Last month, the rapper T.I. made some beyond controversial comments about going to the gynaecologist with his daughter at one point to ensure that her hymen was “intact,” which he said he believed confirmed her virginity. He later walked back the comments on an episode of Red Table Talk, saying it was a bad joke and apologising to his daughter.
Whether he was kidding or not, the gaffe has sparked a national conversation that’s prompted lawmakers to take action. New York legislators introduced a bill that would officially prohibit doctors and practitioners from performing these so-called “virginity tests.”
Here’s what you need to know about the legislation, and the procedure that sparked it.
What is a “virginity test?”
To perform the "test", a doctor would look to see if the hymen is “stretched or lacerated," explains Stephanie McClellan, MD, ob/gyn and the chief medical officer of Tia. The hymen is a thin layer of tissue located near the vaginal opening, with a hole in the centre.
As Refinery29 previously reported, some people have thinner layers of tissue than others, while others are born with hymens that are naturally open. Some women are even born without hymens. Sex can change the hymen, but so can riding a horse or inserting a tampon, so it’s not truly connected to virginity, says Heather Bartos, MD, a Texas ob/gyn and the founder of MindShift Medicine.
Still, the practice persists — in and outside the U.S. In some places, “virginity exams” are required before marriage, the New York Times points out. The World Health Organization has previously recommended the tests should be eliminated.
What would “anti-virginity test” legislation do?
It wouldn’t just ban the procedure — it would also punish those who do it. Under the proposal, people who performed the test would be penalised for professional misconduct. If it was performed in a non-medical setting, it would be considered sexual assault.
The Democrat who proposed the bill to ban the tests last week — Assemblywoman Michaelle C. Solages — said hearing about T.I.’s comments made her “angry” and “upset.”
“To use your platform to say that you did this is just misogynistic and it sets the women’s movement back,” she said, according to the Times.
What do doctors think of the legislation?
Many scientists and doctors say this procedure isn’t science-backed and is a harmful concept. In that sense, they would generally be happy to see it banned.
“I want to state that the idea that a parent would bring their daughter to a doctor to perform such a test is not only archaic — it violates an individual's right to bodily autonomy,” Dr. McClellan said.
But some think that creating a ban at all could legitimise the idea that this test is medically possible, as the Times points out.
Dr. Bartos also notes that there may be ways to get around this kind of law.
“‘Virginity checks’ are archaic and have no place in modern medicine,” she says. “But a thorough adolescent pelvic exam would involve examining the external female genitalia — the vulva — and addressing any issues the patient is having.” She says that even if a law banning this procedure were passed, some unethical doctors could claim they are doing a “normal pelvic exam” and not label or code the procedure as a “virginity check.”
However, Dr. Bartos says that lawmakers putting their foot down on this is a “good first step”. “As much of a shock and disgust T.I’s comments were," she said, "it has shed light on some unethical physicians performing this unnecessary and shame-inducing physical exam.”
Reps for T.I. did not immediately respond to Refinery29's request for comment.