If these bills become law, any medical practitioner caught offering the service could face “professional misconduct penalties as well as possible criminal charges.”
The concept of “virginity checks” was made famous most recently by rapper T.I., who boasted about accompanying his daughter to gynecological appointments to ensure her hymen was still intact. He believed (incorrectly and despite the doctors’ careful caveats) that an intact hymen was evidence of her virginity, while a torn or broken one would prove that she had become sexually active.
The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, who serves as a member of the Health Committee. Speaking before the Assembly, she called the practice “institutionalized misogyny in the health field”:
The notion that a woman’s body can be subject to examination to prove their worth or dignity is an outdated patriarchal concept… With trust being so vital to the healthcare profession, New York State must take every measure possible to ensure that medical procedures meet the highest ethical standards.
Solage’s claims are well-supported. The practice has been condemned as unscientific and damaging to women by the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), and the United Nations has released a document in concert with the World Health Organization calling for the elimination of virginity testing worldwide.
Alongside the bill’s introduction, the State Assembly issued a memorandum laying out the clear case against virginity testing:
These examinations are not only a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights, but in cases of rape can cause additional pain and mimic the original act of sexual violence… Many women suffer from adverse short- and long-term physical, psychological, and social consequences of this practice. This includes anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. In extreme cases, women or girls may attempt suicide or be killed in the name of “honour”.
The term ‘virginity’ is not a medical or scientific term. Rather, the concept of ‘virginity’ is a social, cultural, and religious construct — one that reflects gender discrimination against women and girls.
Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical advisor for the group Physicians for Human Rights and professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, further points out that such tests are underpinned by several highly patriarchal assumptions: the idea that only penis-in-vagina penetrative sex “counts” as a loss of virginity, for instance. More insidiously, it reflects an unwillingness to view women as honest and reliable reporters of their own experiences:
It’s about trusting women, believing women, and taking them at face value rather than subjecting them to outsiders being the arbiters of their behaviours, lifestyles, or purity or character… There are a lot of social norms that all come into play through that little tiny piece of tissue.
A survey of physicians revealed that roughly one in ten had been approached by parents who wanted their daughter’s hymen tested to prove (or disprove) her virginity. Women who have had the experience describe the lasting damage the experienced caused to their mental health and their familial relationships — and those are the ones who live to share their experiences at all.
Though it might be tempting to brush this off as a distant problem for other countries and cultures, the primacy of abstinence education in America has ensured that myths tying a woman’s value to her sexual purity have turned the United States into prime ground for unfounded purity tests like these hymen examinations.
Kudos to the legislators in New York State who are trying to turn back this misogynistic tide.
(Image via Shutterstock)