisis as it pertains to the glaring lack of comprehensive, medically accurate, inclusive sex ed in this country,” sex educator and sexual wellness writer Tiffany Lashai Curtis tell O.school. “This whole incident [shows] us that toxic masculinity and purity culture are alive and well.”
By teaching young people — especially young people with vaginas — that sexual exploration is shameful, we are perpetuating a cycle of myths that will ultimately endanger their health and well-being. This pressure to “remain pure,” McBride explains, “really places our children at a disadvantage to be able to navigate decisions for what’s best for their own bodies.”
Hymen tests are medically inaccurate.
“No one should have their hymen trending on the internet right now, and specifically not an 18-year-old freshman in college,” McBride says. The fact that this was able to happen last week points to the falsehoods about vaginas that persist globally. “The hymen doesn't really serve much of a physiological purpose,” Curtis explains. “Yet society continues to cling to the hymen as some false sign of whether or not a person with a vagina has had penetrative sex.”
In fact, in 2018, the World Health Organization joined forces with UN Human Rights and UN Women to officially call for an end to virginity testing around the world. The statement read, “‘Virginity testing’ has no scientific or clinical basis. There is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex – and the appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual intercourse.”
It’s also known in the medical community that certain kinds of exercise or menstrual products can “break” the hymen before a person has ever engaged in penetrative sex. Moreover, Dr. Jennifer Gunter, OB-GYN, recently wrote on Twitter that “the hymen is no virginity indicator, 50% of sexually active teens do not have a disrupted hymen." Additionally, some people with vaginas are born without a hymen, which does not affect their sexual or reproductive health.
The construct of “virginity” in general is harmful and myth-based.
We can’t discuss society’s disturbing obsession with the hymen without discussing the problematic concept of “virginity” in the first place. To put it bluntly, as Curtis does, “Virginity is a social construct. It's not real.” The fact is that nothing is “lost” when someone engages in sex for the first time, and the cultural idea of “losing one’s virginity” wrongly considers heterosexual penetrative sex to be the only “real” kind of sexual activity. “Virginity is a very personal concept for each individual person,” McBride explains. “No person’s value lies within their ability to say that their hymen is or isn’t intact, or whether or not they’ve engaged in any kind of sexual activity."
These kinds of conversations about “virginity” do not acknowledge queer experiences.
“Placing an over-emphasis on penis-in-vagina sex negates the fact that this isn't the only action that can count as sex,” Curtis says. “We have used the term virginity as a catch-all phrase for first-time penetrative sex, completing erasing the first-time experiences of queer individuals who may or may not engage in penetrative sex.”
Hymen checks are used as a method to control and shame women and people with vaginas.
Since they are proven to not serve any medical purpose nor provide any credible information, hymen checks are solely invasive and humiliating, McBride says. Curtis adds, “They simply serve as another way to try to control people with vaginas.” The fact is that “people with penises aren't subjected to the same level of scrutiny,” Curtis continues, “nor is their bodily autonomy constantly up for debate or subjected to governmental rule” as evidenced by reproductive health policy and sexual assault legislation.
The sexism in this specific incident with T.I. and his 18-year-old daughter could not be made any clearer than by T.I.’s past unconcerned comments about his sexually active teenage son. “He basically shrugged off the fact that his 15-year-old son is having sex,” Curtis points out, “but is teaching his grown daughter that female sexuality is something to be monitored and controlled by men.”
So-called “virginity tests” can traumatize young people, damaging their relationships with their own bodies and preventing them from making informed decisions.
As soon as a hymen check is administered, sexuality becomes associated with shame and fear because of “the emotional and psychological stress that comes along with any repercussions you might face if your hymen is found to be ‘broken,’” McBride says. “By equating a piece of genital tissue to purity or wholeness,” Curtis adds, “T.I. is ensuring that his daughter will deal with the same sexual shame that Black women have been subjected to throughout history.”
When a woman is forced to endure a virginity test, it may “impact her ability to take ownership of her sexual pleasure — for fear of being unworthy or less valuable of a woman if she does,” Curtis explains. This learned fear can manifest in relationships or on dates, or in how she relates to her own body privately. Hymen checks can also literally be painful, as well as “retraumatizing for [survivors] of sexual violence.”
Importantly, McBride notes that young women like Deyjah who are forced to undergo such tests are not the only people harmed by purity culture: “Even for young women who are now reading these articles in the media and hearing about it in these conversations — how damaging and heartbreaking it is for them to hear dialogue about how virginity is a measure of their worth.“
There are better ways for parents to discuss sexual health with their kids.
Before we discuss the beneficial supportive ways to educate young people about sex and their bodies, let’s talk about why so many folks have referred to T.I.’s actions towards Deyjah as abusive. As McBride explains, there are “power dynamics at play here. This is a parent-child relationship... Finances may be involved — this is a young student starting out in college, so her father may be supporting her financially. There is fear that comes along with not doing what a financially supportive parent is asking for, and what the consequences may be. These factors drive decision-making for the young person, and that’s abusive.”
So what do good sex education and parent-child conversations look like? It recognizes young people’s autonomy and the need for privacy, acknowledges sexuality as a normal part of life, and begins during childhood.
“It can start with a conversation around the proper terminology when it comes to our bodies,” McBride says, which will teach younger kids how to communicate about their bodies, needs, and boundaries as they get older. Of course, these discussions are not always easy or intuitive for parents, but Advocates for Youth provides helpful resources for parents on their website, as well as videos about discussing first-time sex with teens as part of their work with AMAZE.org, an all-ages sex ed platform.
In addition, children should have numerous trusted adults in their lives — like healthcare providers — in order to ask questions that they’re not comfortable asking their parents (or that parents might not be able to answer). A young person who goes to a professional source to learn about safer sex is not disrespecting their parent or being “promiscuous” — they’re getting credible information so that they can make the best decisions for themselves. “Young people have the right to be able to have privacy and confidentiality with their healthcare providers, just as we expect as adults,” McBride says. “They can make their own decisions about when and how to be sexually active. [Deyjah’s] physician could have been a trusted adult in a young person’s life, but that relationship has now been impaired because of the involvement of the parent.”
In the end, it comes down to helping young people access the knowledge they need so that they can “live the lives they want to lead,” which includes their romantic and/or sexual lives, McBride says. “We need to be our kid’s ally — not their prosecutor.”
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