It’s a story as gross as it is outrageous: the rapper TI went on the Ladies Like Us podcast and told the hosts that he takes his daughter to an annual gynecological exam to confirm that she is still a virgin. “I will say, as of her 18th birthday, her hymen is still intact,” he said.
The internet exploded. The podcast’s hosts apologized and pulled the episode.
Yes, it’s outrage-bait. Yes, what TI said is deeply disturbing, suggests an abusive family situation, and deserves every bit of derision being heaped on it. But it could also force a more intelligent conversation on women, sex and virginity.
First things first: virginity doesn’t exist and there’s no way to test it. Hymens can be broken by things other than penises. Some girls are born without hymens. Many women and girls who have never had penetrative vaginal sex nonetheless lack an intact hymen; some women who have had penetrative vaginal sex see their hymens remain intact.
Of course, the entire concept of virginity is misogynistic: men aren’t valued for their sexual inexperience, there’s no male virginity test, and male sexual desire and experience are considered both normal and appropriate. It’s also just plain stupid, logically and conceptually. If a woman has sex exclusively with women and has 500 partners in her life, is she still a virgin? Why is a woman who has anal but not vaginal sex a technical virgin, but a man who has only had anal sex with men not one? A woman could ostensibly have a long and active career as a porn star and still be a virgin, so long as the vaginal sex was the one act she would not engage in. Is a woman still a virgin if she’s penetrated with a sex toy but not a human penis?
There is no good reason for the concept of “virginity” to persist. Not one. Virginity, whatever it means, has no bearing on morality, goodness or innocence. You aren’t more pure or kind or good if you haven’t experienced vaginal sex. You don’t “lose” something by having pleasurable, consensual sex – you gain a new, fun experience. Yet women the world over receive the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that virginity makes them more valuable and more worthy of love and respect.
Virginity until marriage is also not as value-neutral as even some liberals make it sound – choose your choice, it’s up to the woman if she wants to be a virgin until marriage or not. Of course it should be up to any individual person when and with whom they decide to have sex. But celebrating virginity until marriage – or even being neutral on the question of virginity until marriage – is misogynistic and dangerous. It removes sex from the realm of consent and desire and puts it in the realm of an exchange: you give me a formal commitment, I give you sex on an agreed-upon date. It positions sex as something women have and men get. It can make the experience of sexual violence even more traumatic, as a woman who experiences rape now hears that she’s less valuable for not being a “virgin”.
And it sets couples up for profound dissatisfaction and imbalance. It would be truly terrible advice to tell a couple that they shouldn’t discuss finances before getting married to make sure that they’re on the same page when it comes to money; it would be truly terrible advice to tell them that they should hold off on any discussion of children. Compatibility matters in marriage across a variety of vectors, including sex. Promising couples that the sex will just work out, as many religious and conservative virginity proponents do, is a recipe for disaster – or at least female sexual discontent (not that that matters to the virginity-fetish crowd).
Virginity tests are common in conservative religious communities around the world, and they are little more than medicalized rape. The virginity test itself is a form of abuse and control, a literal physical and sexual invasion of a woman or girl’s most intimate parts so that she may be surveilled by someone seeking to control her. Our understanding of abuse continues to expand – not so long ago, domestic violence was shrugged off as “private” – and increasingly experts point to various forms of reproductive control and coercion as abusive. When men tamper with their partners’ birth control to increase the chances of an unintended pregnancy, that’s a form of domestic abuse. When a man forces a woman to have an abortion she does not want, that’s a form of domestic abuse. And when a man monitors a woman or girl’s hymen that, too, is a form of domestic abuse.
The same people who push for virginity until marriage also seem to be the most likely to argue that there’s no such thing as “marital rape”, because a woman agrees to sex with her husband by marrying him. Sex, in this view, isn’t something women control; it’s something men get from us.
The fetishization of virginity stands in full opposition to the valuing of female sexual pleasure. There’s no justification for demanding virginity until marriage except ignorance and control – the hope that a woman who has had no other sexual interactions won’t know any better or want any more. A virgin will, the theory seems to go, be less sexually curious and less likely to stray (it’s the same justification for female genital mutilation). And this virginity fetishism is not a fringe religious thing – the US government throws money at abstinence-until-marriage programs that have been proven entirely useless time and again.
Vanishingly few Americans have not had sex by the time their wedding night rolls around. Yet we still act like virginity until marriage is a good and desirable thing, and that most of us simply fall short of that ideal. In that cultural and political universe, it’s no wonder that men like TI think it’s just fine to monitor the inside of their daughters’ vaginas, and then brag about it on the radio.
We are rightly outraged at the concept of virginity checks – and this should be a call for medical professionals to develop clearer ethical and professional rules around how to deal with them. As it stands, too many doctors are willing to do these tests. If the medical industry isn’t going to regulate itself, then lawmakers should work to outlaw these intrusive, medically unnecessary, and profoundly violating procedures.
As for the rest of us, we shouldn’t reserve our outrage for the most extreme versions of virginity-obsessed misogyny. We should recognize that the very concept of virginity is sexist. We should reject it, and put in its place an embrace of sex as natural, human, pleasurable, and valuable – a relationship to be entered into consensually, sure, but also joyfully and desirously. Yes, let’s do away with abusive, invasive, misogynistic virginity tests. But if we want to fight misogyny, we need to reject virginity itself, too.