A virginity test is a practice and process of determining whether a girl or woman is a virgin i.e., to determine that she has never engaged in, or been subjected to, sexual intercourse. The test typically involves a check for the presence of an intact hymen, on the flawed assumption that it can only be torn as a result of sexual intercourse.
Virginity testing is widely considered controversial, both because of its implications for the tested girls and women and because it is viewed as unethical. In cases of suspected rape or child sexual abuse, a detailed examination of the hymen may be performed, but the condition of the hymen alone is often inconclusive.
In October 2018, the UN Human Rights, UN Women and the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that virginity testing must end as it is a painful, humiliating and traumatic practice, constituting violence against women.
The process of virginity testing varies by region. In areas where medical doctors are available, the tests would often be given in a doctor’s office. However, in countries where doctors are not available, testers will often be older women, or whoever can be trusted to search for a hymen. This is common among African tribes that perform the test.
Another form of virginity testing involves testing for laxity of vaginal muscles with fingers (the “two-finger test”). A doctor performs the test by inserting a finger into the female’s vagina to check the level of vaginal laxity, which is used to determine if she is “habituated to sexual intercourse”. However, the usefulness of these criteria has been questioned by medical authorities and opponents of virginity testing because vaginal laxity and the absence of a hymen can both be caused by other factors, and the “two-finger test” is based on subjective observation.
Examinations to test for previous sexual activity used to be performed on rape victims in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India before it was banned. Among the Bantu peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, virginity testing or even the suturing of the labia majora (called infibulation) has been commonplace. Traditionally, Kenuzi girls (of Sudan) are married before puberty by adult men who inspect them manually for virginity.
Example of violence against women
Even though virginity testing has been proclaimed an example of violence against women by the World Health Organization, it is still conducted in many countries. As virginity testing is a medically unnecessary and invasive genital exam exclusively performed on women, and often without their consent, it is thereby grounded in gender and power inequities and undermines women’s decision-making capabilities.
The practice of virginity testing is based on social norms that have been used historically to regulate female sexual activity and justify violence against women. In societies around the world, especially patriarchal ones, women have often considered the property of their fathers or husbands such that their bodies become objects of male control, and their perceived value becomes measured by their perceived purity.
This drives the unequal social pressures for women and girls to remain virgins until they marry. These attitudes create a framework for men to assume control over female sexual behaviours and has led to women’s punishment and even death. It is clear how these discriminatory attitudes have led to violence against women. Virginity testing perpetuates these harmful stereotyped beliefs through the discriminatory framework that women are primarily responsible for all sexual activity and misconduct.
In Iran, sixteen in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants aged 32 to 60 years to elucidate the perceptions and experiences of Iranian examiners of virginity testing. The perception and experience of examiners were reflected in five main themes. The result of this study indicated that virginity testing is more than a medical examination, considering the cultural factors involved and its overt and covert consequences.
In Iran, testing is performed for both formal and informal reasons, and examiners view such testing with ambiguity about the accuracy and certainty of the diagnosis and uncertainty about ethics and reproductive rights. Examiners are affected by the overt and covert consequences of virginity testing, beliefs and cultural values underlying virginity testing, and informal and formal reasons for virginity testing also used to examine sexual offence.
Some cultures require proof of a bride’s virginity prior to her marriage. This has traditionally been tested by the presence of an intact hymen, which was verified by either a physical examination (usually by a physician, who would provide a certificate of virginity or by a “proof of blood”, which refers to vaginal bleeding that results from the tearing of the hymen.
The physical examination would normally be undertaken before the marriage ceremony, while the “proof by blood” involves an inspection for signs of bleeding as part of the consummation of marriage, after the ceremony.
Abuse of women
Requiring a female to undergo a virginity test is widely seen as harmful, especially when it is performed on behalf of a government. The practice is seen as sexist, perpetuating the notion that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is acceptable for men, but not for women, and suggesting that women’s sexual activity should be subject to public knowledge and criticism, while men’s should not.
Egypt’s military forces performed virginity tests on women detained during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. After Amnesty International protested to the Egyptian government in March 2011, the government claimed the tests were carried out in order to refute claims that the women had been raped while in detention. Amnesty International described the virginity tests as “nothing less than torture”.
Virginity tests done by the military on detainees were banned in Egypt on 27 December 2011, but in March 2012, the physician who carried out the tests was acquitted of all charges. Samira Ibrahim is the Egyptian woman who filed suit against the government, initiating public discussion of the Egyptian government’s use of the testing. She said in response to the physician’s acquittal, “A woman’s body should not be used as a tool for intimidation, and nobody should have their dignity violated.”
Many spouses tend to engage in virginity tests based on the fact the hymen did not bleed after the first intercourse, leading to countless social problems in many middle-eastern countries.
Virginity testing was also used on women entering the United Kingdom on a so-called fiancée visa when they said they were immigrating to marry their fiancées who were already living in the country. The British government argued that if the women were virgins, they were more likely to be telling the truth about their reason for immigrating to the country. In January 1979, a woman was required by British immigration officers to undergo a virginity test when she arrived in London claiming that she was there to marry. Such a visit did not require a visa, but as proof of her bona fides, she was required to submit to the test. This practice was exposed by The Guardian in 1979 and the policy was quickly changed.
Virginity testing in Indonesia has been around since 1965. In August 2013, it was announced in Prabumulih district, South Sumatra, Indonesia, by education chief Muhammad Rasyid, that female teens attending high school there would be given mandatory annual virginity tests, beginning in 2014. The stated intent is to reduce promiscuity in the district. In 2014 the Human Rights Watch reported that a physical virginity test is routinely performed on female candidates to the Indonesian Police Force as part of the job application process.
In Iran, Atena Farghadani was charged with “illicit sexual relations falling short of adultery” for shaking hands with her lawyer in June 2015. She complained that Iranian prison officials and guards have made lewd gestures, sexual slurs and other insults to her, and went on a three-day “dry” hunger strike in September 2015 in protest of this ill-treatment. However, the harassment continued. In a note written by Farghadani leaked from prison, which has been seen by Amnesty International, Farghadani says the judicial authorities took her to a medical center outside the prison on 12 August 2015 and forced her to submit to a virginity test, purportedly for the purpose of investigating the charge against her.
Virginity tests are common in Afghanistan. Some women undergo multiple tests. The tests are often done without the woman’s consent. They have drawn widespread condemnation, with critics saying they are inhumane and hurt the dignity of women.
Many researchers state that a broken hymen is not a reliable indicator that a female has been vaginally penetrated because the tearing of the hymen may have been the result of some other event. Furthermore, in rare cases, some girls are born without hymens.
The hymen is a ring of fleshy tissue that sits just inside the vaginal opening. Normal variations range from thin and stretchy to thick and somewhat rigid. The only variation that may require medical intervention is the imperforate hymen, which either completely prevents the passage of menstrual fluid or slows it significantly. In either case, surgical intervention may be needed to allow menstrual fluid to pass or intercourse to take place at all. It is a misconception that the hymen always tears during first intercourse or that intercourse is required to rupture the hymen.
A female can undergo a surgical procedure, called hymenorrhaphy or hymenoplasty, to repair or replace a torn hymen, to “pass” a virginity test.
In May 2013, the Supreme Court of India held that the two-finger test on a rape victim violates her right to privacy, and asked the Delhi government to provide better medical procedures to confirm sexual assault. In 2003, the Supreme Court of India called TFT “hypothetical” and “opinionative”. Most countries have scrapped it as archaic, unscientific and invasive of privacy and dignity. Quebec’s Collège des Médecins has banned members from conducting virginity tests after some were found to be doing this, as well as providing virginity certificates.
Reasons for testing
Prevention of disease and pregnancy
Preventing the spread of HIV and teenage pregnancy are examples of reasons given by proponents of virginity testing. In 2004, a Zimbabwean village chief, Naboth Makoni, stated that he would adopt a plan to enforce virginity tests as a way of protecting his people against HIV. He explained that he focuses on girls because he believes they are easier to control than boys. In South Africa, where virginity testing is banned for girls under the age of 16, the Zulu tribe believes that the practice prevents the spread of HIV and teenage pregnancy. A woman interviewed by the Washington Post stated that “[Virginity testing] is important so that young girls become scared of boys. Because what happens is first the boy strips you of your virginity, and the next thing you know is you are pregnant and you have HIV.”
In Zulu culture, there is a tradition in which girls of a certain age can perform a dance for the king. However, only virgins are allowed to participate. If a girl is tested and declared a virgin, she brings honor to her family. If a girl is found not to be a virgin, her father may have to pay a fine for ‘tainting’ the community and the girl may be shunned from the ‘certified’ virgins. Because of the ramifications that being considered impure have for the girls and their families, virginity testing has the potential to be a life-changing event.