From behind the privacy curtain, a doctor is telling Sophia* to take off her knickers and trousers. She obliges while taking great shaking sobs. Trembling, she lies down and opens her legs. The doctor returns and begins looking for a thin membrane of crescent-shaped skin a few inches into Sophia’s vagina.
This isn’t how Sophia thought today would go. Her mum had promised a day of shopping and lunch on London’s Oxford street, providing a welcome respite from usual life with her stern parents. At 19, her parents still wouldn’t let Sophia go anywhere without their permission, demanding she come straight home from school and making plans for her to be married to someone of their choosing. “They would have gone mad if they knew I had a boyfriend,” she says. “They were talking about me getting married to a different guy, but his family wanted to make sure I was ‘pure’. They wanted proof I had never had sex.”
And so Sophia finds herself in a Harley Street clinic, as her mum explains the real purpose of their trip: she is booked in to have a “virginity test” in which a doctor will certify whether her hymen was still intact. Despite modern science disproving the myth that a woman’s hymen will remain whole until the first time she has sex, this sexist lore persists around the world. In some instances, women face danger – and in some cases, death – if her hymen doesn’t break, leaving blood on the sheets on her wedding night.
These tests might sound barbaric, but they are more common than you’d think. A 2017 study in the US showed 16% of obstetricians and gynaecologists surveyed had been asked to check for the hymen of a young women, with some begging their doctors to surgically construct a new one through a procedure called a hymenoplasty. Work is being done to end the practice, with the UN and WHO branding it “harmful” and “a violation of human rights”. France has outlawed virginity tests, with a fine of £14,000 for any medical professional found to be breaking the rules. But virginity testing remains legal and widely sought in at least 20 countries in all corners of the world, from the Middle East to North America.
On British soil, the frequency of testing is harder to track because many turn to private clinics, which are not required to publicly collate and share statistics. However, we do know virginity tests are not uncommon and remain legal as long as the recipient consents. For Sophia, saying no simply wasn’t an option. “I told my parents it was insulting, but if I didn’t do it, I would be kicked out. I had no money and nowhere to go,” she says.
The irony is, hymens have very little to do with a women’s chastity. Gynaecologist and author of HerHormones Paula Briggs tells me the fragile membrane of tissue changes during puberty. “Under the influence of the hormone oestrogen, the hymen becomes more like the trumpet of a daffodil. Although in some women tearing can occur with penetration, either with fingers or an erect penis, in some women the hymen will stretch to accommodate an erect penis, leaving no evidence of sexual activity.” It can break during a growth spurt, through masturbation or exercise. Three in every 100 women are born without one.
If science says hymens are nothing to worry about, why does the little piece of skin get so much airtime? I put the question to Neelam Heera, an activist and founder of Cysters, a space for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women to learn about sex and sexuality. “Virginity testing is a power trip,” she tells me over a Zoom call. “It’s barbaric. When we talk about virginity, it’s only ever women who are mentioned. Why? What about men? It’s a way to control a woman’s body and sexuality.”
What’s more, taking a broken hymen as the be-all and end-all of virginity forces women to find alternative ways to fulfil their sexual desires. Neelam tell me, “Growing up, I had friends who would have anal or oral sex to please their partners because they thought it meant they were still a virgin on their wedding night. I know this still happens today. It’s a really dangerous position to be in, where you’re thinking about alternative ways to have sex to preserve something that doesn’t exist and is actually engineered by patriarchy.”
But the biological mythology surrounding virginity is so powerful, fake hymens are in demand. Artificial Hymen Kits, which are nothing more than capsules containing fake blood, are sold for £43.99 on Amazon. Meanwhile many private British surgeons now offer hymenoplasties, stretching a new layer of skin across the vagina’s entrance to replicate a hymen. A report by The Sunday Times earlier this year revealed a least 22 private clinics in the UK were charging up to £3,000 for the surgery. In response, Matt Hancock vowed to tackle the “dreadful practice” by considering new laws and additional regulations to prevent clinics from “cashing in” by offering the procedure. But campaigners say this approach ignores the prevalence of misinformation around the female anatomy and will only drive the procedures underground.
Then in December, Conservative MP Richard Holden proposed an outright ban on virginity tests in parliament. The bill was due to return to the Commons on January 8, but the House did not sit on that day and records to not indicate whether an alternative future date has been set. Without government support, the bill might not get the chance to become law due to a lack of parliamentary time.
Women who are forced to undergo tests are often left understandably upset by the experience. When American rapper T.I. controversially admitted he takes his teenage daughter for an annual visit to the gynaecologist to “check her hymen” in 2019, he was met with a barrage of criticism online, labelled “coercive” and “creepy” by the press. He later said his intentions were “misconstrued and misconceived” and were said in a “very joking manner”. But the young woman in question, 19-year-old Deyjah, only recently opened up on the experience, admitting her dad’s comments and the ensuing uproar left her feeling “angry, hurt and embarrassed”. Today, Sophia says she feels the same about her own test. “I felt like I had been assaulted,” she says.
The longterm effects of the tests can be life-altering. Cassandra Corrado recalls being subjected to an inadvertent virginity test during a routine pelvic exam when she was 16. “He asked if I was still closed,” she tells me over Zoom. “I had been having sex with my boyfriend for months, and my mum was in the room. Luckily, the assistant lied and said yes.” The incident has haunted Cassandra for decades. “I never went back to that doctor for a pelvic exam again,” she says. “Even today I get anxious about getting them. It made me feel like, you never know who is going to come through with their weird opinions when you’re lying with your legs open on an exam table.”
The repercussions of “failing” a virginity test are far graver. Halaleh Taheri, founder of the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation (MEWSO), explains Islamic customs denote a woman should be a virgin when she is married, and the repercussions are dire for those who can’t.
“The girl will be in trouble with her family, her culture and her community,” she tells me. “Her husband-to-be might abandon her or, if they stay together, it might cause problems down the line because he will always remind her that she wasn’t a virgin.” In extreme cases, women have committed suicide or have been murdered by their families. Aneeta Prem, president of Freedom, a charity working to end violence against women, told me some women she works with were deeply distressed by the results, selling their laptops, phones and clothes to afford a hymenoplasty.
Health professionals are in a tough spot when it comes to deciding whether to provide a test. Refusing might put the girl in more danger. In 2018, an Iranian couple ended up in court after threatening their 18-year-old daughter with a knife when they found out about her secret boyfriend. The pair forced their daughter to visit the GP for a virginity test. The GP declined, but it stands to reason the teenager’s safety was under threat. An aesthetician I spoke to who runs a private clinic and has provided the checks to patients she’s known for years recalls some women being “disappointed and panicky” when they find out the news. She says, “It’s a sad situation, but I know it’s part of their culture.”
Understanding how to move forward is complex. A quick-fix like banning hymenoplasties fails to address the underlying cause of backwards attitudes around hymens and women’s bodies, reinforced through our social, political and religious agendas. How do we begin to undo decades of sexist delusions designed to control women’s autonomy? Neelam thinks a good place to start is in our classrooms. “We need to teach that safe sex and boundaries are more important than virginity,” she says. “And we need an intersectional approach – one including LGBTQ people.” Indeed, it was only after her test that Sophia came to realise she had the capacity to refuse. “No one has the right to do that, I know that now,” she says. “At the time I didn’t know I had a choice.” Like female genital mutilation (FGM), which is set to be added to the secondary school curriculum this year, MEWSO are advocating for teenagers to be taught about virginity testing. Halaleh adds, “Children over the age of 16 must be made aware that the hymen means nothing, men and women are equal in terms of sexuality. After one or two generations of education, we won’t face these issues.”
*Names have been changed.
If you’ve been affected by any of these you can contact Karma Nirvana’s UK helpline on 0800 5999 247.
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