A “Virginity Test” Belies Its True Harmful Meaning
Rapper T.I. made news earlier this month when he went on the Ladies Like Us podcast and revealed that he subjects his 18-year-old daughter to a yearly “virginity test.” On the now-deleted episode, T.I. told the hosts, "Deyjah's 18, just graduated high school now, and she's attending her first year of college, figuring it out for herself. And yes, not only have we had the conversation [about sex], we have yearly trips to the gynecologist to check her hymen.”
While many on the internet responded with outrage at this news, T.I.’s said his behavior was just that of a “protective father.” But experts say T.I.’s actions aren’t about protection: They’re about control of young woman’s body and sexuality. They're based in deeply rooted sexist ideas about women as property. And just using the term "virginity test" normalizes and perpetuates these harmful practices.
According to Marie Claire's recent in-depth exploration of the practice in the United States, healthcare providers report that people from both “religious and secular communities” in the United States request “virginity tests,” in which a person’s vagina is penetrated with two fingers or a speculum in order to ascertain the presence of a hymen or measure the elasticity of the vaginal wall. But Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN, women’s health advocate, and author of The Vagina Bible, tells Bustle that, medically, there’s actually no such thing as a “virginity test.”
“There is no such thing as a medical test for virginity. At all,” Dr. Gunter says. “Virginity is a social construct that has nothing to do with anatomy or physiology. Any person who promotes the idea of virginity testing is woefully undereducated about human anatomy and has no business opining on anything to do with the reproductive tract.”
Dr. Gunter says that “virginity” is a concept that has no medical basis. In fact, it often doesn’t even have a clear definition. While on the surface it might seem like virginity has to do with who has had sex and who hasn’t, it’s historically (and, in some parts of the world, contemporaneously) about determining a woman’s “worth” on the literal marriage marketplace. A woman who had sexual contact and therefore wasn’t a virgin had lost her most valuable commodity. And that context makes actions like T.I.'s even more disturbing. (Bustle has reached out to representatives for T.I. and Deyjah Harris for comment, and we will update this piece when we hear back.)
But virginity and virginity tests aren’t just outdated medical myths. They can also take a “severe psychological toll on young women,” marriage and family therapist Michelle Lozano tells Bustle.
“When subjected to such a test, a young woman is likely to feel guilt, disgust, shame, anxiety and develop issues with body image,” Lozano says. “Our society demands of young women to constantly modify themselves to meet the unreasonable and sexist societal standards, both through appearance and by restricting behaviors, like sex. This combination can lead to serious psychological harm, depression, self injury, and even suicide.” (This is also the case for people who are assigned female at birth but don't identify as female.)
Caitlyn Caruso, manager of state and local campaigns at Advocates for Youth, an advocacy organization that fights for sexual health, rights, and justice of young people, tells Bustle that the news of T.I.’s actions toward his daughter could have effects beyond his immediate family, as it normalizes the idea of a “virginity test.”
“This just further reaffirms this notion that young people can’t belong to themselves, especially young women,” Caruso says. “That they have to belong to a man; that they have to verify their worth based on their proximity to men and ‘purity.’ This will have widespread impact, especially for young folks coming up right now as they try to unpack this social construct of virginity.”
As for the idea that T.I. is “just acting like a protective father,” Caruso says that’s a mistake. And it’s one our culture makes a lot.
“If we’re discussing T.I.’s behavior right now by claiming he’s a protective father, we’re inherently defending other behavior that’s along the same strands,” Caruso says. “We see abusive fathers who often want to protect their daughters from men like them — that’s a very common notion. It’s seen as this protective father trope, but it’s actually just creating abusive environments where young people don’t feel free and supported in all of their ventures.”
Dr. Gunter says that if a parent ever brought their daughter to her for a “virginity test,” she would not only not do an exam but would also work to educate both the young woman and her parent about the falseness of this narrative.
“I would ask to speak with the teen first before talking about anything with their parent,” Dr. Gunter says. “I would explain the fact virginity testing doesn’t exist to the teen and later their parent. I would never do any kind of exam for the social construct of virginity. I would want to make sure I had addressed all of the teen’s concerns before talking with their parent.”
And, finally, Caruso wants make sure that, as we talk about this story, we don’t forget about the person who has been harmed the most: T.I.'s daughter.
“We should be centering the needs of Deyjah — and at large all young people,” Caruso says. “Specifically, we need to be protecting [her] privacy and whatever decisions she chooses to make regarding her sexual and reproductive life — two things that her father has been unwilling to do.”