Bioethics Forum Essay
What’s Wrong with Virginity Testing?
When the rapper T. I. disclosed on a podcast that he takes his 18-year-old daughter to a yearly gynecological examination to ensure that her hymen is still intact, the reaction of most people was condemnation. His obsession with her virginity is creepy, his subjecting her to an invasive procedure that has no medical value is controlling, and his willingness to talk about it publicly displays contempt for her rights to privacy and dignity.
Some think that more than moral condemnation is called for. Michaelle C. Solanges, a Long Island Democrat, has introduced a bill into the New York Assembly to prohibit physicians from performing or supervising virginity examinations, on pain of professional misconduct and possible criminal charges. Explaining her rationale for introducing the bill, Solanges said that “when I heard that someone was using their power of purview to ensure that their daughter is a virgin, it made me realize that we have to be implementing laws to stop this.”
I disagree. The law is not the best means for dealing with the problem, and the problem is not simply virginity testing.
This will become clearer if we examine why virginity testing is objectionable.
Some maintain that the problem with virginity testing is that it doesn’t do what it purports to do, that is, test for virginity. Checking to see if a hymen is intact does not yield information about whether the woman has had sexual relations. There are a number of activities that can stretch or break a hymen, so that a nonintact hymen is not proof that the woman has engaged in heterosexual intercourse. But the fact that a woman has an intact hymen is not proof that she has not engaged in sex. She may have had oral sex or anal intercourse. Indeed, it has been reported that many young people substitute nonvaginal sexual activities in order to maintain “technical virginity.”
The real objection to virginity tests, however, is surely not that they are unreliable tests of sexual activity. For what if there were a reliable test? Would it be ethically acceptable for parents to request or demand that such tests be performed on their children? Of course not.
Why, then, is virginity testing morally objectionable?
The first objection is that it fetishizes the virginity of a young woman. Compulsory testing sends the message that if the woman is no longer a virgin, no longer “pure,” she is of lesser value, even soiled. Instead of focusing on the sexual status of their daughters as “untouched,” parents should be focused on the ability of their sons and daughters to make serious, responsible decisions about sexuality. This entails letting them know that they can talk openly with their parents, without fear of condemnation. Although T. I.’s motive may have been to protect his daughter, children who are afraid to speak honestly with their parents about sex may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse than children who talk with their parents about sex. We protect our children and help them become sexually responsible adults by conveying the message that sex is important, value-laden, and emotionally fraught, and that it has potentially long-term consequences. We do not help our children to grow into sexually healthy adults by substituting surveillance for communication.
A related objection is that a hymen checkup tells a woman that other people have the right to control her body and make decisions for her. Of course, parents do and should control their minor children, but with the ultimate goal of enabling them to learn how to control themselves. As parents, we hope that their decisions will reflect the values we have sought to impart because these are the values they have embraced. That goal is not reached by surveillance either.
Third, adolescents have the right to expect confidentiality and privacy in their relationship with their doctors. The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes the importance of confidentiality: “When confidentiality is promoted, especially over multiple visits, adolescents are more likely to access health care; communicate about sensitive topics regarding behaviors, partners, or gender issues; and return for care.” The AAP recommends that pediatricians should have an office policy that explicitly describes confidentiality services, and that pediatricians should discuss confidentiality with all parents and adolescents. A physician who is asked by a parent to perform a virginity examination on a young woman should give a point-blank refusal as a matter of professional ethics.
Admittedly, a law that bans virginity testing strengthens the physician’s refusal. However, such a law ignores the broader goal of enabling children to navigate the path to making responsible decisions about sexuality. That goal is not achieved by a law banning virginity testing, but by communicating the strong interdisciplinary professional consensus on the importance of open and honest communication between parents and children about sex, parental respect for the emerging agency of adolescents, and the rights of adolescents to medical confidentiality and privacy.
Bonnie Steinbock, a Hastings Center Fellow, is a professor emerita of philosophy at the University at Albany/SUNY.